Favorites win South Africa Cup opener

Africa's top cross-country mountain bike racer, Burry Stander (Specialized), dished out a world-class hiding when he won the first round of the MTN National Cup Series cross country by more than seven minutes in Stellenbosch, South Africa on Saturday. On Sunday, the downhillers got their turn, and Cape Town's Andrew Neethling (Trek) did not disappoint, despite the hometown pressure he faced en route to winning the opening downhill round.

Resplendent in his new red Specialized team kit, Stander, the 2008 Under 23 World Cup champion, was in no mood for company and took the lead early on, completing the six laps of the technical 8.2 kilometre course through Jonkershoek in a quick two hours, 15 minutes and 24 seconds. Renay Goustra (GT) and Johnny Kritzinger (Schwinn) rounded out the men's pro-elite podium positions in second and third respectively, but were the first two elite men home.

"I had some pressure on me after having a really good year of international results in 2008, so I was kind of the guy with a target on his back today. I wanted to prove a point in my first race and I think I managed that," smiled Stander.

In the women's cross country , local regional champion, Sara Muhl (Jeep) gave her large home crowd good reason to cheer when she captured a comfortable victory over Tania Raats (Bell Equipment), with Julia Colvin (Maverick) a close third.

Neethling, who ended 2008 ranked 14th in the world according to the UCI and who finished 11th in the 2008 UCI World Cup downhill, clocked a time of two minutes and 11.34 seconds for the fast, narrow descent through the forests of Jonkershoek.

Johann Potgieter (Cannondale) secured second place, just less than five seconds back with Neethling's younger brother, Jonty Neethling (Morewood Fox), rounding out the top three places in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd that had braved the hot, dusty conditions.

Riding a brand new Trek Session 88, which was only released from customs last Wednesday, Neethling set out on his first of two runs to get familiar with the bike with the intention of improving his time with his second and final run.

"I made a few small mistakes near the top on the first run but was really pushing hard in what was basically a 'feeler' run, which I felt was necessary since I was riding not only a new bike, but a new brand and haven't done a race for quite a while," said Neethling who ended up clocking his winning time with that run.

"On the second run, I went out a bit harder at the top, overshot a turn on what is a really narrow course and had a small crash. I thought I could still rescue the run, but a couple of errors further on left me well off my first run time.

In the women's downhill, Rika Olivier eclipsed Gina Nixon and Vicky Phillips to claim the victory.

The next cross country and downhill round of the South African MTN National Cup will take place in Mankele, Nelspruit, on February 7-8.

See Cyclingnews' full coverage of the cross country and downhill openers of the MTN National Cup.

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