- In the first of our new series, Cannondale Factory team riders, Candice Lill and Alan Hatherly, will share their world
- The pair are preparing to compete at Les Gets (France), before moving over to Japan
- What is it really like, to race in Europe, and prepare for the Olympics, during lockdown?
My obsession with the Olympics began in 2004, when I watched nearly every event that the Athens Games had on offer.
The next four years were spent watching recordings of those events, until Beijing came around in 2008. It was during this time that I decided my goal was to represent South Africa at the Olympic Games one day.
I wasn’t too sure about which sport I’d be participating in, but I knew I needed to be there.
Fast forward 17 years and I am weeks away from living my dream. As glamorous as it all sounds, it has taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to this point. I have spent the last few months in Europe participating in the World Cup cross-country circuit.
It is all, about the start
A cross country race typically involves four laps of riding at your absolute limit through incredibly technical terrain.
The start of these races is the hardest as you have to fight for position against 115 of the world’s best riders, before hitting the technical single track – where overtaking opportunities are few, and risky.
Due to the stringent qualifying process, there will only be 38 female riders lining up at the Tokyo Olympics. This means the start should be slightly less frantic, but the overall race will be more intense due to the sheer quality of the field.
Ordinarily, my season would begin with the Cape Epic, followed by a few more marathon events before heading over to Europe. Covid has thrown that plan out the window and I’ve thus found myself on the backfoot in Europe.
The margin for error at this level is so small as there are easily 50 other girls at my level. For instance, if I lose one second, it’s highly unlikely I’ll make it back. Having said this, I do feel that my riding has improved after each race and my confidence is on the up.
Thinking about Japan
As a country, South Africa is considered a minnow in the cycling world but I have been amazed at how the rest of the riders on the circuit have embraced my presence at these races.
Although we try and rip each other’s legs off every weekend, it is one big family and we want the best for each other. The Olympics will be strictly governed by Covid regulations.
Support teams have been nullified and funnily, this suits me. My husband Darren is a former professional cyclist and my support team when in Europe.
Between the two of us, we fulfill all the roles that the bigger professional teams employ numerous personnel to do. It levels the playing field and I’ll feel right at home at the Olympics, with a support team of ‘one’.
Daily Covid tests and tracking devices which ensure that we’re not leaving our hotel, other than to practice, will be routine in Japan. My only real sadness is that we won’t be able to watch any of the other sports live, but hey, at least we’ll be there – competing.
Interestingly, the only other mountain biker representing South Africa at the Olympics, is Alan Hatherly, and we both ride the same bike: Cannondale’s latest Scalpel. It says a lot about the bikes how good they are! I’ll do an in-depth profile of my bike closer to the event. Now, over to Alan...
Learning from mountain bike legends
Being a part of the Cannondale Factory Racing (CFR) team has always been a goal of mine.
Now that I’ve had a few months to adjust to life in the team (Alan started riding for the team at the beginning of 2021), I can honestly say that it is everything I imagined it to be.
The team is healthily obsessed with performance and as such, is incredibly professional. There should be no surprise that CFR has won the World Cup cross country team classification for the last three seasons and aims to repeat it this year.
It has been incredible being able to learn from Manual Fumic and Henrique Avancini. These guys carry so much experience and being able to absorb from them has been amazing. They are also fantastic guys and I’m proud to be able to call them teammates.
A new team brought a new bike, coach and infrastructure. We assembled in Stellenbosch over the new year for our first training camp. I was very interested to see how quickly I’d be able to adjust to the new Cannondale Scalpel which makes use of the infamous Lefty.
It felt incredible from the very first pedal stroke and has proven very intuitive to ride, suiting my mountain biking style, perfectly.
Aiming for that top 10
Typically we would take in races such as the Cape Epic and Tankwa Trek to ensure that we get a bit of intensity before the start of the World Cup cross country series. Covid ensured that these races didn’t take place this year.
We thus had no choice but to have another intense training camp before the series starting and it seems to have stood me in good stead. I managed top 10 finishes at the Albstadt and Nove Mesto World Cups.
Mountain bike racing is unpredictable. That is what makes it so thrilling to spectate and follow. I was well on track for another top 10 result at the Leogang World Cup, until an unfortunate mechanical took me out of the fight for the higher places. Fortunately, I finished well enough to hang onto my World Cup overall and I’m going into the weekend’s racing, ranked 9th in the world.
A more challenging training schedule
Since joining this team, I have been doing a lot more training off the bike than before. Adjusting to this regime has meant that I’ve picked up a few niggles along the way as my body has been adjusting to the new load and style of training.
There is no progression without pain, and I am sure it will settle over the next few seasons, as I adapt to the cross-training approach. Going into the Olympics, I feel that being a South African will give me a big advantage as we are used to the humidity and heat that Tokyo brings.
I have experienced the track before and its short, punchy climbs are exactly the kind of riding I enjoy. Traditionally, I ride myself into a race so I’m looking forward to putting myself in the front and letting the race unfold.
The Les Gets World Cup this weekend will be our last real test before the Olympic Games, so the goal is to try and get a top 5 finish. This won’t be easy, but I feel I have the condition and form at the moment, plus the confidence boost I’d take to the Olympics would be massive.