South African professional bicycle racer, Catherine Colyn, has spent the past four months in the USA contesting the Lifetime Grand Prix Series, the most prestigious off-road cycling series North America, and possibly, the world. With the grand finale taking place this weekend, here’s a look at how she’s fared in a very different racing environment to South Africa.
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In many ways, the USA is more advanced than South Africa, but not in cycling events. South Africa remains the global leader in mass cycling events, certainly MTB and, increasingly, Gravel. This was discovered quite quickly by Colyn, who has contested four races in the US, each slightly different.
“The racing for me as a woman has been next level! It’s kamikaze style and it’s often more about just looking after yourself and not crashing than focusing on your performance, especially in the first hour or so. There is no UCI-style regulation of the off-road races here, it literally is the Wild West! Some races, the Pro Women will start with the Pro Men and other races we will have our own start.
“With many of the girls stating their opinions on social media and being vocal about how the only way to have fair racing among the women is to have our own start, the Big Sugar race this weekend is giving us our own start. I’m quite excited about this. We will start after the Pro Men, which will ensure no interference,” added Colyn.
“In the mixed starts, if you want to be competitive, you have to try and stay with the Pro Men as long as possible. And if you start ahead of the Pro Men, you know they will catch you. And that can make a big difference in the women’s racing, especially in the Gravel races where it’s possible for women to get towed in the draft of a men’s bunch. It’s been a learning and growing process that I have had to adapt to. Next year, all the Lifetime Grand Prix events will have separate starts for the Men and Women Pros,” she added.
“But the biggest thing really is the safety aspect. The large, frantic starts and a desire for the Pro Women to get a good position in a bunch makes it quite dangerous. Especially when the men are also fighting for positions. It’s just very different to what we have in South Africa and what I have experienced in Europe, but I have learned quickly how best to join the local racing rhythm,” Colyn continued.
Colyn doesn’t have the support of a team, but has managed to build a basic support base around herself while being based in Boulder, Colorado. I must thank the people at Specialized USA, who have been great with support for me at a couple of the races. It’s amazing that even some race support can make a big difference when you’re at your physical and mental limit,” she smiled.
Colyn is one of 35 Pro Women selected to compete in the prestigious series, which comprises a mixture of the biggest MTB and Gravel races in the United States. She is being supported by a few companies, with the primary financial support from Energy Innovation Holdings (EIH), a South African logistics, fuels and agriculture holdings company.
From a racing performance perspective, she’s has two top 20 finishes in the four races she’s contested so far.
At Leadville 100, a 170km mountain bike race at an altitude of 3000-3700m above sea level, Catherine finished 16th in the Lifetime Grand Prix competitors – a very solid result in a race that’s difficult to train for – and tricky to race as it’s at such a high altitude. At the Chequamegon MTB Festival, she held her own in a chaotic 60km, two-and-half-hour mountain bike race to finish 15th in the Lifetime Grand Prix contestants.
“Chequamegon was a frantic race! The start was on a downhill ski slope, so it was super wide and super fast! Most races in South Africa include some kind of climb early on to separate the field a bit, but this one was very much the opposite!”
Her most recent race was The Rad Dirtfest, where she withdrew at 70km after struggling with illness.
“I was feeling really good going into The Rad. But I gradually began to feel weaker as the race wore on and had to stop to throw up. I was completely flat from an energy perspective and decided to rather abandon and focus on the final race in the Lifetime Grand Prix series,” she said.
The Lifetime Grand Prix comprises seven premier US races, some Gravel and some MTB. The 35 Pro Men and Pro Women score points at each round, but only their best five results are counted to the final standings. They must participate in at least five of the events, including the final, the Big Sugar Classic on Sunday 21 October in Bentonville, Arkansas
Colyn was in 23rd in the Lifetime Grand Prix standings at one point, but her DNF at the most recent race saw her slip down to 30th. On Sunday she will contest a 100-mile Gravel race at the Big Sugar Classic, where she hopes to conclude the series on a positive note. She will be racing on the Specialized Crux.
“Each race has been different for me. I have just ensured that I start each race knowing that I have done the training and that I need to get through the frantic starts without any drama. I’m excited to contest Big Sugar Classic this weekend and also that it’s almost home time for me. It’s been four incredible months, but I have missed my home and my people!” she smiled.