Pretoria athletes Nico Sterk and Carla van Huyssteen overcame a strong field to triumph in the ATU Cross Triathlon African Championships at The Islands Estate at Hartbeespoort outside Johannesburg on Sunday.

Sterk (1:40:38), who took third in the South African Cross Triathlon Championships in Bloemfontein three weeks ago, beat national U/23 triathlon champion Rudolf Naudé (1:41:18) and Sasol events winner Pieter van der Mescht (1:46:21).

In the women’s race, Van Huyssteen (1:47:41) fended off challengers Susan Sloane (1:53:16) and Sylvia van Tromp (1:54:44) to cross the line first.

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Carla Van Huyssteen takes the women’s title at the ATU Cross Triathlon African Championships at The Islands Estate, Hartbeespoort, on Sunday. Photo: Studio K

By adding the African gold medal to her national XTERRA title, the 27-year-old cemented her place at the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships in Alabama, United States, in May.

The race was the culmination of four Sasol-sponsored off-road events, the first three of which were won by Van Huyssteen and Van der Mescht.

Having missed the Sasol events due to international triathlon commitments, Sterk was a relatively unknown quantity coming into the race.

“For a lot of people it was a surprise that I won today and rightfully so. I like that people see me as the underdog; it puts very limited pressure on me to perform.”

Sterk got off to a cautious start in the 1km canal swim, emerging from the water in fourth position. At this point, pre-race favourite and SA champ Theo Blignaut led the field by a minute, followed by Naudé and Van der Mescht.

“I normally lose some time to the top swimmers, so I decided to take it a bit easier and be fresher for the bike,” said Sterk.

Five kilometres into the 26km mountain bike leg, Blignaut suffered the first of three punctures that put him out of contention for the win. At the same time, Sterk started to apply the pressure to catch, overtake and open up a gap on the other frontrunners.

“I was about two and a half minutes ahead of Rudolf when I came off the bike. I probably lost about 30 seconds in the transition area, so I started the run with a two-minute lead.”

Naudé turned up the heat on the 7km trail run, making up a minute, but it was still a comfortable victory for Sterk.

The 24-year-old, who came 19th at last year’s inaugural world championships in Spain, said he was happy with the win.

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Nico Sterk races to victory in the ATU Cross Triathlon African Championships at The Islands Estate, Hartbeespoort, on Sunday. Photo: Studio K

“It would have been really interesting if Theo hadn’t punctured. I’ve also had a lot of bad luck but today for the first time I wasn’t the guy getting punctures or lost.”

Van Huyssteen said she was also delighted with her title. “Obviously I’m thrilled, I’ve been working towards this for quite some time.”

She said Sloane and Van Tromp had raced extremely hard from the outset. They came out of the water together, but Van Huyssteen was first into the transition area and created a gap early on the bike.

After losing them on a technical section 10km into the course, she opened up a two-and-a-half-minute lead, which she extended on the trail run to ensure a clear-cut victory.

“It was nice to have that sense of urgency and I really had to work hard for it all the way.”

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Highlights from the event will be screened on DStv’s SuperSport 6 channel at 6.30pm on May 1.