The FedGroup-Itec cyclists are normally known for their heroics in the dirt of South Africa’s toughest mountain-bike trails, but they have decided to test the truth of the saying that a change can be as good as a holiday.
This is why Brandon Stewart, Neil MacDonald, Kevin Evans and Brad Stroberg will switch from mountain bikes to road bikes for a few weeks to compete in the UCI-sanctioned Mzansi Tour powered by Cathsseta (17-21 April).
The fact that the riders from FedGroup-Itec will participate in the Mzansi Tour, might have the proverbial effect of setting a cat loose among the pigeons.
With a little bit of luck on their side, the mountain-bike team could cause a major upset, especially because John-Lee Augustyn, who competed twice in the Tour de France, and Ian McLeod, a former ProTour rider, will also be part of the FedGroup-Itec squad.
A few years ago Evans won the Lowveld Tour overall and he is also a former South African Time Trial Champion.
Before MacDonald decided to reinvent himself as a mountain biker he used to be one of South Africa’s top lead-out men in those hectic road-cycling sprints to the line.
Stewart, FedGroup-Itec’s team-owner, said McLeod is the rider who will be contesting for the overall win.
McLeod might not be the same rider who rode for the FDJ Team in France a few years ago, but he is still a wily campaigner.
It should be remembered that there is no substitute for experience. What McLeod may lack in brute power and speed nowadays, he will compensate for with his racing savvy, he is generally considered to be one of the best cycling strategists.
Augustyn’s participation in the Mzansi Tour could be interesting. When he was still riding for Barloworld, he was considered to be one of the most talented climbers.
Stage 16 of the 2008 Tour de France was simultaneously one of his major career highlights, and also one of his worst disappointments.
On the Col del la Bonette-Restefond, the highest climb of the Tour, just when it looked as if he might win the stage, things suddenly went horribly wrong for him.
Augustyn lost control when racing into a steep curve at full speed. The next moment he went over a cliff, crashed and rolled for about 50 metres.
He had to crawl on his hands and knees to get back to the top.
Even though Augustyn was later signed by Team Sky, he never managed to get his professional road-cycling career going again. It was mainly due to injuries sustained during crashes which led to him having to undergo a major pelvic operation.
He is now back in South Africa and competes mostly in mountain-bike events.
According to Barry Austin, Mzansi Tour’s Sporting Director, one of the major challenges that he faced when he was planning the Mzansi route was to ensure that the tour would not be won within the first two stages.
“It is important to keep things interesting right to the end. This made the planning quite tricky, especially because the tour begins at Kruger Gate.
“The riders will race in the mountainous Mpumalanga for the first two stages.
“I think we ended up with a good balance in every stage. The riders will be challenged by tough climbs, but the routes have been planned to give them some respite as well.
“I think the Mzansi Tour will be won by a strong all-rounder,” comments Austin.
If this should be the case, MacDonald might just be the rider who could cause a major upset.
Since he took up mountain biking, he lost quite a few kilograms and became a much stronger climber.
This means that the other teams will have to watch out for a break-away by MacDonald. He is now capable of giving his chasers a hard battle to catch up.
MacDonald’s most important victory so far this season was when he was the overall winner of the ISUZU Ride the Rock, a three-day stage race in the Cederberg.