New venue, same winner for KZN Champs?

THE KZN provincial mountain biking championships on Sunday will open up a new racing venue, but don’t expect a new winner when Stuart Marais aims to defend his title at Mazarat Park in Waterfall.

The Howick resident will be hoping to add the 2018 KZN Lap Challenge title to his already impressive list of cross country victories when he tackles the new course on Sunday.

It seems a foregone conclusion that Marais will be the man to beat after he has dominated the cross-country format in the province for the past two years, but he faces a new challenge in a new venue and a couple of young riders who will be determined to break his streak of victories.

Stuart Marais will face some strong challenges as he aims to defend his title at the KZN Lap Challenge Championships on Sunday at Mazarat Park. Photo: Tim Whitfield.

The Howick rider, who is surprisingly not sponsored, has been unbeaten at any provincial level cross country event he has ridden in KZN for more than two years. He is also ranked second South African on the UCI world rankings behind Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Alan Hatherly and recently finished second to Hatherly at the recent leg of the SA Cup Series.

However, the quietly spoken Marais is taking nothing for granted as he looks forward to his first sight of the new Mazarat Park venue.

“I have never ridden at Mazarat Park before so it will be completely new for me,” said Marais on Tuesday when he took a break from a training ride to take a phone call and talk about the weekend race. “I have heard lots of good things about the venue so I am really looking forward to racing on a completely new course.

“It is nice to have a new place to race and important that they are opening up new venues for cross country racing.

“Obviously I have not seen the course yet but I plan to take a trip to Waterfall to ride there and have a look at it sometime later this week. I have heard that it is a bit more technical than some of the other venues we have ridden for the Lap Challenge series this year.

“I believe the area is a bit more rocky with some tight twists and turns, and there are a few rock gardens evidently.”

The only rider who has seriously challenged Marais at a cross country race so far this season has been 19-year-old Henry Liebenberg (Team Silverback) who matched Marais pedal stroke for pedal stroke for five out of six laps at the third round leg of the Lap Series at Cascades in Pietermaritzburg recently.

Tiffany Keep is favourite to take the women’s title at the KZN Lap Challenge Championships on Sunday at Mazarat Park. Photo: Tim Whitfield.

Marais finally managed to get away on the last circuit to claim the win which was enough for him to claim the overall series title.

Liebenberg and Marais each notched up significant race wins this weekend and both will come into the provincial championships high on confidence. Marais won the Gooderson Drakensberg Gardens Challenge near Underberg on Sunday, while Liebenberg partnered Andrew Hill to a convincing win in the three-day Midlands MTB Stage Race in and around Howick.

Another rider who will be looking to unseat Marais will be young Julian Jessop (PYGA Eurosteel). Jessop finished second at the Drak Gardens event but only after his pedal inexplicably fell off 5km from the end which prevented the two leaders from fighting it out for the win in a potentially exciting sprint finish.

Despite that loss, Jessop can take confidence from his sprint finish win over Marais at the Karkloof Classic last month.

In the women’s race the rider to beat is likely to be matric pupil Tiffany Keep (Silverback), but Frances Janse van Rensburg was not completely out of contention at Cascades and she will be keen to put some pressure on her rival on Sunday.

Pre entries for Sunday’s racing close on Wednesday although late entries will be accepted. Sunday’s racing starts at 9am with the nippers and sprogs events, and they will be followed by the three batches of age group riders, including the elite riders at 1.15pm.