By Bardy the Action Scribe

The elements certainly made their presence felt at the fourth edition of the Sabie Experience mountain bike race, but it was the human spirit that once again triumphed at the annual four-day race, which took place in the Sabie region of Mpumalanga from 14-17 December.

Forest fires in July and August caused havoc with the race routes normally used for the popular event, so some significant adjustments were required to create four unique stages for 2007. And then heavy overnight rain on Day 2 resulted in the swelling of the Mac-Mac River to a level deemed to dangerous for riders to cross, resulting in the cancellation of Stage 3 after 36km of racing. But where the elements created challenges, the race organisers and riders refused to capitulate and the event went on as planned and was deemed a success.

More than 300 teams of two riders tackled the race, which in 2006, was rated as the country’s top mountain bike stage race by readers of Bicycling magazine. The dynamics of riding with a partner in a tough physical challenge have been known to bring out the worst in people. But generally, as this year’s Sabie Experience showed, it brings out the best in people…

Overall winners, Burry Stander and Marc Bassingthwaighte (Mr Price GT) brought their immense talent to the race and won the first and last stages. But it was their desire for success, despite having a comfortable lead that kept the racing standard high and gave Stage 2 its thrilling sprint finish, probably the most memorable stage finish ever at Mpumalanga’s leading mountain bike stage race.

Riding with the Mazda Merida pair of John Paul Pearton and Francois Theron in the final third of the 82km second stage, Stander and Bassingthwaighte could have just cruised home in second place on the stage and still maintained their lead of more than 10 minutes in the overall classification. But the Mr Price GT pair decided they wanted to win the stage. That fired up Pearton and Theron, who were desperately trying to salvage their tour after having had an awful first stage, resulting in a furious sprint for the line, which only just went the way of the tenacious Mazda Merida pair.

Stander and Bassingthwaighte also brought their best attitude to the final stage time trial, which sees teams set off at regular intervals over a 24km stage that’s short, but brutal as the riders give their all in a last effort to gain or hold onto their rankings. Stander and Bassingthwaighte won the last leg in a fast time of 52 minutes and 27 seconds, an effort that gave them an average speed of 27kph, an amazing feat considering there was 500 metres of vertical elevation in that short distance. The Mr Price GT pair led the Sabie Experience from start to finish with class and will no doubt tackle their respective Olympic Games qualification campaigns in 2008 with increased confidence.

Around 40 percent of the teams were in the Sub-Veteran men’s category, making it the largest and subsequently, most competitive category in the race. Johan and David Labuschagne (Cycle Lab Brothers) won the first stage to take the early lead, but it was the Garmin DCM pair of Renato Albrecht and Shaun Mackenzie that showed consistency when it counted to claim the second and third stages, the category win and a superb fourth place in the overall standings.

In the Veteran, Masters and Mixed categories, three classy teams stamped their authority on the race by winning all three stages. Andrew McLean and Michael Cheesman (Cycle Lab Supercycling 1) claimed the Veteran title by more than 30 minutes. Interestingly, Cheesman is a former three-time winner of the Berg River Canoe Marathon. Stage-racing talent is clearly in his DNA.

In the Mixed category, 2007 Absa Cape Epic champions, Paul Cordes and Yolande Speedy (IMC Mongoose) comfortably retained their title, while Ben Cronje and Cobus Slabbert (Comeback) were by the strongest pair in the Master’s division.

In the Open women’s race, a two-team battle between Tania Raats and Natalie Unstead (Maverick Chicks) and Amy Jane Mundy and Sarah Muhl (Jeep Girls) looked on the cards after a close finish on Stage 1. But that prospect sadly faded when the former suffered a big time loss through a puncture on Stage 2. Mundy and Muhl went on to claim the title, but it was the increasing depth of the women’s category that was most encouraging this year.

As always, it was the podium finishers that gained the most attention at the 2007 Sabie Experience. But their showing of the human spirit was only a fraction of what was on display on the steep, forested slopes surrounding Sabie as almost 600 riders completed the tough physical test. Stander and Bassingthwaighte clocked a winning time of 07 hours, 59 minutes and 58 seconds. Spare a thought for the spirit that must have prevailed in Team 2 Choices. The Sub-veteran pair of Wouter Pentz and Allan Smith completed their Sabie Experience in 18 hours and 5 minutes…

Sabie Experience 2007
Final leading standings
1 Mr Price GT – Burry Stander / Marc Bassingthwaighte 07:59:58
2 Jeep – Peter Smith / Craig Paul 08:17:17
3 Mazda Merida – John Paul Pearton / Francois Theron 08:17:34
4 Garmin DCM – Renato Albrecht / Shaun Mackenzie 08:26:23
5 Cycle Lab Brothers – Johan Labuschagne / David Labuschagne 08:32:07

1 Mr Price GT – Burry Stander / Marc Bassingthwaighte 07:59:58
2 Jeep – Peter Smith / Craig Paul 08:17:17
3 Mazda Merida – John Paul Pearton / Francois Theron 08:17:34
4 Fullimput II – David Lehman / Roan Exelby 08:32:09
5 Bell Cycles – Brett Dickson / Nico Bell 08:56:01

1 Garmin DCM – Renato Albrecht / Shaun Mackenzie 08:26:23
2 Cycle Lab Brothers – Johan Labuschagne / David Labuschagne 08:32:07
3 Cycle 4 Kids – Alex Otto / Arno Daehnke 08:15:57

1 Cycle Lab Supercycling 1 – Andrew McLean / Michael Cheesman 09:10:27
2 Beats Work – George Oertel / Ian Martin 09:43:49
3 Black Hawk – Glenn Williams / Andrew Currie 09:20:06

1 Comeback – Ben Cronje / Cobus Slabbert 11:02:03
2 Subaru Gaberone – Seamus O’Neill / Steve Moss 12:09:59
2 BeeGees – Brendon Cairns / Gerhard Degener 12:41:24

1 Jeep Girls – Amy Jane Mundy / Sara Muhl 10:15:05
2 Maverick Chicks – Tania Raats / Natalie Unstead 10:31:39
3 Endless Horizons – Sarah van Heerden / Robyn Adendorff 10:43:21

1 IMC Racing – Paul Cordes / Yolande Speedy 09:10:32
2 Nipple en Spoke – Sanet Smal / Dana Coetzee 10:06:24
3 Mongoose Red – Rourke Crouser / Caitlin de Wet 10:21:48