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From left: Jo van de Winkel, Carla Oberholzer, Cherise Willeit and Lize-Ann Louw. Picture: CYCLE NATION
From left:  Jo van de Winkel, Carla Oberholzer, Cherise Willeit and Lize-Ann Louw. Picture: CYCLE NATION

As a teen she dreamt of representing SA in gymnastics at the Olympics — now, as a mature mom, Carla Oberholzer has got that dream under her belt, but as a road cyclist when she represented the rainbow nation at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago.

Her sporting and personal career has been a series of stops, starts, broken hearts and broken bones, but as she proved by winning a fourth Ride Joburg 947 road race in Gauteng, she’s in it to win.

Bloemfontein born-and-bred, Oberholzer had spent time in Tshwane and Gauteng before and husband Stefan (also a top cyclist) chose Clarens, Free State, as their home base about seven years ago.

Life’s certainly not all about cycling though as the couple run not one, not two, but three busy businesses in the form of The Artist’s Café, Die Spens delicatessen and the Sco Tech solar and IT company.

“I was about 14 when I injured my ankle badly,” she recalls, “so my gymnastics was never the same. My dad was a very keen cyclist so I started cycling and it was certainly not love at first sight. But I stuck to it and did quite well as a junior and in my first and second year at U23 — but then I quit to finish my studies.”

So after swopping the uneven bars for cycling’s handle-bars, she also quit her relationship with Stefan after they had dated during her matric and first year at Kovsies — she heading north to Tshwane and he moved south to Cape Town.

Not forever though. “We had no contact for six years and then one day, it was the end of 2012 I think, he invited me down to Cape Town to do a mountain-bike race. I made it very clear: if he dared ask me to drink a protein drink or use a power meter it was a no-go.”

That went well enough but it wasn’t long before Bestmed manager Owen Botha asked her to come and do some races and she told him the same story, but it wasn’t long before the cycling bug had infected her again. “Soon I was on the podium and obviously everyone enjoys what they’re good at”.

There also followed a spell with the Demacon team where Dave and Lynette Pieterse (neé Burger) taught the Oberholzers a whole heap more. The latter is also a seasoned trophy-winning cyclist on the SA scene.

Stefan and her then got married before she had a spell in Europe with the UCI Bizkaia-Durango team. “But I realised that living and racing in Europe wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do… I enjoyed my job and missed my hubby so turned down another contract and thought I was done with cycling.

“After all, I’d missed the Rio Olympics and honestly thought I was too old and Tokyo 2020 seemed a long way away.”

Fast forward though and she suddenly won the 2018 national road champs and went on to have a great year where she won more than 10 races.

Tokyo Olympics were looking good but the arrival of Covid-19 crushed so many hopes. However, her mind was sent on an Olympic Games and her place was sealed when she won team trial gold at Continental Champs in Egypt, one of four gold medals she won.

“Like everyone who was in Tokyo, felt, it was a very different experience to a normal Olympics with all the restrictions, no crowds, but I guess I was just happy to be at the games and be able to say I was there.”

It had been a broken build-up to the games quite literally, because in 2019 she had a fractured pelvis before the Continental Championships in Morocco, and then when on a short European tour with the SA team afterwards, she broke her collarbone in the very first race of the tour.

After the Tokyo Olympics she rode for a team in Dubai but it just didn’t work out. “The money was good, very good, but unfortunately the cultural differences were too much for me. I’m unashamedly vocal, opinionated, speak my mind and stand up for principles and that just didn’t go down well in Emirate culture so we mutually agreed to end that contract early.”

Then she was finally done with international racing and on February 24 2023 a new phase in her life started with the arrival of their daughter Ariane. “It sounds so clichéd but she’s such a bundle of joy and brings so much perspective to my life. I used to be so obsessed with training, etc and now if things aren’t 100% it’s not the end of the world, she has taught me that sometimes you just have to go with the flow,” she says with a smile.

She did exactly that with her fourth 94.7 Ride Joburg victory on Sunday. “It was a definite goal as I had food poisoning two days before  my last 94.7 race in 2021 and then didn’t race last year as I was pregnant,” she recalls.

“My build-up went well, the only unknown being that I hadn’t raced with the girls in person for almost two years. Our Sandton City Cycle Nation team kept the pace high from the start so that other bunches would battle to catch up from behind and we owe a big thanks to organisers this year who gave bigger gaps at the start so the women could really have their own race.

“Jo van de Winkel [2012 Olympian] and Cherise Willeit [2008 Olympian] and youngster Lize-Ann Louw did such a great job for me that I was able to go it alone from much further out from the finish than I’d expected.”

The R200,000 first prize would have come as a welcome early Christmas boost for the Oberholzer family. She says it seems that Cycle Nation will continue to race in 2024 and as for her, she’ll take each year as it comes.

How did 2023’s 94.7 rank in her most satisfying races? “It was one of my three most memorable, Stefan was managing me from the car and then Lincoln King, our team owner, had never had a rider win 94.7 so he was absolutely ecstatic.

“The other two wins that stand out were a Telkom Satellite race that finished up one helluva climb and then  downhill finish. I dropped on the climb, but Dave Pieterse, my manager at the time, literally shouted me back to the front group and I ended up winning — so satisfying.

“And then the third win that stands out was SA Champs time trial last year. I’d just got back from Dubai so had no altitude training and really didn’t feel in good enough form to win. But Tony Harding [former continental champs manager and national cyclist] and Stefan were in the team car and they knew exactly how to work with my mind and I won in the last 500m.”

But when she’s out of the saddle and out of work mode, how does this little “Duracell bunny” relax her mind?

“We do a lot of hiking in the area with our two dogs, I love reading, especially sports biographies as well as SA crime author Deon Meyer (I’ve read all his books) and then I listen to sports science/medical-type podcasts.”

But that’s not all. “Oh my goodness, a massage! I’d sell my soul for a massage but I so rarely get to a spa these days!”

Well, after her winning efforts and financial remuneration at 94.7, the gymnast-turned-cyclist 2020 Olympian could probably fly to any spa of her choice around the country — and she’d deserve every second of satisfaction.

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