Max Knox (EAI Solutions/Specialized) is the man to beat this weekend at the South African MTN Marathon National Series round in Rooiberg on Saturday, June 15.
Knox has been in excellent form so far this season. He won at MTN Barberton, MTN Clarens and MTN Wellington and finished third at MTN Sabie. If he should win at MTN Rooiberg as well, it would probably be enough to secure an overall victory in the MTN National MTB Series for a second consecutive year.
Charles Keey (Cannondale/Blend Properties), Lourens Luus (RE:CM) and Nico Bell (Westvaal/Bell Cycles) are the only riders who still have a realistic chance of spoiling the fun for Knox on Saturday.
Keey won the MTN Sabie and MTN Tulbagh events and Knox came third at MTN Sabie. Luus and Bell have both been very consistent. Luus was second at MTN Tulbagh and MTN Wellington, fourth at MTN Barberton and sixth at MTN Sabie, while Bell was second at MTN Sabie, fourth at MTN Wellington and sixth at MTN Tulbagh.
Interestingly enough, the four dominating riders in the MTN National MTB Series have all been selected to represent South Africa at the UCI Marathon World Championship in Austria next month.
Knox is looking forward to the MTN Rooiberg challenge. "It will be an exciting race. I would naturally love to win, but it will not be easy," he said.
"I understand the terrain is very similar to that of the [Cape] Epic. This means that any rider who does not make sure that he starts the race with the right equipment, could be in for a very long day in the saddle. One mistake and it could be race over. I think punctures could also be a big problem."
According to Bell, he needs to win to keep his hopes for an overall victory alive. "Actually, I think I need to win all three of the last races in the MTN National MTB Series to be in contention for an overall win. It is tall order, but I am up to the challenge." Bell said that if he wants to beat his teammate, Gawie Combrinck, he will have to put his body on the line.
"I am going to ask Gawie to set a fast pace early on. The harder the racing, the better my chances will be to get a good result. At the South African Championship at Induna, the racing was hard for a few minutes, then it slowed down, only to pick up again. If you race like that, it enables riders to get back into the racing all the time.
"I don't want that to happen at MTN Rooiberg," Bell said.
It will be interesting to see how Keey will do on Saturday. He has had some health issues lately and the past two weeks have been hectic.
Straight after the South African marathon championship, Keey and Darren Lill left for Germany to compete in the Bike Four Peaks (Trans Germany) stage event. Lill finished ninth overall and Keey was 24th overall. Switzerland's Christoph Sauser was the overall winner. They only arrived back in South Africa on Monday. According to Lill, they will fly to Johannesburg on Friday and go to MTN Rooiberg from there.
"We will have to see what effect all the travelling will have on our bodies," said Lill.
Kevin Evans (FedGroup-Itec), who was third at the South African Championship, may also be a rider to watch. As he pointed out, he has only recently begun to race seriously again, while most of the riders have been competing weekend after weekend.
He hopes that the fact that his legs are still fresh will count in his favour. Some years ago, when it was still a three-day stage event, Evans won at MTN Rooiberg.
For Hanco Kachelhoffer, Saturday will be the official beginning of his career as a mountain biker. He signed a contract last week to ride for EAI Solutions/Specialized. According to Knox, Kachelhoffer, who is actually no stranger to mountain biking, might just cause a big surprise.
"I seriously started cycling when I was 12. My first bicycle was a mountain bike and during the first six years I spent more time riding on dirt roads and single tracks than I did riding on tarred roads."
"The reason why I decided to commit to road cycling was because the concept of teamwork appealed to me. But seeing that mountain biking has been one of the fastest growing sports during the past few years, it provides so many opportunities for riders."
According to Kachelhoffer, the main difference between road cycling and mountain biking is that in a road race a rider can get by even if he is not feeling well.
"You just ride in the bunch and save your energy. In mountain biking you can never hide away. You just have to bite the bullet. I think I should be able to cope because I was quite good at individual time trials. I have won three South African titles."
"In a time trial, it is also just you and your bike. To excel you must be able to push yourself to the absolute limit and ignore all pain. The same goes for mountain biking. I think I will have an advantage over other road cyclists turned mountain bikers, because I will not be intimidated by racing through tricky technical sections. I actually love it.
"I have been training on my mountain bike during the whole of December. I rode in and around George, parts of the Attakwas, and on Cape Pioneer and old Epic routes."
Marathon series adds U23 category
To change over from racing as a junior to racing as an elite has always been one of the most difficult problems for young mountain bikers. Cycling laws restricted junior riders to races of a maximum of 45 to 50 kilometres. However, the moment a rider turned 19 and had to begin racing with the "big boys", matters changed dramatically.
Youngsters had two options. They could either try to keep up with the older and more experienced riders in races over 100 kilometres, or else they could compete in 70km marathons in which nobody was really interested.
Effective this season, the South African MTN marathon series has added a U23 category to help young riders bridge the gap.