With her finish in the 8th position on Sunday, 11 April, at the Unive Ronde van Drenthe World Cup in the Netherlands, Carla Swart proved herself to be the new star of South African women’s cycling.
It could not be established with certainty whether, and when, a South African female cyclist had ever managed to achieve a top-10 finish at a World Cup event before.
There is a possibility that Anke Erlank, a former local cycling legend, might have done it, but it is certainly not a regular occurrence in South African cycling.
What makes Swart’s performance even more remarkable, is that her 8th place finish occurred after three hard races. With this performance Swart has proven her strength, physically as well as mentally.
Loes Gunnewijk from the Netherlands won the Unive Ronde van Drenthe (135km) in 3 hours, 33 minutes and 56 seconds. Annemiek van Vleuten, also from the Netherlands, was 2nd and Giorgia Bronzini, from Italy, 3rd. Swart finished a mere second behind them.
Swart not only outrode Brittain’s Nicole Cooke, current Olympic and World Champion, but also the Netherlands’ Marianne Vos, current leader in the World Cup series and former Olympic and World Champion.
She has also proven that she is able to keep her cool when things go wrong during a race.
When some of the riders crashed in front of her, she lost valuable seconds while manoeuvring her bike through the ‘wounded’, but never panicked.
She worked well with Australia’s Tiffany Cromwell to catch up with the leaders. In the Ronde van Vlaanderen, also a World Cup race, Swart again beat Cooke to finish 18th.
When asked about her World Cup performances, Swart admitted that she had to keep her wits about her while racing.
“Racing in World Cup events is very intense. If you should lose focus, even for a few seconds, your race could be over. You are constantly fighting for a better position in the peloton.
“MTN stepped up its support in a big way by sending us to these races. It is crucial for us to learn how to hold our own in a bunch of 160-180 riders.
Physically I felt great during the races. Mentally it was quite exhausting at first, but after a while it became fun. I truly enjoyed the racing and learned a lot from it. It made me hungry for more.
“The Ronde van Vlaanderen was an extremely hard World Cup event, but the incredibly hilly course suited me well.
It feels good to have finished in the top-20 at the hilliest world cup event on the calendar, and to follow it up with a top-10 finish in one of the most technical, flat, cobbled courses, was great. It shows that I can handle all types of racing.
In both the Ronde van Drenthe and Ronde van Vlaanderen World Cup events, Swart was the first Commonwealth rider to finish.
This is encouraging because it proves that she has a very realistic chance to win a medal at the Games in India in October.
According to Swart, she has beaten prominent riders such as Cooke, Rochelle Gilmore and Kirsty Broun. Gilmore and Broun are both from Australia and they are two of the world’s best female cyclists.
Swart says the worst mistake she could make at the Commonwealth Games would be to focus on specific riders.
“Rochelle and Kirsty are both pure sprinters. I know their strengths and weaknesses very well, because I have raced against both of them many times before. Kirsty was actually a guest rider in my American team last year.
“When I think of who I have to beat, I don’t see Rochelle or Kirsty or Nicole. I see the whole peloton. I am going to train according to the course, not according to my competitors’ strengths. I have to focus on improving my own strengths and overcoming my own weaknesses.
“I was fortunate enough to race at the highest level of competition in both the United States and Europe. This allowed me the opportunity to get to know my competitors very well. But, no matter how well I know my competitors, I have to make sure that I prepare myself according to what the course has to offer.”
Swart started racing at the age of 17. “I simply decided that racing on bikes was what I wanted to do and went ahead and did it. I joined a junior team and started racing more and more each year. What I like most about cycling is the racing.
Unlike running, cycling can be very unpredictable, which makes it pretty exciting.”
According to Google, Carla Swart is a truly versatile athlete. Since becoming a student at the Lees McRae College in Georgia, USA, she has won running races, as well as races in road cycling, mountain biking, track cycling and cyclocross.
“I retired from running six months ago. I ran for my university for the past 4 years, having received a scholarship to do so. I have also achieved All-academic honours from the NCAA for each of the four years.
“I set a record for winning the most national titles by a collegiate cyclist. I have also been the collegiate national champion in each of the following: Track (match sprints, 2km pursuit, omnium); Road (road racing, omnium); Cyclocross; Mountain (cross country, short track, omnium).
“I have also won, all in the same year, every single national championship that there is to win in collegiate cycling. This has never been done before.”
Being so versatile, one wonders what sort of cyclist Swart really is.
“At this point I consider myself an all-rounder. This is only my second season as a professional cyclist. I am still trying to figure out what I am best at, and at this stage I don’t want to limit myself to only sprinting, climbing, time trailing, etc.
“I love all of it, and I want to improve in every single discipline. I believe that I have the potential to do well in every discipline. Most of the racing that I have done, have been stage races. I love stage racing and think I am well suited for it.
“I’ve won the climbing jerseys at two of the three UCI stage races in which I competed last year. In the same year I became the collegiate national champion in the match sprints and also in the 2k pursuit (on the track). Who knows what I’m best at? As I said, I’m not going to limit myself.
“This year I would like to achieve a top-10 at the World Championship, along with a top-5 at the Commonwealth Games. I would also like to achieve more top-10 overall GC placing in UCI races.
“As far as my long term goals are concerned, I would like to win major stage races, World Cups, Worlds, and medals at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. I know it seems pretty bold but, honestly, that is what I’m going for. It will take time to achieve everything that I want to.”
“When she is not cycling, Swart studies Business Administration with a focus on management/accounting, as well as Sports Management. She also loves painting, cooking and dancing.