With a dearth of women’s professional cycling teams on the South African circuit, the emergence of a progressive new squad like Bestmed ASG may well throw the sport the lifeline it needs.
“I don’t like to talk about developing women’s cycling, I’d rather actually just get on and do it,” says team manager Owen Botha, who was also the first person of colour to gain Springbok colours for BMX.
That is probably why Botha, who previously managed the Nashua Telecoms and FJR pro teams, was considered the go-to guy when the MTN ladies’ team was closed down.
“After the team was dissolved, the members didn’t have another one to go to. So they asked me to help them look for sponsors,” he says.
Botha saw the opportunity and, in August last year, Bestmed came to the table with an offer.
While three members had in the meantime accepted offers made by other teams, An-Li Kachelhoffer chose to stay and lead the new outfit.
“I gave her a start with Nashua when no one knew who she was. She then rode with MTN and now she’s back with me at Bestmed ASG.”
Botha says Kachelhoffer has come a long way since their first encounter, representing South Africa at the world championships last year and riding for the Belgian Lotto-Belisol team in Europe.
“She’s a very adept rider who can sprint and climb,” he says.
As captain, the 25-year-old will lead her elite team-mates Linda van den Biggelaar (26) and Ashleigh Blackwell (20), and mentor junior riders Michelle Benson (17) and Paige Schweiger (17).
Trainee rider Pia Fuller (20) and mountain biker Zandile Ndhlovu (23) will also shadow the team to learn the ropes.
For now the Gauteng-based outfit will focus purely on road. “If you try and do too much you never master anything,” says Botha.
“It costs so much to run a mountain biking programme that you must do it properly. I could do so much more with those funds.”
Although the team is still in the building phase, they have already had some early successes with Kachelhoffer and Van den Biggelaar taking second and fifth respectively at the national road championships last month.
Kachelhoffer also finished sixth in the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour, while former Toyota-CSA Academy rider Blackwell took the U23 title and 10th overall.
Botha says the squad’s goals are both ambitious and long-term.
“You have to look ahead. The aim is to get the junior riders ready for the Olympics in 2020 and we’re looking at An-Li for the Rio Games in 2016.”
He says the sponsors are happy with the development plans that are in place, with both Bestmed and ASG committing for a period of three years.
“So we must obviously be doing something right.”
With a range of technical equipment sponsors already on board, Botha says other companies have also indicated that they are keen to partner with the team.
“One is a British software developer who wants to write software for things like analysing training data that will help the riders develop to their full potential.”
With this sort of interest being shown, Botha says the future of female cycling in South Africa looks promising.
However, he admits that there are still massive obstacles to overcome.
“At the moment, it is the race organisers who determine the state of women’s cycling and they don’t give it the respect it deserves.”
Botha says many women have voiced their concerns about starting with the men and the mass crashes in the last two editions of the Cycle Tour clearly demonstrate why this is a problem.
“It’s almost like a lottery where we’re going to start each weekend. This week it’s with the 50-plus riders and next week the over-30s.
“Ideally, we should have ladies racing with ladies all year through.”
He says combining all female entrants in one or two start groups, such as junior/elite and vets, might encourage more women to enter races and gain proper recognition for their efforts.
“Now nobody really knows how good you are because you’re spread between the groups, riding with the men, and each bunch rides at a different speed.”
Despite these hurdles, Botha says his riders are undaunted and remain passionate and focused on their sport.
“We are determined to do well in our sponsors’ events, so our main goals will be to win all the Bestmed races like the Jacaranda Satellite Classic, the Jock Classic and the Campus2Campus SuperClassic.
“Because of our association with ASG, we also aim to do well in races like the Emperors Palace Classic.”
They will wrap up the season with a crack at the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge title. “It’s a very big race, which everybody would love to win, so that’s also huge for us.”
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