Words by Tim Whitfeild
Andrew Hill and Henry Liebenberg completed their hat trick of wins on Sunday at The Midlands MTB Stage Race to comprehensively wrap up the overall title in the inaugural race in and around Howick.
After building a big win on the opening two stages on Friday and Saturday, the vastly experienced Hill and his young 19-year-old partner set a steady pace through the Karkloof Forests on Sunday to win the final stage and complete a near perfect race for the TIB Insurance team.
“That was a good three days of riding and a good last day,” said Hill after claiming the inaugural win. “We didn’t have any mishaps at all on the final stage.
“We were feeling the three days because we rode hard on all the stages. It worked well with Henry, I would chase him through the technical stuff when he went to the front, and then I would take the lead on most of the climbs and district road sections. We worked well as a team.
“Once again the route was great on Sunday. The weather was cold at the start and we went hard up the early climbs and then just kept it steady for the rest of the day. I really enjoyed the stage today. There were lots of old favourite routes of mine that I had not ridden for a long time and they had cleaned them up nicely.
“It is nice to be the first winner of an event that has been so well organised. Everything was so slick and well organised . . . I could not fault anything.”
A stage race opening up new opportunities
Andrew Hill, the winner of this weekend’s Midlands MTB Stage Race is one of KZN’s most respected mountain bikers, so when this experienced statesman of the sport enthuses about the organisation of an event it is worth noting.
After notching up three wins from three stages with his young teenage partner Henry Liebenberg over the weekend, Hill was not short of praise for the organisation of the first-time race.
“I could not fault anything on the organisation,” said Hill after crossing the line with Liebenberg to notch up an overall victory of almost 30 minutes over second placed overall and first solo rider Jordan Wisdom.
“The route was really well prepared which is obviously important for us riders and they had done so much to make sure the trails were perfect. You could nto fault the marking and even all the leaves and pine needles had been swept off the track to make sure the route was perfectly prepared. The riding was about as good as it could get.”
With the mountain biking scene becoming crowded with stage races, race organisers are being forced to up their game to stay competitive and riders are no longer content simply to arrive at a venue and ride overused trails for the day.
Race organiser Johnny St Clair Gibson has come from a background of organising professional golf tournaments and brought his experience of dealing with pampered professional golfers and attention to detail to “the new golf”, something that was not missed by the riders.
Hill was not the only rider to enthuse about the organisation with Natalie Bergstrom, the first solo woman home, filling her Instagram with enthusiastic posts throughout the weekend: After the first stage she posted a picture of chocolate cake and strawberries which riders enjoyed for lunch after their ride; and followed that up with ” … again we were treated like royalty with a scrumptious lunch,” after the second stage; and wrapped it up with an enthusiastic ” … 3 days of awesome new riding routes, top class food for kings and queens, great goodie bag and happiness all round …”
If there was anything negative about the event it was the relatively small field of riders, but it seems likely that once the word gets out about the slick organisation and great route there will be a flood of entries for the 2019 event – and St Clair Gibson is going to struggle to top that chocolate cake and strawberries!