The most important annual domestic road cycling event, the South African Road Race Championship, takes place in Nelspruit this week and top professional outfit, Team Bonitas, have left nothing to chance in their efforts to defend one title and chase two more.

With 2011 road race champion Darren Lill in their ranks, Team Bonitas will go into the 160km road race on Sunday, 4 March with a squad loaded with talented title-hungry riders. Joining Lill in Nelspruit are Johann Rabie, Hanco Kachelhoffer, Jason Bakke, Ian McLeod, Tyler Day, Herman Fouche, Luthando Kaka and HB Kruger.

Kruger is the only Under-23 rider in the team, but since Under-23 and Elite categories are grouped together in the road race, he will be committed to helping the team defend the more prestigious Elite title.

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Despite his belief that the course isn't tough enough, Darren Lill is all set to defend his SA road race title in Nelspruit on Sunday.

Photo: Craig Dutton

The road race incorporates three laps of a 53.5km circuit. Its total elevation (vertical ascent) has been estimated to be over 3000 metres, but Lill believes this figure is exaggerated.

“Last year in Port Elizabeth my GPS showed less than 1950 metres of ascent when it was said to be over 3500 metres. That wasn’t a climber’s course. Sure, it had a few short, sharp ascents, but no proper climbs. I’ve not see it yet, but the Nelspruit course on paper seems to have even less ascent,” said Lill, a noted climber.

“I’ve believe 160km on this route is too short for a national championship. On that terrain, it should be a longer distance to make it more difficult. The other concern I have is that it’s not very spectator-friendly. Such big laps mean the spectators only see the riders occasionally. On a course with a higher number of shorter laps like we had in Port Elizabeth last year, the spectators can stay in one place and watch the race unfolding.”

Lill was, however, quick to point out that those are the only negative aspects of the annual showpiece.

“I think it’s important to point those two elements out. However, the course is what it is and the event is as prestigious as ever. It’s great to be contesting the title in Mpumalanga for a change. Our Bonitas team will tackle it as we do any other race, with the intention to race positively and try to win. We’re defending my title, but we won’t be racing defensively, that is for certain!

“There’s a danger of Bonitas, Tasol GT and MTN Qhubeka, the three main teams in the country, neutralising each other and leaving the door open for an opportunist to take the win. And with experienced, strong guys like Rob Hunter, Jay Thomson and John Lee Augustyn all back from overseas and in the mix, we have to be vigilant and positive.”

With no major wins yet this year, Bonitas may appear to be under pressure to secure a victory as soon as possible, but according to team owner, Malcolm Lange, they’re not.

“After three years of a strong, successful domestic focus, this is a year of international expansion for Team Bonitas. We have three months of intense racing in Europe that we are building up to and the flattish, short local races at the start of the year in South Africa are a world apart from that. We obviously go all out to win every time we race, but our emphasis has shifted somewhat to the next level. The national championship, being a longer, harder event than the other races so far this year, will suit us better,” remarked Lange.

“Darren should be in good form, others will have to ride themselves inside out to take that title. He’s not going to just give it up easily. But with Team Bonitas we will have a few cards to play on the day and will make sure we make the most of that advantage. Having said that, the two time trial events are also titles we’re aiming for.”

The road race is the final event of the national four-day showpiece. First up on Thursday though is the 40km individual time trial. Rabie and Lill will contest this event for Team Bonitas. Lill claimed the bronze medal in Port Elizabeth last year and will fancy his chances for a shot at the gold on a course with less turns and more undulation. It’s likely to suit the powerful riding style of Rabie too.

On Friday is the Team Time Trial, an event that’s been off the national champs schedule for two decades. It’s a point-to-point course over 48km, starting in Kaapmuiden at an altitude of 360m and taking a gradual climb to the finish in Nelspruit at an altitude of 730m above sea level. The six Team Bonitas riders that will contest this event are Lill, Rabie, McLeod, Kachelhoffer, Day and Bakke.

Track the team's progress on twitter: @Team_Bonitas; Facebook: Team Bonitas or online at www.teambonitas.co.za