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Lill leads the way

Darren Lill (Team Bonitas) once again justified his South African champion status when he won Stage Three of the inaugural Tour de Free State road cycling stage race in Golden Gate National Park on Friday. Lill’s teammate, Johann Rabie finished third on the gruelling stage, but claimed the overall lead.

The 68km leg from Clarens to Highlands Retreat, a remote mountaintop venue in Golden Gate National Park, was short, but brutal and proof that the Free State isn’t flat! The final climb on a paved jeep track reached a maximum gradient of 26%, forcing most of the participants to dismount and push their bikes up to the finish, which sits at an altitude of 2200m above sea level.

Lill was one of the few riders in field to ride the whole way up what riders were calling a ‘wall’, which caught most of them by surprise. For Lill though, there was no surprise. He spent time training in the area a fortnight ago and had previewed the tour’s only mountain stage.

ÔÇ£I came here with my teammate, Waylon Woolcock, a two weeks ago. We stayed in Clarens and we rode this particular climb. Previewing a key climb like this helps prepare you mentally for what’s coming and today I knew exactly what lay ahead,ÔÇØ said a satisfied Lill. ÔÇ£I’ve ridden similar climbs overseas before and there is a climb in Cape Town that’s steeper than this that I train on. It’s still a very tough climb and a great challenge in a South African road race for a change!ÔÇØ

The stage began with six laps of a five-kilometre circuit around the town of Clarens before heading into the Eastern Free State Highlands. Four riders broke clear after the first 5km ÔÇô Rabie (Bonitas), Dennis van Niekerk (MTN Qhubeka), Pieter Seyffert (Team Matlosana) and David Maree (Team Tasol).

Because four of the stronger teams in the race were represented in the break, the peloton let the gap open and the quartet quickly established a commanding lead. Seyffert, winner of Stage 2, fell off the pace after 30km and by 41km Rabie, Van Niekerk and Maree had a lead of more than two-and-a-half minutes.

With no riders in the break, Toyota CSA and the Free State Premier’s Invitation team, comprising mostly Frenchmen and Belgians, began to chase. Team Bonitas then put Waylon Woolcock on the front at the bottom of the penultimate climb and his rapid pace splintered the front pack. With 10km to go, Lill, Woolcock and Hanco Kachelhoffer (Team Bonitas), Reinhardt Janse van Rensburg (MTN Qhubeka) and Louis Meintjes (Toyota CSA) were closing down the leading trio.

As the race reached the final couple of kilometres, only Lill and Meintjes, both noted climbers, were left pursuing Van Niekerk and Rabie, who had already dropped Maree. Rabie and Van Niekerk reached the final kilometre 30 seconds ahead of the two pursuers. Van Niekerk faltered on the narrow paving and was forced to stop, causing Rabie to do the same. The pair then pushed their bikes towards the top and Lill rode past them with 300 metres to go. Meintjes finished fourth.

ÔÇ£This is mostly a tour of flat circuit stages with lots of time bonuses, so even though we have first and second places, we still have to be attentive. But our confidence is high and we are determined to race positively as always and retain our leading positions,ÔÇØ said Lill, who is now second overall behind Rabie.

Saturday’s Stage 4 is over 100km around the Phakisa Freeway international motor-racing track. The tour ends in Bloemfontein on Sunday. For detailed results and information, visit www.tourdefreestate.co.za


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