With a whopping R252 500 in prize money up for grabs, including R100 000 to the winning team, it is no wonder the 2019 FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay race has attracted a stellar field from across the globe. Boasting national champions aplenty and a World Championship bronze medallist, it is without a doubt the strongest ever elite women’s field for a South African three-day stage race.
Headlining the elite women’s category are the defending champions Candice Lill and Adelheid Morath. Lill has continued on from her strong 2018; securing her first senior South African title and is the highest UCI ranked rider lining up in the 2019 FNB Wines2Whales events. The South African XCO champion will continue her successful partnership with 2019 Swiss Epic champion Morath, who stormed to victory in the five-stage race, which took place in the Graubünden canton of Switzerland in August.
“Yes, we're returning to defend our title, but it does not add any pressure” Morath revealed. “I see it as a gift to be the team which sets out to defend the title. We will do our best and race all out. After the race we will see which team will win the title in 2019” the German rider pragmatically stated.
“I also enjoy the feeling of teaming up with such a strong woman and as a result I want to give my very best [to support Candice Lill]. In stage races it's not all about a once-off performance – you have to perform well every day. The challenge is to take care of yourself, your bike, your partner and the team around you, which supports you, throughout the race” Morath advised.
“The season has been quite long – beginning with the Cape Epic in March – with no break in between – until my final race of the season, at the end of October with FNB W2W. I'm honestly a little bit tired mentally and physically, but I’m still very motivated about it” she confided. “I'm coming with a lot of self-confidence, taken from the Marathon World Championships in September. I missed the bronze medal there by just 1 second and finished in an unlucky fourth position!”
The woman who pipped Morath to third place in the XCM World Championships is South African, Robyn de Groot. De Groot will be racing alongside dormakaba teammate Amy McDougall. The pair come into the FNB Wines2Whales straight from a general classification victory at Berg and Bush, in KwaZulu-Natal, where they held off Galileo Risk’s Sarah Hill and Theresa Ralph to claim the title.
In Ralph’s absence, Hill will be teaming up with Danielle Strydom for the 2019 race. “As much as I love the Western Cape, I unfortunately don’t get many chances to visit; however, that’s part of the reason why I’m so excited to be racing the FNB Wines2Whales” Strydom enthused. “The province is known for its amazing mountain biking trails with their spectacular scenery. I know that W2W will take us through the cream-of-the-crop of those trails and I cannot wait! It will be my first W2W, but from what I hear, I think the routes and trails will suit my riding style; as I love singletracks and the challenges of climbing.”
Like Hill and Strydom, the Fairtree-Rotwild, SA Roadtrippers and Ghost Factory Racing teams feature untested line-ups. Swedish XCM champion and former FNB Wines2Whales champion Jennie Stenerhag with start alongside Nadine Rieder for Fairtree-Rotwild. SA Roadtrippers will be represented by the South African/German combination of Katie Lennard and Laura Stark. While Barbara Benko and Catherine Colyn are another international/local duo.
“FNB Wines2Whales is my last target of the season and it fits perfectly as I will stay in South Africa after the race, for a little bit of a holiday” the Hungarian XCO champion, Benko explained. “I love South Africa and the weather will be good there too, as we will enter winter in Europe soon. I have a bit more of a reason now to stay longer too, as my boyfriend lives in South Africa. It will be time to reconnect again after the long season and spend some quality time together. Plus, I have a new, South African, coach. So, it makes sense to stay there, do some testing and planning with him for the next season. All-in-all racing FNB W2W is quite a winning situation for me!”
In order to match the winning rationale off the bike with results on the bike at FNB Wines2Whales, Benko and Colyn will have to best the Kross Spur team. Swiss XCM champion Ariane Lüthi, will team-up once more with New Zealand’s Samara Sheppard. Lüthi, who needs no introduction to South African mountain biking fans, but the woman from the Land of the Long White Cloud is somewhat of a dark horse.
Having placed fifth in the XCM World Championships in 2019 after racing to third in the Swiss Epic, alongside Lüthi, Sheppard is in formidable form. Unlike most of her rivals, her racing season does not end with FNB Wines2Whales either, as she is targeting The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain in her native New Zealand in December. The friendly Kiwi is also a proven stage racer, having secured victories in the Australian – Port to Port, Reef to Reef, and Cape to Cape – Epic Series races.
The final team, making up the formidable FNB Wines2Whales elite women’s line-up, is the pairing of Alice Pirard and Sabine Spitz, who will also be flying the dormakaba flag. Although an untested pairing, the Belgian – German team appears on paper to be a strong one as Spitz recently claimed a top 10 finish at the UCI Marathon World Champs and Pirard secured second place at the Swiss Epic.
Mountain biking fans can follow the women’s racing action, live from the FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay event, on the race’s social media channels or online at www.wines2whales.com. The first stage starts at 07h00, from Lourensford Wine Estate, on Friday 25 October. Live racing coverage can be found on Twitter, @w2wmtb, while Facebook, Wines2Whales, and Instagram, @wines_2_whales, will feature the best photos and videos from the three-days of superb mountain biking.
All images courtesy Wines2Whales