Robyn de Groot has had a crazy year of ups and downs with a major injury and surgery, some sponsor losses and a slow recovery and build up back to form. Her best position at a World Marathon Championships was a 6th position at the 2014 event in Pietermaritzburg. Following on was a 10th in Germany in 2017 and 21st last year in Italy. The ambitions for this year seemed all but dashed after being diagnosed with a vascular injury which required major surgery and a long road to full recovery. It seemed certain that any world championship goals may not come to fruition in 2019. On Sunday Robyn claimed the bronze medal at the 2019 UCI World Marathon Championships. An incredible comeback following a tough year for South Africa's most decorated marathon mountain biker.
How The Race Played Out
The women’s race saw 73 starters take to the course in Grächen, Switzerland, where they faced 70km and more than 3100m of climbing. Newly-crowned XCO UCI World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (27) started on the front line alongside the XCM riders ranked no 2, 3, 4 and 5: Slovenia’s Blaža Pintarič, Florence Darbellay of Switzerland, Lithuanian Katazina Sosna and the second of 21 Swiss riders, Esther Süss.
After the initial short loop, the riders passed the start/finish area with Ferrand-Prévot in the lead group which had been joined by Germany’s Elisabeth Brandau and Sabine Spitz. As the women put in the early work thousands of viewers worldwide did the easier job - watching the live footage through the UCI’s social media channels.
At 14km (Chrizägerte), Ferrand-Prévot had pulled away from the field, steadily increasing her lead and by the 25km mark (Riti) the French rider led by 38 seconds from Pintarič (eighth position in 2018, and UCI MTB Marathon World Championships medalist in 2004 and 2005 under her maiden name, Blaža Klemenčič), with Nicole Koller (SUI) 2 minutes down.
Approaching Kalpetran, after 47km, Ferrand-Prévot was 1:33 ahead of Pintarič. In third and fourth places were Germans Adelheid Morath, who had been slowly working up through the top ten, and Brandau, four minutes down. Robyn de Groot (RSA) was in fifth. After almost 3 hours of racing, at St Niklaus (53km), the advantage was over 2 minutes with the Slovenian starting to slip back into what had become a chasing group of three.
At Waldheim, with just 7km left to race, the time gaps were tightening up: Ferrand-Prévot was 1:06 ahead of Pintarič, with Morath, Brandau and de Groot a little over 3 minutes down. And while the French rider maintained her gap to the Slovenian it was the chasing duo of Morath and De Groot who were closing in over the final kilometres as Brandau dropped back.
The final result was winner Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (FRA) in 3:57:09, with Blaža Pintarič (SLO) taking the silver medal, 1:53 later and Robyn de Groot (RSA) the bronze, 2:40 down, having outsprinted Morath.
What Robyn Had To Say
"It still hasn't sunk in to be honest. I am super chuffed. I felt honored to stand up on that podium. I reached a goal that I have been working towards this year. It was such a special feeling and one I will never forget." Robyn explained.
"I am always proud to represent South Africa, especially on the world stage at Marathon World Championships. It was also great to have my coach out on the course. At some point he shouted to me that a podium spot was open so it was extra special when I realised I had crossed the line in third and taken the bronze medal."
This result comes after a long and difficult year for Robyn. She had vascular surgery in January and also lost some major sponsors. Robyn was unsure on the future of her racing career at that point and it was never certain if her recovery and preparation would be on track for this year's World Marathon Championships.
"I took my recovery slowly. It was a good thing not to push my body too hard, too soon. I think that was key following my surgery. I followed the book with regards to my rehabilitation and my coach and I worked closely on building up from the basics again. I just stayed calm and focused, and everything seemed to come together perfectly."
Robyn is still in celebration mode and she points out that she couldn't have done it alone. "There are so many people to thank. My family have been an incredible support. I have some really close friends who have stood by me in some testing times. It hasn't been an easy year, despite a successful and pain free surgery. It was still tough when I didn't have any sponsors or financial backing. I am incredibly grateful for the sponsors who took me on. Dormakaba have been amazing and taken away a lot of my stress from a financial perspective."
Image by Spotograf
The course at Grachen, Switzerland is notoriously tough and grueling. The 70km featured 3100m of climbing and some rough technical descents thrown in too.
"I was lucky enough to recce some of the course in the week leading up to the event and I started to feel really good on those sessions out on the course. I tried to keep balance and stay calm in my build up. We even managed to do some sight seeing 2 days before the race. My body felt ready and I felt my form was on track for a great race day."
Robyn describes how the race unfolded. "We started the race really fast. There was a big fight to get into the single track in a good position. I started in 49th position and I knew what I had to do to get to the front as soon as possible. Somehow I managed to move forward with ease and found myself in the right place for the decent. A small group stayed together for a while but as we started climbing again the group whittled down and eventually myself, Elizabeth Brandau and Adelheid Morath had formed a group which stayed together for most of the race. The pace stayed high as we chased down Blaža Pintarič in 2nd. I wasn't sure if Adelheid and Elizabeth (both German riders) would work together to try and secure medals for Germany so I kept contact and raced smartly to stay with them. The final climbs were tough and a few steep and nasty climbs saw all three of us going for a run up the steeper sections. After that I noticed Brandau was starting to tire and I knew it was a good time to put some pressure on to ensure the third place was between myself and Adelheid. This worked well and as I followed her on the final 5km of single track towards the finish I knew it was down to the sprint. I timed it perfectly and somehow found the final kick to secure the bronze medal."
Robyn has enjoyed her time in Europe and has one more week before heading back to South Africa for some final races to end the season.
"This European block has been amazing. I have done some great training out here and been able to enjoy the summer months. When I return I will join my team mates to race Berg & Bush, then onto Wines 2 Whales and a few one day races to round out the season."