By Bardy the Action Scribe

The 2007 Mazda Mountain Bike Series will culminate this weekend when virtually all of South Africa’s top cyclists gather to compete at the Colorpress Crater Cruise in Parys, just south of Joburg.

Widely regarded as the annual battle between the road cyclists and the mountain bikers, the Crater Cruise offers little in the way of a technical challenge, but everything in the way of a physical challenge. It’s a 100km distance, predominantly over flat dirt roads, which means that it’s a fast-paced race that requires keen attentiveness, and superb fitness.

Melt Swanepoel (left) and Kevin Evans are lying second and first respectively in the 2007 Mazda Series. They’ll be among the favourites to win the Colorpress Crater Cruise, the final Series event, on Saturday.

Heading up the list of pre-race favourites is the in-form Melt Swanepoel, last year’s winner, who will be leading his strong Raleigh MTN Energade team in pursuit of valuable Series points and a decent chunk of the R250 000 on offer, the biggest prize purse in South African mountain biking.

Swanepoel won the last two events in the Mazda Series and appears to be finding peak form when it matters most. The 31-year-old from Heidelberg is currently holding second place in the Series rankings behind Kevin Evans, his teammate. Evans, the current South African champion, is aiming for a solid result on Saturday, which will help him secure the coveted Series title for a third successive year.

“I’m in good form, but it all depends on how I feel on the day as to how I do,” said Swanepoel. “The weather could play a role with rain and mud likely to suit us mountain bikers, but ultimately, it’s the guy with the strongest legs on the day that will win.”

Mark Bassingthwaighte will be looking for a third Mazda Series victory for the year at the Colorpress Crater Cruise on Saturday. He is also in the mix for the final Velotex King of the Mountains title.

With all four of its riders in the top five on the Mazda Series rankings, the Raleigh MTN Energade team has dominated the Series, with Evans winning three events and Swanepoel two. Providing strong backing for Evans and Swanepoel on Saturday will be Mannie Heymans, the 2004 Crater Cruise winner, and Brandon Stewart, a stage winner in the Cape Epic and the Transalp.

The GT Mr Price team has provided the victors at the other four events in the 2007 Series in Burry Stander and Marc Bassingthwaighte, who have each won two. Stander is the country’s leading cross-country racer, but has had a mixture of success in marathon events, while Bassingthwaighte has had one of his best years ever. Both will be in the podium hunt on Saturday along with teammates Arno Viljoen and Johan van Zyl.

Other big-name mountain bikers sure to be at the sharp end of the race are John-Paul Pearton (Mazda Merida), Francois Theron (Mazda Merida) and Shan Wilson (Adidas William Simpson Trek).

Heading up the enthusiastic road cyclist challenge is Commonwealth Games road race silver medallist, David George. The 31-year-old Capetonian has dabbled in mountain biking with some moderate success this year, but has yet to step onto an overall podium.

“I’m looking forward to the race. It’s my first Crater Cruise and it will be a fun way to end the season. I’ve been ill this past week, but hope to be feeling good on Saturday. R45000 is a lot of money for first place and I haven’t had a salary this year so I’m super motivated.”

George has been without a professional contract this year, but has still raced with distinction and his 39th place at the recent world road race championships, just 49 seconds behind the winner, is an indication of his superb form.

Other ‘roadies’ likely to be in with a shot at a podium place are Jock Green, Christoff van Heerden and Chris Froome (all Konica Minolta), Jaco Venter and Jacques Jansen van Rensburg (Neotel) and Andrew McLean (Cycle Lab Supercycling).

The final overall Velotex King of the Mountain title will also be decided on Saturday. Stander currently leads the competition with 12 points, just one ahead of Evans with Bassingthwaighte third on nine points. The Crater Cruise King of the Mountain prime will come at 36km on a 1.5km climb and offers the first three riders over 3, 2 and 1 point respectively, making this a year-long competition that has been hotly contested and a welcome addition to the country’s premier cycling series.