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Birkett and Zondi blitz to early Dusi lead

Thursday’s opening stage of the 2014 Dusi Canoe Marathon from Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg to Dusi Bridge in the uMsundusi Valley was one of high drama and great movement.

As the title hopeful men’s crews looked to overcome the scorching heat of the runner-favoured leg, Andy Birkett and Sbonelo Zondi, right, claiming a substantial 5min 33sec lead going into Friday’s second stage.

After watching Lance Kime and Thulani Mbanjwa’s title hopes dashed as early as the second kilometre of the encounter while Adam Nisbet and Len Jenkins top 10’s hopes took a major knock on Campbell’s Portage, Birkett and Zondi bided their time in the early stages of the clash but their superior running abilities soon saw them head to the front of the pack and will start the second stage as firm favourites.

ÔÇ£It was a great race for us today. We had a great time out there, some good fun and a few chirps about my driving too,ÔÇØ explained EuroSteel’s visibly satisfied Birkett.

ÔÇ£We’re very happy about our race today. Everything went according to our plan and to have a bigger than five minute lead going into day two I’m sure will be good motivation for us tomorrow,ÔÇØ added Zondi.

Having been second down the day’s first obstacle ÔÇô the steep Ernie Pearce Weir ÔÇô behind Kayak Centre/Team Jeep’s Hank McGregor and Jasper Mock├®, Birkett and Zondi eased their way to the front on the Campbell’s Portage and never looked back from there.

ÔÇ£We managed to open up a little bit of a gap on Campbell’s but the plan wasn’t to try push too hard that stage. It’s still very early in the race and you can see it in how relaxed everyone is on the run there,ÔÇØ said Birkett. ÔÇ£Once we got ahead though we looked to just keep a controlled pace because we knew from the Campbell’s put-in we had to try go really hard on the water.ÔÇØ

ÔÇ£By the time we got to Finger Neck (Portage) I was taking strain. At the put-in we heard a split for the first time and knew we had quite a nice gap though.

ÔÇ£Cabbage Tree Portage was the portage we had looked to target beforehand if we had been with other boats so we pushed hard but didn’t go too hard because we knew there was still a long way to go over the next two days.ÔÇØ

Despite having a comfortable lead, Birkett and Zondi know all too well that they would be wise not to count out the likes of McGregor and Mock├® and will be hoping for a strong second stage performance on Friday to help seal the deal on their 2014 title challenge.

ÔÇ£Day two is a long day and more tactical than day one. Hopefully we can put the hammer down right from the start all the way to the finish,ÔÇØ said Zondi.

While slightly disappointed in the opening stage’s outcome, McGregor and Mock├® remain confident they can fight their way back up to the overnight leaders during Friday’s second stage which includes the tricky section shortly after the uMsundusi and uMngeni River confluence.

ÔÇ£I certainly wouldn’t say we are satisfied with the lead Andy and Sbonelo have. It’s quite a big gap so if we want to win then there’s definitely going to be a lot work we’re going to have to put in over the next two days,ÔÇØ said Mock├®.

ÔÇ£Having said that, if you told me at the start of the day that that’s what the gap was going to be, I wouldn’t have been overly surprised so it’s not like we’re shocked or anything and we have a lot of faith and confidence in our paddling so we’re looking forward to day two.

McGregor echoed Mock├®’s sentiments. ÔÇ£It’s definitely not over but five minutes thirty three seconds ÔÇô let’s just say I would have preferred that to have been our lead rather but that’s the way it goes. We still had a fantastic day and lots of fun though.

ÔÇ£Going over Ernie Pearce first with the crowd going mad is just such a rush and then there was just such an awesome vibe all the way through Maritzburg. I said to Jasper ‘This is what it’s all about!ÔÇ£

“We raced as hard as we could. We didn’t make any mistakes. We just got out run by two pedigree runners who can paddle really well too and hats off to them. They deserve to be where they are and they’re not there by luck, that’s for sure.ÔÇØ

Despite being a little off the pace of Birkett and Zondi, McGregor sounded a clear warning to the overnight race leaders as he reminded them of his impressive 2013 second and third stage efforts after being in a similar position after stage one.

ÔÇ£I remember having a press conference after day one last year and Sbonelo and Andy told me the ‘ballie’ (McGregor) was a long way back and the gap then was nearly eight minutes so if its only five minutes this year then I’ve caught up over the past year so those youngsters better what out!ÔÇØ forewarned McGregor light-heartedly.

ÔÇ£There are still two days left and, without wishing the worst on anyone, there is a lot that can still happen. We’ve seen it play out in previous years.

ÔÇ£It’s a big day tomorrow, nobody really knows what’s going to happen with the water level and we’ve heard there are quite a few big hyacinth blocks along the way so anything can happen.

Surprise package Cam Schoeman and Czech Republic’s Jakub Adam showed immense determination to grind their way to an unlikely stage podium finish after Kime and Mbanjwa suffered the heart-breaking misfortune of having a fellow paddler’s rudder pierce Kime’s cockpit at Commercial Road Weir, forcing them to use their race stickers as a temporary fix to try prevent themselves from sinking before having to spend numerous precious minutes taping the gash at both Mussons Weir and Campbell’s Portage.

ÔÇ£Maybe we had a bit of luck on our side today,ÔÇØ said Schoeman of their surprise result. ÔÇ£Lance (Kime) and Bungee (Mbanjwa) are absolutely amazing athletes and unfortunately they had a bit of an issue which impacted heavily on their race and who knows how things would have worked out today had that not happened.

ÔÇ£I didn’t know they’d had a bit of a problem at Commercial Road (Weir) though and so, going over cabbage tre, every step I just kept thinking ‘Where are these guys?’. Jakub (Adam) and I held things together nicely though.

ÔÇ£The game plan was just try go at one speed the whole way. Jakub knows I don’t have a very high speed so we just tried to keep things consistent and Jakub really came through today phenomenally and really pulled me through too!ÔÇØ

Adam, the first international star to feature on Dusi’s day one podium, was pleased with the result, particularly after having to overcome the extreme temperatures along the route.

ÔÇ£Its nice to be third after day one. It’s a bit of a surprise for us. It was difficult sometimes, especially running uphill,ÔÇØ said Adam. ÔÇ£From Guinea fowl the heat got worse and worse and I just looked forward to the finish!ÔÇØ

With the day’s strong running, Mbanjwa and Kime managed to get themselves out the woods slightly as they clawed their way back up to 17th position however a top five, even top ten, would even be a remarkable feat from the disappointing position they find themselves in.

The women’s race was a hard-fought affair which sees Robyn Kime and Abbey Ulansky a mere 29sec ahead of Abby Adie and Czech Republic’s Anna Adamov├í.

Double defending champions Kime and Ulansky, pictured right, were twitchy at first but soon found their rhythm and launched a comeback on early leaders Adie and Adamov├í which saw them claim the lead and remain there until day one’s finish line.

ÔÇ£We definitely would have wanted a more than twenty-nine seconds,ÔÇØ chuckled Kime about the gap between herself and Ulanksy and Adie and Adamov├í.

ÔÇ£It was great racing out there today though. We had to push hard to get here first today and it was tight racing the whole way.

ÔÇ£We didn’t have any hiccups along the way and we made Ernie Pearce, which was a first for us as a combination. We were consistent on our paddles and solid on runs and just had a really good day.

Having prepared in the significantly cooler environment of her new hometown in Canada, surprisingly Ulansky wasn’t fazed by the high temperatures of the uMsundusi Valley and hopes hers and Kime’s brief yet intense build-up campaign will put them in good stead over the next two days of racing.

ÔÇ£I didn’t find the heat too hot. It’s a treat starting so early!ÔÇØ said Ulansky. “Robs and I have great fun together but this year we’ve had other focuses coming into the race. I’ve had my kids and Robs her masters so the focus hasn’t been as much on the race for us as it has in the past.

ÔÇ£We managed to squeeze in eight days of solid training together though and did a lot of quality in those eight days. Perhaps it wasn’t as much preparation as we should have done but today was great!ÔÇØ

Adie and Adamov├í’s all-round strength caught Kime and Ulansky somewhat off-guard and has set up the women’s race perfectly to produce two fascinating days of paddling adventure.

ÔÇ£Abby and Anna certainly surprised us on the portages today. We knew they’d be strong but they really ran well and, as we know, they’re really strong paddlers so we’ve got a hard two days ahead of us,ÔÇØ said Ulansky.

ÔÇ£Your first goal on day two has to be just to get to the overnight stop in one piece and then the way you get there is obviously as quickly as possible.

ÔÇ£It’s a really long day and there is lots to day two ÔÇô a lot of rapids, some flat water a couple of portages so you’ve just got to break it down because anything can happen,ÔÇØ she added.

A pleased Adie confirmed that she and Adamov├í had to find an extra gear to stay with the overnight leaders throughout stage one. ÔÇ£If someone said to me yesterday we’d only be twenty-nine seconds behind I wouldn’t have thought it would have actually happened so we’re really chuffed. We very happy with how today went!ÔÇØ said Adie.

ÔÇ£Today was a hard day and we had to dig deep but everything went smoothly, apart from Anna’s fall, and we couldn’t have asked for a better day. Hopefully we have something left in the tank for the next two days.

Adamová suffered a nasty fall shortly before the end of the Finger Neck portage which resulted in her being rushed straight from the finish line to the medical tent for treatment, eventually emerging with a brave smile and eight stitches to her right knee.

ÔÇ£It was only fair. I have scars all over my left knee so now its 50/50 for both knees,ÔÇØ she laughed. ÔÇ£My knee didn’t affect me at all during the race though. I couldn’t feel anything because, you know, it’s a race! I saw it was a little deep but I knew I still had to run as hard as I could.

ÔÇ£Before the race I was trying to run three times a week back home but it’s quite hard because its zero degrees in Czech Republic so it’s difficult to push yourself in those conditions but I think my hard work really helped today,ÔÇØ she added.

Under-23 sisters of Stellenbosch University, Tamika and Bianca Haw, put in a scintillating stage one effort to grind their way back from eighth place up to third by the end of the day and agreed that paddling with one another was something they both cherished.

ÔÇ£We’re totally out of [Kime and Ulansky and Adie and Adamov├í] league but we’re just paddling to have some fun and we were just lucky to come in third. It’s so nice paddling with my sister though!ÔÇØ said a bubbly Bianca.

ÔÇ£Its really special paddling Dusi with Bianca because we don’t have to worry what we say too much because, being sisters, we get over it pretty quickly,ÔÇØ added Tamika. ÔÇ£It’s great also having another girl in the canoe club because I’ve been the only girl in the club for the past four years!ÔÇØ

The pair’s effort is even more impressive when added to Bianca’s tremendous cycling abilities which recently saw her crowned both South African Junior Girls Road and Mountain Biking Champion as the young stars now look to do what Bianca couldn’t after her third place stage one finish in 2013 ÔÇô finish on the podium in Blue Lagoon on Saturday.

ÔÇ£We haven’t been training like we would have wanted to as we’ve had other commitments but its been really nice being able to train together especially during the holidays,ÔÇØ said Bianca. ÔÇ£We really hope to hold third. I didn’t hold it last year but with an experienced backseat driver behind me hopefully can hold it together,ÔÇØ she added.

Pictures: Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media


1.Andy Birkett/Sbonelo Zondi 2:33.30
2.Hank McGregor/Jasper Mock├® 2:39.03
3.Cam Schoeman/Jakub Adam (CZE) 2:47.07
4.Kwanda Mhlophe/Zonele Nzuza 2:48.20
5.Simon van Gysen/Craig Turton 2:49.55
6.Damon Stamp/Mthobisi Cele (U18) 2:52.13
7.David Wood/Kelvin Trautman 2:53.25
8.Siseko Ntondini/Piers Cruickshanks 2:53.49
9.Loveday Zondi/Thando Ngamlana 2:53.50
10.Jacques Theron/shaun Griffin 2:53.59
11.Lucas Mthalane/Mmeli Cele 2:54.23
12.Shaun Biggs/Wayne Thompson 2:56.01
13.Andrew Houston/Ivan Kruger (U23) 2:57.04
14.Mhlonishwa Hlongwane/Nqobile Makhanya (U23) 2:57.17
15.Mark Michell/Trenton Lamble 2:57.18
16.Roland Smith/Thomas Ngidi 2:58.26
17.Lance Kime/Thulani Mbanjwa 2:59.14
18.David Chaplin/Mark Mulder 2:59.22
19.Skhumbuso Ngidi/Nkosikayise Cele 3:00.16
20.Carl Folscher/Ben Biggs 3:00.19

Under-23 Men
1. Andrew Houston/Ivan Kruger 2:57.04
2.Mhlonishwa Hlongwane/Nqobile Makhanya 2:57.17
3.Owen Gandar/Matthew Dean 3:01.26

Junior Boys
1.Damon Stamp/Mthobisi Cele 2:52.13
2.Bryan le Roux/Ryno van der Westhuyzen 3:14.45
3.Patrick Dillon/Alan Houston 3:15.08

1.Robyn Kime/Abbey Ulansky 3:02.01
2.Abby Adie/Anna Adamova 3:02.30
3.Tamika Haw/Bianca Haw (U23) 3:16.16
4.Jen Theron/Jane Swarbreck 3:22.23
5.Hilary Bruss/Alex Adie 3:23.16
6.Carmen Donald/Debbie Germiquet 3:29.57
7.Susan Carter-Brown/Kelly Howe 3:35.24
8.Jordan Peek/Brittany Petersen (U23) 3:38.17
9.Jenna Ward/Kerry Segal (U23) 3:39.09
10.Camilla Pennefather/Cana Peek (U18) 3:39.58

Under 23 Women
1.Tamika Haw/Bianca Haw 3:16.16
2. Jordan Peek/Brittany Petersen 3:38.17
3.Jenna Ward/Kerry Segal 3:39.09

Junior Girls
1.Camilla Pennefather/Cana Peek 3:39.58
2.Sarah Harries/Julia Trodd 3:50.28
3.Saxon Kirton/Emily Stapylton-Smith 4:37.02