World Championships: an annual one-day race where athletes race flat-out in hopes of winning the highly acclaimed and sought-after rainbow jersey. The jersey can be worn for a whole year, and if the athlete is lucky enough to be in the elite category – they can wear the rainbow bands on their kit for the rest of their career.
For this reason, winning World Championships can quickly become everything to an athlete, second only to the Olympics – the pinnacle of the sport. I have been fortunate to have represented South Africa three times in the last three years at World Championships events: twice in the Junior category and once in the Elite category. Oh, and I forgot to mention that my first two World Championships, while I was a Junior, were actually on the mountain bike at XCO Worlds.
My first year Junior as a 16-year-old, freshly ambitious to try my luck at racing against the best in the world in a dusty Cairns, Australia after a successful European racing campaign a few months prior. Being so far away for most people, the massive, crazy European crowds were absent from this event, but the Aussie vibe was still cool nonetheless. Due to my top ten UCI ranking, I was called up as number 8, right on the front row… Eek! This was a great opportunity for me, as the start is generally very important for an XCO race, especially when your race is only an hour long. My claim to fame from this race was that I lead a World Championship!
Although only for a few seconds as I got the hole-shot along the flat gravel start straight. Sadly I am yet to find photo evidence of this momentous moment. Jokes aside, my race was actually going very well up until the 2nd lap of 4, where I found myself in the top 15 – woohoo! However, my hopes of finishing the race amongst the best abruptly fell short when I became (in)famous for the moment captured in this photo…
For the record, I did get up, and I carried on, finishing in around 30th position, despite crashing again when I lost my nerve around a dusty corner (more dust, really?). I then went and sat crying under a tree for the next 30 minutes, bitterly disappointed about “what could have been.” Once I regained composure, I chose to rather focus on the positive outcomes from the race instead of dwelling on the negatives.
The positives? I learnt a lot about what I am capable of, and what I need to work on, and I gained about 600 Instagram followers after that photo went viral (but who’s counting?).
My second year Junior and with a point to prove. I had a tough year balancing Matric school work and racing, especially as I had really started to dabble more in the South African road racing scene. So, unfortunately I hadn’t had enough time to make the trip to Europe prior to Worlds this season.
Lenzerheide, Switzerland certainly brought the fans, all 40 000 of them! The atmosphere was electric. I had worked super hard for this one, and that’s probably why the disappointment stung that much more when my legs didn’t show up on race day… Seriously!?
The positives? I still managed to finish 40th in a vastly more stacked field than the year before, without any crashes or mechanicals, and learnt a whole lot in the process, despite knowing I was capable of much more. Back to the drawing board, I guess! The highlight of this trip for me was being able to witness Alan Hatherly’s U23 World Championship win in the flesh – goosebumps stuff I tell you.
This one was special. 18-year-old me was stepping up into the big leagues of the Elite Women’s category. If a front-row start in Cairns was scary, this was quite honestly terrifying. But also quite exciting at the same time! Despite qualifying to go in 2017 and 2018, I had been unable to attend Road World Championships in my Junior years, so to just be present at this year’s event was amazing in itself. It became even more exciting when I found out I had qualified for both the Time Trial and the Road Race – two opportunities to give it my best shot – I’ll take that!
Yorkshire put on a fantastic show for us athletes – I’ve never seen crowds that huge lining the streets even while it poured with rain. The rain was so bad in fact, that we were unsure of whether we (Elite Women) would actually be racing our Time Trial event or not. But, after delaying the start and pumping gallons of water off the road, the organisers announced that the race was indeed, still on!
I was the second rider off in the 30km TT, and after I caught and overtook the first rider within the first few kilometres, I found myself, once again, leading out a World Championship as the first rider on course. I must say I enjoyed my few kilometres of glory until I was briskly overtaken by Alena Amialiusik, the Canyon SRAM rider from Belarus. Then it became all about survival to the finish.
Overall, this was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had on a bike! Being spurred along by thousands of spectators allowed me to dig deep and give it my all, thankfully staying upright along the narrow country roads. My efforts were enough to secure myself a 40th spot – top 40 in the world in my first TT World Champs, and as a first-year elite – I’ll take that too!
Fast forward a few days to the road race: I knew this was going to be a tough one. Thankfully Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and I were able to do a bit of a route recon of some of the roads we were going to be racing along, including the main climb of the day – Lofthouse Climb. My aim for the day was to try and survive for as long as I could. As I mentioned earlier, the attraction of the rainbow jersey is immense for any rider, and so for that reason, World Champs is just made ridiculously hard every year, as everyone is on a frantic dash to get to the line (and the jersey) first.
Lofthouse Climb was around 45km into the 150km race, and when I say the race exploded up there – it quite literally combusted… totally fragmented. And in all honesty, the pace wasn’t exactly easy up until then either! I had been caught up in a crash and had to engage in quite a huge chase back to the main bunch before the climb; thankfully I knew what exactly we were going to be up against. This familiarity helped when the climb hit 18% gradient for a good 1.5km, and my gear ratio – far from ideal for this kind of steepness – meant I was out the saddle, throwing my bike around just to get up it. The crowds were insane going up there. All I could hear were cries of, “Go South Africa!” That definitely helped.
Thankfully the remaining 2.5km of the climb wa at a slightly more gradual gradient – offering some respite for those like me. I crested the top with a small group, which then swelled with more members bridging across. We kept the pace high over the rolling terrain and were working well together, catching stragglers from the main bunch. Unfortunately, as we reached the main finish circuit with 44km to go, we were refused entry onto the circuit and informed that our race was over. Bummer…
But, upon looking around me at the other riders in my bunch, I soon realised that there were other seriously strong pro riders there, all much older than I. I also found out that I was the youngest competitor in the field, the only 18-year-old. Out of 154 riders, only just over half of them finished, and quite honestly, I gave it my absolute best shot. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
So, I return home from another World Champs with even more experience gained. I learnt so much from this crazy cool event, and am more than happy with my performances. I set some new PB’s, managed to steal some Strava QOM’s and soaked up the incredible Yorkshire atmosphere. I also got some great advice from Ash – who finished in an amazing 8th place in the road race – and some added fuel to the fire. A huge thank you must go out to our amazing support crew who helped us riders do their best on race day. This bike racing thing takes you to some truly fantastic places. Who knows what the future holds? All I know is that I’m super excited for what’s to come! – Tiffany Keep