The Clover tour is one of the hardest tours I have ever done. Only 5 days, but no easy days and each day at some point everybody is pushing themselves to the maximum. I know Hendrik Wagenaar and co. work hard throughout the year to put the event on, and hats off to them, delivering something SA cycling desperately needs more off.
Stage 1(155km Graskop> Blyderivier Canyon> Orighstad> Pilgrim’s rest): The first stage started off somewhat lethargic as a big breakaway group got clear, all teams were satisfied with the break and it built a maximum advantage of over 16min. Bonitas had the numerical advantage, but we believed we had the best climber in the break in 19-year old JC Nel with James Tennet as support. Our confidence sparked a bit of panic in the rest of the Bonitas team, as they started the chase with about 50km to go. However Bonitas played their numbers well in front, and the distance took its toll on the youngster, Bonitas managed to get both Gawie Combrink and Neil Mcdonald clear with JC finishing 5min behind and the group with all the main GC minutes 6min down. Not a great first day for us, however Jacques Janse van Rensburg and Dennis van Niekerk managed to put time in some of the other GC contenders, like Jason Bakke and Waylon Woolcock. Only Darren Lill and Louis Meintjies could stay with the 2 climbers. I myself ended up losing a lot of time in the last 5km due to a mechanical, as I was behind the pace and behind the team car.
Stage 2(155km Graskop> Sabie> Longtom> white river> Sabie> Graskop): An early break got clear containing our rider Petrus Loto, but we felt indifferent towards the break as we knew we had to play catch-up in the General Classification, we needed to get rid of Neil Mcdonald and Gawie Combrink. So we were aggressive….overly aggressive, and this was perhaps our downfall in hindsight, as this was the only stage Dennis van Niekerk lost time in the race for the overall classification. Almost on every climb Dylan and I made the pace red-hot, until eventually both Gawie and Neil cracked with just under 10km to race. But we drove it too hard as 5km from the line Dennis found himself isolated and attacked by Darren Lill, Jason Bakke and Louis Meintjies. Dennis lost good minute and a half towards trio in front. Another bad day for us…
Stage 3(105km Graskop > God’s window> Graskop > Hazyview via Kowyns pass> Bosbok ridge> Bottom of Kowyn’s): This stage was when it started to swing around for us. A misty morning in Graskop meant we only did 1 lap of God’s window instead of 2, before doing a 70km circuit to finish on the bottom of Kowyn’s pass. This day was perhaps the best suited for a sprinter like myself or Tyler Day, but we wanted to get the top Bonitas men isolated from teammates as racing 10 men is much more difficult than racing 5. So on God’s window we put the hammer down from early on, which left 5 MTN, 5 Bonitas and Louis Meintjies in the group. At the top of Jacques managed to race clear, but Bonitas played a smart game by sitting up and wait for reinforcements from behind. Once all together Bonitas had the task to chase down a 5min gap to the lone leader, but even on a relatively short stage, its next to impossible for 1 man to beat 10 men chasing. In the hard chase Bonitas lost their sprinter Tyler Day, but with 15km to go Jacques was brought back and the Counter-attacks started. My job was just to follow and make shure I won the bunch sprint if no break managed to escape. I did just that to take the stage. However I was forced to go early on the downhill sprint and the current Sa champ, Darren Lill, gave me quite a scare as he managed to get right next to me in the sprint to the line, with strength I managed to keep my wheel just in front of his. Still Gawie Combrink and Neil Mcdonald seemed to be in command of the General Classification though, but we didn’t lose hope in being able to shake the 2.
The 4th day would probably be the hardest day on paper of the tour, because of 2 half-stages on the day.
Stage 4A (125km 6 laps of God’s window): Tactically this was probably were we rode the smartest off all days. We sent Petrus Loto in the break on the first lap to gain King of the Mountain points, as he was lying 2nd in the competition. However this was only a distraction, as we had bigger plans for him later on. On the 2nd lap we also sent JC Nel across. Bonitas kept the break under control, which suited us perfectly, because on the 3 lap we lifted the pace once more. In the process dropping both Neil and Gawie. We quickly caught up to our 2 teammates in front and suddenly it was 5 MTN in front along with 3 Bonitas, Louis Meintjies and 1 more ASG rider. We saved Jacques and Dennis, while JC, Loto and I set the pace. The gap quickly reached the 6min mark, however we lost Loto and JC on the 4th and 5th lap respectively. Leaving me to pace the a whole lap. With the gap was over 10min I could afford to save a little legs to see if I can get over the climb. I was under pressure to show to the national selectors that I have what it takes to be selected for u23 World Championship. And that was my motivation, which allowed me to hold on for dear life during the 6th lap. Halfway up I knew I wasn’t going to be dropped and Jacques took over the pace-making duties from me, giving me time to recover before the sprint. I managed to get my 2nd stage ahead of teammate Dennis van Niekerk and Louis Meintjies. I also moved into the lead of the Green points Jersey competition.
Up to this Louis Meintjies has been hiding somewhat in shadows, watching the older men fight it out and just staying in the wheels, not attacking even once. Everybody seemed convinced that his focus was only best young rider’s jersey, as he chased down Jason Bakke each time he attacked. It seemed a little unneccessary to chase Jason who was 4min behind Louis, but this provided him with an ideal cover. It was only when we reached Stage 4B, a 7.3km the Hill climb time trial up Kowyn’s pass, with Louis only a few seconds behind Darren, the new GC leader, that everybody realised that the sneaky youngster could deliver a massive upset if he was able to out-timetrial Darren Lill. He did it!! Riding a good 40s faster than his more experienced rival. Our man Dennis van Niekerk made it a hatrick for Team MTN Qhubeka as he won the Hill climb, with a time of 20:03, 20s faster than Jason Bakke.
Stage 5 (Graskop > Blyderivier canyon > Graskop via God’s window): The last stage of the tour and Louis, with a small and young team, had the massive task of defending his lead from MTN and Bonitas. Everybody seemed fatigued and have sore legs, but it’s about the guy that can handle the most pain in that kind of situation. Jacques and Waylon got away in the early break forcing the young Toyota team, with help from Honda, to control. With 35km to go the big attacks started and the group was quickly reduced. Dennis broke clear from the small group and quickly built an advantage of 2 and a half minutes. The small group behind regrouped somewhat again as Lill looked at Meintjies and Meintjies back at Lill as to who was going to chase. Eventually Meintjies’ poker face paid off as the 5 Bonitas men in the group took on the pursuit of van Niekerk. Bonitas were doing the dirty work, and Meintjies merely had to follow to win the tour. On the final God’s window climb the chase group splintered once more, leaving only Lill and Meintjies left in pursuit. Lill closed the gap to van Niekerk in final metres but van Niekerk was able to hold off Lill for another stage win for MTN Qhubeka. In doing so van Niekerk also prevented Lill maximum points and secured the Green points jersey for me. By losing no time, Meintjies managed to defend his lead.
Meintjies showed cunning, maturity and strength beyond his years, he will definitely make it far in the sport.
2nd Lill @ 34s
3rd Van Niekerk @ 58s
1st Gawie Combrink
2nd Petrus Loto
3rd Jacques Janse van Rensburg
1st Reinardt Janse van Rensburg
2nd Darren Lill
3rd Neil Mcdonald
1st Louis Meintjies