Olympic gold medallist Matthew Brittain (left) and fellow rower Rob Dormehl (right) during the traditional dragon boat crossing of the Vaal Dam on the opening stage of the nine-day Old Mutual joBerg2c on Friday. Photo: Thys Dullaart

Last year’s runner-up and former winner Neil MacDonald, riding with FedGroup-Itec team-mate Brandon Stewart, finished safely inside the top 30 (4:56:47) in a bunch that also featured Waylon Woolcock and Lourens Luus of RE:CM and the Cannondale-Blend pairing of Charles Keey and Darren Lill.

Two-time women’s category winner Ischen Stopforth and ad hoc partner Yolande de Villiers, who won the mixed category at the inaugural event four years ago, proved to be a powerhouse new ladies’ combination.

Stopforth and De Villiers, riding in the sponsor’s colours, led the entire elite field into the Wilgerivier High School sports fields to take the 116km stage in 4:38:18.

Two-time women’s category winner Ischen Stopforth (pictured) led the women’s race with team-mate Yolande de Villiers on the neutral opening stage of the Old Mutual joBerg2c from Heidelberg to Frankfort on Friday. Photo: Thys Dullaart

They crossed the line three seconds ahead of the first men’s team – British marathon racers Ben Thomas and Tim Dunford of Itec 4.

Thomas and Dunford were followed home by Contego’s Louis Bresler-Knipe and Kevin van Hoovels in 4:44:35, with Itec 2’s Paul van Zweel and Peter Lee Jeffries a further two seconds off.

“I wouldn’t say we were looking for a stage win but we got one,” said Stopforth.

“We started steady and just kept that pace. We didn’t stop too much and just enjoyed the route.”

Stopforth, who finished second alongside Hanlie Booyens in the women’s event at the Absa Cape Epic, said she and De Villiers were both feeling strong.

“We’re obviously looking for the overall win but a stage race is a long thing. You have to stay healthy, you have to stay on your bike, so we’ll just keep it steady.”

Father and daughter pairing Abbey and Robyn de Groot (Born and Bred) took the mixed category in 3:47:24.

Day one of the 910km race also featured a unique dragon boat crossing of the Vaal Dam.

Olympic gold medallist Matthew Brittain was in his element alongside fellow rower and riding partner Rob Dormehl as they swopped pedals for paddles for the crossing.

“It was a lot of fun, we just got into the boat and paddled across, it wasn’t too serious.”

When asked whether there were any potential Olympians aboard his boat, the Avis rider simply laughed. “Not in the rowing event!”

The racing starts in earnest on the 95km second stage from Frankfort to Reitz on Saturday.

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