Underberg – Brandon Downes and Joanna van de Winkel emerged as the champions in the 2023 Underberg Gran Fondo gravel cycle race on Sunday after they overcame a strong field, some mechanical issues and the icy conditions to win the men’s and women’s 140km races respectively.
Downes from Team TEG went one better than 2022, with the runner up from the inaugural Underberg Gran Fondo riding the 140km route 20 minutes quicker this year to claim a deceptively large five-minute win over veteran Alex Pavlov (Northcliff Cycles).
Downes and Pavlov took control just before the halfway mark of the race when early leader Jaco van Dyk suffered a mechanical while leading. Van Dyk eventually crossed the line fourth, just behind young Durban Varsity rider Brent Yelland with Downes’ teammate Alwyn Steenkamp rounding out the top five.
“It was a really tough day out there,” said Downes just after crossing the line. “We started on a climb and there was a strong headwind, and there were a lot of attacks early on, so the field got whittled down quite quickly. Then we also had a few technical issues today: I dropped a chain and my team mate unfortunately had an accident which put me on the back foot a bit.
“Alex and I got ahead going into Coleford, just after the big descent. There was Jaco van Dyk from the Honeycomb Team just ahead but we passed him on the side of the road – I think he suffered some mechanical but I am not too sure what it was.
“From there it was just about keeping it consistent and riding as steady as possible. I rode for a long time with Alex and we were working really well together. I am a slightly stronger climber than him and he is a bit heavier than me, so he was a helping on the downhills.
“And then at the last big climb I had slightly better legs than him and from there just kept it steady until the end.”
In the women’s race, Van de Winkel had to overcome a few challenges of her own to eventually claim victory, but the national team road rider is clearly enjoying adding some off-road racing to her repetoire.
The KZN-based Sandton City Cycle Nation rider recently won the first ever off-road race she took part in when she was victorious in the aQuellé Tour Durban MTB, and has now has won the first gravel race she entered.
Hayley Smith (Bell) claimed second after Janse van Rensburg opted to withdraw with lower back pain.
“I think it was the hardest ride I have ever done,” said the petite race winner as she sipped her post-race hot chocolate drink. “The cross winds in the beginning were really tough. I am light and we were alls strung out on the smooth part of the road in the beginning, but I kept getting swept out the line by the wind, so I lost the bunch.
“I spent the first 44km by myself and trying not to lose too much time. Francis (Janse van Rensburg) was in the bunch so I thought that was my race. But I heard she was just ahead on the Coleford Climb so I motored up there as hard and I could and caught her just at the top.
“She tried to drop me on the descent with her better technical skills, but I was just able too hold on and then on the few climbs after that I got a gap.
“I did run into some issues on the second half – I got a puncture and ran out of water, and I had to beg some guys to help me repair the puncture, but the mountain bikers are amazing and two guys stopped to help.”
Riders were relieved to be able to start in cold, but otherwise perfect racing conditions after gale-force winds battered the region overnight. While the wind picked up again out on the course, riders were treated to spectacular scenery as they raced though the foothills of the Drakensberg in crystal clear weather in the 140km, 92km and 42km events.
For the event organisers, the great weather was a huge relief as it allowed them to show off the spectacular South African scenery in this country’s only event in the prestigious international Gran Fondo World Tour Gravel Series.
In the shorter races, Carnie van der Linde and Jonette Lee won the men’s and women’s 90km event respectively, and Underberg local Cora-Gene Spires and Pakiso Mogapi, riding his first race, were the top female and male in the 45km respectively.
1 Brandon Downes 4:40:02
2 Alex Pavlov 4:45:20
3 Brent Yelland 4:50:27
4 Jaco Van Dyk 4:53:54
5 Alwyn Steenkamp 4:59:30
6 Michael Rowland 4:59:32
7 Josh Rheeders 4:59:41
8 Andrew Hill 5:00:31
9 Bradley Venter 5:12:57
10 Martin Hall 5:17:04
1 Joanna Van De Winkel 5:21:38
2 Hayley Smith 6:07:43
1 Carnie Van Der Linde 4:44:43
2 Bryan Berkeljon 4:44:46
3 Johan Fourie 4:46:04
4 Andre Jaap Van Straaten 4:53:50
5 Gavin Castleman 5:10:00
1 Jonette Lee 6:17:28
2 Laura Barras 6:25:32
1 Pakiso Mogapi 2:21:03
2 Terry Yates 2:30:21
3 Grahame Bargate 2:33:23
4 Zane Swift 2:37:46
5 Zovuyo Ngejane 2:40:44
1 Cora-Gene Spires 2:17:20
2 Gena Lofstrand 2:21:18
3 Karen Bargate 2:33:16
4 Mira Castleman 2:41:45
5 Janine Rennie 2:45:44
Full race results: results.finishtime.co.za