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Marissa makes merry

Marissa van der Merwe (Team USN) became the 2011 South African Elite women’s road race champion when she outsprinted a small group to win the 86km race in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. Robyn de Groot (Nashua Toyota) and Cherise Taylor (Team USN) claimed the silver and bronze medals respectively.

It’s the first national road race title for Van der Merwe, a 32-year-old professional racer from Middelburg, Mpumalanga, but the second in succession for Team USN after Taylor claimed the coveted title last year.

ÔÇ£I’m really happy with this win today. I’ve been training really hard and today it paid off. The fact that the course was incredibly hard and hot made it suited to the riders with stronger minds, I think, but physically it was brutal too,ÔÇØ said Van der Merwe afterwards.

The race, which took place in temperatures close to 40 degrees Celsius, became a test of attrition as the lead group formed more as a result of riders dropping off the back than attacks off the front.

On the seventh of 10 laps of the 8.6km circuit, the lead group halved in size from eight to four, with Nashua Toyota’s Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and De Groot left to contest the medals with Van der Merwe and Taylor. Moolman, a strong climber, put in an attack on one of the steep climbs on the final lap, but the move was neutralised by the USN pair, setting up a four-rider showdown in the finale.

The pace of the leaders slowed dramatically in the final 1.5km as the riders began to look for a tactical edge. Van der Merwe, who was sitting on De Groot’s wheel, kicked for the line first with 250 metres remaining and De Groot was unable to come back at her, forced to settle for the silver medal. Taylor outgalloped Moolman Pasio for the final podium place.

ÔÇ£I told Marissa to sit on Robyn’s wheel while I sat on Ashleigh’s wheel,ÔÇØ explained Taylor afterwards. ÔÇ£They wanted us to come through, but we stuck to our strategy and it paid off. That’s racing.ÔÇØ

Taylor won the women’s individual time trial title on Thursday, giving Team USN both national road titles for 2011. Saturday’s victory was even sweeter for Van der Merwe, as it came just a few months after she’d seriously considered retiring from professional racing.

ÔÇ£I became disillusioned with racing towards the end of last year. I was going to retire from pro road racing and just ride for a club and do some mountain bike racing. But then the Team USN offer came up and I took it,ÔÇØ said the Beijing Olympian.

ÔÇ£It’s a small team but it gives us riders the freedom to choose the races we want to peak for. I’m really enjoying my riding again and it’s showed in my training and obviously my two wins already this year,ÔÇØ

Van der Merwe won the first major race of the year last Sunday, the Pick n Pay Fast One, an indication of her good form ahead of the national championships.

South African Road Championships 2011, Port Elizabeth
Elite women’s road race (86km)
Leading results:

1 Marissa van der Merwe (Team USN)
2 Robyn de Groot (Nashua Toyota)
3 Cherise Taylor (Team USN)
4 Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (Nashua Toyota)
5 An-Li Pretorius (MTN Qhubeka)