Undeterred by a last-minute course change, defending champion Brandon Stewart and ad hoc partner Neil MacDonald cleaned up on a muddy first day of the FedGroup Berg & Bush on Friday.
The RE:CM-FedGroup Itec Connect pair finished in 2:41:20 on an abbreviated 74km course after torrential rains the night before had forced an impromptu route change.
They beat nearest rivals Waylon Woolcock and Andrew Hill, of RE:CM-TIB, by 20 seconds after the latter were mired down with mechanical problems on the final stretch of single track.
FRIB’s Jarred van Zuydam and Rick Diesel crossed the line in 2:51:30 to round out the podium.
Organiser Gary Green said he had been forced to abandon the first 40km of the famed route, which started near Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State and traditionally includes a spectacular drop down the escarpment into KwaZulu-Natal.
The changes, which saw almost 90% of the stage take place on safer district roads, played to the strengths of the two lead teams, which featured former roadies Woolcock and MacDonald.
Soon after the start, Woolcock and Hill were first to put the hammer down, catching most of their opponents slightly off-guard.
They were joined by Stewart, from Hilton in KZN, and MacDonald, who lives in Randburg, and the two teams soon started stretching their lead over the chasing pack.
“Waylon really made it hard and we were quite taken aback,” said Stewart. “I think he wanted to show Neil (his regular partner) what he’s got in the tank.”
According to the 31-year-old, the two teams stayed clear for the rest of the day. “We shared the work and rolled together most of the way.
“There was no point trying to force the issue on those roads because there were no sections where you could get away or try to make it really hard.”
Stewart said they knew it would all come down to the technical sections near the finish at Emseni Camp, which is situated in the shadow of Spioenkop just outside Winterton in the Central Drakensberg.
“If we could get a gap and hold it to the finish on the jeep track, it would be more than enough.”
When Hill was forced to stop on the single track to clear mud from his gears, Stewart and MacDonald gained valuable seconds to secure the lead on their own.
Stewart said it felt good to take the leader’s jersey in his sponsor’s race. “But you don’t want to spend all your pennies on day one; that’s when you can really lose the race as opposed to winning it.”
He said safety had been their number one priority in the muddy conditions. “Stage wins are always great, but it’s also important to stay safe.
“We didn’t want to crash badly and hurt ourselves. Being one of the last races of the season, it’s all about camaraderie.”
The mixed teams also made a strong showing with Cranked4Christ-Jojo’s Justin Porteous and Mariske Strauss leading the charge in 2:52:26.
They were followed home by privateers Simon Murray and Theresa Ralph in 2:53:08 with FedGroup-Itec Connect’s Brad Stroberg and Bridgette Stewart third in 3:00:50.
The Jeep-Enviroshare pairing of Sarah van Heerden and Brenda Potts won the women’s race in 3:12:02.
With weather conditions improving, Saturday’s more technical second stage – which includes the ascent of Spioenkop – will follow a 70km circular route from Emseni Camp.