The South African MTN National mountain bike series begins on Saturday with the Barberton Challenge.
National cross-country champion Burry Stander and South African marathon champion Kevin Evans are favourites to win the first of the series’s seven rounds.
Stander finished just ahead of Evans in last year’s Barberton Challenge, while Evans won by a similarly narrow margin in 2007.
In previous years the pair have fought for victory over a 75km course, but 2009’s event has been extended into a 120km ultra-marathon.
“The new distance turns the race from a long cross-country event into a proper marathon,” said Evans. “Some of us have been asking for longer distances for many years and it’s great to see that the organisers are now listening to us.”
“Obviously a shorter race suits me better,” admitted Stander, “but I’m currently preparing for the Absa Cape Epic, which means a lot more endurance training. I’m looking forward to Barberton, where I intend to do my best to defend the title.”
Yolande de Villiers is expected to make a strong return in the women’s 75km event.
35-year-old de Villiers spent most of 2008 sidelined after shoulder surgery and was unable to complete last weekend’s Attakwas Extreme Challenge as a result of a broken dearailleur hanger.
Other podium contenders include Samantha Oosthuizen, Yolandi du Toit and reigning series champion Tania Raats.