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Eleven-times champion Hank McGregor took control of the 61st edition of the Berg River Canoe Marathon in sublime conditions over the new extended first stage course on Wednesday, while fellow Durbanite Jenna Nisbet stamped her authority on the women’s race.
Starting from the new start at Val de Vie, which added 7km of technical flowing river to the first stage, McGregor exerted his legendary tactical control to set up the stage win, and banked both of the days’ hotspot bridge prizes.
The 43-year-old Team Euro Steel ace was clinical in his vice-like control of a four boat bunch that quickly established itself at the front of the race, with his Durban training partner Wayne Jacobs, young Capetonian Uli Hart and the seasoned tough man of the Berg Simon van Gysen.
By winning both of the new bridge prizes McGregor banked the critical time incentives that earn him 30sec off his stage time for each of the bridge prizes he won, with the second and third paddlers getting 20sec and 10sec off their stage times respectively.
“It was probably one of the best day one stages in terms of water levels and weather conditions. No wind. Sunshine. It was like the Western Cape was showing off,” said McGregor after banking his 37th Berg stage win.
“The first 10km after the start was like one long rollercoaster,” said McGregor. “It was super fast and narrow and if you made a mistake you paid for it.
“The new hotspots playing for time became really important and really mixed it up for everyone, and they were all going for it.
“I am really stoked to have had a good day one, paddling with some really great guys. My good mate Wayne Jacobs came off the back of the bunch just after Hermon but it is a big stage tomorrow.”
Hart remained composed in the unfamiliar surroundings of the front bunch on his maiden Berg and claimed the second place overnight, with the veteran Van Gysen delighted to finish third ahead of Jacobs.
In the women’s race, three boats quickly moved to the front of the race, with defending women’s champion Nikki Birkett shadowing the on-form Jenna Nisbet and perennial Cape performer Melanie van Niekerk.
In the technical tight channels in the new section of river above Paarl, Birkett was caught on the outside of a tight channel and bumped a tree stump, capsizing and costing her critical time as she emptied her boat.
Nisbet seized the opportunity with both hands to take early control of the race, and comfortably won both of the women’s hotspots.
“I decided to go right from the beginning so it became a very lonely day as I was on my own,” said Nisbet. “I felt really good on the stage. I tapped off at the end because I know that it is a long race still.”
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.