Leading New Zealand female mountain biker Samara Sheppard has signed for new UCI trade team Toka Print Mountain Bike in Europe.
A former Waiariki sports academy student, Sheppard, who moves to the elite ranks of the UCI World Cup this year, is the only non-European rider in the big Belgium-based team.
The Wellington rider hopes to be based in the proposed BikeNZ training base in Belgium and will be further supported with her coach Filip Meirhaeghe, the former Olympic mountain bike medallist, taking on a coaching role with the team.
It is a massive opportunity for the Wellington rider, who enjoyed a strong year in 2012 based in Europe.
"This team began last year but have taken a big jump this year as a UCI Trade Team and want to be the best mountain bike team in Belgium," said the 22-year-old.
"The opportunity for me is huge. I have been fortunate to have been part of the Wheelers IXS team for the past two years, but this is a big step up in terms of support," she said.
"The team are putting a huge amount of resource into this infrastructure around the riders and they seem to have thought of every detail. They have even booked me into language classes as the rest of the team all speak Flemish. All I have to do is focus on riding and not dealing with the day-to-day challenges of living in a non-English speaking country.
"In New Zealand, we have a great breeding ground for mountain bikers with brilliant trail networks and development programmes like Waiariki's Academy of Sport, where I came through the ranks. This environment is definitely strengthening our talent pool here, but for now the reality is that there are not many opportunities out there, especially for young female mountain bike riders, so I am really thrilled to be part of this professional team."
Sheppard enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2012 with her first UCI World Cup victory at Mont Sainte Anne in Canada, as well as third in La Bresse, while she placed 12th at the World Championships.
She will join Belgian champion Githa Michiels in the elite women's ranks in April after competing in the BikeNZ Mountain Bike Cup series, the national championships, the annual Karapoti Classic and the Oceania Championships in Tasmania.
"Training is going really well and this is extra incentive to work harder. My next major goal is the 2016 Olympic Games and riding for a team like Toka Print is a big stepping stone in that direction."
Sheppard's race calendar: February 3: NZ XC Cup #2, Wellington; February 10: NZ XC CUP #3, Auckland: February 16: NZ National Championships, Rotorua; March 3: Karapoti Classic, Wellington; March 30: Oceania Championships, Hobart, Tasmania.