Kim Le Court-Pienaar rides cobbles at Roubaix during a course recon

Kim Le Court deserves your attention on Saturday

The unlikeliest dark horse at Paris-Roubaix Femmes is a 28-year-old mountain biker from Mauritius.

José Been
by José Been 05.04.2024 Photography by
Brent Peeters/AG Insurance-Soudal and Cor Vos
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You might have wondered who that AG Insurance-Soudal rider with the rainbow bands is who lurks right around the top-10 in this spring’s races. Is it an unknown World Champion who only entered the road scene this year? Well, the latter half of that sentence is true. Kim Le Court-Pienaar is new to the road scene. And those rainbow bands? That is the flag of the small African island nation of Mauritius, her father’s country and a country Le Court proudly represents.

Le Court is not completely new to the international road cycling peloton. She even took part in the second edition of the one-day La Course by Le Tour de France back in 2015 for Matrix Fitness. It was her first elite year after representing her country at the 2014 junior Road World Championships in Ponferrada. 

After one year on the road with Bizkaia Durango in 2016 she returned to South Africa, became a bike fitter and worked with Specialized alongside a career in mountain biking. She did so quite successfully, with titles in the Cape Epic and Swiss Epic marathons. Along the way, Le Court married fellow mountain biker Ian Pienaar last autumn. Now, eight years later she is back where she started on the road.

“I raced the World Championships in Glasgow last year [Le Court-Pienaar’s mother is Scottish making it extra special]. My main objective was the mountain bike marathon [she finished in 10th place] but since I was there, I also took part in the road race. I had always been thinking about coming back to road but coming from a small African island I didn’t have the financial means to sustain a career in Europe. Things have changed so much in women’s professional cycling since 2016 that I wanted to give it another shot. 

“After the World Championships my husband Ian started emailing every team,” she smiles. “Natascha [Den Ouden, founder and former team manager of AG Insurance-Soudal] came back with positive feedback but it took long. I know now she really had to fight hard [in the team] to sign me, but I meanwhile lost hope. Two weeks after I kind of gave up and had already started planning a new season in MTB’ing, she came back to me. She had a place for me. I will be forever grateful to her and feel driven to show it wasn’t a waste to sign me.” 

Le Court and Pienaar live in South Africa, but she is a proud Mauritian. “Mauritius is a little island in the middle of nowhere where you really have to zoom in on Google [maps] to find it,” she explains. “We are a small community with big hearts. We love cycling on the island, but we don’t have the financial means to be a hub on the global stage. Me representing my country and having the stripes on my arms and hopefully winning the national championships [for a full jersey] means a lot. It’s also special to bring a little island that no one knows to the global stage. It’s pride. We are part of Africa, and we want to bring Africans to the global stage.”

Kimberley Le Court-Pienaar rides a section of cobbles at Gent-Wevelgem.
Le Court has quietly notched some impressive finishes in her first crack at cobbles racing, including a team-best 13th at Gent-Wevelgem.

While she only returned full-time to the road this year, her results have been remarkable. She already has two top-10 places in one-day Women’s WorldTour races: Deakin University and Brugge-De Panne. Le Court also finished Trofeo Binda in 11th place, Gent-Wevelgem in 13th and was 23rd at the recent Tour of Flanders in grueling conditions. For a rookie, she exceeded everyone’s expectations including her own but the preparation to her first WorldTour road season was far from ideal.

“I am not even on my top shape because I only started training in December,” Le Court-Pienaar explains at the eve of her first Tour of Flanders. “First, I got married and then I also had to recover form a crash in Swiss Epic so I am still on that road to recovery. During a race season it’s hard to get training in. It’s racing and recovery now. I know this. I also still struggle with positioning in the bunch. If I get all my ducks in a row, I do believe there is good potential for the future, even better than now.”

The world should keep an eye out for her in Saturday’s Paris-Roubaix Femmes. Her sports director, former winner Servais Knaven, is optimistic she has the qualities to ride a top-10 finish. This is the race that suits her best. 

“She has already shown she has the level and in the races so far she was always close to that top-10,” Knaven says after the first Roubaix recon. “She has those skills from mountain biking, and I saw straight away that she knows how to ride cobbles while she had never really done it before. It’s about confidence and skills on the bike but also about pure power. On the worst sectors or on the wet ones she doesn’t have any fear. Roubaix is about power and guts. She learned so much in one recon session already that I have confidence that we can do something good this Saturday.”

AG Insurance sports manager Servais Knaven – a former Roubaix winner – says his team’s new addition has all the skills to succeed in road racing’s most rugged event.

Le Court-Pienaar did that first recon of the course on the Wednesday before Flanders together with Knaven and teammates Ilse Pluimers and Maud Rijnbeek. 

“It was the first time I saw the course. It was a totally new thing for me. It was rough and I was not used to it. I even have a sore wrist now and the cobbles don’t help,” she smiled. “It’s exciting though because it’s such a cool course. Coming from the MTB scene I think I feel a bit more comfortable on the corners and everything. I prefer a little more elevation and the race is flat, but the cobbles will bring damage.”

Le Court-Pienaar stresses how different road is from mountain biking and how difficult the switch has been, and still is for the now 28-year-old rider.

“Many people don’t understand how big the switch from MTB to road is. I also tried to explain it to my teammates. On the MTB scene you are mostly alone, and, on the road, you ride as a team. In mountain biking you focus on yourself and on the road the organization is so much bigger with so many more people behind the scenes. 

“Riding in the bunch was a new experience for me. I know how to fight for position in getting onto the singletracks but in a mountain bike race we are not a group of 150 riders where all of them are on a high level and racing aggressively which makes the bunch a scary place to be honest. 

Le Court leads teammates Maud Rijnbeek and Ilse Pluimers on a cobble recon. Come race day, positioning will be her biggest challenge.

My teammates joked that I can’t be scared because I am used to crazy downhills on rock gardens and all, but I said the rocks front of me don’t move like riders in a bunch. Another thing is that mistakes on the MTB are almost always your own fault. In road racing so much more is happening out of your control and you have to be focused and wide awake all the time. It’s way longer in kilometers but shorter in hours [than marathon racing]. It’s a big difference but I am adjusting to it.”

Because she is new to road, she was offered a mixed program at her team with hilly races like Strade Bianche and Trofeo Binda and pan-flat windy chaos in Belgium like Brugge-De Panne or Gent-Wevelgem. She sees this year as a formative year where all experiences count and help her get better.

Le Court-Pienaar is very driven in her approach to this new career. She asks questions to her often younger but more experienced teammates but listens even more to all the advice those teammates – and also sports directors, soigneurs and mechanics – give her. She absorbs the knowledge and uses it in races. It’s a successful approach so far and it gets her noticed, also because of those rainbow bands. That’s an important thing to her, not because of vanity but to put her country on the map and help young riders from Mauritius develop onto the world stage. 

She will be the first Mauritian in Paris-Roubaix. Le Court is equally daunted and exciting by the prospect of racing this Saturday. 

“I know strength-wise I can be up there. Positioning is key and I am still learning that now. I must try my best to be at the front but when I am it could possibly work out really well. I don’t really believe in myself as much as others do in me. So far, I have had lead roles before and it worked out well but I have to finish a bit better,” she says with a shy smile. 

“I have mixed feelings for Saturday. Both anticipation and dread. If someone says to you, they are not scared or nervous for Roubaix, it’s a lie. You need luck in Roubaix, and I hope it’s on our side. Anything can happen in a race like this. If you go down, you just have to get up and go again because you have no idea what happened to the riders in front of you. I am not the kind of rider who gives up unless they pull me off the road. Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen in Roubaix.”

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