Matthys Beukes came back from a tough first half to chase down the leaders and snatch a surprise victory in the 80km Extreme mountain bike race at Addo just outside Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Beukes (Contego-Giant), who last won The Herald VW Cycle Tour in 2008 when it was a 65km event, proved he could go the distance in scorching conditions, crossing the line in 3:01:18.
After riding off the front for most of the race, African cross-country champion Philip Buys (Scott) outsprinted James Reid (Trek) by a single second to claim the runner-up spot in 3:02:55.
Meanwhile, local rider and Tour de France veteran John-Lee Augustyn (Mecer-NMMU) demonstrated an encouraging return to form following a prolonged injury lay-off to finish a credible fifth.
Candice Neethling (BMC-SA) made it two in a row when she claimed an emphatic victory in the women’s race in 3:26:38. Sweden’s Jennie Stenerhag followed in 3:34:18, with Mariske Strauss (Contego-Giant) placing third in 3:40:40.
Beukes is showing good early season form with a top-10 finish in the Attakwas ultra-marathon near Oudtshoorn in January and a second place at the MTN national marathon series race in Barberton last weekend.
“Today, for the first half, my legs were just flat,” said Beukes. “I dropped off and eventually couldn’t even see the leaders any more.
“At about halfway I stopped for water and that must have helped me because my legs came right.”
The tenacious 25-year-old fought his way back to the front bunch, eventually catching and passing Augustyn in the vicinity of the Zuurberg Pass, after the latter was dropped by Buys and Reid.
After 60 kilometres of hard riding, Beukes finally caught up with the two leaders.
“I knew I was feeling fresher than them, so I kicked on the last hill and attacked with about seven kilometres to go.”
After opening up a small gap through the citrus orchards, the Oudtshoorn-based rider looked back, only to see his two chasers go down in a crash after clipping handlebars.
Buys and Reid recovered quickly and chased hard but Beukes managed to hold his now almost two-minute lead to the finish.
He praised the new course, which includes parts of the national mountain bike and cross-country championship route. “There’s lots of flowing single track, so you have to be skilled. It brings in the true elements of mountain biking.”
Women’s race winner Neethling said the new route had suited her strengths as a cross-country rider.
“Luckily I had practised on it during the week, so that was a big advantage because there are so many corners and it’s really technical.”
Knowing that her nearest rivals would be unfamiliar with the course, the 20-year-old Port Shepstone rider attacked on the first single track section.
“I didn’t really see them again and just kept it steady till the end.”