Reigning champion Brandon Stewart and new partner Neil MacDonald won the FedGroup Berg & Bush mountain bike race from the Harrismith area in the Free State to Winterton in KwaZulu-Natal by a whisker on Sunday after three days of close racing.
The RE:CM-FedGroup-Itec Connect duo beat nearest rivals Waylon Woolcock and Andrew Hill of TIB-RE:CM by a mere 17 seconds overall on a testing and muddy route that had to be hastily modified due to extreme weather conditions.
The final stage of 56km from Emseni Cape near Spioenkop to Winterton came down to a sprint finish between the two top teams with Woolcock and Hill crossing the line first in 2:11:34 to take their second stage win in a row.
Stewart and MacDonald, who took the leaders’ red jerseys after winning the opening stage by 20 seconds, crossed the line two seconds behind to secure overall victory in 7:42:08.
Former Sharks centre Jeremy Thompson and team-mate David Leiman, riding under the Thule banner, finished third in 2:20:43 to secure the final podium position in 8:08:47.
Stewart, who hails from Hilton, said it was fantastic to win his sponsor’s race, especially since it was Randburg-based MacDonald’s first outing at the event. “For us the most important thing was toget a feel for riding together.”
After a more cautious start the previous day, the pressure was on from the beginning of the final stage with MacDonald setting the early tempo.
The relentless pressure split the field as they ascended the first major climb with the top two teams going clear for the third successive day. “From then on it was just the four of us rolling together,” said MacDonald.
“It was up to Waylon and Andrew to attack us if they wanted the overall win, so we were just content to sit on and conserve for the finish.”
Although Woolcock and Hill applied pressure at every opportunity, they were unable to open a gap and had to settle for the stage win.
“Neil and Brandon knew they had the overall win,” said Woolcock. “But it was nice to take two stages and second overall.”
Mixed category winners Justin Porteous and Mariske Strauss (Cranked4Christ-JoJo) finished strong in 2:23:50 to secure seventh place overall in 8:27:40.
Porteous expressed his delight at their comeback after battling illness and mechanical problems the previous day.
“I don’t know what Mariske was eating, but she was a machine today – I just gritted my teeth and hung on. All in all, it was a great race.”
Freedom Challenge winner Martin Dreyer and his wife Jeannie (USN-Hi-Tec) followed them home in 2:26:25 for second on the day and third in the category in 8:45:41.
Brad Stroberg and Bridgette Stewart (FedGroup-Itec Connect) were third on the stage in 2:29:39, but finished a minute clear of the Dreyers overall to secure the runner-up spot.
In the women’s race, defending champions Sarah van Heerden and Brenda Potts (Jeep-Enviroshore) added a third uncontested victory to their names when they took stage honours in 2:40:30 for a combined time of 9:14:44.
“We never stopped pushing even though we had a 19-minute overnight lead,” said Potts. “Because that time disappears quickly if you run into trouble.”
Jackie Moore and Janine King (Salomon-Krawlys) came home in 2:47:26 to finish second women’s team in 9:40:24, with privateers Joyce Benade and Desiree Briedenhann finishing in 3:02:35 for a combined time of 10:57:31 and third in the category.
Local trail runner Tracy Zunckel was the last athlete home. She completed the final stage on foot to raise funds for repairing the boundary fence of nearby Spioenkop Game Reserve, which is home to 28 rhino.