It will forever be remembered as a dark day on the South African cycling calendar: 3 January 2013 – the date one of the sport’s greatest talents was killed.
Today the Absa Cape Epic joins the mountain biking family in paying tribute to the great Burry Stander and reflecting on what might have been had fate not snuffed out the light and promise that shone from this young star.
Only 25 at the time, Stander died after being hit by a taxi while training on the KwaZulu Natal South Coast. He had become a household name following his courageous ride at the 2012 Olympic Games cross-country mountain bike race, when he eventually finished fifth after a poor start.
But cyclists already knew what he was capable of. He was crowned under-23 cross country world champion in 2009 and had begun to feature regularly at the front of the field in the prestigious UCI World Cup series.
After three years of setbacks Stander and his Swiss partner, Christoph Sauser, won the Absa Cape Epic in commanding fashion in 2011 and 2012 and appeared destined for several years of dominance of the world’s premier mountain bike stage race. By the end of that race Stander and Sauser had won 17 Absa Cape Epic stages together over the years.
Stander, meanwhile, began to fulfil his promise on the world cross-country circuit, fighting it out at the front of the field with the likes of Jaroslav Kulhavy, Nino Schurter and Julian Absalon.
Who knows where his talent would have taken him? His fellow professionals on the world circuit were unanimous in suggesting that he was among the most skilled in world mountain biking – and with years ahead of him, Stander was sure to have risen to even headier heights.
His death sent shockwaves through the global mountain biking community and beyond.
Sauser, Stander’s teammate and mentor, said the feeling of emptiness and shock he experienced on hearing of the tragedy was worse than how he felt when he learnt his dad had died. “I will never ever forget you,” he said.
Germany’s Karl Platt, himself a four-time winner of the Cape Epic, said: “I am speechless, shaking and completely out of my mind! What a sad day. We lost a part of our ‘family’. Our prayers are with your family.”
South African downhill legend and world champion Greg Minnaar described Stander as a fighter, a champion, a gentleman and a legend.
Robbie Hunter, a former stage winner in the Tour de France, said Stander’s death amounted to a “huge loss for South African and world cycling.”
Springbok rugby captain turned mountain biker John Smit described Stander as “an absolute legend and hero of mine on the bike. Rest in peace, ‘Boet’.”
Besides his skill and determination on a bicycle, Stander was also exceptionally popular. He was unfailingly polite, generous and happy to give of his time to fellow riders – be they young professionals or enthusiastic amateurs. In spite of his youth, Burry Stander left an immense impression on his sport and everybody who knew him. May his soul rest in peace and his legacy never die.