Multiple South African marathon champion, Kevin Evans, (Nedbank 360Life) combined experience with good form to outsmart a strong field to win his fourth successive title at the MTN Crater Cruise marathon mountain bike race in Parys, in South Africa’s Free State province on Saturday.
Under-23 rider James Reid delivered the surprise of the day by finishing second to Evans, his Nedbank 360Life teammate, with former road cycling professional, Neil MacDonald (Team RE:CM) taking third and his first podium at a national marathon series event.
David George (Nedbank 360Life) and Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN Qhubeka) finished fourth and fifth respectively.
The 106km event, which winds its way around an ancient meteorite crater and cris-crosses the majestic Vaal River, offers one of the biggest prize purses in marathon racing (R40 000/US $5000) for first place. The event also doubled as the eighth and final round of the 2012 South African National Marathon Series.
With more than half of the race route on rough gravel roads, many of South Africa’s top road cyclists turn up each year to try their hand at winning the Crater Cruise. But as Evans has repeatedly proven, it’s really a mountain biker’s domain.
But of his four wins in the popular race, Evans declared this year’s the hardest.
“I’ve never started the last 15km in a bunch before. Normally it’s myself and one other rider at that point. But today it was different. A group of seven of us reached the last 15km together and I had to work out a way to get rid of the others,” explained Evans.
The four-time national marathon champion decided the best option was to make the most of the good form he’s got and try and ride his rivals off on the long, steady, bumpy climb that dominates the final 15km.
“I raced the marathon world champs in France last weekend and I’ve got really good form at the moment. So I figured I’d increase the pace from far out and see if I could trim the group down. It wasn’t too long before I’d got a gap, but there was still 12km to the finish. I then just kept my pace high and focussed on keeping a good rhythm. It was tough, really tough.”
Wearing the orange polka dot jersey of the MTN Series King of the Mountain competition leader, Evans had enough of a lead to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers at the finish. He kissed the tattoo of a ruby stone on his right bicep, just metres from finishing in a time of 03 hours 27 minutes 21 seconds.
“That ruby tattoo belongs to my daughter, Ruby. I kissed it because it was only thoughts of her that gave me strength to dig that deep. It’s not easy riding away from and then staying ahead of a strong group like that!” explained a beaming Evans.
The chase group remained intact almost all the way to the finish line, with Reid, a cross-country discipline specialist, making a late surge to get a small advantage and claim his best result in a marathon race, 24 seconds back. MacDonald’s third place just three seconds later was confirmation of his return to form following a serious crash in May which forced him out of racing for three months.
“I must thank Dave (George), who reduced the size of the bunch with some hard turns on the front once we’d hit 30km to go. Up until then we had quite a big bunch still; none of the early breaks as we usually see in this race. Everyone knows it all comes down to the final 15km and everyone was saving themselves for that,” said Evans.
Heavy rain on Friday transformed the race route from its usual sketchy, dry surface to a firmer, more compact surface, which encouraged a faster overall race pace for the majority of the large field.
In the women’s event, Theresa Ralph claimed her first Crater Cruise title ahead of multiple former winner, Yolandi du Toit, with London Olympian, Candice Neethling, rounding out the top three places.
Evans and George caught a chartered private aircraft flight to Oudtshoorn immediately after the race where they will defend their title at the Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek stage race, which starts on Sunday.