The inaugural Ride Crater Cruise at Parys over the weekend was not only a total triumph for the innovative organising team, but also a magnificent victory parade for the ultimate winner, Mr African , Mannie Heymans and the equally impressive leading lady of SA cycling, Anke Erlank.
Erlank finished a near-unbelievable seventh overall among the men.
Over 2 500 riders faced the starter on a hot morning which would later produce some red hot racing, matching the 40 degree plus temperatures at parts of the fast but tough course.
While the bulk of the field comprised mountain-bikers en masse, the presence of the entire HSBC professional road team also indicated the wide spread interest in the event (and its R 100 000 prize fund) by the entire SA cycling community.
After an initial taste of tarmac, the big field got down to serious business on the iron-hard dirt roads inside Africas largest comet crater.
The HSBC team relied on their well-proven road tactics, attacking and counter-attacking constantly, but never able to drop the top mountain-bikers and at the end of the first 15km Mannie Heymans was on the front, clearly relishing the bone-shaking lead out he was giving the roadies.
Others prominent in the leading bunch were SA road team captain, Nicholas White (and his team mates), the on-form Adrian Ilsley (complete with fractured right wrist!) and the awe-inspiring Anke (Microsoft) who had moved up to ninth at the 20km mark.
The pace, which was already very fast, went up still further after the leading bunch had crested the aptly named climb at Suikerbossie and swooped down to some fast and level dirt next to a soon to be finished section of tarmac.
In the press vehicle we timed the leading bunch at over 60km/h (on dirt!) and, obviously, at this rate the bunch soon split into three groups.
The HSBC riders took turns to put the pressure on Heymans. First Nicolas White, then Jeff Howes and also Darren Lill (Barloworld) were all prominent, but to little avail as the field hit the first technical section and disappeared from view for a short while .
This gave Mr African the opportunity to showcase his formidable talents and he made the break all the others had been expecting, but didnt know how to combat!
As the field re-emerged on to the dirt road it was clear that Mr African had already made the successful break and his margin over the bunch grew rapidly from just over a minute to 2:27 as the race entered the second half. Among those unfortunates who punctured in the early stages of the race, was the in-form Richard Beswick, who seems to be making flat wheels his trade-mark in 2004, maybe thicker tubes would help give him the final results his form certainly merits.
While the leading bunch fought in vain to get back on terms with the flying Mr African, they also had to win their own ferocious battle for the top ten places, as well try to get ride of the lone lady among them, Anke Erlank.
However, she had her sights set on not only the womens winning prize money, but also a well paid place overall, and the former world x-terra champion wasnt giving away an inch to her male rivals.
The final technical section of the route sealed it for Mr African, who crossed the finish line in 2:56:35, some three and a half minutes clear of a strong ride by Ben Melt Swanepoel and a great third place by the experienced Johan Labuschagne, both of whom had overtaken a tiring Jeff Howes in the final five kays.
Another roadie, the several times retired, Jac-Louis van Wyk grabbed a superb fifth place from Nic White, who only just came home ahead of the amazing Anke Erlank, the eighth placed Gerrie Beukes (on a single speed, nogal!) and the brave one arm bandit Adrian Ilsley in the ninth.
Among the women, the tough Hanele Steyn-Kotze finished a gritty second ahead of the powerful Swiss based, Dianne Emery, with Sharon Laws in fourth ahead of Yolanda Speedy.
All in all, it was a brilliant inaugural event featuring some of the best riders on or off road in South Africa, and it will now surely become one of the greatest annual events on the SA cycling calendar.