It will take more than a broken thumb to keep Mannie Heymans from defending his title at the African Mountain Bike championships in Windhoek on Saturday.

The 36-year-old Namibian damaged his left thumb badly while racing in Europe recently and for a while was unable to grip his handlebar properly. But the tough Raleigh MTN Energade team rider gritted his way to victory at the Namibian championships on the exact same course last weekend and is philosophical about his chances of defending the title he’s held for eight years.

Three-time champion, Mannie Heymans, will, despite a broken thumb, be defending his title at the 2007 African Mountain Bike Championships in Windhoek, Namibia this weekend.

“It’s only my thumb, my legs are fine,” he joked on Thursday. “It hurts but mostly before and after a race. During a race I don’t seem to notice the pain much, although it is a bit tricky shifting gears and downhills are more difficult. I’ll just focus on the race and hope the thumb holds out okay.”

Heymans is one of the world’s most respected mountain bike racers and has won virtually every major race in Africa. He won the Absa Cape Epic once and the Transalps twice. In fact, since it was first introduced in 1999, Heymans has won all three editions of the African championships, retaining the title in 2001 and 2003. The continental showpiece is held only every two years, but didn’t take place in 2005, giving Heymans a two-year extension on his reign as champion.

“It’s going to be a hard title to defend this time,” said Heymans, whose nickname is appropriately, ‘Mr African’. “All the top South Africans are here as well as riders from other African countries like Zimbabwe and Rwanda. But my racing in Europe seems to have sharpened my form and I’m hoping to be at my peak this weekend. Winning the African title in my home country would be special.”

Heading the challenge to topple Heymans is South African Pro-Elite cross-country champion Burry Stander (Mr Price GT), who has been unbeaten on African soil this year in the cross-country discipline. Stander, who is only 19 years old, has been showing impressive form at this year’s World Cup races, making him the odds-on pre-race favourite.

Stander will be backed up by his teammate, Marc Bassingthwaighte, who won the African Under-23 title in 2003, and who will be motivated to sparkle on Saturday, as he’ll be racing his home country. Arno Viljoen, the other Namibian on the Mr Price GT squad has been forced out of the race due to a broken arm.

Supporting Heymans in his quest for success will be two of his Raleigh MTN Energade teammates, Kevin Evans and Melt Swanepoel. Evans showed superb form of late, winning the South African marathon championships in June, the Knysna Festival race in July and a stage in the Transalp in Europe last week, an event in which he and teammate Brandon Stewart finished an impressive fourth overall.

But cross-country and marathon racing ask different questions of the riders and Evans will need make sure he’s got the right answer sheet on Saturday if he is to triumph in what is expected to be a fast, very intense six-lap battle.

The surface of the course is mainly loose gravel and riders will cross a railway track three times per lap, as well as negotiate a 100-metre section of rock along a dry riverbed. According to Heymans, the course is very demanding, giving the riders no real chance to recover.

“You can ride everything, but it’s all a challenge,” he explained. “It’s also at 1700 metres above sea level so riders from the coast will suffer. And it’s very dry and dusty too, which adds to the discomfort.”

Completing the South African challenge for medals will be the Mazda Merida trio led by John Paul Pearton, an accomplished allrounder that’s focused more on the cross-country discipline this year. He’ll be backed up by Francois Theron and Justice Makhale.

In the women’s race over four laps, South Africa goes in with a chance of dominating the podium. South African cross-country champion Amy Jane Mundy (Jeep Specialized) leads a strong contingent that includes South African marathon champion Yolande Speedy (IMC Mongoose), Mazda Series leader Tania Raats (Momentum Maverick) and Sara Muhl (Jeep). Their main competition will come from the host country, which is represented by Heletjé van Staden and Carmen Bassingthwaighte.

The Junior men and women’s events will be held on Friday, with the Youth, Sub-Veteran, Veteran, Master and Pro-Elite men and women competing on Saturday.