South Africa’s two fearless blondes, Mariske Strauss and Cherie Redecker, get the rainbow nation’s Commonwealth Games mountain bike campaign underway on Thursday, writes MARK ETHERIDGE in Gold Coast, Australia.
The two tackle the women’s cross-country race at 2:30am South African time and will be hoping that when people get out of bed on Thursday morning, there’ll be something to celebrate.
A tiny field of just 13 will tackle 4.5-kilometre laps through the Nerang Forest. The women will race one start lap and five full laps. Men race one start lap and six full laps.
Team South Africa’s mountain bike manager is Erica Green, herself a former double Olympic mountain biker, having represented SA on the same continent 18 years ago in Sydney.
Describing the course, she took time to consider: ‘Well, it’s not a World Cup course, nor is it a national championships course! The best way I could describe it is as a tricky course, rather unique. In fact, it’s a sneaky course. It seems unassuming but it can definitely catch you out big time.
‘It’s the sort of course where you can’t afford to let your concentration slip for a second. Both our girls are very comfortable on the course, they’re extremely proficient technical riders and their training has been going well.
‘Of course, if it rains, the course will be a different beast because those rocks will get very, very slippery.
‘Cherie will be riding with a hard-tail bike set-up and Mariske will be on a full-suspension bike.’
Of the 13 riders, there are a few big names that jump out apart from England’s Annie Last (she rode the recent Cape Epic with Strauss) and Canada’s Emily Batty. Oh and then there’s recently crowned Commonwealth women’s triathlon champion Flora Duffy of Bermuda, a regular rider of the trails in Stellenbosch where she often bases herself for training.
Of course, whether she’ll still line up after victory last Thursday and then racing the mixed team relay two days later, is another question, and on Wednesday night, it was looking increasingly unlikely.
Green says a medal will do wonders for mountain biking in SA. ‘SA mountain biking needs a good result. It will just boost the confidence and make our riders feel that they belong with the best.’
Dare South Africa dream of adding to their medal tally on the Gold Coast on Thursday?
‘Well, we’ve made the girls pack their podium bags,’ says Green in a vote of confidence.
Meanwhile, South African Alan Hatherly toes the line at his inaugural Commonwealth Games and for the 22-year-old national champion, it’s a chance to pit himself against a tough international field. So just who and what is Hatherly up against?
Unlike the UCI XCO World Cup circuit, the Commonwealth Games has no age group categories, so despite being U23, Hatherly will be lining up with Elite riders. Among them are a few dangerous riders he will need to keep a close eye on.
‘There’s the New Zealand Team of Sam Gaze, Anton Cooper and Ben Oliver,’ says Hatherly. ‘We also have Australian Dan McConnell who’s on home soil so he’ll be firing, no doubt. I reckon it will be the five of us who’ll be mixing it up at the front out there.’
The race will feature the most exciting young talent in mountain biking right now, with both Gaze (2017) and Cooper (2015) being past U23 world champions. Gaze narrowly beat Hatherly to win last year’s U23 world title on Australian soil, and Cooper beat Gaze to Commonwealth glory four years ago.
But few can argue that it is Gaze who is in the ascendancy right now, the powerfully-built Kiwi won the first round of the World Cup in Stellenbosch, beating out the Swiss maestro, Olympic and 2017 Elite World Champion Nino Schurter. Cooper placed sixth. In the U23 race in South Africa, Oliver placed second, but Hatherly was forced to sit out with a wrist injury. Don’t discount the veteran Aussie, McConnell, who was third in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 and has years of top-level World Cup racing experience to draw on.
With a course that doesn’t offer too much technically, opportunities to create gaps will come down to raw power and tactics. ‘It’s definitely a big boy course,’ Hatherly says. ‘So watts will be flying and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I think the race will split up pretty quickly. By the end of lap two, the race should be decided in terms of who’ll be staying and who is unable to hold the pace.’
The first opportunity to see the race track in Nerang State Forest was last week Friday. Hatherly inspected it closely with his Team Spur and Team South Africa mechanic, JP Jacobs. ‘It allowed us to make sure all my lines were dialed and I had the fastest route planned before I hit the track on Saturday,’ says Hatherly. ‘The course has quite a few open sections, but when it gets rocky, it gets quite gnarly and it can be easy to puncture or mess up your bike.
‘The track is faster than a typical UCI XCO World Cup track, with an average speed of around 21km/h, it’s definitely one of the faster tracks I’ve been on. The 4,5km lap offers only around 100m of climbing, which is split over two climbs, so it’s not as punchy as an XCO course. It’s more of a continuous effort with a lot of pedaling, which I’d say suits me a bit more at this time of the year. It’s quite similar to the World Champs course in Cairns [Australia] last year,’ reflects Hatherly.
Team Spur mechanic JP Jacobs and Hatherly have worked together closely for just over a year now, and their connection and understanding helps to keep everything running smoothly. ‘JP knows how I like my bike set up, and what tweaks or changes I tend go for on a course like this,’ explains Hatherly. ‘He is one of the best mechanics out there, so as far as fine tuning the bike, I definitely have the advantage of having the bike as fast as possible, that just leaves it up to me now to pull it off.’
Photo: Team South Africa’s trio of mountain bikers (left to right: Hatherly, Strauss and Redecker) check out the lie of the land ahead of Thursday’s all-action MTB cross-country, by JP Jacobs