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Last year's World Cup overall winner returns to defend title
2013 UCI MTB World Cup cross country elite women's winner and current European champion Tanja Zakelj spent some time away from mountain biking following last year's triumph and is rejuvenated and ready to tackle the tricky Cascades MTB Park course when the UCI MTB World Cup takes place this weekend in Pietermaritzburg.
The 25-year-old spent some time in the surf in the off-season while looking to subdue her natural competitive nature and lay low for a while to recharge her batteries ahead of what is going to be another long and bruising international mountain bike season.
"The off-season all went as I had planned, but I ended up having a little bit more fun than I initially expected," the Unior Tools Team star said. "After the last leg of the World Cup in Hafjell, I did a bit of relaxing and only rode socially which was a nice change.
"I went away to Fuertaventura and tried to do some surfing and spent some time on the beach relaxing before I went home to start training again.
"The whole Unior Tools Team then went to San Remo in Italy to do some technical training at the end of the pre-season, and we are all ready to race!" she said enthusiastically.
Having suffered a devastating crash at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg last year that ended her title aspirations and saw her finish fifth, Zakelj is wary of the Cascades course and has been preparing specifically for it in recent times.
"The course in Pietermaritzburg is technical so we have been trying to find places where we can simulate the same conditions and that is why we decided to go to San Remo because where I ride at home there are a lot of roots in the forests but no rocks.
"I believe the Cascades layout suits my style of riding, and I am doing a lot of technical training at the moment and that will come in handy on the tough course.
"I have tried to get myself as physically ready as I can so I can survive the climbs and just enjoy myself out there," a jovial Zakelj said.
Having ended in fifth at the same venue last year, the Slovenian rider is determined to improve on her below par World Cup record at Cascades when she takes to the track in the elite women's cross country event on Sunday, April 13.
"Getting a solid start to the season is always important, and I managed to get that start last year which helped me towards the end of the season so improving my World Cup record in Pietermaritzburg is important for me in defending my World Cup title.
"The first race of the season is always quite unpredictable and you don't really know what to expect from the other riders and so for me, finishing and knowing that I have given everything will make me happy no matter where I finish," the Slovenian star said.
The track at Cascades is very different to the tracks that Zakelj is used to riding in Europe but having been to South Africa on a few occasions previously she understands what to expect from the course and has prepared specifically for that.
"The most unique thing about the course must be the rock gardens. We don't really see them around during the other World Cup events but we have to adapt and that is what we have been doing in the off-season.
"In Pietermaritzburg, the preparation is crucial and knowing the lines you are going to take is vital before the event even starts.
"Once the work is done before the race it's all about going out there and having fun!" Zakelj said.