The event has attracted a record 2200 riders and with nearly all of the top names in the sport represented on the start list, including those that have been racing abroad in the past few weeks, a thrilling contest is expected to unfold. Photo credit: ZoonCronje.com Both defending men and women’s champions are in the rare position to be hunting a hat-trick of wins. Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health), the 2013 and 2014 women’s title holder, has been faced with both injury and illness in recent weeks, but her dominant victory at the tough FNB Magalies Monster marathon less than two weeks ago indicates she’s recovered fully. James Reid (RECM), surprise men’s winner in 2013, defended his title with a maturity beyond his 22 years last year and is a firm favourite for Saturday. He’s already won both the 2015 South African and African Cross-country titles and a national marathon title would complete a rare ‘triple crown’… Interestingly, the last decade has delivered only five different winners in the elite men’s category with Reid claiming two, Kevin Evans (Biogen Volcan) collecting four, Max Knox (Biogen Volcan) one, John Paul Pearton one; and the late Burry Stander with two titles. Evans, who recently announced he will be retiring in September, will not be at Van Gaalen on Saturday, but his Biogen Volcan teammate, Knox, the 2012 national champion, will line up as one of the favourites. Having shown recent good racing form in both Marathon and Cross-country, Knox seems quietly confident: “My preparation has gone well and obviously my ambition is to win. The SA Champs title, along with the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series title, are both goals of mine. This is really a tough course for both the body and the bikes and you can only really control the stuff you can, I am confident in my condition though." Curiously, the top points scorer in the 2015 Ashburton Investments National Series is not South African, and will be racing on Saturday. Swiss racer, Konny Looser (Wheeler iXS) is the current leader of the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series after three rounds; and while he can’t be crowned national champion of South Africa, he is expected to make an impression on the race on Saturday. Winner of Round 3 at Clarens, Germany’s Stefan Sahm (Bulls) was scheduled to race on Saturday, but has had to withdraw due to illness. According to Waylon Woolcock, who currently occupies second place in the Ashburton Investments Series, the national champs course suits the Cross-country riders. “The loose surfaces and punchy climbs will suit the Cross-country specialists like James (Reid), Rourke Croeser (Full Dynamix USN) and Max (Knox). Also, a rider like Johann Rabie (EAI Cycling), who is more a power climber,” said Woolcock, who is still without a sponsor. Woolcock is having one of his best seasons yet and, along with former teammate, Darren Lill, will be hoping to add the national title to their CVs as they continue to search for a financial backer. Reigning National Marathon Series champion Nico Bell and his RECM teammate, Erik Kleinhans, have both won standard marathon races in the past 10 days, showing that their form is sharp in their quest for the coveted title. But those wins came in races shorter than 80km in distance. Saturday’s event will be ridden over an ‘Ultra-marathon’ distance of 111km with a total ascent of 1780m. The additional 90-120 minutes of racing is where experience and endurance begin to count. Other podium hopefuls include the Contego Swift pair of Lourens Luus and Adriaan Louw, Melt Swanepoel (Squirt), Gawie Combrinck (EAI Cycling), Guylin van den Berg (IXU Sport) and Pieter Seyffert (Altech Autopage). There aren’t quite as many title contenders in the women’s race, but it is one of the strongest fields ever assembled. They will race over a distance of 75km with 1100 metres of ascent. Perhaps the most obvious contender for De Groot’s title is 2012 national marathon champion, Cherise Stander. The RECM rider has enjoyed a run of good form both on the road bike and the mountain bike, most notably winning the Sani2c stage race with Swiss teammate Ariane Kleinhans. “It’s very exciting finally be back in a position to compete for the title. I do feel that Robyn (De Groot) and Bianca Haw (Red Bull Specialized) are the obvious favourites, based on their recent results, but I will give it my best shot and hope that I can cope with the technical nature of the course,” said Stander. This will be Haw’s first Elite National Marathon Championships, but the 19-year-old has already shown this year that she’s competitive over the marathon distances, usually more suited to older riders. She recently won the African Cross-country title in Rwanda after having fractured her elbow five weeks ago. The elbow isn’t completely recovered yet, but it’s no longer holding Haw back. “I will only be worrying about the pain the night after the event, I love the technical bits and from what I’ve heard the course might suit me, so I’m going to give it my all,” she said. De Groot confesses that her strategy for Saturday won’t change. “I always aim to be consistent, always stay calm, and at the end of the day, go out and have an enjoyable day on the bike. I have no doubt that the youngsters will give it a full go. I will ride to my strengths and use the experience I have in bike racing to my advantage,” she smiled. Others expected to be in medal contention on Saturday include Yolandi du Toit (Garmin), Candice Neethling (Freewheel Cycology), Carla van Huyssteen (Time Freight), Theresa Ralph (RBS), Jeannie Dreyer (USN HiTech), Lisa Olivier (Time Freight) and Janine Rawlinson (Time Freight). In addition to the Elite men and women’s races, hundreds of Youth, Junior, Sub-veteran, Veteran, Master and Grandmaster age-groupers will by vying for national titles marathon and half-marathon races. Ashburton Investments National MTB Series Round 4, Van Gaalen, Skeerpoort: Saturday 6 June 2015: 06h00-09h00: Registration and late entries 07h00: Riders briefing, leader jerseys handover 07h15: Start Ultra-marathon UCI men 07h25: Start Marathon UCI women 07h55: Start Ultra-marathon amateur men 08h15: Start Marathon A Batch + 5min intervals other batches 09h30: Start Half-marathon A Batch + 5min intervals other batches 09h35: Start Half-marathon Women For more information, visit www.nationalmtbseries.com.