By Quintin van Jaarsveld
South Coast mountain bikers Hayley Smith and Megan Bircher scooped silver medals at the 2014 CSA-MTB National Championships at Thaba Trails, Gauteng on Saturday.
Uvongo rider Smith (Bell Equipment) essentially raced on heart alone in the Under-23 women’s race.
She had spent limited time on the bike due to a back injury and had therefore braced herself for a long day of riding at altitude.
She tried valiantly to reel in Ashleigh Moffatt (Time Freight VELOlife) over five laps on a tough 4.5km dusty and rocky track and ultimately sealed silver in a time of 01:27:27.
“I knew my race was going to be hard and that I was going to suffer, so I’m happy with my result,” Smith told eHowz!t.
“I really enjoyed the race. It was one of the more technical tracks with a lot of very steep climbs and rocks.
“Racing at altitude always makes it harder and unfortunately my fitness levels were just not there to compete in such a tough competition.
“Ashleigh had a fantastic race and rode really well, I was just not able to catch her from the start and had to settle down into my own race.
“The track was very technical so I was very cautious as I could not afford to have another fall with my injury.
“It is really hard to race cross-country if you are not in peak condition but I’m glad to be able to be back on the bike and racing.”
Fresh out of high school, Smith has been able to focus on her riding on a full-time basis for the first time this year.
Injury – which occurred at the UCI MTB World Cup in Pietermaritzburg in April – aside, it has been a successful season characterised by consistent high-quality performances.
Among her most notable 2014 achievements were winning bronze at the African Continental Championships, retaining her KwaZulu-Natal women’s Under-23 cross-country series title, placing sixth in the national marathon championships and completing her first joBerg2c alongside her cousin Darryn Purtell.
“I have really had some fun this year on my bike,” she reflected.
“joBurg2c and sani2c were so much fun and I also really enjoyed the SA Marathon Champs.
“I would have liked to have been able to compete in more cross-country events but things don’t always go according to plan.
“I still have some exciting events to do this year, so I will be working on getting my fitness back and having some fun on the bike at these events.”
Bircher bags silver, eyes greatness
Port Edward youngster Bircher (Pure Adventure VELOlife) showed her passion and will to win as she recovered from two crashes to take silver in the two-lap sub junior girls race in a time of 00:49:58.
“I’m really happy as I was aiming for a top five and landed up getting a second, so I’m extremely overwhelmed,” she told eHowz!t.
“The race was really enjoyable, very technical and dry. There was a lot of climbing and there were about seven rock gardens, so you had to focus the whole time.
“I fell twice but I didn’t want to waste time so I jumped on my bike as quick as possible and carried on with the race.”
Bircher finished second to Tiffany Keep in what is her first year as a sub junior and only her second year of racing.
Her gutsy performance was reminiscent of a young Burry Stander, which comes as little surprise as the 13-year-old was one of the late, great Olympian’s biggest fans.
She hopes to one day reach the heights her idol did and to mean to the younger generation what he meant to her.
“This is definitely one of my top achievements since I started riding,” said Bircher, who won the 20km women’s race in the Burry Stander Sardine Classic in Port Edward earlier this month.
“I am really happy as Burry also achieved goals like these when he was young.
“My dream is to be like Burry when I’m older and to represent South Africa at the Olympics just like him.
“I want to inspire younger riders like he inspired me and all the younger riders today.
“My immediate goals, though, are to finish this season without any injuries, to get a top three finish in the rest of the races this year and to win SA Champs next year.”
It’s clear that hers is a young love for the sport, devoid of the stress and weight of expectation felt by professional riders.
“The thing I enjoy most about cycling is the atmosphere when racing. All the support really encourages you,” she said.
“There are a lot of racers with good sportsmanship and that is also really encouraging, no matter where you come, everyone congratulates you.
“Cycling is a very competitive race but as long as you have fun on your bike, you’ll achieve the goals you set.”
With her obvious talent, passion and desire, Bircher has a bright future ahead of her.