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Strauss takes on Speedy in Mankele

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Women's winner Yolande Speed is in a class of her own.

Women's winner Yolande Speed is in a class of her own. (Image credit: Zoon Cronje)
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Mariske Strauss before the start of the marathon national series races in Clarens.

Mariske Strauss before the start of the marathon national series races in Clarens. (Image credit: Zoon Cronje)

MTN-Energade's Yolandé Speedy and Mariske Strauss will resume their ongoing battle in the South African National Cross Country series that will take place in Mankele, just outside of Nelspruit, on Saturday, June 12.

The battle between these two riders will undoubtedly be one of the main highlights in the series this year, because women's mountain biking has been dominated by one rider at a time for the greater part of the past 10 years. The last battle of the women that is worth mentioning was between Erica Green, the first female mountain biker to represent South Africa at an Olympic Games, and Hannelé Steyn-Kotzé.

After Green retired to attend to family duties, Steyn-Kotzé continued to dominate local mountain biking for women all by herself for some years. Anke Erlank was the rider who took over from her and now, for the past few years, Speedy has been the queen of South African mountain biking.

Strauss, who has only started her career as an elite rider this year, is the current crown princess. In all likelihood, barring serious injuries, she will be the one who will take over from Speedy.

The S(peedy) & S(trauss) factor has certainly dominated women's racing during the past few weeks by taking first, second or third positions on six occasions. As far as the MTN series is concerned, their performances could not have been more equal.

Speedy won in Alberton, came second in Pietermaritzburg and third in George, while Strauss was third in Alberton, won in Pietermaritzburg and came second in George.

Speedy's racing experience and greater physical strength should give her the edge for a win on Saturday. However, if she should make just one serious mistake, Strauss would be ready to capitalize on it. She proved her ability to do that in both Pietermaritzburg and George.

Another contender, Eszther Erdelyi-Cluer (Jeep/Garmin), who won the race in George, will not be competing on Saturday. She is currently in Hungary to compete in UCI-categorized events, trying to gain enough ranking points to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Caitlin de Wet (Specialized/MR Price) is a likely third place podium finisher for Saturday.

When the pro-elite women mountain bikers gather at the starting point on Saturday, the spectators will be in for a big surprise. The one rider, who nobody ever expected to see competing in a national cross country event, will be racing. Cherise Taylor (Nashua), South African women's road champion, has decided that she needs a new challenge and she be a competitor in Saturday's cross country race.

The turnabout in her cycling career happened after she had competed at the Karkloof Mountain Biking Festival.

"Racing at Karkloof was one of the best decisions that I have made this year. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I am excited about the fact that I have proven to myself that I am capable of mastering difficult technical aspects of mountain biking. It certainly was a big confidence booster for me.

"It was Burry (Stander) who persuaded me to take the next step in my fledgling career as a mountain biker. Since I came back from Italy and Burry from the Offenburg World Cup, I have been training on the cross country course in Port Shepstone that was designed by Burry and his dad.

"I really surprised myself by proving that I am able to cope with all the technical sections of the course, but that does not mean that I stay upright all the time. At the moment I still make stupid mistakes on the easy sections, such as riding into rocks which I ought to see. That is when I take tumbles.

"After each training session, I take time off to count the bruises on my body. The highest count I got to was nine.

"I also never realized how strenuous training for cross country races can be. After a hard training ride my whole body is sore."

Taylor is not prepared to make any predictions about a possible podium finish. She will be out there to have fun.

Candice Neethling (DCM) will not be a "true" contender in Saturday's race because she is still racing as a junior, but she could be the proverbial "fly in the soup" during the first four laps, because the junior women's race starts at the same time as that of the elites. Neethling is South Africa's top female junior rider at the moment. To make the race interesting for herself, Neethling has set herself the challenge of taking on Speedy and Strauss.

"I see them as a benchmark for testing myself. On Saturday I want to see for how long I am able to stay with them."

Friends race each other in junior men's contest

Two friends, who both claim that Mankele is their favourite course, will take on each other in the junior men's race. James Reid (Specialized/MR Price) and Luke Roberts (Wsquared/Subaru) are the two in-form riders. Reid won in Alberton and at the Cascades, whereas Roberts was triumphant at George.

If Roberts should manage to win on Saturday, it would set up the series for an exciting finish as far as the overall victory is concerned. The ultimate winner of the series will then be determined in the very last race.

When Reid and Roberts were asked how they thought the race would play out, they both answered that it was going to be hard, very hard. It would not be surprising if both of them should go out guns blazing right from the start on Saturday.

Travis Walker (DCM), Arno du Toit (Specialized/Mr Price) and Ryan Ellis will be the other riders to watch.

According to Reid, Mankele has been good to him.

"I raced my first ever Nationals at Mankele and finished third in my category. Last year I won both races in which I competed there.

"It is just a fantastic course, because it is a mixture of everything. In my opinion Mankele compares favourably with any European course. There are short and steep climbs, long climbs, a tough technical rock garden, as well as fast downhill sections. In short, it is a fun course where you can really go for it."