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By Bardy the Action Scribe

The rising standard of South African women’s road cycling will be given a progress update when a five-rider national team tackles the best cyclists in the world at the Tour of New Zealand this week.

Led by Team MTN stars Cherise Taylor and Marissa van der Merwe, the two most prolific race winners in the country this year, the national team, which also includes Lynette Burger and Yolandi du Toit (both Cycle Lab Toyota) and Robyn de Groot (Proline), is one of the strongest ever selected, but will still face an incredibly tough challenge.

The five-day tour includes two criteriums, three road stages and an individual time trial, a format that is likely to favour the strong allrounders, especially since the time trial is undulating and only 7km long.

“I believe we have a very well balanced team and although the change in intensity overseas is always a bit of a surprise at first, after the first stage we should settle in well,” said Van der Merwe.

Van der Merwe and Burger are currently occupying the top two positions respectively in 2008 Super Series, the country’s most prestigious series for Elite women and Veteran men.

“In the Super Series events we’ve been racing with the Veteran men which has undoubtedly raised the pace and the standard of our racing,” explained Van der Merwe. “Although it’s still early in the season and we’ve only done three races with the Vets, this should have a positive effect at the Tour of New Zealand.”

The South African women will do well to ignore reputations if they have any hopes of success at the Tour of New Zealand. Included in the 90-rider field are former world champions and current Olympic champions, four of the world’s top-10 professional teams, 12 of the top-20 riders in the world and national teams from eight of the planet’s top-10 cycling nations.

Race Director Jorge Sandoval says the standard of the field is well beyond all his expectations.
“To have the two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, six former world champions, European champions as well as current national champions from seven countries and current Olympic champions racing on New Zealand soil, is a privilege to any sport,” said Sandoval.

South Africa’s Taylor adds to the depth of the high-profile field by virtue of having claimed the silver medal in the junior world championships last year. She is no longer in the Junior category, but the 18-year-old has begun her Elite career with impressive results so far this year against local opposition. It will be interesting to see how she fares abroad in such a high quality field.

The tour starts and finishes with criterium stages (circuit races), which should suit Burger and Taylor, both of whom are quick sprinters. The 125km Stage 3, is hilly with a mountain-top finish, which should see Van der Merwe, a strong climber, come into her own while De Groot and Du Toit are allrounders, likely to be on the lookout for any breakaway opportunities.

The performances of the five women in New Zealand will no doubt be noted by the relevant Cycling South Africa officials as they draw up a short list for Beijing Olympic Games selection. South Africa is currently ranked 18th as a nation in women’s road cycling and therefore qualifies two places Olympic women’s road race.

The 2008 Women’s Tour of New Zealand
Wednesday 27 February: Stage 1 – 35km Criterium
Thursday 28 February: Stage 2 – 94km
Friday 29 February: Stage 3 – 125km
Saturday 1 March: Stage 4 – 124km
Sunday 2 March: Stage 5 – 7km Individual TT / Stage 6 – 40km Criterium.