A small, but strong South African contingent arrived in Morocco on Wednesday to defend the country's position as the leading cycling nation in Africa at the 2008 International Cycling Union's Continental Championships, which start on Friday.
Nicholas White, winner of both the men's time trial and road race at the 2007 edition of the event, which was held in Cameroon, is returning to one of his happiest hunting grounds outside of his home country to not only defend his titles, but also receive a prestigious award.
White is the 2007/2008 International Cycling Union (UCI) Africa Tour champion and a special ceremony to hand over a new trophy for the competition will be held at the Continental Championships in Casablanca.
"I have achieved a lot of success in my career in Morocco, racing five Tours du Maroc, winning two and taking four stages in the process between 1993–2008," said the 34-year-old veteran campaigner, who has had to fund his own trip. "I feel it is only fitting that I am present when they host the African Champs.
"It would be great to be able to retain my two titles, not only for me but for South African cycling. I also think that riding as a defending champ will increase the value of the championship, and if somebody else wins, then his win will be more worthy!"
White will be joined by rising star and MTN Energade teammate, Jay Thomson, who won the Tour d'Egypte early this year and who aims to improve on his silver (time trial) and bronze (road race) performances at the African Championships last year.
"With only two of us from South Africa, we'll be a bit limited when it comes to the road race, but I'll be making the most of my years of experience. If I'm not able to win, then I'll do my best to help Jay win," White said.
White sees the Eritreans, Moroccans, Rwandans and Namibians as having the strongest opposition on what is an undulating 143km road race course. At 22km, the individual time trial is relatively short, but both White and Thomson, the current national Under 23 time trial champion, are expected to shine.
"Cycling South Africa has had a very busy year with a healthy increase in the number of riders and teams we've been able to send to race international events," said Cycling SA Chief Operating Officer, Carinus Lemmer. "Unfortunately, our budget isn't huge and we selected a team for the Continental Championships on the provision that the riders would have to cover the costs themselves, or have their team cover the costs. It's not ideal, but it's a reality and will hopefully improve when the newly restructured CSA secures corporate sponsorship."
Joining White and Thomson are top women, Marissa van der Merwe and Cashandra Slingerland, both members of the MTN professional team.
Van der Merwe, the current South African time trial champion and Beijing Olympian, is heading to Morocco to defend her continental road race title as well as have a crack at the podium in the individual time trial. Slingerland, a former South African time trial champion, who lists among her success this year wins at the Jock Tour and Pick n Pay Amashovashova, will also contest both events.
"Zimbabwe and Mauritius have some strong riders we need to be wary of," said Van der Merwe of the opposition, adding: "While it's been a long year, I'm very motivated to defend my title in what is becoming an increasingly prestigious event."
For the Continental Championship results or more information on South African cycling, visit www.cyclingsa.com