Knox (New Holland Agriculture), the current South African champion, was involved in almost a race-long battle with a field that stayed fairly tightly knit until almost three quarters of the way through the 103km race.
Philip Buys (SCOTT LCB Factory Racing) was an early agitator, riding off the front to claim the King of the Mountain prize at 30km. But he was reeled back in and for most of the race a lead pack of around 15 riders broke up and reformed a few times on the rolling hills of the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast.
Gert Heyns (SCOTT LCB Factory Racing) and Knox made a decisive move after a singletrack section before the second Tech Zone at 75km. The pair worked together and increased their lead over the pack, which was starting to lose cohesion as riders began to tire. With 10km remaining, Knox kept the pressure high and the pace proved too much for Heyns.
Knox went on to claim the victory in a time of 3 hours 45 minutes 28 seconds. In the final run up to the finish, Heyns was caught by Nico Bell (Team NAD), who had chased back hard after suffering a mechanical. The pair sprinted for the second place with Heyns just pipping Bell in what required a photo to decide the positions. The pair clocked 3:46:48.
Lourens Luus (PSG Wealth) and Johann Rabie (Team Telkom) rounded out the top five places respectively.
“It was a lot tougher than I anticipated. The depth of quality riders has increased and the terrain was quite smooth and the course quite flowing, which meant a high average speed. I knew that it would be difficult for anyone to ride away on their own, so when the opportunity came to get away with Gert, I was keen,” explained Knox.
“Gert has been quite focussed on XCO racing so I hoped he might struggle a little at towards the end. Luckily for me he did begin to struggle and that’s when I was able to get away from him. I just kept as hard a pace as I could to the finish,” added Knox, who has now won three Ashburton Investments Nation MTB Series events in succession.
“It was a very interesting race – very up and down. There was very positive racing all day, but I suffered a technical at a crucial time and after chasing back I realised that Max and Gert were up the road already. I went after them as hard as I could, but couldn’t shake Gert after catching up to him and didn’t see Max again," said Bell.
“The shorter route really delivered more explosive racing. I really gave it my all trying to stay with Max but I blew and Nico, who always finishes strong, caught me and we had to sprint for second place," explained a weary Heyns.
In the women’s race, Sanders took an early lead which she managed to increase throughout the 75km course to clock a winning time of 3:26:24. Jeannie Dreyer (Merchants) finished a distant second almost nine minutes later, with Therese Ralph (Galileo Risk) rounding out the top three in 3:38:21.
“I was a bit concerned coming in to this race after a sick week. I went out hard very early so I could determine the pace. It was risky, but with the short, sharp climbs it suited me. I’m finally finding some marathon form after getting out of XC racing a bit,” said a satisfied Sanders.
“It was a jolly tough course. It felt like one big climb out there today, but I love these hard, shortish 70km races and we had some really great weather,” smiled runner-up Dreyer.
The Ashburton Investments National MTB Series now moves to South Africa’s Mpumalanga province for Round 6, on 3 and 4 September. For more information, visit www.nationalmtbseries.com
For full results of Round 5 at Ballito, visit: www.saseeding.org
2016 Ashburton Investments National Marathon Series
Round 5, Ballito, Saturday 23 July
Elite men – 95km Ultra-marathon:
1 Max Knox (New Holland Agriculture) 3:45:28
2 Gert Heyns (SCOTT LCB Factory Racing) 3:46:48
3 Nico Bell (Team NAD) 3:46:48
4 Lourens Luus (PSG Wealth) 3:47:20
5 Johann Rabie (Telkom) 3:48:00
6 Andrew Hill (TIB) 3:48:25
7 Willie Smit (Road Cover) 3:48:25
8 Waylon Woolcock (USN Purefit) 3:49:00
9 HB Kruger (Telkom) 3:49:46
10 Julian Jessop (Concept Cyclery) 3:57:47
Elite women – 75km marathon:
1 Samantha Sanders (Valencia) 3:26:24
2 Jeannie Dreyer (Merchants) 3:35:18
3 Theresa Ralph (Galileo Risk) 3:38:21
4 Frances du Toit (Kargo Pro) 3:43:10
5 Hayley Smith (Kargo Pro) 3:53:16
6 Genevieve van Coller 4:04:31
7 Brenda Potts 4:05:51
8 Annie David 4:21:13
9 Lize Swanepoel 4:26:00
10 Lize-Mari Ras 5:11:14