9 May 2011
Two of South Africa’s top road cycling professionals, Neil MacDonald and Waylon Woolcock of Team Bonitas, made an impressive entry into the mountain bike racing category when they won six stages and the overall title at the 2011 Fairbairn Capital Old Mutual joBerg2c mountain bike stage race, which ended on Saturday.
The nine-day, 910 kilometre race, which started just south of Johannesburg and finished on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast in Scottburgh, was the first mountain bike race for Team RE:CM, the sister outfit to Team Bonitas, both owned by South African cycling legend, Malcolm Lange.
Woolcock and MacDonald, both experienced road cycling stage race specialists, went into the event as underdogs and an unknown factor. But they didn’t waste any time showing their potential when they won the first racing stage on day two and in the process claimed the overall lead.
Lost the lead
But two days later they lost their lead to FedGroup Berg & Bush’s pair of Brandon Stewart and Darren Lill, who won the 125km fourth stage, putting just over a minute into Team RE:CM.
Stewart, one of South Africa’s most experienced mountain bike stage racers and Lill, the current South African road champion, appeared to be in control and spent the next few days defending their lead and forcing Woolcock and MacDonald to be the aggressors.
For newcomers to mountain bike stage racing, Team RE:CM certainly rode with a combination of determination and maturity, attacking the race leaders at every opportunity and out-sprinting them consistently to collect a string of stage wins.
On Thursday, after having won their fifth stage out of a possible six and with just two days remaining, Woolcock and MacDonald were all but resigned to the fact that any chance of overall victory was extremely slim. But on Friday’s penultimate stage they discovered one of mountain bike racing’s ubiquitous companions, Lady Luck.
After having been dropped by Stewart and Lill early on the 99 kilometre stage through the Umkomaas Valley, Woolcock and MacDonald passed the FedGroup Berg & Bush pair just before halfway after they’d been halted by a cut tyre.
The tyre continued to be problem once they got going again and ultimately cost Stewart and Lill over 25 minutes and the possibility of overall victory as the Team RE:CM pair powered away to win their sixth stage and opened up a substantial overall lead with one stage remaining.
The final 85 kilometre stage, which finished on the beach in Scottburgh, was as close to a victory procession as one can get for the Team RE:CM pair, who finished in the front pack and watched Lill and Stewart claim a consolation stage win and secure second place overall.
“We decided at the start to race conservatively, both from an energy expenditure perspective and a racing strategy perspective and it paid off,” smiled Woolcock, whose longest mountain bike race previously was the 100 kilometre Crater Cruise, largely a dirt-road race.
“Even our equipment was on the conservative side. We chose more robust tyres, which were maybe half a kilogram heavier in total than those of some of our rivals, but we never had one puncture. And in the end, the final race result was decided by a tyre problem.
‘A bit unexpected’
“Winning the race was a bit unexpected,” admitted MacDonald. “But we certainly showed with all the stage wins that we were worthy contenders for a final podium place.
“It’s not ideal for Brandon and Darren to have lost the race the way they did and I do feel sorry for them. But as I’ve come to learn quite quickly, that’s one of the things that define a mountain bike race – nothing is certain until the very end.”
Team owner Malcolm Lange was understandably thrilled at Team RE:CM’s success. “I’m very chuffed,” he smiled.
“I’ve been racing alongside Neil for many years on the road and he was always so effective over cobbled roads in Europe, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s taken so well to mountain bike racing. For Waylon it was obviously a whole new experience, but he really adapted quickly.
“I’m very proud of what they achieved. A dream start for Team RE:CM!”
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