North South derby at MTN Barberton

One of the most exciting events on the local sports calendar will always be when the Blue Bulls play rugby against the Western Province.

There is just something about this classic north versus south rugby derby that grips everybody’s imagination. One thing is certain; nobody is neutral about the game.  You either support the Bulls or Province with great enthusiasm.

South African mountain biking will have its own ‘north vs. south derby’ on Saturday (29 January) when the pro-elite riders line up for the start of the UCI sanctioned MTN Barberton Ultra-marathon (120km).

David George (360 Life), a born and bred Capetonian, will represent the south and Max Knox (DCM), who grew up in Sabie, the north.

Their duel on mountain bikes has the makings of a real classic battle that might even go down to the wire with the two of them sprinting to the line.

Knox can claim to be the indisputable mountain-biking king of Barberton, because he has never been beaten in this ultra-marathon.

Last year’s victory was according to the book.

“Ground control, we have completed our lift-off and is up and away at fast speed.”

This is how Knox’s attack on the last big climb was could have been described by bystanders last year.

After about 80 kilometers of hard racing, Knox, Burry Stander and Kevin Evans were still racing neck and neck and it seemed to be anyone’s race. But in a matter of three minutes, at the bottom of the climb, the situation changed dramatically.

Knox attacked and literally just ‘flew‘away from Stander and Evans. They had no answer and had to look on as Knox disappeared from their sight, increasing his advantage with every pedal stroke. In the end he finished more than ten minutes ahead of Stander and Evans.

Knox only laughed when he was reminded of his heroic effort.

“That is all history now. I cannot allow myself the luxury of dwelling on the past forever. On Saturday there will be a new race with new challenges.

“To be honest, I really, really want to win. MTN’s Barberton and Sabie ultra-marathons are definitely two of the most important races for me, because I am a born and bred Lowvelder.

“The important consideration for me is not to become too obsessed about winning, because usually that is when you end up making stupid mistakes.

“I can only promise that I will give it my all to win.  Hopefully it will be enough to ensure a victory.”

The constant rain since December is definitely one of the hottest conversation topics at the moment. It is, therefore, understandable that the most important question is whether or not it will rain on Saturday.

Knox reckons it will not, but quickly adds that the weather in the Lowveld is very unpredictable.

“We will only really know what the weather is like when we get to the starting line. The one thing I do know is that it will be muddy.”

Because the MTN Barberton Ultra-marathon is not very technical, Knox predicts that the race will again be won on the last climb. The secret for winning, therefore, will be to stay with the race leaders, while also conserving as much energy as possible for a big assault on the final climb.

With his victory in the MTN Attakwas, George has proven that he is now a true mountain biker in every sense of the word. In the past George could climb with the best, but he tended to lose time when the race became very technical. This is not the case any longer.

It will definitely count in George’s favour that he and his 360Life teammate, Kevin Evans, have been training in Clarens during the past two weeks. On Tuesday they did a six-hour training ride.

“A big problem for me when racing in Barberton has always been the altitude, but I don’t think it will be such a problem this time because my body has had an opportunity to adapt to the higher altitude.”

As is the case with Knox, George is not one for making bold predictions on winning.

“I am definitely racing to win, but mountain biking is always unpredictable. You never know what will happen.”

Evans, last year’s overall winner of the MTN series, will be racing for the first time after his appendectomy.

He made it clear that it was highly unlikely for him to win.

“I see Saturday’s race as just another hard training session.”

Adrien Niyonshuti (MTN Qhubeka), Brandon Stewart (DCM), Mannie Heymans (Garmin-adidas) and Ben-Melt Swanepoel (Specialized) are the only other riders who have a realistic chance of finishing on the podium.