For the first time, most cycling disciplines will have their annual world championships in the same area at the same time. Glasgow, Scotland is the host region for the 2023 UCI World Championships. We’ll preview the chances of South Africans in each of the mountain bike disciplines over the next few days – first up, the XCO.
Words: Sean Badenhorst | Photos: Dominic Barnard & Justin Barlow
For our mountain bike market size, South Africa has done pretty well at the XCO World Championships in the past 15 years or so. In 2009, Candice Lill (then Neethling) grabbed the bronze medal in the Junior Women’s race and Burry Stander won the Under-23 men’s title. In 2008, Stander secured silver in the Under-23 race and in 2010, won the bronze medal in the Elite men’s race.
In 2017, Alan Hatherley secured the silver medal in the Under-23 men’s race. He then followed that up in 2018 with the gold medal in his final year in the Under-23 division. The following year, the UCI added an eBike category, which Hatherly duly won.
So we have a total of seven XCO World Championships medals – three gold, two silver and two bronze medals. What can we expect in Scotland in August? Well, it’s realistic to say that we have one real medal contender this year, Hatherly. We also have probably the strongest XCO squad that we have ever sent to a World Championships – here they are, along with their World Champs prospects.
We’ve written extensively about Hatherly in recent years – and months. He’s due a World Cup win and we think it will happen this year. Or, it could be the imminent first Elite men’s win will come in Scotland ag the World Champs. We’ll take that. There are fewer starters at a World Champs than a World Cup, but that won’t really affect the front of the race, where Hatherly will be. But it’s perhaps a stretch to expect Hatherly to challenge for the gold medal this year – he needs to beat favourites that include Schurter, Pidcock, Van der Poel for that, but a shot at a medal isn’t unrealistic.
The winner of the gold medal when Lill won the bronze at the Junior World Champs in 2009 was Pauline Ferrand-Perot. The Frenchwoman enjoyed early success as an Elite but then suffered through a tough few years. Her resurrection to her current status as probably the world’s leading XCO racer over the past three years can largely be attributed to her South African coach, Barry Austin. In October last year, Austin started working with Lill and the difference is evident. She’s comfortably winning local races (marathons and XCO) by quite a margin. Internationally, she’s also shown improvement over 2022 finishing just outside the top 20 in recent World Cups. What can she do at the World Champs? We reckon she’s good for a top 15 and, if everything goes her way on race day, possibly a top 10.
Johan van Zyl
He’s been the most consistent top performer among our Under-23 men this year. Besides being a really powerful rider, Van Zyl is tough. He gets on with racing at 100% even when he has encountered bad luck. We’re not sure why (possibly weight), but he races without a dropper seatpost, which is unusual in XCO these days. He’s finished in the top 30 at World Cup races this year and we reckon he has a shot at a top 20 finish in Scotland if he has a smooth race.
Moir’s top 10 finishes at World Champs as a Junior indicated his potential. He’s struggled with consistency as an Under-23, but a 14th place at the Leogang World Cup recently reminded us of his talent. He too started training under the guidance of Barry Austin recently who seems to be making a difference already. Based on his inconsistency, we reckon he’s either going to be in the top 10 at the World Champs, or outside the top 20… We’re hoping for the former.
Terlouw has juggled road racing with mountain bike racing this year and it seems to have paid off. He was third in the Under-23 Men’s race at SA Champs and third in the Elite men’s race at the African Champs. He did two World Cup races – Leogang and Val di Sole – where he finished 75th and 73rd respectively. He lacks international racing experience, but can expect to challenge for a top 40 in Scotland, possibly top 30 if he has a ripper.
Scott secured the bronze medal at the recent African Championship in Johannesburg. Admittedly, some of the stronger Under-23s race up a category in the Elite race in pursuit of more UCI points, but Scott raced smart, paced himself well and always looked composed and focused on that podium spot. He raced a UCI World Cup recently (Leogang), where he finished on the same lap as the winner – those that know, know the importance of that. In Scotland, if he has a good race, he could finish in the top 40.
Khumalo has been in the full-time-racing deep-end this year. A member of the Pump for Peace team, he raced the Absa Cape Epic, the South African Cup Series and a couple of World Cups. The KwaZulu-Natalian has never looked overwhelmed and really has delivered some solid performances. He finished on the same lap as the winner at the Lenzerheide and Leogang World Cups. In a race with over 100 starters, not being lapped is a small victory in itself! In Scotland, he should be in the top 50 – top 40 if he has a really smooth race.
Jacobs only started racing XCO seriously last year. She immediately made an impact in South Africa, winning the Junior national title and the SA Cup Series. In her first year as an Under-23, she has held her own with domestic wins and top 30 finishes at the World Cups that she contested. She’s likely to finish in the top 20 at the World Champs with a top 15 possible if all goes well on the day.
He won the South African and African titles this year, but perhaps the best indicator of Roets’ potential is his 2022 World Champs performance. As a first-year Junior, he was 31st just over 6 minutes off the winner – in Europe, that’s a very respectable result. How will he fare in Scotland? With no racing abroad this year, it’s hard to say, but a top 15 is surely possible.
Ambrosi has been the perennial rival of Roets, especially last year and this year in the Junior category. He’s had some bad luck this year, but has silver medals at both SA Champs and African Champs. Like Roets, he’s only done one international race – the 2022 World Champs – where he was 51st. One year stronger and smarter should see him challenge for a top 30 position in Scotland.
Wilson has improved with almost every race he’s done this year. The KwaZulu-Natalian won the final round of the SA Cup Series last weekend, which will have been a great boost for his confidence. This World Champs will be his first international race, which is always an eye-opening experience. But he is a first-year Junior and will definitely benefit from the encounter. He should finish in the top 60, possibly top 50 if he has a cracker race.
In her second year as a Junior, Baber has been dominant in South Africa, winning every XCO race she’s started, including the South African Champs and the African Champs. She recently spent five weeks in Europe to gain some international experience. It will be her first ever World Champs participation and a top 30 will be a solid result for the Limpopo racer.
It’s worth noting that Phil Buys, who won the 2023 Elite men’s XCO title as well as most of the SA Cup Series events, was selected for the World Champs team. He opted not to go. It’s also good to see that Cycling South Africa is paying for the accommodation for the South African team members at the 2023 UCI World Championships.
In Hatherly, our country has one reasonable shot at a medal this year, but we should also be celebrating where South Africa is currently. We’ve never had such depth across the three UCI categories Elite, Under-23 and Junior in XCO racing. There are many reasons for this, which we’ll explore in another article. But for now, let’s appreciate what we have, get excited about the future and give maximum support to our compatriots racing in Scotland.
Here’s a short video preview of the XCO course in Glentress Forest, which is likely to suit riders that have good technical skills. Scotland isn’t known for its dry weather, so expect wet conditions and feel a little more confident in our riders if it is a dry day when they race.
Here’s the XCO schedule:
Thursday 10 August: Junior Women, Junior Men
Friday 11 August: Under-23 Women, Under-23 Men
Saturday 11 August: Elite Women, Elite Men
Live coverage will likely be on GCN+ and SuperSport, but we’ll confirm closer to the event.