By Sean Badenhorst

South Africans Burry Stander and Yolande Speedy overcame strong opposition and a brutal course to become the new men’s and women’s Pro–Elite African mountain bike champions respectively at the weekend.

Both Stander (Mr Price GT) and Speedy (IMC Mongoose) have been the top-performing South Africans on the prestigious UCI World Cup circuit this year and were justly rewarded with African champion status after some fierce cross-country lap racing in Windhoek, Namibia.

Stander was in a class of his own as he tore the high quality Pro-Elite men’s field apart right from the start. His choice to race a dual-suspension bike paid off handsomely on the rocky course, which really battered the majority of riders who’d chosen the lighter, but less forgiving hardtail bikes.

The 19-year-old South African Pro-Elite champion also secured the African Under-23 title as he recorded a dominant win over South Africa’s Melt Swanepoel (Raleigh MTN Energade), who rode a well-paced race to finish second overall and claim the African Elite Men’s title.

Third place went to defending champion, Namibia’s Mannie Heymans (Raleigh MTN Energade), who, racing with a broken thumb, was cheered on by spirited hometown support in his effort to extend his eight-year reign as African champion.

But despite holding second place behind Stander for most of the race, it wasn’t to be for 36-year-old Heymans as he was forced to make way for a new generation of champions. Fourth place went to John Paul Pearton (Mazda Merida) with fellow South African, Kevin Evans (Raleigh MTN Energade) rounding out of the top five.

“It was a very tough course and the dry, thin air made racing really uncomfortable,” exclaimed a shattered Evans afterwards.

For Swanepoel, the Elite title was more of a consolation than anything else.

“Getting the Elite title was a bit of a bonus I suppose, but Burry still won overall,” said Swanepoel. “Burry is in a class of his own when it comes to cross-country (lap) racing. Most of us focus on marathon racing, which has a higher profile in South Africa, so I would have been surprised if anyone had been able to beat Burry.”

Swanepoel won the South African Elite cross-country title in 2005 and was runner up to teammate Evans at this year’s national marathon championships.

In the women’s race, Speedy was able to move up a level against her local rivals, displacing reigning South African cross-country champion, Amy Jane Mundy (Jeep Specialized), to claim the prestigious continental title.

Mundy has been virtually unbeaten locally although Speedy’s improvement with higher finishes than Mundy in recent World Cup events should have been a strong indicator of her potential at the African championships. Mundy went on to claim the runner-up place.

Speedy is a former South African cross-country champion and recently won the national marathon title for the first time.

The performances of the South Africans, with the top two positions in both the men’s and women’s events, bodes well for the country’s efforts to secure a higher number of starting places at next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing.