South African marathon series resumes in Hilton

Several of South Africa's top mountain bikers - Adrien Niyonshuti and Jacques Janse van Rensburg (both MTN-Qhubeka); Kevin Evans and David George (both 360Life) and Max Knox (Ghost) and Mannie Heymans (Garmin adidas) will battle at the next South African Marathon National Series round on Saturday, September 24. The MTN Hilton MTB Dirt Festival 50-miler is the second last race of the series.

As matters stand, the series is wide open. This means that everything will depend on the two last races, namely the 50 Miler and the Crater Cruise.

With his aggressive style of riding, Burry Stander (Specialized) could indirectly play a major role in the battle for the overall honours, especially because he has nothing to lose.

On Saturday he will try to have as much fun as possible. In Stander's vocabulary the word "fun" means racing flat out and taking risks.

The rider who manages to keep up with Stander will in all probability gain valuable points on his rivals, but keeping up with Stander could be very risky if something should go wrong.

If Stander should get away early, the situation could develop into a race within a race.

The five series contenders are all recognized climbers who can be tough competitors on the steepest of climbs and there is not much to choose between them. When it comes to technical skills, however, Evans and Knox may have a slight advantage.

George is the only one of them who can boast with two victories in the series at the moment (Attakwas and Tulbagh). To stand a chance of winning the series overall, he has to compete in five of the MTN races. This means that he still has to do the 50 Miler as well as the Crater Cruise and in both these races he cannot afford to have Knox or Niyonshuti ride away from him.

In spite of an appendix operation, as well as a broken collarbone (during the Cape Epic), Evans, with his never-say-die attitude, says he is still in contention to win the series. He won the Gravel Travel at Diemersfontein and was second at Tulbagh.

If Evans could beat the odds by winning the last two races, he would cause one of the biggest upsets in the history of the MTN series.

The one thing that could count against Evans and George, is that they have not yet raced at the Hilton Dirt Festival. In the two preceding years, Evans had already wrapped up overall victories in the series, which afforded him the luxury of not having to race at Hilton.

Being the professionals that they are, Evans and George are leaving nothing to chance. They arrived late Monday night at Hilton to allow themselves ample time to train on the course.

Their main advantage will be that they will race as a team to ensure the overall victory for their sponsors. The fact that their motto is ‘one for all and all for one', was probably the main reason why they managed to win the two preceding races.

Knox won at Barberton and he made sure that he always finished in the top five in the other races. However, if he still wants to have a chance of winning overall, he will have to go out guns blazing in at least one of the remaining two races.

Niyonshuti won in Clarens and he was also a consistent top-five finisher in the rest of the races. The challenge for Niyonshuti, if he still wants to have a chance of winning, is to get out of his comfort zone in a hurry.

Janse van Rensburg is the proverbial "joker". Being a roadie turned mountain biker, he is the first to admit that his technical skills are not yet what they should be.

By finishing second at Diemersfontein he showed that he is improving steadily. If he could achieve two more good results, he could finish in a good position overall and might just surprise everybody at the MTN Ride Crater Cruise.

Wessel van der Walt, MTN race-director, warned that although the Hilton MTB Dirt Festival is the shortest race (75km) in the marathon series, it is still a tough challenge.

Roughly estimated, the riders will do three kilometers of vertical climbing during the race.

Stopforth vs. Speedy in women's contest

With only two races remaining, it is still not clear who will be the winner of the MTN women's marathon series. Ischen Stopforth (Bizhub), 2009's champion, is only a few points off the current leader Yolande Speedy (MTN Qhubeka). She is, however, quick to point out that the worst mistake she could make at the moment would be to count the proverbial chickens before they are hatched.

"The fact that I am so close to the lead in the series at the moment, counts for absolutely nothing. I need to win at least one of the last two races, and preferably finish second in the other, to ensure overall victory."

Wessel van der Walt, MTN race director, said the difference in points between Stopforth, Speedy, 2010's champion, and Ariane Kleinhans (Contego) is minimal. Kleinhans will not be racing at Hilton this weekend.

"The series will have to go down to the wire," he said.

Stopforth proved last weekend that she is on top of her game when she won the Hill2Hill marathon in KwaZulu-Natal.

The fact that she has never raced at Hilton before does not worry her too much. "I always enjoy racing in KwaZulu-Natal because you are guaranteed to enjoy a true mountain-biking experience," said Stopforth.

"I can already predict that we will be challenged by some real tough climbs on Saturday and that there will also be fun-filled singletrack sections."

Speedy's performance will be interesting to watch. Rumours have it that this will be her big comeback race after her knee surgery earlier this year.

According to Paul Cordes, her teammate, Speedy is well-prepared.

"Yolande has been going from strength to strength and she has produced some good figures during her training rides.

"She finished second in the last Nissan TrailSeeker race, which I consider to have been more of a dirt road race compared to the race this coming weekend will be. Saturday's race will suit her much better because group riding will not be such an important factor.

"We all know that, when it comes to proper mountain biking and having to turn a handlebar, there are not many riders who can do it better than Yolandé. I think she is due to have a good race this weekend."

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