At the MTN Sabie Marathon, on Saturday (23 February), the two of them rode shoulder to shoulder for about 67 kilometres. Racing up and down the slopes of the Drakensberg, they were both doing their best to leave the rival behind.
It was only during the last few kilometres that Kleinhans eventually managed to drop Neethling, beating her by merely 22 seconds.
The winning time for the 70 kilometre race was 3 hours 32 minutes and 52 seconds.
Kleinhans has now won the MTN Sabie Marathon for two consecutive years.
Neethling was victorious at the MTN Barberton marathon. There has not been such a serious battle in women’s mountain biking for quite a while.
By finishing 3rd overall Robyn de Groot, who rode in the colours of Songo.info, proved that her 2nd place finish at the MTN Barberton marathon was no fluke.
When asked why she rode in the Songo.info kit, De Groot said that she did it to pay tribute to the late international mountain-biking legend, Burry Stander, as well as in support of his wife, Cherise.
When Stander and Christoph Sauser (Switzerland) won the Absa Cape Epic last year, they were wearing similar jerseys. Stander was killed earlier this year by a taxi while he was out on a training ride.
De Groot’s performance is even more remarkable considering that she has only been competing seriously in mountain-bike races since January.
Theresa Ralph finished 4th and Amy Mcdougall was 5th.
Kleinhans readily admits that she had to dug deep to win the Sabie again.
“Candice’s never-say-die attitude meant that I had a tough fight on my hands right up to the end, but it was actually very exciting.”
According to Kleinhans she really had to keep her wits about her to avoid going down hard on some of the technical sections.
“I have experienced quite a few scary moments during the race.”
Neethling was full of praise afterwards for the way in which Kleinhans rode.
“Ariane is an awesome athlete. The fact that I was able to stay with her for most of the race, is a real confidence booster for me.”
Neethling reckons the reason why she is consistently performing well in marathon racing lately is that she has many more long hard miles in her legs.
She is planning to compete in more marathons, but her main goal remains to achieve a good result in August at the UCI World Cross Country Championship in Pietermaritzburg.
“Racing marathons has certainly helped to improve my endurance. It also helps me to learn how to push myself through the pain barrier.
“I can honestly say that competing in marathons has made cross-country racing seem like fun.”
De Groot who won the Route 66, a three-day stage event, the previous weekend (16-17 February), admits that her technical skills are not yet up to standard.
“But I am getting there. I at least changed my gear ratio for the Sabie race, which meant that my legs were not quite as painful as during previous races.”
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