By Bardy the Action Scribe

South Africa’s Olympic BMX hopeful, Sifiso Nhlapo, got his 2008 Beijing campaign off to the perfect start when he won the first round of the 2008 European Championships in St Etienne, France this week.

Sifiso Nhlapo, South Africa’s top-ranked international BMX racer began his Olympic qualification campaign with a first and second place finish at the Rounds 1 and 2 respectively of the 2008 European Championships.

The 20-year-old former Potch Boys High pupil then finished second in Round 2 to secure the early lead in the 2008 European rankings (the 2007 rankings were completed at the end of October). Because Round 1 also doubled as the first UCI World Cup meeting, he gained a maximum 12 International Cycling Union (UCI) rankings points to give him a significant boost in the fierce points battle that will determine the 32 men and 16 women that will make it to the sport’s Olympic debut.

The MTN-sponsored Nhlapo is a former Junior World champion in the BMX Cruiser category (24-inch wheeled bikes), but it’s the more popular 20-inch category that will be on show in Beijing and Nhlapo showed at the weekend he’s got the ability to be a world-beater on both bikes, eclipsing some of the sport’s leading riders to grab his two podium spots.

More than 140 Elite riders were at the tight, fast indoor track in St Etienne for the first two of 10 rounds of the 2008 European Championships, all eager to grab early points in the race for Games eligibility.

“Because there was such a big field, we had to race seven motos (races) to reach the final each day. It’s a case of finishing in the top four in each race in order to advance to the next one which is quite stressful, especially when you consider that one crash or mistake could leave you eliminated,” explained an elated Nhlapo, who completed 16 races in the two days.

“This has been the highlight of my career as an Elite racer,” beamed Nhlapo. “To win a European Championship round is something really special. But it was my consistency in being able to finish first and second in both rounds that’s most encouraging.”

Nhlapo revealed that he went to the event to gauge his form following a break from racing and a focus shift to training. He’s based at the UCI’s World Cycling Centre in Aigle, near Geneva, Switzerland, where he lives and trains for most of the year, courtesy of the UCI and Cycling South Africa.

“It was a bonus to do so well, because I’m not really in peak form right now. It also takes a bit of pressure off me in what is going to be frantic year in the build-up to the Olympics. I can now focus on improving my weaknesses,” said Nhlapo.
In the Elite Men’s final at Round 1, a crash on the inside of the track near the end of the first straight virtually took down the entire eight-man field. Nhlapo, who started on the outside managed to avoid the carnage and went on to claim his first major win in Europe. In the Round 2 final, Nhlapo was a bike length behind Latvian Maris Strombergs, and just ahead of 2006 European champion and former double world junior champion, Arturs Matisons, also a Latvian.

Nhlapo’s next competition will be Rounds 3 and 4 of the European Championships in Zwolle, Netherlands on 12 and 13 January 2008.