British marathon national champion Sally Bigham believes she is on the perfect training and preparation track ahead of this year's UCI Mountain Bike Marathon World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa and is eager to get her hands on her maiden rainbow striped jersey and world champion title this June.
With four Cape Epic finishes, another DNF and half a dozen other trips to South Africa under her belt, the Topeak-Ergon Racing Team star is relishing the opportunity to return to sunny South Africa in a little over five weeks' time to take on the best off-road endurance cyclists the world has to offer.
Having finished second in March's gruelling eight-day long Cape Epic and then notching up her fifth national title just a few days ago, Bigham comes into the clash in formidable form and has one clear goal for this year's world champs.
"The world championships is the biggest race a marathon rider can win. It's the most important and to win it this year in South Africa would be a dream come true!" said Bigham.
"The European and world marathon championships are two pretty big season goals for me this year and I'm exactly where I want to be in terms of my form at the moment. My winter training was perfect and then I haven't had any big disruptions to my training since coming back after the off season in November."
"With British Nationals now behind me, I have some smaller races in the UK coming up in the next couple of weeks. Then it's the European marathon championships in the middle of June and so in another four weeks or so I aim to be in top shape - it's important not to peak too soon!" she said.
Bigham missed out on the coveted title in 2013 by the narrowest of margins when she was pipped to the post by mountain biking legend Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjaa.
2014 presents a fresh opportunity for Bigham to challenge for top honours however the Topeak-Ergon ace is uncertain of exactly where her greatest threat will come from.
"I haven't seen an entry list yet, but I expect Esther Suss and Annika Langvad will be hard to beat again this year. I also think that Ariane (Kleinhans) could be in the mix this year!"
Despite being set to compete at this year's world champs in the colours of her native Switzerland, Kleinhans' strong South African ties - due to wedding bells having rung for her and Team RECM flyer Erik Kleinhans three years ago and the pair now residing in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape - should give the host nation's adopted sweetheart a good foundation ahead of this year's global clash in Pietermaritzburg.
With home ground advantage in their favour, Bigham also believes Kleinhans' regular rivals from the local South African racing scene may well feature this time around, too.
"Marathon and stage racing is big worldwide, especially in South Africa, because it's accessible to so many people. It's really nice to see so many people, ranging from fully professional to amateur, racing together - something you don't get in cross country - and it creates a great atmosphere.
"I certainly hope this marathon and stage racing culture within South African cycling circles will see some of the South African ladies be competitive at this year's Worlds."
"I love South Africa! It's such a beautiful country with friendly people, amazing MTB and great food. The café-and-cake culture is pretty good too!" she said, laughing.
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