Team bizhub-FCF’s British import Catherine Williamson has returned to South African shores just in time to defend her title in the Garden Route Rocky Mountain 300 mountain bike race, which starts in Knysna on Friday.

Williamson, who won the inaugural three-day event with Nicci Grobler, will go head to head with Grobler and new partner Leana de Jager as she teams up with the experienced Yolandi du Toit.

Although the odds are clearly on the two bizhub pairings dominating the women’s race, Williamson would not be drawn on who the likely winners would be. “Both teams are strong and we’ve paired quite evenly for this one.”

The Brit, who has podiumed twice in the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour and represented her country in World Cup and world championship events, is a recent convert to mountain biking.

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Team bizhub-FCF’s British star Catherine Williamson will be back to defend her title at the Garden Route Rocky Mountain 300 in Knysna this weekend. Photo: Elle Photography

She proved her versatility last year by winning both the nine-day Old Mutual joBerg2c (with Ischen Stopforth) and three-day BoE sani2c (Candice Neethling).

“I’m looking forward to riding with Yolandi as we know each other well. She has been doing a lot of cross country and she’s always been good on the technical side, whereas my strengths are usually on the climbs.”

Du Toit has had a strong start to the season with a win in the opening race of the Vori-Berg Mountain Bike Series and a second place behind Grobler in the Emperor’s Palace Mountain Bike Classic this month.

On her part, Williamson said she had not yet fully recovered from the illness that affected her in the recent MTN Marathon Series race in Tulbagh.

“I got some good training in before I came out here, then I got sick. So I’ve just got to build up and I’m taking things very steady now.”

The 29-year-old said the Garden Route 300 would be a crucial test of her fitness ahead of next month’s Absa Cape Epic, which is her major focus for the season.

“For me Knysna is very important. It’s my only stage race before the Epic, which I’ll be riding with Ischen.”

Williamson said the event, with its limited field of 300 teams, was one of her favourites. “It’s a lovely, intimate race and you know everyone by the third day.”

She said the combination of single track and beautiful views of the forest, lagoon and ocean could prove quite challenging in an entirely different way. “You’ve got to keep reminding yourself that you’re racing!”

Williamson said the best approach to off-road stage racing was to ride at one’s own tempo. “You can’t worry too much about the competition, you’ve just got to go out and ride your own race.”

The clover leaf route starts and finishes every day at the Cruise Café race village at the Featherbed Company on the edge of the Knysna lagoon.

Riders head east on day one, covering 99km through mostly indigenous forest while climbing over 1 650m.

Day two, over 114km with 2 100m of ascent, takes them westwards across the privately owned Featherbed Nature Reserve on the Western Head.

The final day culminates with an 80km inland loop that features 1 550m of climbing.

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