The FNB Wines2Whales is almost as famous for its variable weather, as it is for its scintillating singletracks and Serious GEES. In 2019, the riders can now live in hope, that the worst of the weather coincided with the first day of the three, three-day, events. The clouds opened in the early hours of Friday morning, drenching Lourensford, and continued all day, soaking Oak Valley. The riders did not let it impact their enjoyment however as banter and jokes kept the spirits high until well after the stage was over.


Riders lined up in the morning, huddled in the shelter of the Lourensford fruit packing shed, dressed in all manner of wet-weather gear, from the organised teams who purchased official FNB W2W Ciovita waterproof jackets, to the ones who realised at the last minute that it was going to be a long, wet day. Many bin bags were modified in the hopes of remaining dry.


The women who had the most gees at the start were still smiling at the finish. With mud-caked smiles, Joanna Dobinson and Kasha Dickie excitedly reflected on the stage. “I reckon that defines what insanity is” Dickie began her roundabout tale of how she came to enjoy every moment of the stage. “To get on your bike when it’s pouring with rain, in the Lourensford hanger, while the commentator, Paul Valstar, is saying the stage is voluntary. Everyone just looked at each other and said ‘great let’s ride’. And that’s insane!” she smiled at her folly.


“It was a bit like Forrest Gump, there was rain coming from the bottom. Rain coming from above. And from the side. Hard rain, soft rain…” Dickie trailed off as Dobinson jumped in. “But we’re dry” the effervescent MTB skills coach pointed out. The pair had ridden in waterproof jackets, shower caps and with dishwashing gloves over their riding gloves. Only their faces were exposed to the elements, stark contrast to the goggles and snorkels they’d arrived in at yesterday’s registration.


“Every singletrack was a raging stream” Dobinson added. “I think the whales, of the FNB Wines2Whales, were out there on the trails today” Dickie joked. “We just couldn’t see them in the muddy water!”


The conditions made for a memorable day on the bike and nobody who started Stage 1 of the 2019 FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay is likely to forget it in a hurry. “You had to let your bike go a bit, let it slide under you”  advised Stage winner, Adelheid Morath, with the benefit of hindsight. “It was almost like dancing at times.” Dancing in the rain for the FNB Wines2Whales’ rainy day women.

The Elite Women during the 2019 FNB Wine2Whales Chardonnay 3 day mountain bike event Stage 1 from Lourensford to Oak Valley. Image by Xavier Briel

The Faces team of Candice Lill and Adelheid Morath got their FNB Wines2Whales title defence off to a winning start on Friday, 25 October. Departing Lourensford Wine Estate in consistent rain, the Elite Women endured a muddy day on the bike, but that did little to dampen Lill and Morath’s spirits as they thrived in the wet conditions.

Candice Lill from team Faces during the 2019 FNB Wine2Whales Chardonnay 3 day mountain bike event Stage 1 from Lourensford to Oak Valley. Image by Xavier Briel

Lill and Morath won the 2018 race in commanding fashion, claiming two stage victories on their way to the general classification crown by 9 minutes and 47 seconds. Their push for victory was founded on a strong start to the opening stage last year, and this year’s race is off to a similar start. The pair attacked from the off, capitalising on the cold legs of their rivals; after the start had been delayed by the ceaseless rain.


“The plan was to push the pace on the first climb, like we did last year” Lill explained, after crossing the finish line in Oak Valley. “We managed to get a little gap over the dormakaba team of Robyn de Groot and Amy McDougall, but they closed it again on the rolling section that followed. Then, on a little kicker before Water Point 1, Amy seemed to be struggling a bit, so we accelerated again. We got a gap and pretty much held it steady all the way to the finish”.


Adding colour to Lill’s tale Morath said: “That was tough! Racing in the pouring rain from the start made it really difficult to see where we were going, especially following in the slippery and muddy singletracks.” The Faces team’s winning margin was 1 minute and 32.1 seconds over the second-placed dormakaba team.


Amy Beth McDougall and Robyn de Groot from team dormakaba during the 2019 FNB Wine2Whales Chardonnay 3 day mountain bike event Stage 1 from Lourensford to Oak Valley. Image by Xavier Briel

“We rode nicely together” McDougall reflected on her budding partnership with De Groot. In just their second stage race together, the pair worked well to keep Lill and Morath in sight for most of the stage. “From what I can remember, the trails in Oak Valley and Paul Cluver get pretty slippery when they’re wet. So, anything can happen tomorrow” a muddy McDougall concluded.


Jennie Stenerhag and Nadine Rieder were third on the stage, crossing the line 10 minutes and 34.7 seconds after the stage winners. “Candice and Adelheid got away on the first climb, Robyn and Amy followed them. Then it was us who summited third” the Fairtree rider, in the Fairtree-Rotwild combination, clarified. “After that, we were on our own for the rest of the stage. It was pretty lonely, to be honest. The temperature wasn’t too bad at least, once we got going.” Stenerhag reiterated the general theme reported by the stage finishers.


Behind the top three teams, Ariane Lüthi and Samara Sheppard had fought back from a slow start to finish fourth. The Kross Spur team was just under 4 minutes faster than the fifth-placed Multitask Industries combination, of Alice Pirard and Sabine Spitz. Katie Lennard and Laura Stark were sixth, Sarah Hill and Danielle Strydom were seventh and the most social elite riders in the field, Barbara Benko and Mariske Strauss crossed the line in eighth.


The rain is predicted to fall until late on Friday evening, but it is looking positive for overcast skies but no further precipitation on Saturday. At 64 kilometres long, Stage 2, is the play day of the FNB Wines2Whales and the singletrack packed route could offer opportunities for the chasing teams to make up time on Lill and Morath, especially if the leaders can be forced into taking undue risks. Challenging conditions typically reward the strongest riders though, so, the 2019 Chardonnay race is sure to see worthy winners crowned in Onrus, on Sunday.


Results: FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay

Stage 1

  1. Faces: Candice Lill & Adelheid Morath (03:03:11.8)
  2. dormakaba: Robyn de Groot & Amy McDougall (03:04:43.9)
  3. Fairtree-Rotwild: Jennie Stenerhag & Nadine Rieder (03:13:46.5)
  4. Kross Spur: Ariane Lüthi & Samara Sheppard (03:24:17.8)
  5. Multitask Industries: Alice Pirard & Sabine Spitz (03:28:11.3)


For the full results from the FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay race please visit

Photo: Image by Nick Muzik

Having made its debut in the FNB Wines2Whales in 2018, the Exxaro jersey, for riders under the age of 26 from historically disadvantaged communities, expanded its life-changing reach. The category inspires riders to train and race for two major goals in the mountain biking season and rewards riders with financial prizes. In 2019 Curro Holdings has collaborated with Exxaro as a prize sponsor and is arguably offering the largest ever prize to be awarded at a mountain biking race to the FNB Wines2Whales Exxaro jersey winners.


The prize is a full bursary, for two learners, to a Curro school; covering their education from Grade 1 to Grade 12. As the Exxaro jersey riders have passed school-going age, they will be able to nominate a family member to receive the bursary. This prize, which has a current value of R1,2 million each (excluding inflation over the next 12 years), will undoubtedly be truly life-changing for two children from historically disadvantaged areas. No financial figure can adequately put a value to the benefit of education.


‘Curro Holdings is thrilled to be involved in the FNB Wines2Whales. The organisers state that this adventurous event is more about the journey than the destination and we’ve spotted great synergy in this message,’ said Marí Lategan, Executive: Marketing and Communications, at Curro Holdings. ‘As the biggest independent education provider in South Africa, we aim to widen access to quality schooling. We know that an enriched education journey will translate into a bright future – life’s ultimate destination. At Curro we look forward to growing our relationship with FNB Wines2Whales and we will certainly help add #SeriousGEES.’


‘As a mountain bike race, we aim to inspire people to live healthier, more active lifestyles,’ Michael Flinn, Managing Director of the FNB Wines2Whales, stated. ‘Curro’s generous prize to the wining Exxaro jersey competition team, is a first for us. It will change the lives of two young people and unquestionably the lives of their families. Education goes so far beyond sport in general and mountain biking in particular that it is rather humbling for us as an event to be able to facilitate such generosity. I can only hope that Curro’s lead will be followed by individuals and other corporates taking part in the race and that we can expand on the real, life-changing, benefits to people from historically disadvantaged communities.’


The Exxaro jersey will be contested in the Shiraz event of the FNB Wines2Whales, which gets underway from Lourensford Wine Estate, on Friday, 1 November 2019. Of the 30 development teams taking part, 19 qualified for the Exxaro category and the competition is sure to be fierce for the title. Defending champions, BMT Fairtree, return with the added experience of having raced the Swiss Epic in Graubünden during August. As such Luyanda Thobigunya and his partner from the Swiss Epic, Zola Ngxakeni, are among the favourites.


They will be up against two teams from the FNB Change a Life Academy. Bongumusa Zikhali and Sipho Kupiso are the KwaZulu-Natal-based designated first team, with Nkululeko Pewa and Nhlanhla Mthembu also representing Martin Dreyer’s charity. Exxaro has six squads contesting for the jersey which they sponsor. The twelve riders are all members of the Exxaro Development Academy and are co-sponsored by PWC, Rand Merchant Bank, Pepto and Deloitte.


Lucky Mlangeni is the winner of the Exxaro jersey on the 2019 Cape Epic Exxaro roster. He will start the FNB Wines2Whales alongside Anrique Davids; as his partner from earlier in the year, Tshepo Tlou, is racing in another Exxaro Development Academy team.


Other teams taking part in the race include three squads from the McGregor MTB Warriors, a FXTM-Velokhaya combination, Bhoni4Kasi, two Kinetic Racing Snakes teams, Khalthsa Cycles and an all-women’s team. Neo Setlhare and Zile Tshongolo have dubbed their team Sister Soweto, though they too form part of the Bhoni4Kasi Cycling Academy.


With Curro ensuring the Exxaro jersey teams will be competing for a life-changing prize, the competition is sure to be intense throughout the three days. To follow the racing action, tune in on Twitter, @w2wmtb,  from 07:00 on the morning of Friday, 1 November 2019.


About Curro

Curro Holdings is the biggest JSE-listed independent school operator in South Africa, offering quality education to learners from the early childhood development phase to Grade 12. The group strives to contribute towards the sustainable growth of South Africa and beyond, by widening access to quality schooling across a spectrum of education models. These include Curro Schools, Curro Select Schools, Curro Academy Schools, Meridian Schools, Curro Castle Nursery Schools, Curro DigiEd Schools, Curro Private College and Curro Assisted Learning. Curro Holdings provides a values-based environment, and offers a balanced, innovative and relevant curriculum across the various schooling models. The group is currently continuing with their expansion strategy. For more information, visit


Facebook: @CurroHoldings |Twitter: @Curro_Schools


Ariane Lüthi leading the Elite women’s group at the 2018 FNB W2W. Photo: Dwayne Senior

Hailing from Switzerland, but making her summer home in South Africa, Ariane Lüthi is no stranger to local mountain biking fans. Her three-time New Zealand XCO champion partner, Samara Sheppard, is making her South African racing debut though; having missed the 2018 UCI World Cup’s opening round. Here is what the pair had to say ahead of the 2019 FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay race.


FNB W2W: Samara, you’ve been out to South Africa to race the Epic World Cup in 2018, but ended up missing the race. Tell us a bit about your experience of riding in South Africa and your sense of what FNB Wines2Whales will be like.

Samara Sheppard: Yes, I have been to South Africa once before for the Epic World Cup in 2018, but unfortunately, I got a terrible dose of food poisoning just before the race. What I did see of the trails around Stellenbosch, I absolutely loved! Lovely flowing trails and steep technical rocky climbs. I suspect the FNB W2W will treat us to their great singletracks, open tracks through vineyards and a spot of whale watching by the sea.


FNB W2W: Does this mean that we will be seeing the two of you team up for The Pioneer, in Samara’s native New Zealand, in December?

AL: Unfortunately, not this year; but it would be amazing if we could make things work for The Pioneer 2020. I’d love to ride my bike in beautiful New Zealand one day.

SS: Pioneer 2019 is not possible for us but we are looking at 2020. 2020 will be an exciting new Pioneer edition as it moves from the South to the North Island of New Zealand.


FNB W2W: It looks like the 2019 W2W Chardonnay race could feature the most competitive elite women’s field in the event’s 11-year history. Who do you see as your main rivals?

AL: Defending champions Candice and Adelheid will be the favourites in my eyes. But as you say, it will be a very competitive field this year and I’m sure we will have a hard-fought battle for the podium places over the three days.

SS: It is super exciting to race the Chardonnay amongst such a strong field. Having a separate women’s race means there will be no interference with other competitors so we can expect a fair, exciting and tactical race. With so much talent on the start list I couldn’t pick a favourite. I just look forward to teaming up again with Ariane for the challenge and to share the experience.

Thanks to Varsity Sports and FNB the top university mountain bikers from across the country will be contesting for the Varsity MTB title during the FNB Wines2Whales Pinotage event. The midweek race, which takes place from Monday 28 to Wednesday 30 October, will see students from six institutions of higher education do battle. Each university will be represented by two teams of two, with a men’s and women’s team Varsity MTB champion determined after three days of racing.


The universities represented are the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of Pretoria (UP-Tuks), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Nelson Mandela University (Madibaz), North West University (NWU) and Stellenbosch University (Maties). Along with bragging rights for their schools the students will be competing for cash prizes and a men’s and women’s race Ciovita leaders’ jersey. The jerseys will be awarded to the Varsity MTB team with the lowest accumulated time after each stage of the race; while the men’s and women’s stage winners will each receive R1 000, per stage. A total of R39 000 in prize money will be awarded to the teams after three days of racing, with the winning men’s and women’s teams taking home R6 000 each.


In the absence of cycling stars like Tiffany Keep, Tristan de Lange, and Gert Heyns – who is racing FNB W2W Shiraz, which starts on Friday the 1st of November – the full-time students will have a chance to shine. Aside from the University Sports South Africa Cycling Championships, which took place in July, many of the riders do not get the opportunity to race against each other. That makes it exceptionally difficult to pick a favourite.


UCT’s Courteney Webb is, to her fellow Western Cape cyclists at least, one of the most recognisable names in the line-up. “I’ve heard of, or know, most of the women on the roster, but regrettably I have basically never raced against them on a mountain bike” the 2019 Around the Pot 100 Miler champion confessed. “If I had to guess, I would say that the Tuks women’s team is a strong partnership. But it is also so hard to say because the racing will be taking place in teams, so I can’t say confidently how these riders will perform together… I’m excited though, it looks to be a great line-up and I’m sure the whole FNB Wines2Whales Pinotage experience will be great fun!”


Webb’s pick of the women’s team to watch is the combination of Tanya Kotze and Michelle Benson. The pair placed fourth and sixth in the cross-country race at the University Sports South Africa Cycling Championships, in July; either side of Webb’s fifth. None of the podium finishers from that event will start the FNB Wines2Whales Pinotage though, so the Tuks pair are the slight favourites. Webb and her partner, Amy Tait are sure to be competitive for UCT however, as are the Maties pairing of Catherine Pellow-Jarman and Susan Kruger.


Though Brendan van Eeden, from NWU, could well be the strongest individual in the race. The men’s race is also likely to feature a three-way battle between the two Western Cape universities and the famous sporting institution from Pretoria. UP-Tuks’ Andries Nigrini and Antonie Joubert are both strong riders, although Nigrini has shown more pedigree on the road than on a mountain bike. Michael Sutton and Mornè Hollander are racing to defend local honour, as Stellenbosch University is the closest geographically to the race’s start point in Lourensford.


They will have an uphill battle on their hands however. UCT’s Richard Simpson and Michael Lambrecht arguably hold a slight advantage over the rest of the men’s field. This advantage comes in the form of Simpson’s stage race experience. which sets him apart from the rest of the field who will be making their stage race debuts at the FNB Wines2Whales.


Mountain biking fans can follow the action, live from the FNB Wines2Whales Pinotage, on the race’s social media channels or online at The first stage starts at 07h00, from Lourensford Wine Estate, on Monday 28 October. Coverage from within the Pinotage event can be found on Twitter, @w2wmtb, while Facebook, Wines2Whales, and Instagram, @wines_2_whales, will feature the best photos and videos from the three-days of superb mountain biking.

Jennie Stenerhag crosses the famed FNB W2W bridges. Photo: Dwayne Senior

The Swedish/German combination of Jennie Stenerhag and Nadine Rieder have experience and class aplenty between them. But will they have what it takes to battle for FNB Wines2Whales victory in Rieder’s debut in the Chardonnay race? We spoke to them to find out.


FNB Wines2Whales: Jennie, you’ve had great success at the FNB Wines2Whales in the past, having won the 2016 & 2017 editions. In 2018 you were coming back from injury. So, in light of last year’s relative disappointment, how motivated are you to get back to your best at W2W and what is it about the race that suits you so well?

Jennie Stenerhag: The FNB W2W is always a highlight of my year for many reasons. First of all, the route is always lots of fun and the route team always puts new little tweaks into the race. It is one of the best organised races of the calendar and since it is the last big race of the year, people seem more relaxed and there to have fun, so the atmosphere is very nice. I always like racing in this area too, since I stay here for most of the year.


FNB W2W: Nadine, what convinced you to come back out to South Africa to race the FNB Wines2Whales alongside Jennie?

Nadine Rieder: Racing here earlier this year was such a great experience and I’m still impressed by how special it was to race in South Africa. The atmosphere, the race itself, people around it and the brilliant organisation to name but a few reasons. Because of that I was happy to get Jennie’s request and I decided straight away to come back for the FNB W2W.


FNB W2W: Jennie, you will have obviously had to explain the Gantouw Pass portage to Nadine – who has been down there during this year’s Cape Epic – how do you explain it to someone who doesn’t know what to expect and how do you approach racing up there?

JS: I am glad she saw it earlier in the year so at least she knows what it looks like. Otherwise it is difficult to explain to a mountain biker who is used to riding the bike not running with the bike. Nadine is also a bit taller than I am, which will help. I always wish I had longer legs, when I walk/try to run up there. But it is so unique to the race that it adds something exciting yet challenging.


FNB W2W: It looks like the 2019 W2W Chardonnay race could feature the most competitive elite women’s field in the event’s 11-year history. Who do you see as your main rivals?

JS: It is great to see how the women’s field is growing, both in numbers of teams and the standard of racing, which is going up year on year! There are so many top-class teams and it is really difficult to pick out the team that stands out as favourites; but if I must pick one team, I would say last year’s winners Candice Lill and Adelheid Morath. They have both had strong seasons and are in very good form.

Sarah Hill during the FNB W2W. Photo: Sportograf

Sarah Hill will be partnered by Danielle Strydom for the 2019 FNB Wines2Whales as her usual Galileo Risk teammate, Theresa Ralph is unable to take part. We caught up with the women from up-country to find out how their preparation for one of the Western Cape’s best loved stage races is progressing.


FNB Wines2Whales: Sarah, it’s been a while since you’ve raced with anyone other than Theresa Ralph in an elite women’s team. What is it going to be like racing with Danielle?

Sarah Hill: It has been years since I’ve raced with another woman! It’s a little daunting, as I don’t think I could have as close of a relationship with anyone other than Theresa. We have both grown and matured together as professional athletes in this country, and T has been right next to me through my rapid development in this sport. Saying that, I am really excited to open up a new opportunity for Danielle to race with me at the FNB Wines2Whales. I have learned so much over the past couple of years, that having the opportunity to pay it forward; to an up and coming South African female mountain biker is a chance I could never say no to. I have assisted Danielle quite a few times over the past couple of years, whether it’s with her studying in the USA or meetings with sponsors to help her reach her cycling dreams. Here I have found myself in a position to once again open the door, and I know I would have loved the opportunity at her age! I understand how hard it is to be an individual racing on the South African circuit. Living in a country where stage racing dominates often makes all the other pros link up, leaving you a little stranded!


I am stoked to link up with another ‘youngster’. I am often seen as the small fish amongst all the other professional women, and now there are two of us! Danielle has a very similar riding style to me. She is technically brilliant with a good explosive kick, which will be fun. I am used to Theresa and I joining forces from opposite sides of the scale in terms of strengths on the bike, so it will be interesting linking up with a… well… mini me! Plus, she has long brown hair and a big smile, talk about twinning!


As we come to the end of a fantastic year for Galileo Risk, I am looking forward to racing hard and being a part of the growth in South Africa’s talent. The more insight, experience, and knowledge I can pass on to Danielle, the more tools she will have to thrive in this sport going into next year. I see so much potential in her, and really hope she loves the experience as much as I will!


FNB W2W: Danielle, we don’t get to see a lot of you in the Western Cape. What are you looking forward to most about racing Wines2Whales and how do you think the trails of Elgin will suit you coming from altitude in Gauteng?

Danielle Strydom: Yes, as much as I love the Western Cape, I unfortunately don’t get many chances to visit, however that’s part of the reason why I am so excited to be racing the FNB Wines2Whales! The province is known for its amazing mountain biking trails with their spectacular scenery and I know that the FNB W2W will carry us through the cream-of-the-crop, cherry-picked ones. I cannot wait! It will be my first W2W, but from what I hear from past riders and locals, I’d say that the routes and trails will suit my riding style as I love singletracks and the challenges of climbing. Coming from high altitude (Potchefstroom, North West) I think that I will be able to use this to my advantage riding close to sea level.


FNB W2W: What is the dynamic like, racing with someone you have never teamed up with before? What advice would you give amateur riders in the same situation ahead of W2W?

SH: The dynamic between two women is always a fun one to look at. With so many personalities out there, it’s easy to see how some partnerships may be more difficult than others. Racing with someone new gives you a chance to be open to joining forces. All of us have our own ‘super power’, and it’s important to acknowledge and respect what your partner is bringing to the table. You might not know each other super well, but you have an understanding of their strengths on the bike, and their enthusiasm for the sport. You want to go into a race with the same purpose. What are you both wanting to achieve out of the event, and how will you handle the situations when things may not go according to plan? It’s an opportunity to make a new friend, race as a new team, and find a way to combine your individual strengths to be the fastest you can be together. I absolutely love the process of getting to know someone while racing. I believe your true character comes out and the passion for the sport fuels the two of you to push as hard as you can while soaking in the entire experience.


My Advice:

  • Stay Open and positive.
  • Respect your teammate’s strengths and try use them to make you a faster team.
  • Stay close while racing, always look out for your partner!
  • Communication is key. Check in with them often to see how they are feeling.
  • Make a joke every now and then, point at the view, laugh to ease any tension. They are just as nervous as you are!
  • High five them on every finish line and compliment their strong points during the race. Without it you two wouldn’t have been as fast.
  • Embrace the change, and enjoy your own personal growth while adapting to a new personality and partnership.


DS: We have the advantage of having raced against each other in previous races and based off of that, we both could agree that we have similar riding styles which will be greatly to our benefit. Instead of partners challenging each other I think that the two of us will complement each other more and encourage each other’s stronger points whilst helping with the weaker points as well.


For other riders teaming up for the first time, my advice would be to have an honest conversation before the race and during the race about your strengths and weaknesses. That way you will be able to figure out who should be the leader and who should be the follower on specific sections of the race and also to understand when your partner needs a helping hand and vice versa. There is no shame in being weaker in some areas and stronger in others, not everyone is the same and clearing up these differences will be so important during the race to prevent possible frustrations and bonks.


FNB W2W: It looks like the 2019 W2W Chardonnay race could feature the most competitive elite women’s field in the event’s 11-year history. Who do you see as your main rivals?

SH: Wow! Would you look at that women’s field! (Ariane Lüthi & Samara Sheppard, Candice Lill & Adelheid Morath, Barbara Benko & Mariske Strauss, Robyn de Groot & Amy McDougall, Jennie Stenerhag & Nadine Rieder, Katie Lennard & Laura Stark, and Alice Pirard & Sabine Spitz) I am so excited to be on the start line with these women. Not only are they an inspiration, but they are all globally leaving their mark at every race they show up to. I have learned so much from each of them, and believe I am where I am because of how much each of them believed in me. We all talk about how we are going to grow the women’s fields in South Africa, and Danielle and I are examples of how their efforts have worked. From encouragement, to on the bike advice, training sessions or pre-riding courses; we have built a tight female community in this country that I am honoured to be a part of.


Okay, so enough admiring them! If I were to look at where Danielle and I are at this point in the year, I would say that we will be biting at the heels of whoever falls off the back of this bunch. These women are all phenomenal climbers, and there will be times where we may be a bit off the pace, but will quickly catch back on during the technical sections of the course. We are very good through the explosive singletrack, and I think that will be our super power at this year’s FNB W2W! We will give it all we’ve got on the long climbs, work together to pull us on pace, and then enjoy (hopefully) catching some teams on the descents. We are a young team and extremely enthusiastic, so really anything is possible!


DS: If I wasn’t already nervous before, I am now!


Being that I am still the ‘baby’ in the group I honestly just want to race as well as I can and to learn as much as I can from Sarah. She’s had such an awesome year thus far and I know that she’ll be teaching me a lot about what it takes to be brushing elbows with the best of the best upfront. Obviously, everyone is an opponent, but until the whistle goes off for the start one cannot say who’s the biggest target just yet. Deciding on who to chase is so dependent on the day (i.e. how you feel), how your partner feels and also how the competition also feels on race day. The women that will be standing on the start line are seriously the best of the best and so my objective will be to race as hard as I can to stay amongst the pros. Also, one competes to win, so that will always be the biggest carrot.

Barbara Benko leads the FNB W2W Elite Women. Photo: Dwayne Senior

Barbara Benko may have a South African boyfriend and now coach too, but the Hungarian XCO champion does not get to race here that often. It is fantastic then, that for the second FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay race in a row, the charismatic Ghost Factory Racing rider will be lining up in Lourensford. She was set to race alongside 22-year-old Catherine Colyn, but a last-minute switch will now see her start alongside former South African cross-country champion Mariske Strauss.


FNB Wines2Whales: Barbara, you raced the FNB Wines2Whales last year with Ariane Lüthi. What about the race convinced you to come back?

Barbara Benko: I really enjoyed racing W2W last year, but we didn’t really get the result the I/we wanted though. So, I thought already last year that I have to come back and finish my unfinished business with this race. But it was also a really fun event. I enjoyed the vibe, so that was another thing which convinced me to do it again! There is a third thing which to me is maybe the most important; I really want to do a fun stage race with my dad once. I thought, having seen the route last year, and having that cool vibe in the race, that this will be the perfect one. So, ticking that bucket list item of racing with my dad, will be very special. I will be doing the third event with him. It is the perfect way to close the season and stay a bit in South Africa for a holiday afterwards to reset and refocus. And then while I’m there to race with my dad I can’t just leave out the women’s race entirely. So, I asked Catherine earlier this year to do it with me. We got to know each other a little bit earlier this year when I was around Stellenbosch for a training camp. I realised she is a cool girl and we will have fun in the race! [FNB W2W: Catherine Colyn has subsequently had to withdraw and has been replaced by Mariske Strauss in the Ghost Factory Racing line-up.]


FNB W2W: Barbara, for a European pro like yourself how does a late season race like W2W fit into your programme. Is it the last target or the start of your build-up to next year?

BB: It’s my last target of the season and it fits perfectly as I will stay in South Africa after the race for a holiday. I love South Africa and the weather will hopefully be good there too. I have a bit more of a reason now to stay longer, as my boyfriend lives there, so it will be time to reconnect after the long season and spend some quality time together. Plus, I have a new coach and he is from South Africa too. So, it makes sense to stay there, do some testing and planning with him for the next season. It is quite a winning situation for everyone!


FNB W2W: It looks like the 2019 W2W Chardonnay race could feature the most competitive elite women’s field in the event’s 11-year history. Who do you see as your main rivals?

BB: I didn’t know anything about the field until now, but it looks like will be a super interesting and hard race. Anything can happen in a stage race so it’s hard to say who will be the favourite, but there will be lots of teams in contention for the win or podium. I expect tight racing and I really hope we will be in the game for the win or podium! If I have to pick one favourite, I would say Lill and Morath. They are last year’s winners and they raced a lot together already too, so they know each other very well. That will be an advantage for them, as all the other teams are kind of new partnerships. The line-up is very strong though so it will be a very exciting race. I can’t wait!


FNB W2W: Mariske, tell us about your finger; the injury, the op and your recovery. We weren’t expecting to see you back racing this year, so obviously things have progressed a bit better than expected on the recovery front? 

Mariske Strauss: Haha, well my finger is still attached which is a great plus; although I have contemplated if it wouldn’t have been easier to chop it off. Surgery went super well, our docs here are amazing and I’m very thankful to them. I suspect it is going to be a while before I am without pain though. I did bang the poor thing up pretty badly!


Although I am making speedy progress, I will unfortunately not be ready to race just yet. I have had to obviously take some unplanned rest but the injury was a little more than just my pinkie. I have had to really rest to give my body time to find itself again. I have been on the MTB and getting better by the week, and hey, why not do a three-day mountain bike stage race to see just how ready I am to go again.


FNB W2W: You know Barbara from the World Cup circuit; the South African races she has done over the years and her time she spends training here. Tell us a bit about her as a person. We just see the hilarious Instagram stories, but there’s clearly a lot more to her sense of humour than that.

MS: Barbara is an amazing soul; one I will always have time for. She has the most amazing dry sense of humour. I’m not sure if it’s a Hungarian thing, but I like it and I find her really funny. She is also determined and can be serious when she needs to be though. Barbara will tell it like it is, which is refreshing and great for communication in a team; so, I’m looking forward to racing FNB Wines2Whales alongside her. On top of that she is also an incredible athlete. I think we are going to have a blast, hold on to your hats the fun train is coming!”



Robyn de Groot on the charge at the FNB W2W. Photo: Dwayne Senior

The dormakaba duo of Robyn de Groot and Amy McDougall start the FNB Wines2Whales on the front foot, having won Berg and Bush, just three weeks before. We spoke to them about their preparation and how they were feeling ahead of the richest three-day stage race in the sport.


FNB Wines2Whales: Robyn & Amy, firstly congratulations on your Berg & Bush win. Was that the first time you two have raced together as a partnership? And how are you feeling as a team/combination ahead of FNB Wines2Whales?

Robyn de Groot: Thank you, we had a good weekend there racing as team dormakaba for the first time. It was definitely a good exercise as a “pre-run” for the FNB Wines2Whales; it’s still a new partnership but we worked nicely together. The depth of the field at this year’s W2W is going to be strong with internationals being drawn to come and race. I am certain the racing will be tight and exciting.


Amy McDougall: Yes, it was the first time we’ve ridden as a team. Berg and Bush was a great dry run in that we got a feel of what it’s like to partner up and we got to know each other on and off the bike which was great!


FNB W2W: Robyn, what a difference a year makes! Last year this time you were pretty down and contemplating the dangers of the vascular surgery you were about to have. Now you’ve just won a bronze medal at the XCM World Championships. Is it safe to say you are back to your best?

RdG: So true! Last year this time was an extremely difficult time physically, emotionally and mentally for me. I was very down with so many questions and unknowns in my mind, about whether to have the surgery, how to fund my surgery and rehabilitation and the question about what lay ahead for the future. Without a doubt the surgery was worthwhile, I feel like a totally different athlete and for sure the results I had in Europe have put me in a good space leading into this year’s event. It’s been an incredible journey. I wouldn’t change a thing.


FNB W2W: Amy, you’ve also had surgery this year. Are you happy with your recovery thus far and with FNB Wines2Whales essentially being the last opportunity of the year to race at a high level, do you approach it looking to end a difficult year on a high?

AM: It’s been a tumultuous year indeed but definitely seems to be ending on a high. The surgery took longer than expected to heal properly, but it was well worth the wait because I can finally get air into my lungs during intense efforts which is a great feeling!


FNB W2W: It looks like the 2019 W2W Chardonnay race could feature the most competitive elite women’s field in the event’s 11-year history. Who do you see as your main rivals?

RdG: What great news – the women’s race this year is going to be so exciting! It has progressively drawn more and more riders, including international athletes with notable palmarès. All of the riders in the 2019 field will be riders to watch, everyone has their own right to be respected for sure!


AM: Yes, as Robs says, the field is stacked with elites which is so exciting! It could literally be any one of the teams who take the title!

A superstar loaded FNB W2W Women’s field. Photo: Greg Beadle

With a whopping R252 500 in prize money up for grabs, including R100 000 to the winning team, it is no wonder the 2019 FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay race has attracted a stellar field from across the globe. Boasting national champions aplenty, an Olympic gold medallist and a World Championship bronze medallist, it is without a doubt the strongest ever elite women’s field for a South African three-day stage race.


Headlining the elite women’s category are the defending champions Candice Lill and Adelheid Morath. Lill has continued on from her strong 2018; securing her first senior South African title and is the highest UCI ranked rider lining up in the 2019 FNB Wines2Whales events. The South African XCO champion will continue her successful partnership with 2019 Swiss Epic champion Morath, who stormed to victory in the five-stage race, which took place in the Graubünden canton of Switzerland in August.


“Yes, we’re returning to defend our title, but it does not add any pressure” Morath revealed. “I see it as a gift to be the team which sets out to defend the title. We will do our best and race all out. After the race we will see which team will win the title in 2019” the German rider pragmatically stated.


“I also enjoy the feeling of teaming up with such a strong woman and as a result I want to give my very best [to support Candice Lill]. In stage races it’s not all about a once-off performance – you have to perform well every day. The challenge is to take care of yourself, your bike, your partner and the team around you, which supports you, throughout the race” Morath advised.


“The season has been quite long – beginning with the Cape Epic in March – with no break in between – until my final race of the season, at the end of October with FNB W2W. I’m honestly a little bit tired mentally and physically, but I’m still very motivated about it” she confided. “I’m coming with a lot of self-confidence, taken from the Marathon World Championships in September. I missed the bronze medal there by just 1 second and finished in an unlucky fourth position!”


The woman who pipped Morath to third place in the XCM World Championships is South African, Robyn de Groot. De Groot will be racing alongside dormakaba teammate Amy McDougall. The pair come into the FNB Wines2Whales straight from a general classification victory at Berg and Bush, in KwaZulu-Natal, where they held off Galileo Risk’s Sarah Hill and Theresa Ralph to claim the title.


In Ralph’s absence, Hill will be teaming up with Danielle Strydom for the 2019 race. “As much as I love the Western Cape, I unfortunately don’t get many chances to visit; however, that’s part of the reason why I’m so excited to be racing the FNB Wines2Whales” Strydom enthused. “The province is known for its amazing mountain biking trails with their spectacular scenery. I know that W2W will take us through the cream-of-the-crop of those trails and I cannot wait! It will be my first W2W, but from what I hear, I think the routes and trails will suit my riding style; as I love singletracks and the challenges of climbing.”


Like Hill and Strydom, the Fairtree-Rotwild, SA Roadtrippers and Ghost Factory Racing teams feature untested line-ups. Swedish XCM champion and former FNB Wines2Whales champion Jennie Stenerhag will start alongside Nadine Rieder for Fairtree-Rotwild. SA Roadtrippers will be represented by the South African/German combination of Katie Lennard and Laura Stark. While Barbara Benko and Catherine Colyn are another international/local duo.


“FNB Wines2Whales is my last target of the season and it fits perfectly as I will stay in South Africa after the race, for a little bit of a holiday” the Hungarian XCO champion, Benko explained. “I love South Africa and the weather will be good there too, as we will enter winter in Europe soon. I have a bit more of a reason now to stay longer too, as my boyfriend lives in South Africa. It will be time to reconnect again after the long season and spend some quality time together. Plus, I have a new, South African, coach. So, it makes sense to stay there, do some testing and planning with him for the next season. All-in-all racing FNB W2W is quite a winning situation for me!”


In order to match the winning rationale off the bike with results on the bike at FNB Wines2Whales, Benko and Colyn will have to best the Kross Spur team. Swiss XCM champion Ariane Lüthi, will team-up once more with New Zealand’s Samara Sheppard. Lüthi, who needs no introduction to South African mountain biking fans, but the woman from the Land of the Long White Cloud is somewhat of a dark horse.


Having placed fifth in the XCM World Championships in 2019 after racing to third in the Swiss Epic, alongside Lüthi, Sheppard is in formidable form. Unlike most of her rivals, her racing season does not end with FNB Wines2Whales either, as she is targeting The Pioneer, fuelled by Nutri-Grain in her native New Zealand in December. The friendly Kiwi is also a proven stage racer, having secured victories in the Australian – Port to Port, Reef to Reef, and Cape to Cape – Epic Series races.


The final team, making up the formidable FNB Wines2Whales elite women’s line-up, is the pairing of Alice Pirard and Sabine Spitz, who will also be flying the dormakaba flag. Although an untested pairing, the Belgian – German team appears on paper to be a strong one as Spitz recently claimed a top 10 finish at the UCI Marathon World Champs and Pirard secured second place at the Swiss Epic.


Mountain biking fans can follow the women’s racing action, live from the FNB Wines2Whales Chardonnay event, on the race’s social media channels or online at The first stage starts at 07h00, from Lourensford Wine Estate, on Friday 25 October. Live racing coverage can be found on Twitter, @w2wmtb, while Facebook, Wines2Whales, and Instagram, @wines_2_whales, will feature the best photos and videos from the three-days of superb mountain biking.