Overall leaders Brandon Stewart and Darren Lill survived yet more body blows to remain ahead on points after round seven of the Fairbairn Capital/Old Mutual joBerg2c that finished at Mackenzie Club in Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal, on Thursday.
“This bike race is like getting into the ring with Mike Tyson,” said FedGroup Berg and Bush’s Stewart after he and his partner finished second on the 87-kilometre trek from Underberg.
Although Stewart, a former national cross country champion, and Lill, the current titleholder on the road, lost out to contenders Woolcock and MacDonald for the third day in succession in the final sprint, their overall lead is still intact.
“Whichever team wins on Saturday will be worthy and deserved champions,” said Stewart. “There is definitely respect from both sides.”
RE:CM snatched their fifth stage win in 2:55:30, one second ahead of the overall leaders. Blend Properties’ David Morison and Stuart Marais took their third podium in succession in 3:02:02.
In the general classification, FedGroup Berg and Bush’s combined time of 28:05:30 still gives them a lead of 1:08 over the fledgling RE:CM team.
MTN-DoItNow’s Max Knox and Adrien Niyonshuti, who have been struggling since stage four when the latter took a tumble and injured his knee, are still gutsing it out in third on 28:49:10.
Stewart said they always expected stage seven, which is littered with short and punchy climbs, to be a tough day at the office. “It was such a fast start with everyone wanting to lead into the first single track.”
On the day’s opening climb, just before the first waterpoint, FedGroup Berg and Bush and RE:CM pulled clear. The overall leaders however fell behind when Lill had to dismount to dislodge brush from his gear cluster.
They rejoined RE:CM on the single track before the floating bridge (between the first and final waterpoint) and immediately had to deal with a barrage of hits, but remained standing.
“I knew it was the wrong place to go,” reflected Stewart. “It is too flat along the railway line to get away.”
He said their tactics were to land a knockout blow of their own on the grassy climb following the second waterpoint as the technical, single track descent presented the best opportunity to get away.
“That didn’t work out as planned; Neil went into the single track first. But he had to hang back for Waylon who was gapped and that allowed us to go clear briefly,” said Stewart.
“Our gap was 10 seconds at most and they easily rode back up to us once we hit the district road.”
FedGroup Berg and Bush established another small lead on the final section of single track, which flows into a sharp little climb as the course turns onto the district road for the final time.
Lill continued to apply the pressure on the rise, but by the top the duo’s advantage wasn’t enough to sustain them over the final six kilometres of dirt road and everything came back together once more.
The women’s section saw a reversal of roles for the first time as Team Develop’s Yolandi du Toit and Mauritian team-mate Aurélie Halbwachs took an uncontested win in 3:54:23.
Team bizhub’s overall leaders by a landslide, Ischen Stopforth and the Brit Catherine Williamson, free-wheeled across the line in 3:54:27.
Fairbairn Capital’s mixed category leaders Erik and Ariane Kleinhans were put under pressure for the first time, but managed to hold off Cycle Lab KTM’s Johan Labuschagne and Yolande de Villiers by one second in a time of 3:31:59.
The penultimate stage of the nine-day, 900-kilometre race on Friday takes riders on another 100-kilometre haul from the Mackenzie Club to Highflats via the Umkomaas Valley.
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