MOUNT Beauty cyclist Paul Van Der Ploeg is now a world champion.
On Sunday in South Africa, the 23-year-old claimed the elite men’s cross-country eliminator world crown, despite a less-than-conventional season.
Van Der Ploeg normally spends six months of the year on the world cup tour in Europe but a chronic shoulder injury that demanded surgery and then a broken collar bone on his return to racing kept him at home road racing this winter.
Even up to a month ago he had toyed with skipping the world titles in favour of riding the Tour de Murray.
Two weeks ago, he rode the Tour of Borneo for a Malaysian team Corbusier, winning a 150-kilometre stage before being struck down by a stomach bug.
In Sunday’s final of the fast and furious format of mountain biking, Van Der Ploeg wowed the crowd with an inside move to take the lead at the first bend.
The gamble paid off, with the Aussie maintaining his lead for the rest of the race.
He powered home to an emotional victory in front of a crowd of thousands gathered at Cascades Park — Daniel Federspiel (Austria) and Catriel Andres Soto (Argentina) filled the podium.
“I don’t even know, yeah, that happened and it’s sinking in,” he said.
“It’s just one of those things you dream of happening and to have it all come off, is amazing.”
Van Der Ploeg is the fourth Australian male to win an elite mountain bike world title.
“Considering I was on the sick bed for a while before coming to South Africa and not sure I would compete here, I’m really happy with the win,” he said.
Dubbed the “Aussie giraffe” by ground announcers, Van Der Ploeg posted the fourth-fastest time in seeding, before progressing through to the final by winning the quarter and semi-finals.
Despite already showing his hand in the semi-final, his competitors had no answer for his tactics, taking the same inside line on the first climb to take the lead.
“I know that with cross country eliminator, the start is super important,” he said.
“Federspiel is super-fast off the start so I just got into his slipstream up the first hill.”
Van Der Ploeg said his surgery and injuries had been a blessing in disguise.
“This year in particular has been a mixed bag for me, I have done UCI, Australian road, cyclo-cross, cross country — everything,” he said.
“In two weeks, I head to Beijing, China for the first UCI cyclo-cross held in that country, so I guess the madness will continue.
“I guess at this point I need to say a massive thank-you to everyone who has looked after me, my family, supporting my random decisions.
“But now I have the rainbow jersey, I get to wear with pride for the next year.
“It is one of those moments I will remember forever.
“It is unbelievable.”