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Reigning XCO champ Vale hoping for a top-step finish at Cup Series
- Updated: January 28, 2016
By Mark Etheridge
With the Stihl 2016 MTB Cup Series rolling into action at Mankele, Mbombela on Saturday it seems crazy that one of the leading lights on show will have just ridden her first full year as a pro.
That’s Cherie Vale, the 26-year-old rider having swopped her camera frame for a mountain bike frame a few years back and with pretty spectacular results.
She’ll also be one of many hopefuls out to try and seal cross-country slots for Team South Africa at the Rio Olympics in August this year.
Among the entries to have flooded in are Vale’s fellow national XC champion James Reid, as well as 2012 Olympian Candice Neethling and 2014 Commonwealth Games riders Philip Buys and Mariske Strauss.
A product of Treverton College in the Natal Midlands, the bubbly blonde can barely remember when she started cycling but tells Road to Rio 2016: ‘My mom told me my sister and I sold some of our sheep to buy our first bicycle. It was fun to cycle around but then I was more involved in horse riding. I only started competing when I was 15 but they had things like the Epworth Eco challenges and some adventure racing. It was great that we had adventure racing as an official sport at Treverton.
‘After school I continued cycling but the first year mainly focused on my hockey. In my second year the cycling picked up with more local races. That is when I did the WP XCO series. A friend, Willie Brink helped me out. Most of the races ended off with him asking me: “How did the race go”, and I’d say “the scenery was stunning and I made some friends”. So the focus just wasn’t there yet. I got distracted too much and was like a diesel engine. It is only when I started photographing mountain biking that I really saw what it took to be at the front which inspired me to improve my focus.
‘Towards the end of my varsity studies my bike got stolen, something of a blessing in disguise because it was an aluminum frame and weighed a ton (it once nearly sunk in a river). I nearly gave up racing to focus on my career in photography but I found cycling and photographing complimented each other so well I couldn’t just stop. Plus being an adventure outdoors person I needed to have a sport.
‘My fiancé, Heiko Redecker, found a third-hand bike still in good condition which had great components, so the motivation to race still was there. My first year of working I worked for Karin Schermbruker, then part time at Highbury Safika Media which gave me the weekends free to race. I pretty much just did races with little training. The racing picked up and I was getting podium finishes – when the big guns weren’t there.’
Moving on and she raced her first UCI World Cup in Pietermaritzburg, 2011, coming 16th of 18 riders in her last year as an U23 rider. Then followed her first win in the Oude Molen MTB race in Cape Town. ‘It was the first time I received such big coverage. I even remember the article went onto SASCOC’s website page.’
In 2013/2014 her cycling really began to get more serious. ‘Stephen van Der Walt offered to sponsor me under the colours of Paarl Media (now Novus Holdings) and I got to race all the National XCO races. Having that support really helped. Despite having to juggle between work and cycling I found a balance. I was lucky that Michael Meyer, from Stillwater Sports gave me time off to go overseas to race, an experience that has helped me so much last year.’
And the next step up was a potentially life-changing one: ‘Working and wanting to cycle seriously was becoming difficult and Stephen said if I really want to give my cycling a go, I must cycle on a full time basis. It was a big step but one from which I haven’t looked back. Joining the Novus OMX Pro team has really helped me grow. The support from teammates, crew and sponsors is great. Its has taken me time to adjust being on the team but it helps a lot having a strong support structure.’
So 2015 saw her riding the Absa Cape Epic with Strauss, ‘a real privilege. Coming third on stage six was really special. Despite all her the challenges she has faced with injuries Mariske still has such a high spirit.’
And on to her biggest victory yet at SA XCO Champs. ‘I really didn’t think I would be SA champ. It has been a pretty cool progression – 2013 I was third, 2014 – second and then 2015 I was first. The victory was slightly bitter/sweet, with three of the elite girls out due to illness/injury. Nonetheless, I felt I had the form to take the title and couldn’t have asked for better support.’
And now she’s something of a seasoned pro in SA cycling circles! ‘I really can’t believe I’ve raced a whole season as a pro already.
‘Going into this, my first race of the season I’m trying not to put to much pressure on myself especially since I am the current SA champ but racing at Mankele is always special since I feel it is where my XCO racing got more serious.’
But there’s no doubting it has to get serious because this is 2016. ‘With it being an Olympic year it feels like every race really counts so I’m hoping for a top step and there’s no doubt I can achieve that especially with my preparations. I feel with the help from my coach, John Wakefield, this is the best I’ve prepared going into a season. Now I just need to believe and go have fun…’
Picture of Vale on her way to the national title last year courtesy of Andrew McFadden