You are here with the German National Team doing some training for the Olympics. Are you on track for Olympic qualification?
Germany is positioned 6th in the nation rankings, so we are still fighting for three spots for the team to give a young rider a chance to experience the Olympics. I still need to confirm my qualification but I just need a top 20 finish in one of the World Cup events. With everyone needing good results for qualification, it can be harder in an Olympic year to get the results you need, especially for younger riders.
Will the Olympics be your main goal this year?
My main focus is the World Cup series. If you have good results on the World Cup, you are on the right path. The Olympics is just an additional race for me because I will already be on a really high level coming from the World Cup races. It’s all about mindset, once you beat them at World Cup, you know you can beat them at the Olympics.
You will be doing your second Absa Cape Epic in March. How does the Epic fit into your plans for 2016?
This year the Cape Epic fits really nicely into my training programme. I want to use it as an intensive high training block. After that I will have four or five weeks to recover and it will be perfect timing for the first World Cup in Australia.
Of course, it is a race and as soon as I put a number board on my handlebar, I will be nervous and want to push. We’re going to target the prologue and maybe some of the shorter stages.
How long have you been coming to South Africa for training?
My first time was in 2001, when I signed my first pro contract with T-Mobile MTB. I’ve been coming back to South Africa since then for my base training. For me there is no better place at this time of year. It has everything. The community and lifestyle around cycling and mountain biking has become great since I starting coming here. It’s also very social - usually I start by myself in Cape Town but I never ride alone, there is always someone joining me along the way. I get so motivated here.
What’s your favourite MTB trail in the Western Cape?
There are so many. We go for a long ride and there’s a trail here and a trail there. I enjoy the Grabouw A-Z trails. The trails themselves aren’t the best but the views and continuous single track just makes it so enjoyable.
What are your impressions of the general level of riding in South Africa?
In terms of technical skills, many South African riders are struggling. Yes, they can climb really well but once they go down, they stiffen up and jump straight onto the brakes. I can’t understand it because there are so many nice trails in South Africa and it should come naturally. It seems there is still very much a road mentality. Build up your base and then maybe once on the weekend you go on the trails.
Do you spend a lot of time on the road bike for base training?
No, I’ve only brought my mountain bike. It is the bike I will ride in races so I might as well get to be comfortable on it. South African roads are also very rough and the mountain bike is much more stable.
What has changed the most since you started riding World Cup racing?
Firstly, it is not that long anymore. Finishing time was 2 hour 30 minutes, it is now one hour shorter. It is faster and a sprint from start to finish. It is more technical and more compact. I like to play around on the bike, so I enjoy the more technical courses. Making it much more entertaining for people to watch. So there have been a lot of changes, in the right direction. It is good for promoting the sport in the right way. Mountain biking is on the right course.
We’ve been struggling with television viewership. Having Red Bull streaming the events live has also made a big difference. Nové Město is the best example, it is on a cross country ski course with a big stadium and cable lines under the earth to the cameras out on the course. It is one of the best races with 30,000 fans and is an example where mountain biking can be. We are always hiding somewhere on the mountain, we need to bring the sport to the people.
On Cannondale Factory Racing, with Marco Fontana, you guys always look very relaxed. Is this part of your strategy or just your personalities coming through?
That is how Marco and I are. That is how we see mountain biking. We know exactly when it is time to focus but we know how we want to represent the sport and brands. It is a fun sport and I’m just trying to enjoy it. I love to be with Marco in the team, as he has the same view that I have on mountain biking.
Riding with baggies. What is the story behind this?
It is simply how I ride. I started one day talking to my team manager at a World Cup race and I asked whether he would mind if I wore my baggies. I rocked up at the start line and people we staring at me with two minute to go wondering when I was going to remove my baggie shorts.
I don’t see why people put themselves into bib shorts when they don’t even have the shape for it. You can see that some people don’t feel comfortable and after the ride they go have coffee or a beer. It is not like they are professional racers fighting for position at the front of the World Cup races. I have had people come up to me and say that I have made mountain biking fun again in their eyes.
My own wife is a good example. I give her the best cycling clothing and she refuses to go out with me. She puts her running clothes back on before coming out because that is what she feels comfortable in.
You are partnering with Henrique Avancini this year at the Absa Cape Epic. Have you ridden much with him?
No, I have not had the chance to ride much with Henrique. But I know he is strong, especially on the longer races like Cape Epic. I’m not worried about anything. I’m sure we are going to show up and put up a good fight. If we have the chance, we will go for it.
What is you advice for up and coming South Africa cross-country riders?
My biggest advice is to not get too wound up in being competitive. If you start getting serious too early, you are going to lose that sooner or later. I see that a lot with the kids coming through the junior ranks. They might be a junior world champion but as soon as they get tired of racing they are gone. They have had coaches and training programmes from a young age and then they get distracted by other things. They are still kids and we must let them have their fun. Young riders should get comfortable with technical skills while young and then get more serious about competing and training programmes when older.
Do you have any opinion about why South African professional riders seem to struggle to crack the overseas circuit?
We had this discussion recently but didn’t come to a conclusion. One idea is that they don’t have a chance to really focus on a single discipline. They might want to do cross country but can not find a local team to support them properly as they make demands about riding local marathon events. They may be forced to join the team to get the support but then they must compromise by doing a lot of local racing and shooting overseas for the odd cross country event. They need the opportunity to focus completely and come to Europe to get comfortable with that level of competition.
Which is your preferred Cannondale race bike?
Courses have become more bumpy and technical, so I switch between the Cannondale FSi hardtail and Scalpel dual suspension depending on the difficultly of the course. In general, the geometry and riding style between a hardtail and suspension bike can change dramatically, so it can be difficult for some riders to change, this is often why some riders stick to single type of bike. Cannondale’s hardtail and dual suspension have a very similar geometry. So it’s easy for me to switch between the two.
Do you do anything unique to your bike setup?
I have a different stem to match the geometry of my hardtail better, a minimalistic chain guide and I do some suspension tweaks but other than that it is mostly the same as the bike you find in the store. You can fit lots of fragile weight saving components but I do not see the point if you do not make it to the finish sometimes.
Other than your team mates and yourself, who do you like to see doing well?
I like to see young riders joining the podium. They are so motivated and proud when they do well. They can’t sleep for a week.
Do you hang out with the downhill riders when there is a joint event?
We are big fans of the downhill riders and they are fans of our riding. Greg Minnaar is always going crazy on the start finish area screaming like hell. There was a big gap between the two disciplines previously but there is a community now. They are proper competitive riders and they are doing a lot of fitness and now have an idea of what the cross country riders do.