Cape Town - Nico Bell and Gawie Combrinck set the pace on a day when most of the pre-race favourites erred on the side of caution as the third Old Mutual joBerg2c got underway with a neutral stage on Freedom Day.The Transact pair clocked 4:21:52 as they crossed the line first on the 115km ride between Heidelberg in Gauteng and Frankfort in the Free State.They were followed home three seconds later by Kenya’s former runners-up David Kinjah and Davidson Kamau (Old Mutual Simba), with Kevin Evans and David George (Nedbank 360Life) a further three seconds adrift.Defending champions Neil MacDonald and Waylon Woolcock (RE-CM) finished outside the top 20, alongside Brandon Stewart – who was second last year – and new partner Jacques Rossouw (FedGroup Itec-Connect).MacDonald said they had opted for an easy start to the non-racing stage in order to warm up the legs and settle the nerves.“There’s a lot more competition this year, so we decided not to push too early. The guys will go hard tomorrow and then we’ll see how everyone’s looking.”The former road cyclist said he expected the 93km second stage towards Reitz to culminate in a bunch sprint, which would suit his team’s strengths. “If it does, Waylon and I will definitely be up for it.”Karkloof Classic winner Rossouw echoed his sentiments, saying that the pace would be erratic on the flattish Free State stages as the teams started testing one another.“You’ll see the real tactics come out later on in the climbing stages. I’m a guy who likes the climbs so I’m really looking forward to the Drakensberg.”Evans, who won the African jersey at the recent Absa Cape Epic with George, said they were enjoying their first outing in the 910km race.“There was a great spirit out there today. A couple more days like this and my legs will be feeling really good.”He admitted however that his back muscles had taken strain during the Vaal crossing, which saw riders rowing across the dam in Chinese dragon boats. “This body wasn’t made for paddling!”In the women’s category, reigning champions Ischen Stopforth and Catherine Williamson (bizhub-FCF) finished first in 4:43:14, comfortably ahead of second-placed Sarah van Heerden and Jackie Church (Itec-Connect Vodacom), who set a time of 4:50:52.Stopforth, who is just back from injury, said she was looking forward to testing her body and overall fitness.“It’s difficult after a neutral stage to suddenly shift your mind to racing. But both of us are really competitive so we’re going to ride hard and stick with the mixed teams for as long as possible.”Cycle Lab KTM’s Johan Labuschagne and Yolande de Villiers took line honours in the latter category (4:23:04), followed by Carel Bosman and Leana de Jager of PeptoPro/bizhub (4:31:25) and Epic champions Erik and Ariane Kleinhans of GMAC (4:53:53).The 550-strong field will finish the race in Scottburgh on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast on May 5.