Cross-country legend Burry Stander will cast a long shadow over this year’s national cross country (XCO) and downhill championships at Hayterdale Trails outside Port Elizabeth, as South Africa’s finest battle it out to prove themselves worthy successors later this month.

Olympian Philip Buys – who finished second behind Stander at Mankele near Nelspruit last year – and national marathon champion James Reid are among the favourites for the XCO title on July 20.

Buys and Reid, who have taken the top two podium positions respectively in both national cup series races they have entered this year, seem like the riders with the targets on their backs.

According to race director Brad Jackson of Mountain Events, they could expect stiff competition from Luke Roberts, who has already achieved a brace of top-10 finishes in the series.

“The national cup series is points-based, so riders can afford to miss one of the races and still be in contention for the overall title.

“The SA champs is different in that it is a one-shot opportunity where the winner takes all.”

In the women’s race, Mariske Strauss and Candice Neethling are expected to challenge for Yolande Speedy’s title.

Jackson, who podiumed regularly in both disciplines as a junior, said the downhill competition – on July 21 – was always a very close call.

“Tiaan Odendaal has been riding really well this year so he is a likely favourite, but either of the Neethling brothers (Andrew or Jonty) or last year’s winner on this track, Alasdair Fey, could win.”

Organisers are also expecting a large contingent of masters riders, who will use the champs as a seeding event for the UCI Masters World Championships in Pietermaritzburg in August.

“Burry’s dad, Charles, has already entered.”

He said the XCO course, which has been cut from 5.5km to 4.2km with 130m of climbing per lap, would be thrilling for competitors and spectators alike.

“The average rider who is used to marathon-style racing will find it very technical, especially if they opt to take the main line through the obstacles.

“The good news is that all of the difficult bits have chicken run alternative lines, which each add about 10 to 15 seconds.

“But even riders who opt for all the chicken runs are guaranteed a fun experience on this course, which one of the pros described as a series of ‘amusement park rides’ for mountain bikers.”

Jackson said participants could look forward to a new switchback climb, which breaks the long gravel road ascent in the first half of the course, and the undoubted new highlight – the Rabbit Hole.

“The Rabbit Hole is an over and under crossing which sees riders negotiating a bumpy bridge made up of large logs, or jumping over the bridge for the faster line.

“The bridge is followed immediately by a tight 270-degree right-hand berm, which shoots riders back under the bridge they have just crossed and into the final single track section where most of the features are.”

Situated just 200m from the start/finish area, he said it would be an exciting spectator point.

“The downhill track is perhaps less scary and intimidating than some of the others out there. However, it is still very technical in that it has many tight single track sections requiring immense skill to negotiate at speed.”

Jackson said riders who were able to enter the corners fast and carry their speed out of them would be rewarded on this 1.77km circuit, which features a vertical drop of 240m.

“The main change this year is that 500m has been added to the end of the course. This brings the finish line closer to the action; within 100m of the XCO start/finish area.

“The final new section has been manicured, with gravel laid down on the surface, to make it as fast as possible. It also features a few jumps and berms to ensure a spectacular finish.”

Jackson, who represented South Africa at the world championships in 1996, said he no longer raced competitively but still enjoyed scouting out and building world-class trails.

“As the only Olympic-recognised discipline, I believe XCO is largely under-supported in SA. I regard it as a privilege to have been awarded the national champs and we are determined to put on a world-class event.”

More than 220 riders – from nippers right up to grand masters – are anticipated for the weekend event in the Zuurberg Mountains outside Addo.

Enter at before July 17. Late entries will be accepted at the venue on the Friday.

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