NAD Pro MTB, the 2018 FNB Wines2Whales Shiraz winners, earn the right of headlining the list. Wessel Botha starts his title defence alongside Matt Beers this year, who returns from a road racing campaign for UAE Team Emirates. “Winning last year’s event was a great accomplishment and highlight of the year for me” the 20-year old Botha stated. “I also gained some experience in where time can be made or lost during this race. It does add some pressure but has also given me the confidence of knowing it can be done and has made me prepare for this event to the best of my ability. I am confident that we will be in the mix for the title again!”
PYGA EuroSteel 1 and 2 were both trumped by NAD Pro MTB in KwaZulu-Natal and will be out for revenge. Matthys Beukes and Philip Buys have started virtually every South African stage race in the last five years as the race favourites. The same holds true for the Shiraz, though they start with only the sani2c title as a major local stage race win to their names in 2019. “We had a great year overall and sure, we didn’t reach all of our goals,” Beukes reflected, before adding: “but I think we stepped it up and showed that we can ride with the big dogs. Coming to FNB W2W actually feels like a nice weekend away at this stage. As you said, in the past we have swept up SA stage races but we are looking at new horizons now. Our focus has definitely shifted to the world stage and I think it shows in our recent results at Worlds.”
Beukes and Buys have the advantage of a support team, in the form of Phillimon Sebona and Pieter du Toit. “Our tactics will not be affected much” Buys explained, on the advantages of having two teams in the race. “Thanks to our sponsors, we are fortunate to have two teams at most of our events and this puts us all under less pressure and presents great opportunities for all our athletes. Having our whole team at events also creates a lekker vibe and we enjoy being at races even more.”
For their part, Sebona and Du Toit are gearing up for a support role, should anything major go wrong for the PYGA EuroSteel 1 team. “As the second team for PYGA EuroSteel, we have a lot of freedom,” Pieter du Toit said. “But the main objective is to stay as close to team one as possible, so that we can help them if they have a problem, like a puncture. That said, if we are stronger than them, we will be free to try to win a stage. But that is very unlikely.”
Buys and Beukes’ former teammates Arno du Toit and Gert Heyns are also a pair with clear aspirations for victory. The DSV Pro Cycling team boasts the current South African marathon champion, as well as the 2018 champion. The DSV duo starts the FNB W2W off the back of success at the Eselfontein Mountain Biking Festival; which may not have featured the most competitive field but certainly provided them with the chance to hone their already impressive technical riding skills to a razor-sharp level.
They and the more established South African stage racing teams will have to best the young upstarts of the 2019 season, Imbuko Giant. Nicol Carstens and Marco Joubert have been knocking on the door of a big win this year and have their sights firmly set on FNB W2W. “We've been beating the other top SA teams throughout the year, but just not all of them at once, just yet” Carstens revealed. “We're one of the youngest teams and we've gained valuable experience over the last few months and I believe that's all we've needed to make the final step and defeat the other top SA teams.”
The teams Imbuko Giant will need to defeat include the SPOT Africa DEVMCO Umhlanga Arch combination of Timothy Hammond and Julian Jessop. Having raced the Swiss Epic together in August, the pair have their teamwork dialled. “The opportunity to race overseas and elsewhere in South Africa is special and improves you as a rider when you compete in different places and against different nations” Hammond mused. “But the FNB Wines2Whales has some of the best singletracks and race organisation in the world, which makes the last race of the season very enjoyable. It also draws all the biggest names in South African mountain biking, so you get a chance to really test yourself and see how you’ve improved through the season, or gone backwards” the SPOT Africa rider laughed.
“The FNB Wines2Whales is almost like the Grand Finale of the racing mountain bike scene in South Africa” his partner, Jessop added. “The last showdown before a break and then pre-season training for the following year. The FNB W2W also has a great route, and always brings a super competitive field which makes the racing super hard and the most rewarding.”
Frans Claes and HB Kruger are also looking forward to the hard racing and rewarding trails. The pair will race in the colours of Devonbosch Stellenbosch. 2019 is Belgian, Claes’ second FNB W2W experience and the second time he and Kruger will team up. With more event and team experience under their belts, the pair could strike up a formidable partnership.
As could Canyon Werner’s Sebastian Stark and Robert Hobson. Remarkably it is Stellenbosch resident, Hobson’s FNB W2W debut. In Stark, he has a supremely experienced partner. Though, as Stark explained, their build-up was anything but smooth. “After Rob had crashed badly at the Cape Pioneer Trek leaving him with an injured shoulder and a concussion; we had to wait with a final decision on whether to enter FNB W2W until very late” the German rider, who now resides in South Africa explained. “It's difficult to make any predictions right now. I won't have been back on the mountain bike for quite a while when we line up at the start. So, we'll have to see how stage one goes and take it from there. For now, our cards are close to our chests” his young South African partner added.
The final team to watch is more likely to cruise rather than race but made-up as it is of two supremely talented and competitive riders, whether or not they can stick to the goal of a fun ride remains to be seen. Hobson’s mentor and former FNB Wines2Whales champion, Erik Kleinhans starts the 2019 event alongside Katusha-Alpecin’s Willie Smit. The all-star pairing will ride as Katusha-Alpecin Canyon and though Smit is sure to be fatigued after a long World Tour season, his obvious pedigree means their rivals will need to keep a close eye on the road racer from Nelspruit.
Time and the FNB Wines2Whales route – from Lourensford to Onrus, via Oak Valley – will tell which team will ride home R100 000 richer on the 3rd of November. The 2019 Shiraz race is sure to be one for the history books, and with no major pre-race advantage lying with any of the favourites, it could be the most open and competitive edition in the eleven racings of this famous event.