Defending champion Chris Wolhuter and new teammate Craig Boyes made an early break to race to a comfortable victory on the opening stage of the Liberty Winelands MTB Encounter on Friday.
Despite the relatively short ride of 54km between Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch and Le Franschhoek Hotel on the outskirts of Franschhoek, Wolhuter said there was plenty of climbing and it had not been an easy day in the saddle.
The 27-year-old Imbuko-Freewheel Cycology pro, who won alongside Jarred Haley last year, said he received excellent support from Boyes as they romped home in 2:26:34.
The Altech-AutoPage pairing of Colin Noel and Hanco Kachelhoffer followed them home in 2:36:39 with the Momsen duo of Dylan Rebello and CP van Wyk completing the podium in 2:41:38.
“You almost tend to underestimate the leg but it is certainly a tough day, with single-track, steep climbs and some places similar to hiking trails,” said Wolhuter, who now lives in Cape Town after growing up in Pietermaritzburg.
He said they managed to slip the field on the first proper climb out of Coetzenburg.
“After splitting the group we had a short mechanical stop, but were able to maintain the lead.
“There was a stage with about 10 to 15km to go where we saw Dylan and CP about 45 seconds behind us and we really had to put the hammer down.”
He said they had a “minor crash” after the final waterpoint, but were able to maintain their advantage due to a similar mishap by their pursuers, which saw Van Wyk quite badly scuffed up.
“In the end, we were able to build a seven to eight-minute buffer.”
Even though they dominated the opening day, Wolhuter said it was important to stay focused on Saturday’s leg.
“With that lead, we are in the perfect position, but we also need to be careful.’’
He said the second stage was similar to last year’s route and described it as quite fast at the start and fairly tough at the end.
“We will be a bit conservative but also know we need to take our chances when they are there.”
Reflecting on the day, Wolhuter said they were totally satisfied with their efforts.
“With our sponsors, crew and family and friends all here to support us, it’s always fantastic to be in front.”
Team Spur’s Stephan Senekal and Ariane Kleinhans won the mixed section in 2:50:34.
Stage two will take riders from Le Franschhoek to Kleine Valleij, a distance of 57km with 1 300m of vertical ascent.