Skills Masterclass From SA’s Best Cyclists

Climb like a champ! Get faster! Attack & break away! Ride over rocks! Become a technical whiz! Suffer like a pro! Seven of SA’s best cyclists give us a skills masterclass. By Jonathan Ancer

Image by Quickpix | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Image by Quickpix | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Alan Hatherly

Career highlights: Youth Olympics gold medal.

Skill: How to handle a rock garden.

“Rocky terrain is a mental game. The wheels are actually able to ride over the rocks much more easily than your mind tells you they can.”

Know your line. I’ve learnt my skills over many years of riding, mainly when I was racing downhill nationally. I started racing bikes from a young age, which gave me a huge advantage for skills development. When it comes to MTB skills, though, there’s no limit to how much you can improve. I managed to get quite a bit of international racing in 2015, at a few World Cups; and at every World Cup the terrain was different and challenging, meaning that for each course I tackled the terrain differently.

I think that on top of skills development, a huge factor is getting the ideal bike set-up for the conditions – namely, your tyre pressure and suspension. If your tyres are too hard or soft or your shock rebound is too slow or fast, riding technical terrain can be a challenge.

The biggest factor in improving technical skill is practice. If you ride the same trail every day, play around with your set-up, as well as finding your limits on that trail. What helps my cornering speed (which is a huge help for riding, because you can carry momentum), is to find a flat trail/circuit and spend 30 minutes cornering as fast as I can. I find I brake later and lean harder after a bit of practice.

Rocky terrain is a mental game. The wheels are actually able to ride over the rocks much more easily than your mind tells you they can, especially on 29-inch wheels. For me, the best approach is to ride into the rocks knowing what line I’m going to ride. From there I like to keep my weight back, to prevent the front wheel from stopping, and I focus on keeping my bars straight as I ride through my line.

I think the biggest mistake I’ve seen riders do is be too ‘relaxed’, so their arms are very loose – which results in the rocks having control over you, instead of the other way round.

Illustration By Alana Munnik

Photo by Craig Kolesky | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Phil Buys

Career highlights: London Olympian, multiple African and SA XCO champion.

Skill: How to improve your riding skills.

“Better bike-handling skills make you more efficient… thus wasting less energy.”

Take chances. When I discovered mountain biking, at the age of 13, I always challenged myself to ride difficult obstacles and do the tricks I saw top riders do. I was quite a reckless rider, breaking plenty of bicycles. No bones, luckily – I’ve never actually broken a bone in my life.

At a young age, you’re less scared of doing silly stuff, so you take chances; and when you crash, you don’t break, you bounce – so it’s the ideal time to develop your skills. Up until I was 20, my riding was all about having fun and doing tricks. When I started signing pro contracts I became more careful, and focused on my fitness and career goals. A small crash can easily put me out for a week, which I can’t afford at pro level.

My tip for riders is: don’t underestimate the benefit of developing your skills on a mountain bike. Mountain biking is not just all about getting your fitness up. Better bike-handling skills make you more efficient, and prevent you tensing up as much, thus wasting less energy. They also make your riding experience a lot more enjoyable.

To up your skills game, I recommend riding with riders who have better skills than you. Soon you will start mimicking what they do, and adapt to a better and smoother riding style. Taking part in a skills clinic with an experienced instructor is a good starting point. Proper bike set-up, tyre pressure, and suspension set-up will also give you optimum handling and a better bike-riding experience.

Image by Quickpix | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Image by Hendrik Steytler | Illustration By Alana Munnik

James Reid

Career highlights: South African XCO Champion and Marathon Champion.

Skill: Learn how to suffer.

“Suffering is all about conditioning. If you’re under-conditioned for the demands of the event, you get the bad kind of suffering.”

Build up s-l-o-w-l-y. Suffering is complicated; it’s intense and deep, and there’s a lot to it. There’s good suffering and bad suffering. You can push through good suffering – and you can handle it, and feel like you’re going forward. But suffering is all about conditioning. If you’re under-conditioned for the demands of the event, you get the bad kind of suffering, where it doesn’t feel like you’re going anywhere, and your legs are exploding.

If you’re running above your lactic threshold, eventually your system will stop responding the way you want it to. You don’t just pitch up at a race and suffer like a champion; you actually have to condition yourself for weeks and weeks leading up to it – and you do that by pushing yourself incrementally.

My advice is to push yourself 5% more in the weeks leading up to the event, and then use metrics – like power, and heart rate – to understand your suffer point. Because if you’re in way over your head, it will catch up to you.

So, learn to suffer gradually; and that way, you’ll manage the pain. At least three times a week, have some part of your training that is unpleasant – that’s the ‘vegetables’ of training.

Image by Ewald Sadie | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Image by Ewald Sadie | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Mariska Strauss

Career Highlights: African XCO Champion.

Skill: How to improve your sprint.

“To improve my sprinting I throw in some high-intensity anaerobic drills. I’ll do 40 seconds at maximum heart rate, then 20 seconds rest. I’ll do six repeats. Then recover for 15 minutes, then redo it. This is a perfect drill for XCO preparation.”

Repetition is key. Repetition is key. Repetition is key. The first thing you need to get right in getting fast is to choose your mom and dad correctly. Genetics play a big role. The next thing is training – the more you do it, the faster you become. I’ve raced XCO for more than 15 years, which has allowed me to fine-tune my body for racing conditions.

To improve my sprinting I throw in some high-intensity anaerobic drills. I’ll do 40 seconds at maximum heart rate, then 20 seconds rest. I’ll do six repeats. Then recover for 15 minutes, then redo it. This is a perfect drill for XCO preparation, because you floor it, back off, and then floor it again. Have a few days break between intensity situations, otherwise your body will freak out. You don’t want to go into an intensity session fatigued, where you’ll only work at 50% – you need to make sure the session is a quality one.

Also, don’t only focus on sprinting. Build your base and build strength. When your training volume decreases, ramp up your intensity training. It’s important to balance your training load.

To get faster for a race it’s important to mimic racing conditions, to avoid your body experiencing a situation for the first time during a race. Repetition is key. The more you do something, the more in tune you will be with your body. Another thing that will help increase your speed is core strength. A strong core helps you generate power, which helps you generate speed. Do a proper core-strengthening session at least once a week – to get fast, your training off the bike is just as important as training on the bike.

Image: Bettini | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Image: Bettini | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Louis Meintjes

Career highlights: African Road Race Champ, Best Young Rider Jersey in the Tour of Oman, Second at U23 World Championships, Eighth on GC at 2016 Tour de France, Seventh at 2016 Olympic Games road race.

Skill: How to climb like a pro.

“When you climb, it’s always good to ride at your own pace. And don’t go over your limit. Finding out what your limit is will happen through trial and error.”

You need to lose it to win it. The key to improving your climbing is weight – just losing a few kilograms will make a huge difference. Also, just spending more time training on long climbs helps. It strengthens your back, and improves the specific pedal stroke needed for climbing. When you climb, it’s always good to ride at your own pace.

Don’t go over your limit. Finding out what your limit is will happen through trial and error. I do either 10 minutes or 20 minutes at a certain power, and try to hold that power for the entire duration of the climb. Most people make the mistake of getting too excited at the bottom of a climb, and starting too fast.

You have to pace yourself. If you go too early, you’ll pay for it at some point.

Image: Velofocus | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Image: Velofocus | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio

Career highlights: First Saffa to grace the top-10 overall UCI world ranking

Skill: How to become a puncheur.

“Learn to love the pain. Going max up a climb will certainly hurt, but the view at the top is usually worth all the pain.”

Learn to love the pain. I discovered my talent for climbing in Knysna, while visiting my husband Carl’s family when we’d just started dating. I joined Carl and his dad, Norman, for a casual afternoon cycle. I whipped on my running shorts, a pair of tackies, and jumped onto my mom’s hybrid bicycle. We were hardly out of the driveway when Norman turned on the pace, and I found myself hanging on desperately to the Pasio paceline!

Then Norman decided we should climb the hill to the top of the Heads. On hitting the climb I felt more in control, and held my own up the steep ascent. At the top, with the others breathing frantically, I felt such a sense of achievement! Norman turned to Carl and said: “You’ve found yourself a keeper. That girl can ride!”

Whether climbing comes to you naturally or not, there are ways to improve:

1. Include hill intervals into your training schedule. Practice makes perfect.
2. Work on your gear ratios. It’s better to hold a high cadence when climbing. A big gear will make your effort that much harder.
3. Learn to vary your climbing position. You can change the muscle groups you use during climbing by alternating between standing and sitting.
4. Find good rhythm; try not to surge.
5. Learn to love the pain. Going max up a climb will certainly hurt, but the view at the top is usually worth all the pain.

Image by Darren Goddard | Illustration By Alana Munnik

Image by Darren Goddard | Illustration By Alana Munnik

An-Li Kachelhoffer

Career Highlights: SA National Road Champ.

Skill: How to become an escape artist.

“Don’t sit in the bunch. Ride away before the sprint, and have the confidence to do the unexpected. Be courageous, and think outside the box. That courage gives riders the edge.

Think outside the bunch, and do the things no-one else is prepared to do. To break away, you need explosive power, and the ability to time-trial – and that you can achieve by training very hard. I love my indoor trainer, and I focus on intervals. If you can time trial and if your weight is right – you can go. I come from a duathlon/triathlon background, and running made me mentally strong.

My advice to young riders is: don’t sit in the bunch. Ride away before the sprint, and have the confidence to do the unexpected. Be courageous, and think outside the box. That courage gives riders the edge.

Also, it’s important to monitor your form. I have a test to establish a baseline, and using a power meter, I can compare my form. My test is a five-second sprint, then one minute flat-out effort, five minutes as hard as I can go, then two eight-minutes at max, with 10 minutes rest between efforts. Use that to build a profile, and repeat the test every two months to check where you are.

I’m an analysing freak. I love data – everyone ahould add some science to their training. I prefer shorter, more intensive rides. An exercise I used before SA champs is ‘40:20’. Go hard for 40 seconds, then recover for 20; hard for 40, recover for 20. Do 10 in a row – that’s a set. With 10 minutes between sets, do four to six sets. Six sets, in a race situation, is 60 attacks. Get to know your body, and what wattage you’re capable of pushing.

Above all, do the uncomfortable efforts that no-one wants to do – that’s how you improve.

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