Team bizhub’s Ischen Stopforth got the defence of her MTN Series title off to a solid start by placing runner-up in the season opener, the 135-kilometre Attakwas Extreme Challenge mountain bike race between Oudtshoorn and Groot Brakrivier, on Saturday.
Stopforth, who won the race last year, was upstaged by MTN’s on-song Yolande Speedy, who placed 19th overall in a time of 6:36:16. Stopforth clocked 7:07:11, with Jeep’s Hanlie Booyens third in 7:20:59.
“I really struggled in the technical sections in the initial part of the race and that’s where I lost ground on Yolande. She is a class act and deserves the win,” Stopforth said afterwards.
Despite finishing second, she insisted she was still on track for the overall series title, which was her major goal for the season.
“I was very tired at the end of last year and took an extended break. My conditioning is therefore probably not yet what it should be.”
Stopforth said the series was all about being consistent. “In mountain biking there are so many variables, it is almost a given that everyone will have an off day or bad luck at some point.”
Although she said Speedy would be “hard to beat”, she believed she could win the series and was looking forward to the challenge.
In the lead-up to the Attakwas, Stopforth named Speedy, Team bizhub team-mate Yolandi du Toit and Biogen Toyota’s Yolandé de Villiers as her biggest threats.
De Villiers’ challenge came to a premature end after a mere six kilometres when she crashed and broke her left scapula – an injury that will see her sidelined for at least six weeks. Du Toit, on the other hand, was forced to retire after 85 kilometres with a broken rear derailleur.
Stopforth said she was “disappointed” with her time, which was slower than her previous year’s winning effort, but “very happy” with the last third of the race where she managed to peg Speedy’s lead.
Speedy held a 26-minute lead on Booyens at the final water point at 80 kilometres, with Stopforth a further four minutes back.
“At that point I felt quite strong and set about closing the gap to Hanlie. I caught her on one of the final climbs and pulled away quite easily.”
The men’s race was won by MTN’s Kevin Evans (5:43:52), who was followed home by safindit.co.za’s David George (5:47:43) and DCM Chrome’s Max Knox (5:48:15).
Meanwhile the newly-found Team bizhub’s overseas signing, the Brit Catherine Williamson, showed her class by winning the women’s section and placing third overall in the 10th Caltex Sunny Hill Classic just outside Bloemfontein on the same day.
The race had a mixed field and she was the only woman to make the decisive five-man break after a mere 10 kilometres. The group later swelled to seven.
“I felt nervous – it was the first race of the season and the first for a new team and you never know how your body will react. I was aiming to hit my best form in February and March leading up to the Pick n Pay Cape Argus and this shows I’m on track.”
Williamson, fourth in the British national championships last year, said mentally it was great to be out in the sun after the icy European weather of the past few months.
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