As it currently stands, and assuming the postponed Tokyo Games go ahead as planned this year, two South Africans will compete in the mountain bike discipline of XCO at the 32nd Olympic Games in late July. But who will those two riders be?

By Sean Badenhorst

Olympic qualification works largely on the UCI nation rankings by a certain date. That date falls after this weekend’s second UCI XCO World Cup in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. The host nation, Japan, gets two starting spots – one male and one female – regardless of its UCI ranking and then a further 30 start spots for men and women each are allocated as follows: Three riders for nations ranked 1 and 2; two riders for nations ranked 3-7 and one rider for nations ranked 8-21.

The other seven spots are allocated via the most recent continental championship positions for Africa, North America and Asia for nations outside the top 21-ranked countries; and top nation performances from the 2020 World Championships in Elite and Under-23. South Africa meets the first requirement for men and women, so the others aren’t applicable.

As of 13 May 2021, South Africa’s nation ranking in XCO is 15th in the Men and 15th in the Women. This means the country gets to send one male and one female to compete in Tokyo (it’s highly unlikely South Africa will drop out of the top 21 after this weekend). This confirms that South Africa will be eligible to send one male and one female to Tokyo.

This is assuming that SASCOC, the organisation currently tasked with managing South Africa’s Olympic Games participation, is happy with the riders put forward by Cycling South Africa. The real question then is which two riders would likely be selected?

Alan Hatherly | Photo: Cannondale Factory Racing

For the men, it’s really a no-brainer. Alan Hatherly has finished sixth, fifth and eighth at the last three UCI XCO World Cups (as at 13 May 2021). He’s currently ranked 13th on the individual UCI rankings and is likely to move close to – or even into the top 10 – after this weekend’s second 2021 UCI World Cup in the Czech Republic.

For the women, it’s more complicated. Cherie Redecker, Candice Lill and Mariske Strauss are the three that would likely be considered for selection by Cycling South Africa. All three have been competing internationally at top-graded UCI events, including XCO World Cups and the XCO World Championships since 2019.

Candice Lill | Photo: Cherie Redecker

As it currently stands (13 May 2021), Lill is 35th in the individual UCI rankings, with Strauss 41st and Redecker 67th. Considering that Redecker crashed and broke her collarbone in February at the first round of the South African XCO Cup and is still not fully recovered, it’s likely she will drop away as a selection option.

That leaves Lill and Strauss. It’s a tough one. Both have had top-20 finishes at World Cup races. Neither had their best results at the two World Cups held last year, but in 2019, the last full racing season, Lill had four top-20 finishes and Strauss had two. Strauss’s came in the XCC race in Italy, where she was 14th and the XCO race in Andora, where she was 13th. Lill’s top-20s came the XCC race in Switzerland, where she was 12th and the XCO races in France (19th), Czech Republic (16th) and Germany (18th).

Mariske Strauss | Photo: Team CST PostNL Bafang

From an historic perspective, Hatherly finished 26th, 8:35 down on gold medal winner, Nino Schurter at the Rio Olympics in 2016. No South African women contested the Rio Olympics, but a 19-year-old Lill was South Africa’s sole female competitor at the London Olympics in 2012. She was 27th 14:11 behind gold medal winner, Julie Bresset.

This weekend, Round 2 of the 2021 UCI XCO World Cup in the Czech Republic, marks the final opportunity for riders to score points towards Olympic qualification. Hatherly performed well on this course at the two World Cup rounds held here in 2020 and is most certainly a podium contender.

Cherie Redecker | Photo: Computer Mania MTB Team

For the women, Strauss will be keen to put last week’s race behind her where a mechanical on the start line saw her spend a lot of time and energy passing riders to her eventual 55th place. Lill will want to improve on her 31st place last weekend. The fact that her best ever World Cup finish (16th) was at Nove Mesto in 2019, will no doubt be a motivator.

Both superb athletes, Lill and Strauss will obviously be focussed on this weekend’s racing, but there’s no doubt that at the back of their minds they will be thinking about that one Olympic spot…

Catch the XCC races on Friday and the XCO races on Sunday live on SuperSport or online at Redbull TV.