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 [FNB W2W: Catherine Colyn has subsequently had to withdraw and has been replaced by Mariske Strauss in the Ghost Factory Racing line-up.]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!”