Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN-Energade) surprised everybody by winning the Nissan Hazeldean Race over 70 kilometers on Saturday (5 June).
During the last 10 kilometers, when things really got tough, the young rider from Rwanda kept his cool and managed, with brutal force, to ride away from everybody else. It was the first time he won a major race in South Africa.
Neil MacDonald (Medscheme), who is better known for his exploits in road races, finished second, with Paul Cordes (MTN-Energade) in the third place and Ben-Melt Swanepoel (Specialized/Mr Price) fourth.
According to Niyonshuti, it was definitely not all plain sailing for him on Saturday.
“I started off quite well, and was in front for about the first 20 kilometers. But then, suddenly, I found myself battling to keep up with the front riders and I dropped back a few places. I decided not to panic and just rode at a consistent, manageable pace, giving my body some time to recover. Luckily it worked. From about the 50 kilometer marker, I could feel that my legs had recovered sufficiently and I managed to catch up with the leaders again.
“The race was decided on the last technical section. That was when I managed to get away on my own.”
When asked to describe how it felt to win his first major race, Niyonshuti was at a loss for words.
“It was an amazing experience and I really hope that this was the first of many victories for me. But in mountain biking you can never take anything for granted. Winning on a mountain bike is never easy.”
MacDonald, who only started to compete in mountain bike races in July last year, is satisfied with his result.
“To be honest, I surprised myself. I really had a good race. Throughout all the technical sections I was able to ride with the front guys. Towards the end of the race I was the lone leader for a few minutes, but then Adrian caught up with me. Unfortunately I did not have the legs to stay with him. In the end Paul (Cordes) and I were involved in a sprint for the second place.
“I was just able to get to the finishing line before him.”
In spite of breaking his ankle during his first ever mountain bike race and having been flown by helicopter to the nearest hospital, MacDonald said he was beginning to enjoy mountain biking.
“It is very different from road racing. In mountain biking team tactics are not very important. It is mostly a case of every rider against himself in a race. What makes mountain biking exciting is that the unexpected can happen at any moment. You have to be alert constantly.”
Asked whether he, being a roadie, can fix a puncture, MacDonald’s reply was: “Touch wood, but I have never had a puncture or any mechanical problems during a mountain bike race. This is quite unusual, considering that I rode the nine-day Joburg to Sea race. But the keywords are ‘touch wood’. I know that, at some stage, I will puncture. Luckily I have used a bomb before so I ought to be able to help myself.”
According to Cordes it was touch and go whether he would race or not.
“I had been ill for the whole of last week, so I had to decide whether or not I would race. By Friday I began to feel better and then I decided that I would give it a go.
“I have to admit that I really suffered during the first 15 kilometers. I was coughing a lot and just managed to hang in there with the front riders. To make things worse, I overshot one of the sharp corners and ended up on a garbage heap. My bike’s front wheel punctured in the process and I had to stop to fix it. I managed to catch up with the leaders with about ten kilometers to go.
“Adrian and I then worked together to get him away on his own. That left Neil and me to battle it out for the second place. I tried to outsprint him, but Neil had the better line going into the finish. To make things worse for me, my front tyre was again beginning to deflate during the last two kilometers.
Swanepoel said the biggest mistake he made was to underestimate the race.
“The race was definitely more technical and much rougher than I expected. This was the reason why quite a few of us had to stop to fix mechanical problems. My worst moment was when I realized that I was about to lose my back wheel. Luckily I noticed it in time and was able to fix it. In the process I lost some time, but I don’t want to use it as an excuse. Paul had to fix a flat tyre and still managed to catch up. “
Nick Bester (Nedbank), a Comrades Marathon legend, was full of praise for Nissan’s Hazeldean Route.
“Last year, after I had competed in the Nissan race in Centurion, I was highly critical of the organizers, but after racing the Hazeldean Race today (Saturday), I have to take back my words. The route was amazing. It is hard to believe that there still are such fantastic mountain biking trails in Pretoria. The organizers should get 11 out 10 for the race that they had organized.”
Yolandé Speedy (MTN-Energade) won the women’s race with Mariske Strauss (MTN-Energade) second and Theresa Ralph third.