To have one woman from a non-European country competing at the highest level in mountain bike racing is a gift. South Africa has three! Candice Lill, Cherie Redecker and Mariske Strauss aren’t expected to contest the medals at the 2020 UCI XCO World Champs on Saturday, but in a year that’s seen the sport’s biggest names falter, they will find themselves in a mountain-slope lottery. This is what we may – or may not – expect.

By Sean Badenhorst

When three former World Champions and the current Olympic champion finished outside the top 25 the Nove Mesto World Cups last week, it was about as 2020 as you could get. Former World Champions, Kate Courtney (2018), Jolande Neff (2017) and Annika Langvad (2016) all struggled to some extent less than a week ahead of the 2020 World Championships in Leogang, Austria.  And Olympic champion, Jenny Rissveds, winner of the penultimate World Cup round in 2019, was also well down in the results.

Before global responses to Covid-19 crushed all forms of normality, we got accustomed to watching Langvad, Courtney and Neff duking it out at World Cups and World Champs in the past three years, with Rissveds joining the fray again late last year. By contrast, 2015 and 2019 World Champion, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot was in sublime form last week, finishing third and first respectively and confirming she’s the firm favourite for Saturday’s big showdown.

Cherie Redecker | Photo: Ralf Schaeble/Conway Factory Racing

Of the South Africans, Redecker showed the best form last week. A puncture at Round 1 set her back a bit and she finished 45th 11:17 off the winner, while at Round 2 she was 38th 8:33 minutes off the pace.

“The first World Cup in Nove Mesto was a bit frustrating due to that puncture. The second race was better and I am happy with my progress. One always wishes to have done better but over time I have learnt to be happy with where I am, at the time. Learning from the negatives and carrying the positives through,” said Redecker on Wednesday.

“With the unusual year, it is difficult to say if I have peaked at the right time but the races in Nove Mesto gave me the motivation I need for World Champs,”

The courses at Nove Mesto and Leogang are quite different. Riders that shone last week aren’t necessarily guaranteed the same success on Saturday.

“The guys in Leogang managed to put together a good course in a short amount of time. The climbs and descents are steep and if the track does not dry out by Saturday, will make the steep descents challenging,” said Redecker.

“The World Champs and Nove Mesto course are very different. There are less passing opportunities and line choices at the World Champs. The climbs are longer and the soil in the forest is more loamy. You will probably see more of a mix with bike choice here, since it could go either way, depending on the rider and what they have available. Since the track gets very muddy in wet conditions, tyre choice is going to be important.”

Redecker, the 2015 Elite South African champion, has been living in Germany with her husband, Heiko, for almost four years and races for the Conway Factory Racing Team.

Candice Lill

For Lill (Faces), the 2019 South African champion, Nove Mesto proved to be a grind. She struggled in both rounds finishing 44th in the first and withdrawing from the second.

“My first XCO races in over a year were brutal! Definitely missing the race speed, intensity and how to fight for position. Got a few more big races lined up so hoping to find some kind of rhythm,” wrote Lill on her social media account this week.

Lill finished 16th at a 2019 World Cup round, so has the ability to fight for a top 15 finish on Saturday should she find that rhythm. Growing up in KZN, muddy conditions are part of her mountain biking DNA, so a slick course on Saturday may play into her favour in her quest to turn the form tide.

Strauss (CST PostNL Bafang) was ill early on at Nove Mesto and skipped the Short Track race for the first event. She finished 37thand 41st in the two XCO World Cups respectively, well off her best form which saw her finish 13th in a World Cup in 2019.

Mariske Strauss | Photo: Team CST PostNL Bafang

She started the eBike race in atrocious conditions on Wednesday, but sensibly pulled out early on and will hope to be at her physical and mental best for Saturday.

Despite her poor performance at the second Nove Mesto XCO race on Sunday, the USA’s Courtney is likely to be a medal contender. She reported she was struggling with a stomach bug and her sixth place at Round 1 shows she’s in the right race space.

Unlike Courtney, Neff (SUI) and Langvad (DEN) are unlikely to find peak form so soon, the former still really coming back from a very serious crash last December and the latter seemingly unable to regain the confidence she once had following a crash in June 2019. Rissveds too seems to be struggling and unlikely to be a title challenger on Saturday.

Ferrand-Prevot may be the favourite for Saturday, but she’s not an outright favourite. Her compatriot Loana Lecomte was the unexpected revelation at the Nove Mesto race-fest, finishing first and third in the two races respectively and the 21-year-old will be a certain medal contender on Saturday.

The Netherlands’s Anne Terpstra, second at both Nove Mesto XCO races is a definite title contender, as are Switzerland’s Sina Frei and Alessandra Keller, France’s Lena Gerault, Australia’s Rebecca McConnell, Britain’s Evie Richards and Austria’s Laura Stigger.

Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (front) and Loana Lecomte are two of the clear favourites for the World Champs title on Saturday. | Photo: Redbull Content Pool

The depth in Women’s XCO racing has increased remarkably over the past five years. So much so that the women’s XCO World Cup races are now as popular, if not more so, than the men’s in terms of fan interest. While South Africa may not have any definite medal contenders lining up for the 2020 World Champs on Saturday, we can be proud to have three women racing confidently at the highest level of the sport. That in itself is quite a statement.

The race will be televised live on SuperSport from 12h15 on Saturday, 10 October 2020.