Pietermaritzburg - After overnight rain, tricky conditions tested the elite men and women in the cross country races at the Pietermaritzburg MTB Festival on Saturday, with Israel's Shlomi Haimy claiming the men's victory and Denmark's Malene Degn racing to a dominating win in the women's race
The 30-plus age categories and women's elite race helped settle the Cascades MTB Park course for the elite men. Even then the organisers opted to reduce the race by a lap because of the testing conditions.
South Africa's James Reid looked as if he would battle Israel's Haimy right until the end of the race for the honours, but a crash on lap three ruined his chances of victory.
"I crashed and broke the buckles on my shoe," Reid explained. "I changed shoes, used someone else's for half-a-lap. They were about three times too big. Then I changed shoes again and started to chase the riders in front of me."
"I felt good at the front," he added. "It was a solid fight. Shlomi wasn't attacking me, we were riding quite conservatively. It was just a freak accident. I washed sideways and both buckles just sheared off."
Haimy went on to victory ahead of Germany's Martin Gluth and was thrilled to have recorded his first HC win.
"I was so happy to put on a show for my Novus OMX Pro Team, for my nation, too, of course. Today is a Passover Holiday in Israel. I so wanted to win for so many people and for myself, and it was incredible," he smiled.
"This win was for so many people, including for my nation for Olympic qualification. They are really important points. They will give us a big boost. I am sure there are a lot of people that are really happy right now and I am so happy to do it for them. It has been an incredible day for me. It is my first win in an HC race. It was amazing for me, a dream."
Philip Buys, who represented South Africa at the 2012 London Olympics had a forgettable day due to illness, which meant he wasn't able to push for the win and eventually settled for tenth place, over eight minutes behind the winner. Rourke Croeser was frustrated by three punctures and ended seventh, but Alan Hatherly showed his class with an impressive fifth place finish.
Commenting on the local riders results, General Manager of Cycling South Africa (CSA), Mike Bradley, said: "There was good racing in the men's elite race. It is unfortunate that James had that crash, which broke his shoe, and unfortunately Rourke Croeser picked up three punctures.
It seems to be his unlucky year with tyres. It is his third race with that many punctures. He fought back well to finish seventh. It was also a good fightback from James after changing his shoes, a good fightback from Rourke. Alan Hatherly rode a good, solid race. As a first year under-23, to hold his own against this kind of competition, is really good. We're happy."
Denmark's Malene Degn owned the women's race, opening up a sizeable gap from the first sharp climb at the end of the finishing straight and flying clear of her opponents, who gave up more time to the streaking Dane after each lap. In the end, she crossed the finishing line over six-and-a-half minutes ahead of second placed Isla Short of Great Britain.
The conditions were trickier than in the men's race, but while others struggled Degn made it look easy.
"I loved the mud. It's great," she enthused afterwards. "The track is awesome with all the technical parts, and it has a good flow. I just think the mud gave it a little extra challenge.
"I got into a good rhythm early and just worked at it and suddenly I had a big gap on the other competitors," she added.
"I wanted to have a good race, and the points were a big part of it. Now I have points for the start of the World Cup, so I am happy."
CSA GM Bradley was hugely impressed by the Dane. "She was a class apart, a really fantastic rider, and it is her first year in the elite class, up from under-23s," he said. "To put that much time into everybody else just shows you where she is going. She is a star of the future."
South African hope Candice Neethling had her challenge undermined by the conditions and mechanical problems, which forced her out of the running. Mariske Strauss, meanwhile, picked up third place despite a less than smooth race.
"Tough conditions, and I crashed a bit earlier this week on my injured side, from the Commonwealth Games still, so I think I might have aggravated that a bit. I had one tumble and so many mechanicals. I think I bent my derailleur," she said.
Describing the conditions, she continued: "Pietermaritzburg, rain, mud, I think that pretty much sums it up. Anyone who has raced here knows what Pietermaritzburg mud is like. The problem was, I think, that it stopped raining, which meant the mud became tacky, peanut butter-like."
The toughest conditions were experienced by the competitors in the Masters' classes, leading to a decision during the race to reduce the number of required laps by one.
The first man across the line, John Ntuli, commented: "It was very hard. It was wet and slippery, especially where there were roots on corners. Really difficult."
Ntuli is captain of the RMB Change a Life Cycling Team, which has emerged from the canoeing programme under Martin Dreyer and is now making its mark.
"With help from Martin Dreyer and RMB Change a Life, USN, ITec, we are trying our best to record good results," Ntuli said. "Mountain biking has taken off in the Valley, just as canoeing did. Everyone there loves mountain biking. We have no limits on training when it comes to routes, we go wherever we want to go."
MEN ELITE XCO
1. Shlomi Haimy (Israel) 1:25:18
2. Martin Gluth (Germany) 1:25:32
3, James Reid (South Africa) 1:26:03
4. Sebastian Carstensen Fini (Denmark) 1:26:18
5. Alan Hatherly (South Africa) 1:26:59
6. Niels Rasmussen (Denmark) 1:28:00
7. Rourke Croeser (South Africa) 1:29:30
8. Anders Bregnhoj (Denmark) 1:30:44
9. Travis Walker (South Africa) 1:31:56
10. Philip Buys (South Africa) 1:33:31
WOMEN ELITE XCO
1. Malene Degn (Denmark) 1:29:44
2. Isla Short (Great Britain) 1:36:20
3. Mariske Strauss (South Africa) 1:43:48
4. Cherie Vale (South Africa) 1:48:51
5. Ashleigh Moffat (South Africa) 3 laps
6. Jessica Alcock (South Africa) 3 laps
1. John Ntuli 1:14.41
2. Duane Stander 1:16.52
3. Neal Ashby 1:31.20
1. Jimmy Redman 1:25.00
2. Tony Stark 1:27.36
3. Charles Young 1:30.17