Defending champions Stellenbosch underlined their status as the team to beat when they led the field home on a blustery opening day of the Varsity MTB Challenge near Paarl today.

Five of the top student teams in the country took to the starting line in squads of three, with the format of the competition dictating that the clock be stopped on the second rider of each team to finish.

Despite their teammate Jacques Lloyd crashing at a crucial time and losing contact, Tristan de Lange and Rinus Maarsingh overcame technical issues of their own to cross the line first in 2:08:17.

They were followed home by University of Cape Town, who registered a time of 2:09:31, with the University of Pretoria completing the podium in 2:13:01.

De Lange said they were delighted with their performance on the hilly 50km route that started at Nederburg and finished at the same venue after taking the field through the Drakenstein mountains.

"The course was rough and loose in places and the wind hectic, especially at the top of Du Toitskloof Pass. On top of that, the downhills were technically challenging," he said.

"There were a number of tricky, sharp turns and, in the conditions, you had to keep your wits about you. Even when we hit the relatively easier gravel road sections, the wind hurt you so we were kept on our limit."

The 20-year-old Matie said the leading teams tested each other on the 15km ascent that came early on, but were fairly evenly matched.

"About three-quarters of the way up, Rinus and I made a break and we held it to the top," said De Lange.

"But the other teams, as well as Jacques, were not far behind and then unfortunately Rinus's wheel slipped out on one of the sharp turns and he had quite a hard tumble.

"We had to straighten out his saddle and he had an issue with a shoe, which allowed the group to catch up with us."

With Lloyd also back in the fold, De Lange said they then worked with UCT's Alex Rohrer and Martin Freyer to maintain a constant speed until the 40km mark.

"We then turned up the pace on one of the single-track uphills and dropped one of the UCT riders. Unfortunately, Jacques went down at that point and did not make it back across to us.

"From there we held it all the way to the finish. The remaining UCT rider dropped back to help his teammate and Rinus and I worked well together and had a brilliant ride."

De Lange, stressing the fact that their strategy was to stay together for as long as possible, said they were confident ahead of tomorrow's final stage and would assess the race situation once the stage got under way.

"These races can be unpredictable in terms of how you feel, so it's mainly a matter of working together and then deciding who is the strongest. From there, we make a call on the best strategy to follow for that stage."

The Stellenbosch women's team of Frances du Toit, Nicky Giliomee and Marie Kempf made it a double for Maties when they finished in 2:38:39, just over four minutes ahead of Tuks.

The team from Pretoria were second in 2:42:40, with North-West a distant third in 2:49:42.

While they controlled the First National Bank-sponsored race from the outset, Du Toit said there were some uncomfortable moments when the wind picked up on Du Toitskloof.

"I don't think I have ever experienced such wind on a bike," said the U23 national cross-country champion. "You would come around a corner and literally stop dead, so that made it quite tough.

"Nicky and I rode together and Marie was riding back-up. We managed to get a lead about 2km into the race, so we were by ourselves for the whole stage.

"We just rode within ourselves and although we did see the Tuks girls at about 30km, we were able to pick up the pace and it was comfortable until the end."

Tomorrow's stage will take place over 58km with 1 600m of climbing towards Wellington.

Provisional results

Stage one, 50km

Varsity MTB Challenge

Men

1 Stellenbosch University 2:08:17
2 University of Cape Town 2:09:31
3 University of Pretoria 2:13:01
4 North-West University 2:25:03
5 Nelson Mandela University 2:33:11

Women

1 Stellenbosch University 2:38:39
2 University of Pretoria 2:42:40
3 North-West University 2:49:42

General teams

Men

1 Michael Lambrecht, Wayde Finch (UCT) 2:16:33
2 Hanco Kachelhoffer, Armand Swanepoel (Ellsworth-ASG) 2:18:45
3 Matthew Wentworth, Paris Basson (This Way Out) 2:20:31

Women

1 Jeanie de Villiers, Marleen Lourens (Cannondale-Maties) 2:45:39

Mixed

1 Corne Louw, Sarita Louw 2:36:40
2 John O'Connor, Bianca Martinaglia 2:42:46
3 Juan Pearson, Anja van Zyl 2:50:57

Student teams

Men

1 Ian Lategan, Johan Stephan (Maties) 2:23:08
2 Willie and Matthew van der Linden (The Palms) 3:32:42

Women

1 Catherine Pellow-Jarman, Terri-Jo Leyland 3:12:25
2 Chelna Neethling, Louise Bordelon 3:41:39 

Caption: Tristan de Lange of Stellenbosch University sets the pace on the opening stage of the two-day Varsity MTB Challenge, which started and finished at the Nederburg wine farm near Paarl today. Photo: Rob Ward