Tomorrow’s cycling stars shone brightly at the national student championships, which were hosted by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth at the end of June.

Nine of South Africa’s top tertiary institutions vied for overall honours in the Bestmed University Sports South Africa (USSA) competition but in the end it was defending champions Tuks who rode away with the individual and team laurels.

While there was raw talent aplenty on show, it was those individuals who had been schooled by SA’s top pro teams that went to the head of the class.

Up-and-coming young signings Timo Cooper (Bridge) and Willie Smit (Bonitas) took the mountain bike and road tour titles for Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of Pretoria respectively.

Mountain biker Emily Clarke and former MTN-Qhubeka roadie Sarah Chemaly claimed the women’s titles for the University of Cape Town.

Hosts Shukuma-NMMU were runners-up in the team classification, with Stellenbosch University in third.

Much like the world-renowned Tour de l’Avenir, or Tour of the Future, the student race brought together some of the finest amateur and semi-professional riders on some of the country’s best cycling routes.

Past winners of the French road race, for riders aged 23 and under, include such illustrious names as Tour de France champions Greg LeMond and Miguel Indurain as well as this year’s stage winner and yellow jersey Jan Bakelants.

Similarly, the local championship provides a springboard for talented students, who often graduate to fully fledged pro careers. Charles Keey (Cannondale-Blend), who took the mountain bike and road titles last year, is one such success story.

This year, his CPUT successor Cooper powered his way through a technical 50km cross-country circuit at Hopewell Trails to take the off-road victory.

The third-year sports management student crossed the line 39 seconds clear of the University of Cape Town’s Greig Knox, while CPUT team-mate Adriaan Louw, who also rides for Contego, overcame mechanical problems to finish third.

“I had a lucky day. It was a proper cross-country course, with loads of technical descents, climbs and good single track,” said Cooper, who podiumed with German pro partner Nico Pfitzenmaier in the recent RE:CM Knysna 200 stage race.

Although the 22-year-old also competed on the road, he failed to shape among the pure roadies.

Here Smit dominated from start to finish, winning the first four stages and finishing third in the final criterium.

The second-year law student said his long hours in the saddle and pro team support had given him the edge he needed.

“I’ve been training hard for the Clover Tour in August,” said Smit, who finished second in that event last year.

“I’ve been working with (Bonitas staff) Jaco Ferreira and Barry Austin. They’ve been helping me quite a lot with specific training and nutrition. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

The 20-year-old said the technical aspects, such as nutrition, were a critical and oft-neglected aspect of stage racing, especially at amateur level.

This was borne out on the 120km queen stage, which took place in wet and cold conditions.

“When it’s so cold you have to consume a lot and this stage was as much about nutrition as it was fitness. I saw a lot of people who didn’t eat or drink enough and they just faded at the end.”

Smit appears to have mastered the formula, however, as he went on to place fourth in the Knysna Oyster Festival race – behind elites such as Nolan Hoffman, Christoff van Heerden and Tyler Day – just two days after winning the student tour.

Alongside Cooper, he is certainly a name to watch in the not-so-distant future.

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