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Maddie le Roux in the final week of trials in Spain. Picture: HARRY POWELL/ZWIFT
Maddie le Roux in the final week of trials in Spain. Picture: HARRY POWELL/ZWIFT

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

If ever this opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities resonated with a South African sports persona, it is Maddie le Roux.

Less than a year ago the Bloemfontein biker was living her cycling dream in her second year at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland.

But late in the year she abandoned Aigle, feeling alienated and in the dumps after being told that there wasn’t a bright future for her in the cycling arena.

But after picking herself up she ended the year on a high, having placed second in the prestigious 94.7 Johannesburg road race. She had picked up enough of a cash prize (R75,000), which together with an international grant that she had been awarded, could have set her up with a French club team in the third tier of European racing for 2024.

Before 94.7 though, she had  competed in some of the Zwift Academy virtual races… and, two weeks before Christmas, she received the uplifting news that she had made the final list of six Zwift Academy nominees, a virtual cycling competition which result in one man and one woman landing a spot on a leading global cycle team — in her case, the Canyon//Sram Generation team.

That saw her arriving in Europe on her birthday late in January, travelling to Denia, Spain for a week of incredibly hard actual racing trials along with two other female and three male finalists.

Amazingly, she ended up on top of the world — and her feat is even more amazing, considering there were a staggering 108,000 Zwifters who had originally started the challenge

But for every up there has to be a down and the last few weeks have been a maelstrom of dizzying dreams and nauseating nightmares.

First there was the high of winning the Zwift Academy Challenge but, due to a non-disclosure agreement, she wasn’t allowed to tell a soul.

She takes up the story: “I came home on January 29 and on  February 4 it was road nationals in Johannesburg.

“I really thought that race was mine to win, such was my form. My mom and dad were there — even my coach, Thierry Bessède flew in from Switzerland to be with me.”

But her dreams were about to turn into nightmares.

“Forty kilometres into the nationals I had a crash, broke my bike really badly and thought I’d broken my pelvis [but it was just bad bruising]. I dislocated a few fingers on my left hand, and that hand is still a bit ‘stupid’ right now.”

The bumps and bruises, though, were nothing compared to the brain-numbing shock she was about to get!

“My mom [Corné) was helping me bathe my very sore body on the same evening  of the nationals and revealed to me that the cancer she had been battling with for some time had advanced to stage four and was pretty much terminal — there were floods of tears that night.

“My mom and dad [DelaHarpe] had known the prognosis for some time but hadn’t wanted to tell me during the Zwift finals or SA nationals.

“Last week the episodes of the Zwift finals started to air publicly at the very same time my mom was admitted to hospital. I went to see her on Thursday and it was incredibly traumatic. Everything is touch and go. On Sunday we were told to prepare for the worst and I have already kind of made peace with the inevitable — and, hard as that it is, I am waiting for her to cross the threshold.”

So right now, Le Roux is in limbo as she waits anxiously on her mom’s health, but at the same time with the light in the gloom being the knowledge that her cycling dream is very much alive for the next year.

“I was supposed to go to African Games with Team SA in Ghana shortly but I need to be with my family and help them in these times. While I do that I’m sorting out my visa before I join the team”.

The Canyon//Sram team is a German outfit but most of her future teammates find themselves based in Girona, Spain. That’s also the European base of SA’s highest profile cyclist, Olympian Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, something  that excites Le Roux.

“Maybe I can finally go riding with Ash, one of my lifelong dreams… but the aim of the Generation team is to help us develop and hopefully move up to the World Tour level and even help out the main team during the year.

“One of my other longtime dreams has been to wear the polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and the rider who won that title last year, Katarzyna Niewiadoma, is in the Canyon//Sram World Tour team so who better to learn from!”

Maddie le Roux's tattoo to her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED
Maddie le Roux's tattoo to her mother. Picture: SUPPLIED

For now though, mom’s the word — it’s quite literally tattooed on her arm in the form of a heart and the words “Be Brave Mom” when she was in Switzerland two years ago and first learnt of Corné’s diagnosis.

“My dad was always the one to go to races with me and stuff like that while my mom stayed at home with my siblings [she has a younger brother, De Villiers and sister Helouise]. But deep down I think she’s always been my biggest supporter! Especially after her diagnosis, she seemed to have a bigger appreciation about chasing and fighting for one’s dreams no matter what life throws at you.”

Le Roux though, will never need motivation for whichever stage she rides her bike on from now till eternity.

“I’ll never be riding for myself going forwards, it’s for my parents and siblings. I’m 27 and have never had a proper job, precisely because my parents have allowed me to chase my dreams.

“I’ll never be alone on my bike again, whether it’s racing or training — it’s for them!”

Looking further up the road and Le Roux may have found just the jigsaw in the puzzle of perfection in the shape of coach Bessède.

The 39-year-old Swiss was an elite golfer when young, has competed in the World Ironman triathlon championships as an amateur and now runs a bike coaching academy for youngsters in his home country. But he’s been coaching at a high level for eight years now.

Their paths first crossed at the UCI World Cycle Centre when he was studying for his level three coaching qualifications (he’s now level four).

Bessède recounts: “I actually got to ride with Maddie one day. I’d seen her ‘performance numbers’ before but so many people just refused to believe she was capable of them. One ride with her and I saw for myself —  I was just in awe.

“I knew then already that it was just a matter of time before she became a superstar. In fact when I went home I told my kids that I’d just actually ridden with the future superstar of world cycling.”

Now the trick will be for Le Roux to translate those numbers into actual racing.

“She’ll have a lot more support now and the Canyon//Sram Generation team is the perfect place for her. She needs to work on her racecraft especially and at continental level this will be super-great, she’ll be able to be in the front of the races, make decisions, compete and even win some of those races.”

Bessède says Le Roux’s strength is probably her only weakness. “She’s so hard-working that she just wants to train all the time. It’ll be my job to keep that lioness in a cage and only release her to roar on race-day.

“But she’s going to be a great asset to this team and now all we need is for her to really believe in herself as much as so many other people believe in her.”

He rounds off with words that should be all the inspiration she needs.

“She will become a superstar… she will be in the top 10 cyclists in the world. On top of that, with her character, kindness and generosity she will be a role model for children in SA to ride bikes, I really think she’ll take over the baton from Ashleigh Moolman Pasio – she’s the next Ashleigh and will be a phenomenal role model, a total package!”

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