GARDEN ROUTE CYCLING NEWS - Southern Cape locals Matthys Beukes and Robyn de Groot will start as the firm favourites of the Momentum Health Attakwas Extreme presented by Biogen, which starts on Saturday 18 January.
This tough race is the traditional season opener for South Africa's mountain biking community. Boasting UCI status, as the opening round of the UCI MTB Marathon World Series, the fourteenth edition has attracted a stellar field of local and international talent.
Known as the Hell of the South, it is a 121-kilometre-long traverse of the Klein Karoo, fabled Attakwaskloof and the rolling roads through the Outeniqua Mountain foothills.
Beukes will, in fact, be looking to add a fourth title and his third successive win to his palmarès. The Pyga Euro Steel star notched up victories in the 2012, 2018 and 2019 editions. De Groot, meanwhile, will be keen to show that her late-2019 form signalled a true return to her best after her iliac artery surgery early last year.
They will however not have things all their own way. The elite men's race, in particular, features an exceptionally deep field. Alongside Beukes there is a former winner in Karl Platt, the South African national marathon champion, as well as Arno du Toit, Beukes' teammate Philip Buys, and returning for the first time since 2015, Matt Beers.
The list of potential winners does not end there, however. Nico Bell, Wessel Botha, Gert Heyns, Nicol Carstens, Marco Joubert, Timothy Hammond, Keagan Bontekoning, Sebastian Stark, Tristan de Lange and Jan Withaar all deserve special mention, as do the recent World Tour road racers returning to mountain biking, Jacques Janse van Rensburg and Jaco Venter.
How the former Dimension Data (now Team NTT) riders, who are racing as Team First Move, will fare on their return to wide tyres will be one of the race's main subplots.
The main battle is likely to unfold between a group of three five-star favourites: Beukes, Buys and Beers. When it comes to the winning know-how for the Momentum Health Attakwas Extreme presented by Biogen, Beukes holds the aces. He dipped below the five-hour mark in both his 2018 and 2019 winning rides, and if pushed hard enough by his rivals in 2020 he, or the eventual winner, could well break Urs Huber's four-year-old course record.
In Buys, Beukes has a partner for much of the race. The pair both ride for the Pyga Euro Steel team and should work together to minimise the risk posed by NAD Pro MTB's Beers. Beers for his part will find support from teammates Bell and Botha.
Should it come down to a sprint, team tactics will be vital; but it is unlikely that the rolling roads towards the finish line will allow a group to reach the Pine Creek Resort, in Great Brak River, together.
Though that is exactly what happened in the 2019 elite women's race when Yolande de Villiers held off Samantha Sanders and Jennie Stenerhag to win the title. This year an injury enforces the absence of South African national marathon champion Sanders, and De Villiers' ongoing rehabilitation from a broken leg means that De Groot is the clear favourite.
It would be unwise though to write De Villiers off completely. The woman from Oudtshoorn knows the route like the back of her hand and could spring a surprise on the more highly fancied riders in the field. 2019 third place finisher, Stenerhag, remains a constant threat in the race too, as do Sarah Hill, Theresa Ralph, Amy McDougall and Sabine Spitz.
The unknown quantity in the elite women's field is the Hungarian debutante, Barbara Benko. She has spent ample time racing and training in South Africa in recent years, so the conditions should not be too alien to her.
The Ghost Factory Racing star is arguably the only elite rider, in the men's or women's field, with serious Olympic aspirations for later in 2020. So, it will be interesting to see if she is prepared to empty herself in pursuit of victory on Saturday with such a long season still ahead.
Mountain biking fans can follow the action live with pre-race interviews from the Queens Hotel in Oudtshoorn, from 15:00 on Friday 17 January.
The racing gets underway at 06:30, from the Chandelier Game Lodge on Saturday the 18th. Live updates and interviews will be posted to the race's official Twitter handle, @attakwas, throughout.
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