Former Under-23 South African Cross Country shining star Mariske Strauss is excited by the step up into the elite women’s category that 2014 brings and is eager to take a first stride in the direction of her UCI Mountain Bike World Cup top 20 goal when she tackles the Pietermaritzburg leg of the international series at Cascades MTB Park from 11-13 April.
Having blossomed in her final year as an Under-23 competitor in 2013, Strauss now has the whole of the country’s mountain biking fraternity’s eyes on her as she enters the big wide world of the elite women’s race category.
ÔÇ£Being in my first year as an elite rider, its back to being a small fish in a big pond!ÔÇØ described Strauss. ÔÇ£I’ll start right at the back of the field and I’ll really have to try find my bearings all over again.
ÔÇ£It’s quite a strange feeling knowing I’m now an elite rider. When I was younger I always used to aspire to be an elite and now all of a sudden I am one. It all feels a bit weird,ÔÇØ she laughed.
A career-defining 2013 saw Strauss, together with BMC-SA’s Candice Neethling, become a shining light in the world of women’s mountain biking in South Africa and she now hopes to take things forward in the women’s elite category locally as well.
ÔÇ£Recently the women’s elite category is probably the one area where we haven’t quite been as competitive as we would have liked to internationally and hopefully I can try help take things up a level or two this year.
ÔÇ£Yolande Speedy was an amazing athlete in her day but unfortunately she didn’t have as many opportunities to race internationally as we do now.
ÔÇ£Hopefully I can try bring something new to the women’s elite category in South Africa and try push things a little further.ÔÇØ
Last year also saw Strauss join the European-based Orange Monkey pro team, a move which the Western Cape based star is delighted to have made.
ÔÇ£Joining Orange Monkey really was a big step in my career. It’s been such a blessing having such an awesome team who is always ready to walk a path with me.
ÔÇ£Unfortunately, even with an amazing South African team, you just don’t have the support structures that a European team can offer and so I’m really excited to try grow with Orange Monkey for the foreseeable future.ÔÇØ
Whilst having set the world ablaze in 2013, the step up in age groups this year presents a whole new challenge. The changes are something that excited Strauss but have also seen her having to rethink certain goals and ambitions as well.
ÔÇ£Working with Jeroen [Swart] means everything is all very scientific and structured, which really helps keep me going in the right direction and working towards my goals.
ÔÇ£I’m going to be racing the Absa Cape Epic this year with Hanlie Booysens so that will be a really good experience and I’m going in with a really open mind.
ÔÇ£I’d also really hope to achieve a top 20 in the World Cup series. It will be a whole different ball game racing in the elite category so I’ll just take it as it goes but I’m really looking forward to the challenge.
According to Strauss the fact that the World Cup season opener takes place so close to home is a huge advantage and something she hopes will enable her to get her 2014 World Cup efforts of to a flying start.
ÔÇ£It’s so awesome that the first World Cup is so close to home and that it fits into my varsity scheduleÔÇØ said the Stellenbosch University student currently in her second year of her BSc. Sports Science.
ÔÇ£It’s practically in our own back yard so it would be silly not to try work hard towards doing well at an event like that!
ÔÇ£Pietermaritzburg also holds a very special place in my heart. I’ve raced there for the past 12 years, it is an amazing track that the organisers and designers just keep making better and better and I know the course like the back of my hand so I’m really looking forward to racing there again in April.ÔÇØ
Despite suffered a heart-breaking crash in the semi-final of the women’s cross country eliminator at last year’s UCI MTB & Trials World championships at the same venue (see right), Strauss is adamant the incident is something she has put well behind her and won’t have an impact on her mentally in 2014.
ÔÇ£I’m reminded about the crash every single day because I still have a dent in my leg from where my frame connected with my muscle,ÔÇØ laughed the young star. ÔÇ£The memory of the crash doesn’t really bother me though.
Known for its tight, technical nature and short, sharp acceleration requirements, the Cascades course can also become a completely different beast in the rain as they combination of hundreds of tyres and the clay-based terrain soon churn up into a slippery slide.
ÔÇ£I’m sure most would be hoping the rain will stay away but I’m a bit of a strange competitor as I seem to enjoy the odd conditions more. Pietermaritzburg is a very different mud to most other places and the course almost becomes like peanut butter when it gets really wet.
ÔÇ£The rain also certainly levels the playing fields entirely, especially in Pietermaritzburg, and things become far more of a mental challenge when it’s as slippery as it can be at Cascades.
“I’ve always tried to make every course I ride my own though so we’ll just take whatever comes our way this year. Either way, the Pietermaritzburg course is awesome!
ÔÇ£For me, looking back on my whole eliminator at World Champs last year is actually really exciting because I feel it proved that we as South African girls can actually race against the best in the world!ÔÇØ
With thousands of mountain biking, cycling and general sporting enthusiasts expected to descend upon the Cascades MTB Park in early April, Strauss is looking forward to the rush of competing in front of a South African crowd on an international stage again.
ÔÇ£Even though you’re in a really special zone when you’re racing, you do hear the crowd from time to time and it makes such a huge difference hearing the crowd cheering your name and supporting you!ÔÇØ said Strauss.
ÔÇ£It is such an awesome experience having so many people at the track and coming out to support us!ÔÇØ she added.
The UCI MTB World Cup, presented by Shimano, takes place at the Cascades MTB Park in Pietermaritzburg from 11-13 April 2014.