The advance party of the South African Para-cycling team, which is scheduled to compete in a series of UCI races in Italy during May, arrived in Milan on 30 April. The riders and team support then travelled southwards to Italy’s Lombardy region, where they are currently based in the small town of Pontevico. The foothills of the Alps, to the north, are still snow-covered and make any breeze from that quarter quite chilly; however, there are signs of spring in the air, and also clear signs that the European racing season that is now under-way.
Several of the (able body) pro cycling support teams are currently established in the Lombardy and Brescia regions of Italy, preparing for the arrival of the world’s best teams that will compete shortly in the country’s famous Giro d’Italia.
Equally important, adding to the local cycling buzz is the concentration of Para-cyclists from around the world, who are racing this weekend in the town of Verolanuova. This competition is scheduled one week ahead of the first Para-cycling Road World Cup of 2014 and allows the riders opportunity to gauge how well they are prepared for the gruelling 24 months that lie ahead. This is when each rider-point that is earned will have significant implications for the teams that will eventually compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
The South African team selection strategy for Verolanuova is identical to that of almost every other competing team – which is to break the season’s ice and build a solid basis for the 2014 World Cup and World Championship season that lies ahead.
The three riders in the South African team include H5 handcyclist Ernst van Dyk (who has just made the country so proud through his 10th racing wheelchair win in the Boston marathon), George Rex, one of the internationally most competitive T1 tricyclists, and Craig Ridgard, an extremely talented C3 rider competing internationally for the first time.
The Verolanuova Cup programme got underway on Friday night (2 May) with a Criterium event in which all of the handcycling classes competed. The race in which Van Dyk was entered extended over 75 minutes (plus one lap) and started at 21:00. Initially, a ‘snake’ of about 6 recumbent H4 riders positioned themselves ahead of van Dyk and his H5 competitors (all riding kneeling handbikes), making overtaking difficult, especially in the poorly lit racing conditions. Van Dyk and the Dutch rider Yetzi Platz eventually exploited this situation by getting ahead of the recumbent riders, whilst leaving another H5 podium hopeful, Johan Reekers, stuck in the slow(ish) traffic. For the final 20 minutes it was a tense race between van Dyk and Platz, with the South African eventually winning by 1.5 bike lengths in a sprint finish.
Not to be outdone by teammate van Dyk’s performance of the previous evening, George Rex rode a perfect road race on Saturday morning (3 May) also winning a gold medal. The plan, which was to give his competitors a false sense of advantage over the first quarter of the race distance and to then attack, break away and get too far ahead to be caught, worked perfectly. This was in spite of Rex having technical problems with his trike just before the race started, which resulted in him not being able to use his large blade.
Saturday’s C3 men’s road race was without doubt the most exciting of the morning, with no quarter asked and none given by any of the competing riders. With the race maintained at a blistering pace, South Africa’s Craig Ridgard rode incredibly well. He never let the lead group get away and in his challenge for a podium finish eventually claimed the bronze medal. Ridgard proved that where natural athletic talent allows, a first-time competitor in an international event can make it onto the podium. His achievement brings the South African medal tally to ‘three-from-three-from-one (the road race event)’ – thus far, probably the best ratio of medals won to size of team entered for the Verolanuova Cup.
Today, Sunday 4 May sees the South Africans competing in the Time Trial, in which they are expected to perform well. Thereafter, the team leaves for Tuscany, where they will meet up with their other teammates to compete in the World Cup in Castiglione della Pescaia.
Summary of results – Verola Paracycling Cup – Criterium (2 May)
1 Ernst Van Dyk (South Africa)
2 Jetze Plat (Nederland)
3 Johan Reekers (Nederland)
Summary of results – Verola Paracycling Cup – Road Race (3 May)
1 Fabio Anobile (Gruppo Sportivo Forestale)
2 Roberto Bargna (Rampi Club Brianza)
3 Craig Ridgard (South Africa)
1 George Gerald Rex (South Africa)
2 Fabio Nari (Vc Sommese)
3 Franck Netto (Urt Velo 64)