After a year of turmoil and frustration, South Africa’s best XCO racers are raring to begin the 2021 UCI World Cup season this week, motivated to continue their upward rise and inspired by the potential for selection to compete at a postponed Olympic Games. Here’s what we can look forward to.

By Sean Badenhorst

Alan Hatherly will most certainly be in the podium hunt at the opening rounds of the UCI XCO World Cup Series. | Photo: Cannondale Factory Racing

South Africa has never been in such a strong position from an international XCO racing perspective as it is going into the 2021 international season. In Alan Hatherly, we can look forward to more Elite men’s podium battles and some top three finishes, while Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss could be knocking more Top-15 finishes if all goes well.

It’s worth remembering that the late, great Burry Stander was among the world’s best XCO racers from 2009-2012, so the bar is set high for any South Africans who have any kind of XCO racing ambitions. But while it’s a high bar, it’s also confirmation that South Africans have the potential to be among the world’s best.

While not quite as rapid a rise as Stander’s was, Hatherly’s progress has been steady and consistent and the way he performed in the only two World Cups of 2020 (with a sixth and a fifth) in his first year out of the Under-23 ranks, left us excited at what’s to come.

His move from Specialized to Cannondale Factory Racing was a shock for many. But early indications are that it’s been a smooth transition, especially if you look at his early racing results in South Africa this year so far where he won both rounds of the SA Cup Series he competed in, nursing a broken rib in the second one. He also finished third against a strong field in Caneva Italy on 25 April, confirming he’s retained his international clout.

Currently 13th in the UCI World Rankings (he was 26th at a similar stage in 2020), Hatherly  has developed into one of the sport’s rising stars in the Elite level and he will be eager to secure a podium finish in at least one of the first two World Cup rounds in Germany and the Czech Republic over the next 10 days.

Mariske Strauss is hoping her bad luck is behind her as she get set for the 2021 World Cup Series. | Photo: CST PostNL Bafang 

For Strauss, who races for the CST PostNL Bafang team, it’s been a somewhat tumultuous build-up to the first World Cup in Albstadt, Germany this weekend.

“I started off with some health issues in January and then, just when I started to feel good again, I got concussion in March, which set me back a bit. But my coach, Jeroen Swart, and my team, family and sponsors have all been amazing in their support,” said Strauss on Tuesday.

“I have been at base camp with the team in the Netherlands since February, which has been good for my training. Not too sure of my form currently but we’ll see this weekend. Motivation wise though, I’m very motivated. Besides the World Cups, there’s also the Olympics to aim for and I really just want some smooth, no-hassle races.”

Strauss is currently ranked 37th in the UCI World Rankings, one below compatriot, Lill, who feels her build-up has been a good one.

“I changed coaches at the end of last year and am working with John Wakefield now. I put in a lot of training during the South African summer and felt good in the races I competed in before heading to Europe,” said Lill from Italy on Wednesday.

Candice Lill is eager to transfer her good recent racing form into good results at the opening rounds of the 2021 XCO World Cup Series.

Lill, who races as an individual with the backing of Faces, Cannondale and Seattle Coffee Company, won the first three rounds of the South African XCO Cup series and finished seventh against a fairly strong field at Caneva, Italy on 25 April.

“I’m feeling really good on the bike and have been able to race a lot in South Africa recently. I’m mentally and physically in a good place. Last year, during Covid lockdown, I struggled with motivation, but with some big races to aim for, my motivation is at its peak right now,” she said.

South Africa’s other top Elite female racer, Cherie Redecker, has made the decision to skip the first World Cup this weekend as she’s not fully recovered from a broken collarbone. Redecker was the top South African finisher at the 2020 UCI XCO World Championships, in 29th place. But the Computer Mania rider has been unable to earn any UCI points this year due to a crash at Round 1 of the SA XCO Cup, where she sustained the injury that’s still hampering her.

Two other South Africans will be also be competing this weekend. The Computer Mania pair of Daniel van der Walt and Johan van Zyl will be among a large 145-rider field contesting the Under-23 men’s race on Saturday. Van Zyl and Van der Walt are the current to- two ranked Under-23 racers in the 2021 South African XCO Cup Series respectively and will be eager to test themselves internationally.

The Elite men and women will contest the XCC (Short Course) races on Friday 7 May before tackling the main XCO races on Sunday.

Catch the racing action live on SuperSport and online at Redbull TV here.