Five-time winner Ariane Lüthi (Team Spur) is eager to reclaim the Fairview Attakwas Extreme MTB Challenge title that she won consecutively from 2011–2015. But the Swiss marathon champion will be up against the strongest field ever assembled at Saturday’s 121km point-to-point race, which is considered among the toughest one-day races in South Africa.
A crash in December resulted in Lüthi having to take some time off training, but she’s recovered fully and has been working hard on improving her skills, which will see her start the demanding race with her confidence levels at an all-time high. Her experience of the race route (which stays virtually the same) and the conditions, which generally include heat, a late-race headwind, rugged terrain and steep gradients, will all count in her favour.
South African marathon champion, Robyn de Groot (Ascendis Health), the 2016 winner, is sure to be Lüthi’s biggest rival. Their mutual respect off the bike is admirable, but their rivalry on the bike is always fierce.
For De Groot, winning the 2016 edition was one of her career highlights. The South African marathon champion went on to have one of her best years last year, no doubt buoyed by her early success at Attakwas, which was a confidence-boosting win over Lüthi, who was third.
Current XCO World Champion, Annika Langvad (Specialized) of Denmark will also be on the start line, making her Attakwas debut. Winner of the past three Cape Epics (with Lüthi), Langvad is also a three-time former marathon world champion and her presence will change the dynamic of the race, even though she’s a first-time Attakwas competitor.
“To win Attakwas this year is going to be a huge challenge that I’m super motivated for. This kind of competition pushes me to pay more attention to details when preparing for it. I can’t afford to have any lapses, no matter how small,” said Lüthi.
“The crash resulted in some hiccups in my training. I will find out on Saturday at the race just how that affected my form. But in general, I feel strong and confident, which is always a good way to go into a big race like Attakwas. I’m very keen to win it again,” added Lüthi.
But even with good form, Lüthi is taking a realistic approach to the event in which for half a decade she was unbeatable.
“The competition will be the toughest yet. Apart from having Annika (Langvad), in the race for the first time, I believe that Robyn (de Groot), Jennie (Stenerhag) and the other women have all upped their game. It’s going to be a very exciting race,” she said.
For De Groot, Attakwas is virtually a home race. She lives in Glentana, which is a few kilometres from the finish. As the defending champion, she’s taking it seriously, but says the bigger goal remains winning the Cape Epic in March.
“Attakwas is the hardest one-day race in the country for sure. It’s not often us ladies get to race an ultra-marathon. It’s always difficult starting with such a long, hard race at the beginning of the year. Obviously as a professional athlete, winning an iconic race like Attakwas is a major objective. We compete to win. But it will serve as a gauge as to how training has been going and what still needs to be worked on ahead of the Cape Epic. The Epic is pretty much Attakwas x 7!” said De Groot.
For Langvad, the decision to race Attakwas came from the praise given to the race by Lüthi.
“I start my studies again in February, but decided to come to South Africa for training and thought I would spice things up a bit by doing some racing. I also know the organisers from my previous participation at the Cape Pioneer Trek, which I enjoyed, so I knew that Attakwas would be worth paying a visit to. I’m really looking forward to it,” said Langvad on Monday night, just prior to boarding a flight to South Africa.
The Dane escaped the icy winter at home recently and spent two weeks training in Majorca. But she feels the change in temperature won’t trouble her much.
“It wasn’t hot in Majorca, but it was sunny. I will have a few days to get accustomed to the South African summer heat for Saturday. My rivals will obviously be more used to the conditions, but I’ll take one pedal stroke at a time and then we’ll see,” she said.
Also confirmed to start is last year’s runner-up, Jennie Stenerhag. The Swedish marathon champion has changed teams this year and will be riding the colours of CBC/Abro. She punctured while leading last year and will hope that her luck is better this time around as she pursues the coveted crown.
Other notable names on the start list are South African XCO champion, Mariske Strauss (OMX Pro), Yolandi du Toit (Garmin), multiple South African road champion, Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and former Attakwas winners, Yolande de Villiers and Ischen Stopforth.
The event has been given International Cycling Union status for the first time this year. This ensures increased international media coverage, boosted prize money and UCI rankings points for top finishers, essential for riders like Lüthi, Langvad and Strauss, who will be competing in the XCO World Cup series later in the year, where start positions are based on rider’s points totals.
The top women will start in the A batch on Saturday. The 121km race starts at Chandelier Game and Ostrich Show Farm near Oudtshoorn in the Karoo and finishes at Pine Creek Resort at the coast, near Groot Brakrivier. Follow the racing action via live-tweets on the @attakwas twitter account on Saturday from 07h00.