The 2021 South African Marathon Championships takes place in Paarl at the Specialized Paarl MTB Challenge on Saturday 1 May. Picking possible winners in the Elite men and women’s categories is a challenge in itself, but there are some standout pre-race favourites. Here’s who’s likely to shine on a very tough course.

By Sean Badenhorst

After the 2020 edition of the national marathon champs was cancelled due to Covid-19 limitations; and many other 2020 and early 2021 races were scuppered due to pandemic control measures, there’s an increased hunger not only for the coveted South African titles, but for racing in general.

Looking at the start lists for the Elite men and women is like looking at the who’s who of the XCO/XCM side of the sport. Almost. Missing are Alan Hatherly, Candice Lill, Mariske Strauss and Cherie Redeker. Redeker is recovering from a broken collarbone, while the others are in Europe preparing their assault on the UCI XCO World Cup season.

But that doesn’t really diminish the fact that there’s an incredibly strong field set to do battle on what’s been described by some as a brutal course, which covers 85km in distance with 2100 metres of ascent. It’s not just the distance and elevation, it’s the fact that there’s a high volume of singletrack (around 70% of the route), some technical sections that will challenge riders’ skills and five major climbs.

The gradient reaches up to 40% on parts of an early climb nicknamed ‘The Wall’, a 2.6km long singletrack climb that gains 300 metres of ascent!

Matt Beers will be gunning for his first South African Elite men’s marathon title at the 2021 Specialized Paarl MTB Challenge. |Photo: Ray Cox

The three men most likely to be challenging for the medals on the demanding route are Matt Beers, Marco Joubert, and Arno du Toit.

Beers (Type Dev NanoTime) has shown to be almost unbeatable in marathon and ultra-marathon distance events. He also confirmed his good form a fortnight ago when he rode to dominant wins at the XCO SA Cup and Western Cape Cup rounds held at Bloemendal, Durbanville. It’s hard not to consider Beers the clear favourite.

Joubert (Imbuko Giant) is still maturing as an endurance racer, but has produced some impressive results over marathon distances in the past two years and his second place to Beers at the XCO SA Cup two weeks ago on a mildly technical course confirms his form is sharp. This could be his big graduation day…

Du Toit (Insect Science) is the 2019 national marathon champion. As a former XCO racer, the steep, technical course should suit him and his podium place at the recent XCO SA Cup at Bloemendal confirms he’s in a good place physically. After very little racing in 2020, he was unable to spend much time racing in the national champion’s jersey, so his motivation is high.

While those three riders stand out, mounting a very strong threat are the four Pyga Eurosteel riders, Matthys Beukes, Philip Buys, Gert Heyns (the 2018 national champion) and Pieter du Toit. On a good day, any of the four is capable of winning a tough marathon race. Of the four, Buys, an XCO Olympian, is likely best equipped to manage the technical route.

Others capable of mounting a medal challenge include the Type Dev NanoTime pair of Nico Bell (the 2017 national champion) and Wessel Botha, the DSV Pro Cycling pair of Nicol Carstens and Jacques Janse van Rensburg, the Alfa Bodyworks pair of HB Kruger and Shaun-Nick Bester.

Six-time champion, Robyn de Groot, is the favourite to claim the 2021 Elite women’s national marathon title at the Specialized Paarl MTB Challenge.

The Elite women’s field is a lot smaller than the men’s and the firm favourite has to be Robyn de Groot (dormakaba). With six consecutive SA Marathon titles between 2013 and 2018, she certainly has the experience and, after losing the title to Sam Sanders in 2019, has the hunger to retrieve it.

Sanders (Galileo Risk Infiniti Spot) will be on the start line on Saturday, but admitted recently that the high volume of climbing on the course doesn’t suit her. She cannot be discounted though and will surely be a strong podium challenger.

Sarah Hill (Liv Factory Racing) must also be considered a medal contender. Her recent training has included super long rides in preparation for the upcoming Gravel World Champs in the USA and her good skills should see her in a position to contend well with the technical segments of the route.

Theresa Ralph (Galileo Risk Infiniti Spot), Yolande de Villiers (Altus Landhaus Mad Mac Kawasaki), Amy McDougal (Perigon Property), Danielle Strydom (Insect Science) are also likely to be in the hunt for podium places.

The Elite men’s race starts at 07h00 and the Elite women at 07h05. Specialized South Africa will be doing live race updates from the route via their Instagram account – @specializedza.

The Specialized Paarl MTB Challenge will also see national marathon titles contested in other categories over varying distances as follows:

85km Route: Elite Men and Women, Sub-veteran Men (30-39) and Veteran Men (40-49)

60km Route: Youth Men and Women (15-16), Junior Men and Women (17-18), Sub-veteran Women (30-39), Veteran Women (40-49) and Master Men (50-59)

40km Route: Master Women (50-59) and Grand Master Men and Women (60+)

For more information on the event head over here.


Elite Men and Women’s national marathon champions in the past 10 editions:

Year Venue Men Women
2020 – Cancelled Karkloof
2019 Buffelsdrift Arno du Toit Samantha Sanders
2018 Oudtshoorn Gert Heyns Robyn de Groot
2017 Pietermaritzburg Nico Bell Robyn de Groot
2016 Clarens Max Knox Robyn de Groot
2015 Van Gaalen Gawie Combrinck Robyn de Groot
2014 Pietermaritzburg James Reid Robyn de Groot
2013 Hazyview James Reid Robyn de Groot
2012 Wellington Max Knox Cherise Stander
2011 Durban Burry Stander Karien van Jaarsveld
2010 Sabie Kevin Evans Yolande Speedy