By Bardy the Action Scribe

South African marathon mountain bike champion Kevin Evans (MTN Energade) returns to the Barberton Challenge on Saturday with an interesting weight dilemma. On one hand he’s trimmed his body mass down by more than 3kg compared to this time last year, but on the other hand he has the pressure of being defending champion and firm favourite weighing on his (slimmer) shoulders.

Evans will head up a star-studded field for the popular event, which doubles as the first leg of the 2008 Mazda MTN Series, the most prestigious mountain bike series in the country. With the majority of the 75km race mostly on gravel roads it’s certainly more an endurance test than a skill test. But a monstrous 30km climb followed by a rapid 15km descent will provide the key challenges of the traditional marathon racing season-opener.

It is on the big ascent where Evans’ weight difference is likely to become most evident and even he’s curious to find out how much of a difference.

“I haven’t gone flat out on any climbs for weeks and I am hoping to feel a positive difference with my lighter weight this weekend,” said an upbeat Evans on Thursday, adding that he always heads to Barberton unsure of what to expect.

“I never come to this race with expectations to win. It’s so early in the season and nobody really wants to be flying yet. It’s a race where you get to gauge your own form and that of your rivals. I’m excited!”

Despite Evans’ improved physical conditioning, the Elite men’s category is by no means a one-horse race. Add in Commonwealth Games road race silver medalist, David George, former Absa Cape Epic winner, Mannie Heymans and current African Elite Men’s cross-country champion Melt Swanepoel (all MTN Energade); reigning Crater Cruise champion, John Paul Pearton, Absa Cape Epic stage winner, Brandon Stewart and Francois Theron (all USN); Namibian stars Arno Viljoen and Marc Bassingthwaighte (both Garmin Trek) and African Pro-Elite cross-country champion Burry Stander and Johan van Zyl (both Mr Price GT) and you have a veritable who’s who of African mountain biking in the mix for what promises to be a fast-paced bushveld thriller.

Yolande Speedy (IMC Racing), the reigning national marathon champion, will line up as favourite to capture the women’s title, but will be wary of Yolande de Villiers (Cycle Lab), who is back from an injury layoff and who showed, with her eighth place overall at the last weekend’s gruelling 135km Attakwas Marathon, that she is back to form too.

Neither completed Barberton last year as Speedy was out with a broken shoulder and De Villiers damaged her rear derailleur early on and was forced to retire, leaving an opportunity for Tania Raats (Maverick) to claim the victory.

Raats will be back in the small mining town to defend her title while others likely to be in the hunt for podium places are Amy Jane Mundy (Jeep), Carla Rowley (MTN Energade) and Ellane van Wyk (Fabrinox). Reigning SA road race champion, Ronel van Wyk (Cycle Lab) could also make an impression should she decide to compete.

The top riders will be racing for an increased prize purse in the 2008 Series. Last year, the winning male got R4000 per Mazda MTN Series event, but this year that has been upped to R6000 with payment down to eighth place.

While the marathon race offers the prestige, the half-marathon event, presented by Ferdevco, offers a shorter, more popular 40km event. The half-marathon distance attracts almost double the numbers of the longer events and has proved to be a perfect nursery for the country’s rising young talent, or just a manageable distance for those more interested in excitement than exhaustion…

Participants are to note that the 2008 Mazda MTN Series number boards will not be ready yet so 2007 Series boards will be used. Licensing is also now compulsory and various types of licence will be on sale at registration.