A sense of normalcy returns to mass-participation sport this weekend when mountain bikers and trail runners get to compete in their first major event of the year. The two-day Illovo Eston Trail Challenge takes place on Saturday and Sunday, while the start of the Sappi Karkloof Classic Challenge provides a double delight for trail enthusiasts.
Both events are part of the lucrative Quattro ROAG Series powered by Momentum and the lure of the biggest prizefund for any trail series in the country adds an extra incentive for the top competitors to emerge from lockdown and enjoy a hard weekend of racing.
Covid-19 regulations means the rescheduled Eston event has limited participation to less than half their normal competitors and just 1 000 entries have been accepted. The fact mountain bikers and trail runners are able to physically compete against their rivals for the first time in a major event in 2020 meant the event was sold out early this week. Elite riders race on Sunday and no on-day entries will be accepted throughout the weekend.
The Karkloof event also kicks off this weekend, but the organisers of that trail festival have opted for a semi-virtual "social-distancing friendly" format. This type of event allows competitors to race over pre-determined routes from Saturday until November 15th and then submit their GPS-verified times to a central leaderboard. Elite riders hoping for overall prizes are limited to two days - this Saturday and November 14th - while age-group competitors can submit times from any day within the 23-day race window.
The two events are traditionally the biggest single-day mountain bike events of the year in KZN, and the fact both are actually taking place and starting over one weekend offers hope of some exciting racing for competitive mountain bikers and trail runners.
With no side-by-side racing over the past seven months, the Eston event could be a fascinating insight into the fitness levels of the top riders and runners. A slew of recent semi-virtual events has given some clues into the form of top competitors, but that time-trial type of format is very different to the elbow-bashing nature of physical racing.
Stuart Marais (NanoTime) went into lockdown as the in-form rider with two wins from the opening two events of the Quattro ROAG Series powered by Momentum. Over the past month the series has put on three semi-virtual events as a social-distancing method to ease riders back into competition and in these events Marais has proved he is still the rider to beat.
Initially the GPS-style of racing did not suit Marais, but after a tricky start he worked out the intricacies of GPS navigation and at the conclusion of the Husqvarna and Giba Gorge Classic this week, Marais had another two wins. He added a second place behind Tyronne White (DriveTrain Academy) at the Holla Trails Classic and goes into this weekend's races as the firm favourite.
White has also shown some good pace and the defending series champion is sure to be in contention, while the ever-present Andrew Hill (TIB Insurance) can never be counted out.
A welcome side-effect of the recent semi-virtual racing has been the emergence of some exciting new talent. Youngsters Brendan van Eeden (Absolute Motion) and junior Michael Foster both surprised some of the old hands in the recent semi-virtual events and will be looking to cause an upset in the men's MTB races.
In the absence of rivals Tiffany Keep and Frances Janse van Rensburg, Christie Hearder (Absolute Motion) should be too strong for any of her rivals at Eston, and there the series leader should extend her lead in the Quattro ROAG Series powered by Momentum.
In the trail running, Sarah Gray (Bell Equipment) notched up three wins in the three semi-virtual events and it is hard to see her being beaten at Eston which will confirm the overall series title for the defending champion.
The men's trail run is wide open with series leader Carel le Roux well on his way to the overall title, but the likes of Linda Zondi, Nkosingiphile Ntshalinyshali, Wiseman Vezi and Nic Fowler will make a race win tough for the veteran runner.
Recent Quattro ROAG Series powered by Momentum results:
Husqvarna Classic @ Virginia Trails
Men: 1 Stuart Marais 1:23:31; =2 Brendan Van Eeden 1:26:55; =2 Andrew Hill 1:26:55.
Women: 1 Christie-Leigh Hearder 2:01:02; 2 Sanchia Malan 2:07:14; 3 Nadine Nunes 2:07:50.
16km Trail Run
Men: 1 Carel Le Roux 1:18:37; 2 Brett Gray 1:45:00.
Women: 1 Sarah Gray 1:22:44; 2 Hayley Mackinnon 1:37:39; 3 Alison Wasserfall 1:46:50.
Holla Trails Classic @ Holla Trails
Men: 1 Tyronne White 1:27:32; 2 Stuart Marais 1:28:00; 3 Brendan van Eeden 1:32:21.
Women: 1 Rouxda Grobler 1:48:51; 2 Sanchia Malan 2:06:03; 3 Riley Smith 2:06:26.
18km Trail Run
Men: 1 Carel Le Roux 1:28:50; 2 Alexandros Margaritis 3:36:02.
Women: 1 Sarah Gray 1:41:18; 2 Kirsty Scott 1:41:52; 3 Hayley Mackinnon 1:51:54.
Giba Gorge Classic @ Giba Gorge
Men: 1 Stuart Marais 1:40:31; 2 Tyronne White 1:43:24; 3 Andrew Hill 1:44:39.
Women: 1 Frances Janse Van Rensburg 2:11:20; 2 Christie Hearder 2:19:10; 3 Nadine Nunes 2:30:50.
10km Trail Run
Women: 1 Sarah Gray 56:34; 2 Kirsty Scott 58:25; 3 Hayley Mackinnon 59:26.
More information on all these events is available at www.roagseries.co.za or roag.org