Less than an hour’s drive from both Johannesburg and Pretoria, Van Gaalen offers a traditionally tough allround challenge, with the steep gradients, rugged terrain and stimulating singletrack making for a comprehensive test of rider strength and skill.
Unlike recent years, when the Elite men have tackled an ultra-marathon, this year they will, join the Elite women in a marathon distance battle over 68km, which should make for an intense, exciting battle as a number of riders vie for the points that could swing the 2017 national marathon series title in their favour.
South African marathon champion, Nico Bell (Team NAD Pro) currently leads the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series men’s rankings with 25 198 points from seven stages. Bell’s Team NAD Pro teammate, Gawie Combrinck is currently second with 23 004 points, also from seven stages and 2016 champion, Max Knox (New Holland/This Way Out) is third on 22 552 from six stages.
The Pyga Eurosteel pairing of Philip Buys (22 443 points) and Matthys Beukes (21 728 points) are close behind in fourth and fifth respectively. Buys has completed six stages and Beukes seven. The way the scoring works in 2017, the points from each rider’s best seven results of the 12 stages will count.
“Yes, the series is wide spread across the year and it is often difficult to be at your best at each event, so to be the leader you have to finish every event you start and then after the 12 you hope you have enough good results to make seven of them count! We will be looking to race hard over the next few rounds and hopefully we have form on the day!” said Bell.
Joining Bell on the start line at Van Gaalen is his teammate, Combrinck. Van Gaalen is the venue where Combrinck won the South African marathon title in 2015 and he’ll be hoping for similar success on Saturday. Also confirmed in the men’s race are Knox, Gert Heyns (Ascendis Health) and Arno du Toit (LCB Racing), as well as Buys and Beukes.
“I haven't checked the overall Ashburton Investments National MTB Series standings, but we are more focussed on winning the races than winning the Series. But it will be a bonus if we can get the Series lead or overall win,” said Buys, fresh from his victory at last weekend’s Nissan Trailseeker Series Lionman event.
In the women’s division South African marathon champion, Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health) holds the current series lead with a score of 23 434 points from six stages. Sarah Hill is in second place with 18745 points from six stages and Amy Beth McDougall third on 18 739 points from five stages.
McDougall, winner of the last two stages, will be absent on Saturday as she’s racing abroad. But there’s certain to be a tight tussle for the women’s title with De Groot the firm favourite. She’ll be wary of Samantha Sanders (Valencia) and Candice Lill (dormbakaba), both currently in good form, as well as Theresa Ralph (Galileo Risk) and Sarah Hill (Liv).
“I really enjoy Van Gaalen. It’s proper mountain biking with some tricky descents and technical climbs. I enjoy the rocky trails and I feel the course suits me quite well. That being said, it’s difficult to just ride away because there is a section of open dirt road towards the end. My form is quite good so let’s see how it goes,” said Lill, winner at Van Gaalen last year.
“I haven’t raced many rounds of the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series this year – only two I think – so not sitting too high up in the overall points standings. I love Van Gaalen though. I love the trails and the area, but I’m yet to have a good race there. Hopefully that will change this weekend,” said Sanders.
There is 1103 metres of accumulated ascent in the marathon, which includes six notable climbs. The 43km half-marathon only has 242m of ascent and is expected to be fast. There is also a 20km Fun Race and a 10km Fun Ride.
Leading positions after four rounds (seven stages):
1 Nico Bell (Team NAD Pro) 25 198 points
2 Gawie Combrinck (Team NAD Pro) 23 004
3 Max Knox (New Holland/This Way Out) 22 552
4 Philip Buys (Pyga Eurosteel) 22 443
5 Matthys Beukes (Pyga Eurosteel) 21 728
6 Dylan Rebello (Imbuko Momsen) 20 894
7 Wessel Botha 18 815
8 Declan Sidey (Bells Cycling) 18 673
9 Alan Gordon 18 136
10 David Low 18 128
1 Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health) 23 434
2 Sarah Hill (Liv) 18 745
3 Amy Beth McDougall (Valencia) 18 739
4 Janice Venter 16 529
5 Julia Kotze 15 965
6 Haley Smith (Bell Racing) 14 177
7 Vanessa Bell (Bells Cycling) 12 389
8 Candice Neethling (dormakaba) 11 077
9 Vera Adrian (dormakaba) 10 420
10 Kristen Louw 9 942
1 Marc Oliver Pritzen 21 836
2 Wicus Breytenbach 20 671
3 Hennie van Wyk 20 471
1 Rimari Sutton 24 129
2 Anjenel van der Walt 23 439
3 Tanya Kotze 22 684
Entries are still open and can be done online at www.nationalmtbseries.com.