Strauss, Botha the shining lights for Africa at Epic World Cup

Mariske Strauss was the top African rider in either the Elite races of the UCI MTB World Cup in Stellenbosch. Chris Ricco/BackpagePix

Mariske Strauss and Wessel Botha were the shining lights of the African mountain bikers in the opening round of the UCI MTB World Cup in Stellenbosch.

A total of 29 riders from the continent were entered to take part in the four cross-country races -- women and men's Under-23 and women's and men's Elite -- of this 'Epic Word Cup' and they had mixed fortunes.

The day got off to a disappointing start after Bianca Haw, the only African entrant in the women's Under-23 race, was a non-starter. The 22-year-old was forced to withdraw after a heavy crash during practice a few days before the event left her left leg in a 'moon boot' -- another in a frustrating list of injuries and illnesses which have plagued the talented cross-country specialist's young career.

As it happened, Denmark's Malene Degn went on to win that race.

While all 11 African men's Under-23 riders made the start line for their race, only four finished without being overtaken during the six-lapper by eventual winner, Petter Fagerhaug of Norway.

That said, Wessel Botha (NAD MTB Team) and Julian Jessop (Team Pyga Euro Steel) finished in 19th and 21st respectively - to earn seven and five UCI points.

For 19-year-old Botha, a first-year professional and Under-23 rider, it was a particularly impressive World Cup debut. In an Instagram post he wrote about what the experience had been like the effort: "This didn't come easy though as a crash in front of me on the first climb set me back quite a bit and I had to chase back from 40th place."

Jessop, the reigning South Africa U-23 XCO champ, was involved in a sprint finish for a top 20 place but just fell short and will now tackle his first Absa Cape Epic -- as a backup rider for African Jersey holders Philip Buys and Matthys Beukes -- at the tender age of 20.

Fellow South Africans Jarrod van den Heever (34th) and Pieter du Toit (48th) were the other riders to finish on the same lap as Fagerhaug.

The women's Elite race was an absorbing contest eventually won by Denmark's Annika Langvad, the Specialized Racing rider who is a regular race winner in South Africa.

As it happened, Mariske Strauss, a student at the Stellenbosch University was the top African performer finishing in a 28th position which she believes was fated to be.

"My race number is 28, I started 28th and my hotel room number this week is 28," joked Strauss before telling event media how her race unfolded.

"I got stuck in the first couple of crashes on the first lap and then someone stalled in front of me, so I had to get off and run. The atmosphere was amazing. I was thinking so this is what it is like when Europeans ride at home... around every corner, someone was shouting my name. It was a beautiful day to be a South African and I can't thank the organisers enough for bringing the race to Stellenbosch."

Her one-time partner at Silverback OMX Pro Team, Cherie Redecker, was the next best local finisher in 35th place while Amy McDougall (41st) and Namibia's Michelle Vorster (43rd) rounded up the ladies who didn't get passed by the leaders during the six laps.

Interestingly, and because of the higher UCI points distribution in the Elite races, the other three African women who rode, namely Sarah Hill, Ila Gray and Machuene Kubyana got reward for their efforts on the day. Candice Lill (Dormakaba SA), though, didn't finish but her focus is on the upcoming Absa Cape Epic.

Finally, the injury-enforced absence of Alan Hatherly (Team Spur), South Africa's leading cross-country mountain biker, meant there was not much of challenge by the nine-strong African brigade in the men's Elite race.

Privateer Stuart Marais placed best in lowly 75th, with only 35-year-old veteran Jan Withaar (77th) and DSV Pro Cycling's Gert Heyns (78th) avoiding being lapped during the race by first-time winner Sam Gaze (Specialized Racing).