SA Lill’s Road to the Olympics

The two-time World Champs medalist chatted to Bicycling after claiming silver at the UCI Marathon World Championships last year.


South Africa’s foremost proponent of women’s XCO is Cape Town-based Candice Lill, with multiple national and African titles in the brag bag – and regular top placings on the World Cup circuit (she finished sixth in the XCO race in Nové Město, Czechia over the weekend!), as she’s invested heavily in racing internationally since her last Olympics experience. 

At the 2023 World Championships in Scotland, Lill lined up in the Marathon event too; and darn near won it, finishing less than a minute off the gold for her first Worlds medal since finishing third in the 2009 Junior XCO race in Australia. The 2024 Olympics looms large for every athlete who’s in with a shout of heading to Paris, and this piece of silverware has had a profoundly positive effect.

Wow. Silver in the Marathon. How does it feel? Did you expect to have to wait this long for the next one?

Candice Lill: It’s so weird. I don’t actually know what I felt after that third at world junior champs. It’s something we speak about a lot. When things come really easily to you as a youngster…

 I don’t really know how that Bronze happened, actually; it certainly wasn’t because of a lot of effort and hard work! I think, as a junior, maybe it’s a good indication of your talent. But there weren’t such good structures around then. I think if somebody came third at world junior champs now, there would be so many opportunities for them. Teams would be interested. 

But back then, it kind of just… happened. And I went on to the next thing in my sports life, and life in general. I didn’t really give it any weight or gravitas at all. I was like, “Cool, I came third. Why didn’t I win? I win everything in South Africa!”

Looking back though, I can’t believe that’s what it was like, because it’s been so difficult to get to the point where I can get another medal at a world champs again. So many years of trying and failing and going through hard times, just waiting for the day it would all come together again. 

But I was so, so much happier this time round than when I was a junior, because of the perspective of what I’ve been through to get here.

How close were you to Gold, was it a possibility?

Gold was super-close, only 54 seconds in the end, believe it or not. It was a tough course: 96 kilometres, with lots of climbing. But it really suited me. 

I knew it was a good course for me, going in, and that was an amazing thing – there was just no question. This was my race plan, I was going to execute it like this, and I did. There were no doubts or anything. I just went forth and did it! 

I don’t always feel that way in cross-country, at all. But I think, once I get that breakthrough, I’ll be like, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do; I’m going to beat them into that corner…” and so on. And that’s the way to win. 

Candice Lill winning silver at the 2023 XCM Champs
Photo: Armin M. Küstenbrück/EGO-Promotion

I think if the race had been 10 kays longer, I would have caught Mona [Mittenwalder, who won gold], because I was two minutes back with 20km to go, and by the end it was only 54 seconds, and I think I got a lot of that back towards the end. So I’m going to have to try again! 

I knew from the first half of the race that Mona and I were going to battle it out; you can tell, as you ride, what kind of strength other people have on the day. She rode away from me on quite a gnarly descent, I think she had practised it a few times. 

After that there was a long open section, and I thought I would just ride back to her, because she’s a smaller, lighter rider, but there was only so hard I was prepared to ride on an open section with all the climbing to come. It was kind of weird she got the gap there – a surprise – but it turns out I paced myself pretty well.

How has this success changed your attitude towards the rest of the XCO season, and beyond? 

It’s that whole mental thing. Once you know you can race on that level, you can always do it. 

I don’t think I have the same… not ‘talent’, what’s the word… maybe the same affinity for cross-country racing; but I firmly believe I can get a top 10 at a World Cup. I just have to do it once, and then it’ll be like, “I’m in!” and you can go and do it again. 

My strength definitely lies in the slightly longer racing, I have that sort of engine. But I have good anaerobic capacity too; so for me, I really think it’s a mental thing. So this second place at the World Championships definitely gave me a confidence boost; it’s shown me what you can achieve if you have no doubts and just take the bull by the horns.

Your ongoing upward path in XCO – how’s that going? 

My XCO path has been weird, I guess; it hasn’t always been a straight path. From the juniors I raced a bit at under-23 level, and had some success, but then I had a really bad experience around Olympics and politics and nonsense, along with a lot of other stuff going on in my life, and so I kind of went away from it. 

For cross-country you have to be racing in Europe, to be exposed to the level all the time. You have to go all-in. You can’t dabble in World Cup cross-country racing. So it was really only… after a few years racing in South Africa, and losing my path a bit. But it started coming back, with the help of Darren [Lill’s husband, former road pro Darren Lill]. He really challenged me. He said, “Are you sure you just want to fizzle out from this? Because your time is now, and you have to make it happen; or one day you’ll regret it.” 

Just do it. Go for it. Dive all-in, because you don’t want to live with regrets one day.

And I think that really stuck with me, and has been something I think about a lot. Just do it. Go for it. Dive all-in, because you don’t want to live with regrets one day.

At the moment I can’t see much past the Paris Olympics. I’ve had two good years doing almost the full World Cup season, the European season. But it takes so long, you know? Just to feel normal. To not feel like a foreigner, to not feel intimidated. To feel like you belong. I’m finally gaining that confidence that I really need.

My goals for 2023 were to target top 20s at the World Cups, and if everything went amazingly well a top 10. I haven’t got there yet – I still have one chance, though – but I’m going well, I feel I’ve had a great season. I haven’t always been inside the top 20, but even then it’s been just outside. And that’s with races that have been far from perfect; I’m still waiting for the race where I just execute really well and don’t make mistakes and get hung up on things. 

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Also, the weather is a big thing for us South Africans; as soon as the rain comes down and those roots get slippery, we’re just not as skilled. But if it’s rocky and dusty and dry and hot, I stand a good chance!

So the next big goals are Paris 2024, and all the World Cups leading up to that, and top 10s. But it’s all part of a big picture; it’s not as simple as one target, it’s not that easy to make it come together. 

The gravel scene?

That’s something that’s grown massively. We always knew it would; but it’s still in an interesting space, there’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of money in it. I don’t think the level is quite as high as cross-country yet, and then road is obviously another level; but that being said, it is interesting. 

I haven’t ridden one yet, I must be honest; but I also can’t see past Paris, as I said earlier. But it’s definitely a different direction. Cross-country is such a massive investment, so that’s where I have to focus, for now; but who knows what the future holds. I’m open to anything, after Paris… I think with my strengths, it could be good. 

Sometimes it’s a little too much endurance required, maybe – I don’t want to be out there all day! I’m okay for a long Epic stage, or marathon racing; but in marathon there aren’t really opportunities or sponsors or money, unfortunately. But then there’s the Lifetime Grand Prix in the US, which is huge; so it is growing. But it would also mean having to get to America.

What can we expect from Paris 2024? With the big assumption that you will be selected – these things have mysterious outcomes, sometimes!

I think I’ve qualified already, as African Champion this year; but selection isn’t something I can really control. That’s something I have learnt: you can only control what you can control. And I can do that with my performance to some extent, I can choose which races to do, I can control my points. 

So we’ve made the plan to get to these races to get the points, and naturally you should qualify for the Olympics, but that isn’t always the case. So you have to throw it all into the World Cups, racing in Europe and getting better; and then if you get selected there’s nothing more you have to do. It’s obviously a big goal for every athlete.

I’ve been twice, neither of which I was happy with. I have unfinished business! I think now I’m older, I have more experience, I’m not so freaked out by being at the Olympics and the whole experience; it’s starting to feel normal. It’s taken really long. 

My goal is a top 10 in Paris. And I’ll focus on the process – it’s not like an aggressive “I’m coming to get a top 10!”, it’s more like I’m coming to be the best version of myself, to make sure I’m on really good form and just execute my race plan.

This interview was published in the Nov/Dec 2023 issue of Bicycling.



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