SOUTH African mountain biker Burry Stander, 25, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, was on Thursday killed in a road accident in KwaZulu-Natal.
“He was returning from a training ride in Shelly Beach, on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, and was hit by a vehicle,” said Cycling SA spokeswoman Mylene Loumeau.
Stander, who held the title of UCI Mountain Bike World Cup under-23 men’s cross-country champion in 2009, competed in several races around the world since 2008.
He won the Absa Cape Epic race with team partner Christoph Sauser last year and in 2011, and in 2010 he came third in the Mountain Bike World Championships held in Quebec, Canada.
At the Beijing Games, Stander finished 15th in the cross-country mountain bike race. Last year, he reached fifth place in the same event at the London Games, narrowly missing out on a medal.
An emotional Loumeau said on Thursday that Stander, who was raised in KwaZulu-Natal, would be missed by the South African cycling community.
“I had seen him come through the ranks since 2006,” she said. “He was a fantastic role model, and at the same time he was humble at it.”
Cape Epic founder Kevin Vermaak said: "This is the saddest news I’ve received since I began my involvement in South African cycling 10 years ago. Burry was our brightest star.
"I’m upset that the world has been deprived of a true legend in the making. Now we’ll never know just how great he was destined to be."
Hundreds of messages of sympathy were posted on social network Twitter, including by Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, who said it was a “tragedy”.
Sauser seemed distraught when he posted: "Never felt so empty since my dad passed away when I was a kid. @africanmtbkid I will never forget you."
Gideon Sam, president of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc), said he was “shattered” by the news.
“Burry was the epitome of an Olympic athlete — talented and ultra-competitive but at the same time extremely humble and a true gentleman,” he said. “Sascoc, the cycling fraternity and the entire South African sporting community mourns his passing and sends our prayers to his wife and family.”
Stander married elite road cyclist Cherise Taylor in May last year.
Mr Sam said an effort had to be made to protect athletes using South Africa’s roads. “I’ve said this time and again but it is really time to work even harder at protecting both our runners and cyclists who use the roads daily to do their training.”