Next season’s pro racing scene just got a whole lot more interesting if Brandon Stewart and Neil MacDonald’s nail-biting victory in the seventh edition of the FedGroup Berg & Bush Descent is anything to go by.
Defending champion Stewart, who spearheads the FedGroup-Itec Connect team, announced the RE:CM rider as his new partner for 2013 at the three-day event, which started near Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State on October 26.
The duo beat MacDonald’s current team-mate Waylon Woolcock and ad hoc partner Andrew Hill (TIB-RE:CM) by a mere 17 seconds overall in a ding-dong battle of wills that took place on a modified, muddy route into KwaZulu-Natal.
Stewart and MacDonald drew first blood on the 74km opening stage, heading into Emseni Camp in the shadow of Spioenkop in 2:41:20, just 20 seconds ahead of Woolcock and Hill, who were mired down with mechanical problems.
On day two, the latter pairing fired back on Spioenkop, catching the leaders who had chain problems and sprinting across the finish in 2:49:11 to claim the 61km circular stage by a single second.
The third and final 56km stage to Winterton in the Central Drakensberg ended in similarly dramatic fashion, with Woolcock and Hill crossing the line first in 2:11:34 to take their second stage win in a row.
But the two-second gap was not enough to demolish Stewart and MacDonald’s 19-second overnight lead and the overall victory was theirs in 7:42:08.
Former Sharks centre Jeremy Thompson and team-mate David Leiman, riding under the Thule banner, secured the final podium position in 8:08:47.
Stewart, who hails from nearby Hilton, said it was fantastic to win his sponsor’s race, especially since it was Randburg-based MacDonald’s first outing at the event. “For us the most important thing was to get a feel for riding together.”
Former roadie Woolcock, who used every opportunity to attack on the open district roads, said it had been good training ahead of the Contego Wines2Whales event, which will be his final race alongside MacDonald.
“Neil and Brandon knew they had the overall win,” said Woolcock. “But it was nice to take two stages and second overall.”
Mixed category winners Justin Porteous and Mariske Strauss (Cranked4Christ-JoJo) finished strong to secure seventh place overall in 8:27:40.
In the women’s race, two-time defending champions Sarah van Heerden and Brenda Potts (Jeep-Enviroshore) took three uncontested stage victories en route to the title in a combined time of 9:14:44.
According to race organiser Gary Green, the 220km route varied every year due to demand from adventure-seeking mountain bikers. Known for its spectacular plunge over the escarpment and zipline river crossings, the Descent race was minus both of these this year due to torrential rains in the area.
The 300 teams did however get to enjoy highlights like the unique speedboat crossing of Spioenkop Dam and the climb up the historical mountain stronghold of the same name on day two.
Due to the growing popularity of the race, the Great Trek was added this year, which gave more riders the chance to experience the route straight after completion of the Descent.
The FedGroup Berg & Bush is still rounded out by the original 110km two-day race, which followed the Great Trek.
Go to www.bergandbush.co.za, www.facebook.com/bergandbush or @bergandbush for more information.
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