Andy Birkett and Hank McGregor ended a thrilling first stage of the N3TC Drak Challenge in partnership with FNB canoe marathon side-by-side as the 26km opening stage on a full uMzimkhulu produced a day of dramatic racing.
The two paddlers who have dominated the race over the past decade traded places through the technical big rapids that characterise the stage, and will start the deciding final stage on Sunday sharing the lead.
They were kept under pressure through the thrilling stage by emerging young stars Matt Millward and Dave Evans, coincidentally the MyLife Dusi partners for McGregor and Birkett, as the stage saw the emergence of a new generation of Under 23 paddlers taking half of the top ten places.
“Probably for the first time in the history of me paddling the Drak I had a decent start,” seven times champion Birkett said with a smile.
“I normally jump in my boat in twentieth but getting a good start makes life a bit easier!,” he explained.
The pair drove the pace through the technical Valley of a Thousand Rapids and set up a small lead over the chasers.
“Once we got to Khotso and realised we had a bit of a lead we tapped back to the finish,” said the Euro Steel ace.
The leading pair will start Sunday’s final stage with an advantage of a minute and a half.
Eight times women’s race champion Abby Solms used her years of accumulated experience on the river to complete a dream comeback to the race, winning the first stage by almost a minute from the chasing pack of Dusi team mates Christie Mackenzie and Jordy Peek.
“I didn’t expect to be at the front,” sais Solms. “I had such a good start and the rapids is my game and that where I tried to get ahead a bit.
“I was waiting for the others to catch me on the flats so I just pinned my ears back and blew a gasket coming into the finish, so tomorrow is going to be interesting!”
“The experience, knowing the lines and how to paddle in the rapids helped me,” she added
In a stacked women’s field that saw a record number of women entered in K1s Bridgitte Hartley, Michelle Burn and Jenna Nisbet are all hovering to pounce on any mistake by the leaders.
Sunday’s final stage will take the paddlers just under 39km from the Swartberg Road Bridge to the finish at the Umzimkhulu River Lodge.
2022 N3TC Drak Challenge Results – Stage One
1. Andy Birkett 1:27:10
2. Hank McGregor 1:27:11
3. Matthew Millward (U23) 1:28:44
4. David Evans (U23) 1:29:17
5. Banetse Nkhoesa 1:29:19
6. Stewart Little (U23) 1:29:20
7. Siseko Ntondini 1:31:10
8. Jack Edmonds (U23) 1:31:12
9. Bongani Ntinga 1:31:12
10. Murray Behn (U23) 1:31:13
1. Abby Solms 1:37:30
2. Christie Mackenzie (U23) 1:38:13
3. Jordan Peek 1:38:15
4. Bridgitte Hartley 1:40:55
5. Michelle Burn 1:41:00