Neethling looking forward to racing at home
The first round of the MTN South African Cup series will get underway this weekend in Jonkershoek, Stellenbosch, where U23 World Cup champion Burry Stander will make his season debut with his new Team Specialized. He'll be racing the cross country with a field comprised most of fellow racers from South Africa.
"I'm looking forward to the race as it's a good way to gauge my form after the holidays, most of which were spent doing base mileage training in preparation for the Absa Cape Epic at the end of March," said Stander.
"It's quite a technical course with plenty of rocks - making it difficult to find and maintain momentum, so I'll be riding my full-suspension bike," said Stander, who was forced to withdraw while leading last year's race due to a mechanical problem.
Stander's main opposition will come from African cross country champion Ben-Melt Swanepoel, South African cross country champion Brandon Stewart and Max Knox (all DCM Chrome); Francois Theron and Philip Buys (Garmin); Mathys Beukes (MTN Energade); and Renay Goustra (Red Mongoose).
Among Stander's supporters at the event will be girlfriend Cherise Taylor, the 2007 junior road race world championship silver medallist and current South African road champion; and Stander's new Specialized teammate and current cross country World Champion Christoph Sauser, with whom he'll partner at the Cape Epic.
In the absence of current South African champion Amy Jane Mundy (Rocky Mountain) and African champion Yolande Speedy (IMC Racing Activeworx), the women's cross-country event will lack depth, but is still expected to produce a strong contest with the likes of Tania Raats (Fox Maverick), Yolandi du Toit (DCM Chrome), Mariske Strauss (MTN Energade) and Caitlin de Wet (Mr Price Scott).
Offering UCI category 2 points, the event is expected to draw those hoping to earn the points needed to start the first UCI World Cup event of 2009 in Pietermartizburg, South Africa, in April.
In Sunday's downhill event, Andrew Neethling (Trek) will be a marked man by a field of mostly younger riders bristling with ambition and talent. Neethling finished 11th overall in the 2008 World Cup and will be eager to start his new year with a new team on a winning note. The 2007 national champion won this event last year and he is ready to put himself and his bike through its paces on a course that's mostly smooth and fast.
"It's not a very technical course, but it's really fast and narrow which requires quick reaction times so it's sure to provide an interesting contest," said Neethling. "It's always good to race at home and I'm looking forward competing against the top South African-based guys again."
Neethling's biggest challenge for the top step of the podium is likely to come from his brother Jonty Neethling (Morewood), Johann Potgieter (Cannondale) and sub-veteran Gary Barnard (Morewood).
The MTN South African Cup Series is the country's most prestigious cross-country and downhill racing series and comprises five events, including the national championships.
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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews. She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.