In 2019, Robyn de Groot became the first South African woman to win a UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships medal when she scooped the bronze in a sprint finish at the end of a gruelling 70km/3500m ascent battle in Grachen, Switzerland. This Sunday, against some odds, she’ll be contesting the 2020 edition, under pressure.

By Sean Badenhorst

Once you have won a medal at a major championship, your athlete status in subsequent editions changes from competitor to title contender. It’s simultaneously flattering and frightening. That’s where De Groot finds herself ahead of Sunday’s race in Sakarya, Turkey.

De Groot is the only South African contesting the annual marathon world champs in a year that’s given professional athletes more emotional challenges than physical ones. The event itself wasn’t quite confirmed until recently and an invitation from the organiser three weeks ago left De Groot, who’d resigned herself to not doing Marathon World’s this year, in a quandary.

“It was all a very last-minute decision. But so many people came to the party to make it happen and the people at dormakaba, our team’s sponsor, have been great in supporting this too,” said De Groot on Wednesday.

De Groot has managed to compete locally in a few events since early September 2020, once South African lockdown levels eased sufficiently for events to start up again, albeit in a restricted capacity. She won all the events she raced and feels she has the kind of form that can put her in a top five placing on Sunday, despite a less-than-ideal build-up.

“I trained differently this year, last year I’d raced a lot in Europe prior to racing World’s. This year has only been local training and limited racing. That being said, I feel good on the bike this year too. My coach, Barry Austin, gave me a thumbs up when I came to him two weeks ago asking if it would be worth going over to Turkey to compete,” said De Groot.

Despite having been in Sakarya since Monday, De Groot hadn’t been able to check out the race route yet by Wednesday.

“Everyone is waiting to ride the course. We have had to adapt as there has been lots of rain recently and they had an event on the course on Sunday, which proved that the surface is like clay and basically unrideable. We are due to have sunshine over the next few days leading to the race, so hoping it dries out,” explained De Groot.

The women will compete over an 82km route with around 2300m of vertical ascent. There’s an 11km segment to the 30km loop, which they complete twice before tackling the 11km segment back to the finish. The men will do three laps of the 30km loop for a total distance of 112km.

There are over 100 athletes representing 29 countries at the event. Despite the absence of 2019 winner, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, there should be a strong women’s field.

“I haven’t seen a start list yet, however based on the line-ups at XCO World Cups and World Champs and other big events in Europe, I get the feeling everyone is keen to race. I’m sure the line-up will be very strong,” said De Groot.

Besides De Groot and last year’s silver medallist, Blaža Pintarič of Slovenia, some likely podium contenders include Yana Belomoina (Ukraine), Isla Short (Great Britain), Ariane Luthi (Switzerland), Elena Gaddoni (Italy), Steffi Harberlin (Switzerland), Jennie Stenerhag (Sweden) and Maja Wloszczowska (Poland).

The women’s race starts at 12h30 South African time. The official race website is: