Angry service-delivery protests in the town of Sabie, almost forced the postponement of Round 2 of the Ashburton Investments South African National MTB Series in the Mpumalanga province this weekend. But while peace has been restored in the local community, there’s likely to be little in the way of peace on the race route as some of the biggest names in marathon mountain biking will line up for battle at one of South Africa’s oldest and most iconic mountain bike events.
The South African Police Service has given the race the all-clear to go ahead, which means well over 2 000 mountain bikers will descend on the town to compete over various distances through the forested mountain slopes on Saturday and Sunday.
Four-time Absa Cape Epic winner and current German national champion, Karl Platt, heads up a strong Elite men’s field for Saturday’s 115km Ultra-marathon race. Platt is joined by his Team Bulls stage-race teammate, Urs Huber of Switzerland and compatriot Tim Bohme. Platt and Huber destroyed their rivals with a powerful display at last weekend’s DUTOIT Tankwa Trek three-day stage race in the Western Cape province and are sure to be the favourites on Saturday. Huber and Platt were first and second respectively at a very rain-soaked 2014 edition of the Sabie event, so are fully aware of what awaits them, although the forecast is for a dry race this year.
Bohme will be looking for a strong ride following his forced withdrawal from the Tankwa Trek last weekend due to a stomach illness. He and Bulls teammate Simon Stiebjahn were lying second overall when they withdrew. Another German, Tom Ettlich, is also on the start list, with Switzerland’s Konny Looser (Wheeler), a possible start too.
South Africans have often excelled at the Sabie race and the home nation will be looking to the likes of 2015 winner, Max Knox (Valencia) and fellow Lowveld locals, Gawie Combrinck and Nico Bell, both of Team NAD, to lead the podium challenge. Other strong South Africans include Gert Heyns (SCOTT LCB Factory Racing), HB Kruger (Team Telkom), Brendon Davids (Kargo), Andrew Hill (TIB) and the USN Purefit pair of Darren Lill and Waylon Woolcock, who were runners-up to Platt and Huber at the Tankwa Trek last weekend.
The women’s field will see two-time Cape Epic winner, Ariane Kleinhans (Team Spur) return to marathon racing after she was forced to withdraw at the last minute from last week’s Tankwa Trek due to illness. Kleinhans is the defending champion at Sabie and will be keen to secure her first major win of the year following third places at Attakwas and Round 1 of the National Series at Meerendal last month.
Kleinhans’s primary rival is likely to be South African champion, Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health), while Cross Country ace, Candice Neethling (Dorma) and Theresa Ralph (Galileo Risk) are expected to be in the hunt for a podium finish too. The women will race a distance of 72km with 2 050 metres of ascent.
The Sabie event is one of the most scenery established classics on the South African mountain biking circuit and, taking place three weeks before with similar terrain and gradients, will serve as a fine-tuning event for many Cape Epic entrants. The Half-marathon, fun race and fun ride on Sunday have attracted large fields as usual.
According to Fritz Pienaar from Advendurance, the organisers, his team were elated when they finally got the green light early on Thursday to go ahead with the racing as planned.
“All the hard work has already been done and we look forward to hosting a safe, world class event in Sabie. We are going to accept late entries with no extra charge this weekend to accommodate everyone who was waiting to see if the race would happen or not,” added Pienaar.
Local stores and restaurants are doing their best to restock after the town’s “lockdown”. Participants are advised try to cater for themselves where possible in case the restocking isn’t complete.