BY Sean Badenhorst

The 2007 Mazda Mountain Bike Series could reach a crucial stage with the eighth event at Haenertsburg in the Limpopo province on Sunday as Melt Swanepoel and Yolande de Villiers make their big surges for maximum points and a significant rankings boost.

Melt is the "Man to Beat"

With some of the country’s top riders competing in the UCI world cross-country championships in Scotland this weekend, including the current Mazda Series leaders, Kevin Evans (men) and Tania Raats (women), Swanepoel (Raleigh MTN Energade) and De Villiers (Mazda Merida) will be eager to make the most of the points on offer as the 10-race Series moves into its final stages.

The 81km race route has to be given utmost respect. The fantastic scenery unwittingly obscures the brutal nature of the race, which incorporates a combination of forestry roads and singletrack with a total of 1385 metres of climbing. The riders tackle a virtually uninterrupted 20km ascent from 32km up the Wolkberg until the summit at Iron Crown Peak, which is just under 2000m above sea level. Tired legs will however be rewarded with a fast descent to Ebeneezer Dam over the next 9km.

Back in the saddle and the Climbers Jersey

De Villiers, won this race last year as well as the overall Series title, and in the absence of current Series leader Raats (Maverick Momentum), SA marathon champion Yolande Speedy (IMC Mongoose) and SA cross-country champion, Amy Jane Mundy (Jeep Specialized), is the clear favourite to claim victory on Saturday. A win would net her 4000 points which would see her move up to second in the rankings with two more races remaining.

De Villiers, who with partner, Anke Moore, won the women’s title at the Absa Cape Epic in April, was hampered by a fractured elbow for much of the winter and is starting to return to peak form again, as was seen by her dominant victory at the Koranna Classic, the seventh leg of the Mazda Series, held in the Free State two weeks ago.

Other podium contenders in the women’s race include Adele Drake, Ellane van Wyk, Petruschka Constancon and Carla Rowley (Raleigh MTN Energade).

Last year’s men’s race winner, Mannie Heymans (Raleigh MTN Energade) will not defend his title as he is representing Namibia at the world championships this weekend. In fact, the winners of all seven previous 2007 Mazda Series events – Kevin Evans (Raleigh MTN Energade) and the Mr Price GT pair of Burry Stander and Marc Bassingthwaighte – will also be absent due to national team call-up duty.

Swanepoel’s biggest rival on Saturday could be his own Raleigh MTN Energade teammate, Brandon Stewart, who was runner up – in a sprint finish with Bassingthwaighte – two weeks ago at the tough Koranna Classic. Other leading riders likely to be challenging for the victory are Max Knox (Adidas William Simpson Trek) and Jaco Venter (Neotel).

“The climbs are quite steady and long and at 81km, the race duration is a bit longer, both of which will hopefully suit my strengths,” said Swanepoel. “It’s a pity some of the top guys are away as it takes away some edge from the racing, but it’s still going to be a hard race though.”

A win on Saturday wouldn’t be quite enough to give Swanepoel the Series lead, but it will certainly see him close the gap on Evans with only two races remaining. The final Series rankings are calculated on each rider’s best six results from the 10 events.

Like he did at the Koranna Classic, Swanepoel will wear the orange Mazda Series leader’s jersey in the absence of Evans; and Stewart will don the Velotex King of the Mountains jersey. In the women’s race, Rowley will deputise in the pink Series leader’s jersey while De Villiers retains the polka dot Queen of the Mountains jersey.

There is also a 47km race, which doubles as the ninth leg of the Fritz Pienaar Cycles National Half-marathon Series, as well as a 15km fun ride. Pre-entries have closed, but late entries will be taken at Stanford Lake College at Haenertsburg on Friday from 16h00-22h00 and prior to the start on Saturday from 05h00-07h00. Racing starts at 08h00 and the Series number board timing system will be used.