Top mountain biker Hill shows versatility with first road race win

Professional mountain biker Sarah Hill showed her versatility when she won her first road race at the inaugural Joburg Classic, which took place at Nooitgedacht Primary on November 21. Photo: Rory Button

Top mountain biker Sarah Hill showed how versatile she could be when she won her first road race at the inaugural Joburg Classic, which took place at Nooitgedacht Primary on November 21.

The Galileo Risk rider claimed a narrow win, beating Joanna van de Winkel and Melissa Kretzinger into second and third in the 113km race.

“Winning my first road race was a surreal experience, especially because the purpose of me joining had nothing to do with the competitive nature of racing,” said Hill.

“As the pace of the women’s group became faster, I could feel that competitive edge inside of me start to light up. 

“By the end of the race, there were only four of us left, and I promised myself that if I were still in the group by the end, I would give the sprint a good go.”

The 27-year-old said her reason to enter was the rainy weather that was predicted for the weekend. She knew she would need that extra motivation to get her outside to continue her preparation for next month’s sani2c.

“The distance was perfect, and I predicted that it would be around three hours and 30 minutes of race time.

“This was also ideal for me,” said Hill, who placed second in the sani2c women’s team event alongside Theresa Ralph last year.

She added that other reasons for entering were that she thrived off being put in the deep end. One of her strengths had always been her versatility on the bike, and jumping into a local road race was exciting.

“I knew I’d come out of the event having learned a little more about road tactics, as well as having great leg speed under the belt.”

Hill said the race started slow and that the women were comfortable and chatting in the peloton, which was an excellent way to warm up. Once they turned right towards Valverde, after the dip, Van de Winkel attacked. 

“I jumped on her wheel, but the attack wasn’t hard enough to significantly drop anyone. We continued through the punchy part of the Cradle and then up every short and sharp climb someone would attack. 

“My idea was to jump onto every person who attacked because I honestly didn’t know which attack would stick. It’s quite risky because what if I jumped onto a wheel, and then there was another attack that got away. I didn’t have enough power to continue jumping.”

She added that as they headed towards the Sterkfontein Caves, she noticed the group had split entirely, and there were only eight of them. They started the paceline, and slowly the group went from eight to six and then to five. 

“We had to contend with cross and headwinds on the open roads, which were quite frustrating. I didn’t enjoy that part. I’ll take rain and mud in the mountain bike trails over wind any day.

“Once we circled back into the Cradle, Joanna attacked hard up the Satellite climb. I saw her tightening her shoes, and I guessed that meant she was going to attack.”

Hill said Van de Winkel put in a good effort but only really got a 20-meter lead by the end of the climb. 

“I worked with Melissa to catch back on, but we didn’t need to work too hard to catch her because she is so light. We had a much better advantage on the flat road. 

“Once we caught her, the pace substantially slowed, and I was anxious that the bunch we broke away from would catch us again during the last 10 kilometres.”

She added that in the last three kilometres, the others slowed down too much. She assumed they were playing this game of who would attack because they all wanted to save their energy. 

“I know from mountain biking that I have a good sprint, so I encouraged them to keep going in fear that we would be caught. 

“I sat on the front as we turned right towards the finish and prepared myself for the sprint. Melissa went early, and I jumped onto her wheel, then went around her on the left and just went as hard as I could. 

“It was a very cool experience sending it to the line. I’ve never been in the situation, so experiencing something new was awesome – it’s absolutely nothing like mountain biking.”

She said that in this race, in particular, she realised that the smartest person genuinely won the road race, not the strongest.

“There’s also a fine line between being smart and being arrogant. You think you’re okay until you aren’t.

“The attacks during the race were brutal but short. Something that I thrive off of. If the attacks lasted longer than a couple of minutes, I could feel my engine start to battle. 

“This was a great realisation of what I can work on in the future.”

She added that the only obstacle was learning how not to surge during her rotation in the breakaway group. 

“I made sure that I was confident in my ability to adapt to the situation, rather than focusing on how uncomfortable I felt in the moment. 

“I did feel a bit intimidated when there were only four people left, as I didn’t know anyone, and the silence was deafening. Everyone wanted to set themselves up in the best possible way, and I was one of them.”

Hill said she was not targeting more road races as road would always be used as a training race to prepare mountain bike races.

“My priority is to continue building myself towards being a world calibre mountain bike racer.

“So, I need to ensure that my mindset is always about learning, training, and enjoying road events so that I can focus hard on racing the mountain bike events to the best of my ability.”

She added that heading into next year, winning this event was a fantastic addition to her resume.

“It shows my versatility, and it gives me confidence that I can race whatever discipline I’m thrown into,” said Hill, whose current MTB disciplines are cross-country, marathon, stage race, ultra-endurance, as well as gravel ultra-endurance.

“Road helps build the engine needed to race all these disciplines, which I’m grateful for having the opportunity to do.”