From its very recent beginnings in 1997 when 4 000 cyclists decided to take on the challenge of ‘Joburg’s toughest race’ (back then), more than 25 000 cyclists will take to Joburg’s streets this weekend in the Pick ‘n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge.
In its brief history, the race has played a major role in positioning Johannesburg as the continent’s major sports and business destination. The City of Johannesburg’s slogan is ‘A world-class African city’ and after 11 years there can be no doubt that the Cycle Challenge represents this slogan in every way.
More than 25 000 cyclists will take part in the Cycle Challenge road race on Sunday, 18 November, while 2 500 mountain-bikers have entered the Pick ‘n Pay 94.7 Mountain Bike Challenge, presented by Energade, which takes place on Saturday, 17 November.
In the women’s race defending champion, Yolandi du Toit (Konica-Minolta), is the in-form rider, and her 2006 victory will be remembered as one of the most heroic rides by a South African woman, after she attacked and rode away on her own for nearly 50km, to hold on for the win.
"The Pick ‘n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge is one of the most exciting races in South Africa. I love the event," said an excited Du Toit this week. "It’s really tough. If you are not riding uphill you’re going down, which means it’s a race where any rider with guts can win by riding aggressively. And that’s how I am going to race again on Sunday."
Du Toit regards the Proline team as her main opposition. Proline consists of Anriëtte Schoeman, Marissa van der Merwe and Robin de Groot. "Lynette Burger (Cycle Lab) is also always a factor," Du Toit added.
The biggest threat to her title might well come from her team-mate Cherise Taylor. "But I obviously won’t mind if she wins," Du Toit smiled. And after the race, 18-year-old Cherise Taylor (Konica-Minolta) is looking forward to going back to being a "normal teenager" – for a while.
"I just want to be a normal teenager doing the things teenagers do after having finished writing their matric exams," she said. "A few friends and I are planning to go down to Margate next week. And no, I won’t be taking my bicycle with," she said.
The matriculant from Hoërskool Garsfontein in Tshwane took the cycling world by storm this year when she claimed a silver medal at the Junior World Road Race – the best result ever from a South African woman on the world stage.
"For the first time this year I’ve had enough of cycling and racing. My body is really tired. That’s why I’m intent on being just another teenager at least until 15 December," she said.
Taylor finished writing her matric exams on Monday. "I didn’t realise it was going to be so tough to study for my exams and still train for a few hours every day," she said, adding: "I just hope I passed every subject. I don’t care about distinctions!"
Over the past eight weeks Taylor was testament to the urban legend about women being able to multi-task. Her results in local races have been stunning, regardless of the pressures of studying.
This past Sunday, the day before she had to write her final biology exam, she won the Bakwena Post Office Classic in Tshwane. She also won a race in Orkney and finished third in the Pick ‘n Pay OFM Classic and third in the Telkom Satellite Challenge.
Taylor and her team-mate Yolandi du Toit have trained on the Pick ‘n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge route. "As always it’s going to be a tough race, especially the finish. The last 300m is all uphill and it’s a strenuous little climb that might determine the outcome of the race."
If everything goes according to plan, Taylor hopes that she and Du Toit will be able to break up the race early and eliminate a few of the top contenders.
"Riders like Louise Murphy (Harmony) and Melisia Munro (Cbist) are improving all the time. In the last few races the riders of the Cbist team surprised me with their aggressive approach."
Van der Merwe (Proline), who has just come off victories at the African Continental Championships in Cameroon and the Pick ‘n Pay OFM Classic, is seen by many as the rider to beat tomorrow.
Last year she finished second. "And I learnt my lesson," she smiled. "This year I am not going to try and get away in a breakaway group early on. I am going to play a waiting game and try and work out who the strong riders in the race are.
"Actually I won’t mind if the race boils down to a bunch sprint at the finish. That last climb suits me.
"But on Sunday it’s not just going to be about me winning the race. Our team is in the lucky position that we’ve got more than one rider who can win. Anriette is still one of the fastest sprinters while there are not many female riders that can climb with Robin (De Groot) at the moment."
There have been rumours that Van der Merwe is planning to retire at the end of next year, but they’re unfounded. "I have just signed a two year contract with MTN and that means that I will be cycling until at least 2010. Next year is going to be exciting.
"There is a good chance that Chrissie Viljoen and I will compete in the Absa Cape Epic," hinted Van der Merwe. "I am going to take part in a lot more mountain bike races. It’s a different challenge," she said.