Jacques takes Mzansi lead

Jacques Janse van Rensburg (MTN-Qhubeka)
Jacques Janse van Rensburg (MTN-Qhubeka)

Clarens - Free State-born Jacques Janse van Rensburg pulled away on the final uphill climb in Clarens, to ride to a solo victory in the first stage of the Mzansi Tour on Wednesday.

The MTN Qhubeka rider edged Richard Handley (Rapha Condor JLT) to claim the 140km ride from the Golden Gate Hotel to Clarens in three hours, 11 minutes and 11 seconds (3:11:11).

Janse van Rensburg took the yellow jersey from British rider Kristian House, who led the standings after winning the prologue team time-trial (TTT) in Johannesburg with his Rapha Condor JLT team.

Handley held on to second place in the general classification (GC), while Carl Pasio of the South African National Team sneaked into third place.

Janse van Rensburg walked away with a whopping four jerseys on the day, bagging the yellow GC jersey, points jersey, King of Mountain (KOM) and African rider jersey.

MTN Qhubeka's Merhawi Kudus took the best young rider jersey for the stage.

Janse van Rensburg underwent an operation last October to finally sort out a condition that made it difficult for him to sleep and eat properly, which ultimately affected his performance in the saddle.

The revived rider said he was happy with Thursday's performance as it signalled his comeback.

"It's my first win in a long time after struggling with health issues for the last four years and it's really a confidence booster for me knowing that I'm back to great form again," Janse van Rensburg said after bagging his first win of the season.

"We have a really strong team to defend the yellow jersey, and the last 12 kilometres in tomorrow's stage will be the hardest on the tour.

An early two-man breakaway by Steven van Heerden (Team Europcar SA) and Phillip Lavery (Synergy Baku cycling project) opened 6km into the race, but it did not last long enough as the pelaton rapidly caught up with the two riders.

The bunch remained steady for a while until the riders approached the first KOM point where Maksym Averin pedalled hard to pull away from the pelaton, opening a sizeable lead.

A four-man breakaway group threatened his lead, but Averin held on to take the first KOM point of the Mzansi Tour.

Heading towards Bethlehem, the wind briefly played a role, causing a few problems for the bunch.

House and Connor McConvey (Synergy Baku cycling project) were involved in a crash, but were soon back on the road.

The bunch stayed together as it made its way through the crowded streets of Bethlehem.

An initial 20-man breakaway was sized down after Janse van Rensburg, Pasio, Handley, Matthew Brammeier (Synergy Baku cycling project), Bonaventure Uwizeyimana (Africa Mixed Team) and Nolan Hoffman (Team Abantu) pulled away to form a six-man lead in front of the pack.

The six-man group maintained the lead, increasing the gap over the distance as the field made its way to the finish in Clarens.

Approaching the last 10km of the stage, three riders fell off leaving Janse van Rensburg, Pasio and Handley to challenge for the race win.

Janse van Rensburg had a lot of fight left in his legs, and steamed ahead in the final climb of the stage in Clarens, crossing the finish line unchallenged.

"The race started really fast and the whole day it was 50 kilometres per hour and I couldn't believe the speed of the race," Janse van Rensburg said.

"The weather played a big role, there was no wind at all and being a little bit on altitude you always travel faster and the group was really hungry for racing today."

A last-minute dash between Pasio and Handley over the final 500m decided the second and third spot on the podium.

"It was a bit of cat and mouse there at the end, we both knew that Jacques was way stronger," Pasio said.

"When we hit the steep little kicker at about one kilometre to go and he attacked, we just did not have an answer.

"I thought I had a gap in second, but the Rapha rider (Handley) managed to bridge back onto my wheel with about 500m to go and then it came to a sprint between me and him and unfortunately I did not have it."

Thursday's second stage sees the riders take on the 155km ride from Clarens and ends with a mountain-top finish at Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the Free State.

The five-day race finishes on Saturday in Johannesburg.

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