By Bardy the Action Scribe

After being the dominant domestic team of 2007, MTN Microsoft heads into Sunday’s Pick ‘n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge in the rare position of the underdog.

Until mid-October, MTN Microsoft had racked up a remarkable record; having won more than 70 percent of races they’d entered. But late October and early November saw the resurgence of rival teams Neotel and Konica Minolta, who upstaged the boys in yellow and blue.

Winner of the inaugural race back in 1997, Nicholas White (furthest from camera), heads up a highly pedigreed MTN Microsoft outfit, which includes Waylon Woolcock (nearest camera), for Sunday’s Pick ‘n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge.

Nolan Hoffman (Neotel), Christoff van Heerden and Herman Fouche (both Konica Minolta) have been the dominant podium finishers in the past month and head into Sunday’s 94.7km race as the hot favourites to secure one of the most prestigious South African titles.

Hoffman took wins at the Telkom Satellite Classic and the Pick ‘n Pay OFM Classic, while Van Heerden secured the victory at the Pick ‘n Pay Amashovashova. Fouche has been in the top three at most recent races and a win is surely imminent.

But while it is a relatively short race, the Cycle Challenge isn’t a pure sprinter’s haven. Rolling hills throughout combined with the usual springtime crosswinds on the Krugersdorp Highway section in the second half, and possibly rain, make it a race that’s likely to suit the strong and the brave too. And the hilly approach to the finish as well as the uphill dash to the line means that timing and experience count for a lot.

MTN Microsoft bring three former winners to the start line on Sunday in an eight-rider squad that’s pining for top of the podium. Malcolm Lange (2000, 2001), Daniel Spence (2002) and Nicholas White (1997) have all tasted the sweet champagne reserved for the Cycle Challenge winner and are aware of what it takes to earn the right pop the coveted cork.

“It’s always a tough race because everyone wants to win it badly,” said White, the MTN Microsoft team captain, fresh from winning two gold medals at last weekend’s Continental Championships in Cameroon.

“It suits the hard men that can ride away from the others or a sprinter than can still find some speed at the end of a gruelling race. We have the depth in our team to win, but we’re not assuming anything and regard Neotel and Konica Minolta as the teams to beat,” added White.

But joining White, Spence and Lange are the in-form Waylon Woolcock, who just finished 12th overall at the tough Tour of Hainan in China and Daryl Impey, who will be racing his final race for team and who is being widely tipped as the team’s likely top man for Sunday. The long, slightly uphill finishing straight suits Impey’s power-sprinting style and he’s undoubtedly eager to end a string of frustrating defeats over the past few weeks.

The other riders making up the MTN Microsoft squad are Jamie Ball, who has also shown good sprint form of late with a few top-five placings, 2006 SA junior champion, Jonathan Kinnear and African Elite cross-country mountain bike champion, Melt Swanepoel, who replaces the injured Neil MacDonald.

Lange’s form is uncertain following his long layoff from racing due to injury, but the reigning South African champion is undoubtedly well rested and says he’s hungry for another win. But don’t underestimate White himself. Shrewd and in-form, the 33-year-old could well surprise like he did at the Vodacom Race for Victory in mid-October and claim a second Cycle Challenge win, 10 years after his last.

Yes, on Sunday MTN Microsoft are the underdog, but beware the bite of the hungry, highly pedigreed underdog.