Dark days for SA cycling

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iol spt jan5 Burry Stander AP Burry Standers death has robbed South Africa of one of its brightest stars.File Photo: Jacques Boissinot

‘What a sad sad day. First time I’ve cried in a while. Never realised he meant that much to me. He was and always will be a legend.”

That message, posted by Jacques Meyer on the popular online cycling forum thehubsa.co.za, epitomised the impact Burry Stander had on the cycling community.

Like many of the hundreds of riders who, within hours of his accident, posted messages in memory of Stander and in support of his family and young wife, Meyer has only briefly met the 25-year-old world star.

But like so many cyclists he is only now realising what a surprising impact Stander had on their lives.

In his own quiet way Stander simply dominated the local mountain biking community and everybody wanted to know him, but it was not only because of his incredible ability on the bike that he was so popular.

His humble demeanour meant he was always approachable and was never short of a word of encouragement or advice.

From young fans tentatively asking to be photographed with their hero to boorish old men wanting a piece of the star, all cyclists and fans were treated with respect.

He was, however, no pushover and behind the quiet manner there was a steely determination and obvious ability to think for himself.

That determination was clearly displayed in the heat of racing when he often had to dig deep to overcome the challenges posed by the best cyclists in the world. And then in the post-race interviews he was never shy to express his modest but original opinions and rarely needed to resort to worn-out old clichés like so many lesser sporting stars.

Stander was one of those sportsmen who was destined for greatness from an early age and he showed his promise soon after taking up the sport as a 10-year-old trailing after his brothers Duane and Charl, and father Charles.

He was just 13 when he won his first age group national title and it was the first of many races in South Africa where he led the field home.

Early on in his mountain biking career he tried his hand at downhill racing as well as the more popular marathons and cross country events and the all round skills he learned there were evident as he dominated all opposition with superb technical ability, and his bike handling was without doubt among the best.

These skills and an admirable work ethic allowed him to move from success in local events to recording surprising international victories in his first real sortie overseas.

In 2005, as a teenager, he made the journey to the US and promptly shocked the huge US mountain biking population by winning three out of four events on the prestigious Norba Junior Series.

In the first race on the series he destroyed the top American junior riders, winning by almost 10 minutes and posting a time that would have placed him seventh in the senior pro race.

Not surprisingly he was quickly signed up by GT International Racing Team to represent their professional team, and in 2006 he finished 10th in the Commonwealth Games and won his first South African professional cross country title.

In 2007 he backed that up with an African cross country title, a second SA title and finished sixth U23 at the World Champs. 2008 was, however, his real breakthrough year where he proved that he could race with the world’s best pros and beat them.

That year he was the U23 World Cup champion and second at the U23 World Championships; he recorded a stunning second place overall in the Spanish leg of the senior World Cup while enjoying four other top seven finishes on the world’s premier MTB circuit; and then wrapped up the year by ending 15th at his first Olympics in Beijing.

It was also during 2008 that his romance with South African road cycling champion Cherise Taylor blossomed.

A year later, now racing for the world’s top mountain biking team, Specialized Racing, he won the U23 World Champs and recorded his first World Cup win in Switzerland while securing four more top five results on the tough World Cup circuit.

While becoming a star on the international circuit, Stander never forgot his roots, was a common winner in South Africa and could often be found enjoying a ride with his mates near Umtentweni on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.

In 2010 and 2011 he had less spectacular international results with thirds at both the World Cross Country and Marathon Championships the highlights.

But he was still the undisputed number one within South African borders and in 2011 won the first of his two back-to-back Absa Cape Epic titles with long-time friend, mentor and team-mate, former World Champion Christoph Sauser from Switzerland.

In 2012 he was back to his race-winning best. He started the year with a spectacular second position in front of a passionate home crowd in the opening leg of the World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, followed that up with his second Cape Epic win and then secured a third position at the Czech Republic leg of the World Cup.

A couple of weeks before the Olympics he gave his legion of supporters belief that London could yield gold when he won the US leg of the World Cup.

Sports fans outside the cycling community got an insight into his brilliance when a brave ride from far down the field at the Olympics had millions of television viewers in South Africa captivated.

Despite briefly leading the Olympic mountain bike race he ended just five seconds outside the bronze medal position in fifth.

But while he was back to his best on the bike, 2012 was about more than just cycling and in May he married Taylor in a fairy-tale wedding and opened his second and third cycling shops in partnership with his brothers and father.

His tragic death on Thursday robbed South Africa and world cycling of one of its brightest stars, but it also left a massive hole in the lives of friends, family and thousands of people whose life he had only briefly touched, and cyclist like Jacques Meyer are now realising that.



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