Swiss stars, Mathias Fluckiger and Esther Suss confirmed their good early-season form when they won the men and women’s titles respectively at the opening round of the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series held at Meerendal, outside Cape Town, South Africa at the weekend.
Fluckiger, who races for the Stockli team, was in no mood to be patient and along with compatriot, Konny Looser (IXS Wheeler), went on the attack on the first major climb early in the race. Looser fell victim to a mechanical though, which initially eliminated him from the action and eventually the race.
But Fluckiger’s aggression was contagious and no sooner had Looser fallen out of the podium hunt than another Swiss racer, Nicola Rohrbach (Goldwurst Power/Felt), recent bronze medallist at the Swiss Cyclo-cross championships, was helping Fluckiger keep the pressure high. They were joined upfront by Germany’s Simon Stiebjahn (Team Bulls) and the trio managed to open an early gap on the splintering field.
South African Gert Heyns (SCOTT LCB Factory Racing) used his descending skills to close down and join the leaders. Making a big effort to also bridge the gap was Waylon Woolcock (USN Purefit) and the Team NAD duo of Nico Bell and South African marathon champion, Gawie Combrinck. Not far behind them were Darren Lill (USN Purefit) and HB Kruger (Team Telkom).
But Fluckiger was in no mood for consolidation and as soon as the group reached the next steep climb, he attacked. Rohrbach responded and Stiebjahn tried too, but the pace was relentless and the pitched gradients, loose surfaces and challenging sections of singletrack suited the two Swiss racers, both of whom are XCO specialists. They surged ahead to secure the first two podium spots.
Fluckiger, currently ranked 11th on the UCI World Rankings, clocked a winning time of 4h22m31s, while Rohrbach rolled home in 4h25m36s with a flat tyre. Bell finished strongly to force Stiebjahn into a sprint for the bronze medal spot, the German just nailing it, with Heyns rounding out the top five.
“It was really tough but I’m super happy with the win. Having events like these to prepare with is great, you never get to push quite that hard in training. It was perfect conditions for training and conditioning in an Olympic year," said a delighted Fluckiger.
“Lukas (Fluckiger) and I are here in Stellenbosch for a training camp and we decided at the last minute to come do this event. It is great to race in these conditions to acclimatise before the Cape Epic,” said Rohrbach.
In the women’s race, over the shorter 70km distance, there were two sprint finishes, the first between Suss and Jennie Stenerhag (Ascendis Health) for the gold and the second between Ariane Kleinhans (Team Spur) and Robyn de Groot (Asendis Health) for the bronze.
It was the second year in succession that Suss, the current Swiss marathon champion, has won the Meerendal round of the Ashburton Investments National Series and she dedicated the win to Herman Coertse, the owner of Meerendal and one of her sponsors.
The performance by Stenerhag, the Swedish marathon champion, was impressive, forcing Suss, the 2010 marathon world champion, into a race-long fight for the win and confirming her good early-season form.
Kleinhans, runner up at Meerendal in 2015, edged ahead of De Groot to secure the bronze medal, with Namibian ace, Vera Adrian (Time Freight) rounding out the top five.
“It’s a perfect day here and the route at Meerendal is ideal for Cape Epic preparation. It’s always exciting to have so many big names in the sport competing at our events and we’re looking forward to having another loaded field of top international racers at the second round of the series in Sabie in a few weeks,” said Fritz Pienaar of Advendurance, the company that organises the Ashburton Investments National MTB Series.
Elite men – 101km Ultra-marathon:
Mathias Fluckiger (SUI) Stockli 4h22m31s
Nicola Rohrbach (SUI) Goldwurst Power/Felt 4h25m36s
Simon Stiebjahn (GER) Team Bulls
Nico Bell (RSA) Team NAD
Gert Heyns (RSA) SCOTT LCB Factory Racing
Darren Lill (RSA) USN Purefit
Waylon Woolcock (RSA) USN Purefit
HB Kruger (RSA) Team Telkom
Erik Kleinhans (RSA) Topeak Ergon
Andrew Hill (RSA) TIB
Elite women – 70km marathon:
Esther Suss (SUI) Wheeler IXS 3h12m46s
Jennie Stenerhag (SWE) Ascendis Health 3h13m26s
Ariane Kleinhans (SUI) Team Spur
Robyn de Groot (RSA) Ascendis Health
Vera Adrian (NAM) Time Freight