I headed to beautiful Sharm El Sheik, Egypt a few weeks ago for African Continental Championships. Always at the end of the season, Conti Champs is at a testing time of the year but, nevertheless, it’s always a highlight. As the current African road race and time trial champion, I was excited and anxious to defend my titles, but it turns out the real excitement was the women’s peloton.
Team South Africa sent a competitive group of both junior and elite women. South Africa is usually the power house team at Conti Champs so we were targeting medals in every event, but this year was a little different. The first clue was the individual time trial. I managed to secure the win by a decisive margin but the results easily showed the level of women’s racing in Africa was improving. The performance in general on the 23km course, a long course for women according to international standards, was clear proof that the African women’s peloton was improving.
The second clue that things were different this year was the start line of the road race. In my limited experience at Conti Champs, we’ve started the race with as little as ten riders. This year we were a sizeable peloton. With over 30 women on the start line, we were going to have to race harder and smarter than ever before. Right from the start, the racing was aggressive. Attacks were fast and furious and, not having a full team, we definitely felt the pressure. As the defending champion, my wheel was marked and it was difficult to get away. Reading the peloton, however, I decided the U-turn on the course would be a perfect place to attack. Using my technical skills for an advantage, I was able to break away from the bunch with only a Namibian and an Eritrean hot on my wheel. The three of us worked together and got a sizeable gap but the cooperation broke down in the final approach to the finish.
With the bunch gaining on us and only 5kms to go, the three of us were still playing cat and mouse. The racing started to heat up again, however, when my teammate An-Li attacked from the bunch. Along with representation from Ethiopia and Eritrea, An-Li started making her way across the dwindling gap. Vera, the Namibian rider with me in the break, read the numbers and quickly started to push the pace to secure her chances at a medal.
As we headed towards the finish line of the 63km race, I knew my best chances were to make it a long sprint. With 250m to go, I jumped out of my saddle and sprinted across the line to take the win. Namibia claimed 2nd, Eritrea pulled 3rd and An-Li, only 33 seconds behind us, managed 4th.
I was absolutely delighted to defend my Continental Championship jerseys in the road race and individual time trial, but the real win was seeing the growth of the African women’s peloton. The racing was exciting and aggressive and it sent a clear message that women’s racing is moving up on the continent. With so many financial constraints in African women’s cycling, I was truly surprised and excited to see so many women representing so many different countries. I was even more impressed seeing returning nations (especially my friends from Eritrea!) coming back much stronger and more competitive. I found out later that the UCI had pushed for funding, especially in the junior categories, and some teams had even been given equipment. A little support goes a long way and, if this year was any indication of the future, South Africa better watch out!
Our teammates in the junior race also won with Monique Gerber taking the jersey, Mikayla Olivier taking bronze, with Heidi Dalton and Andri Coetzee claiming 4th and 7th respectively. Heidi won the junior individual time trial and Monique took silver. The junior women also claimed gold in the team time trial.