The year 2016 has been one of change for Ariane Lüthi. The Swiss marathon champion changed to a new team, had her most challenging Cape Epic yet, but still made history and started racing XCO at World Cup level. She won fewer races than before, learned how to gap-jump, and changed her surname. We asked her 10 burning questions…
By Sean Badenhorst
You won the 2016 Cape Epic for the third time, becoming the most successful women’s winner ever (along with teammate Annika Langvad). But it was possibly your most hard-fought win. Looking back, what were your lowest and highest points in that race?
My lowest point was 2km from the finish of Stage 1 in Tulbagh when Jennie Stenerhag and Robyn de Groot passed us to take the stage win. That moment completely broke me. Annika and I were leading the entire stage – we had a 4-minute gap at the last water point. When they came from behind I had absolutely nothing left in me to fight for that orange jersey we virtually had on our shoulders for 70km. However, what I didn’t know right there was that my rear disc brake was bent due to a crash I had with 15km to go. I was just not good enough, I thought; I haven’t actually prepared well enough to last for more than 100km at that intensity. I had such low confidence back then that it didn’t even cross my mind it could have been something else causing the struggle other than my own weakness.
When my mechanic JP Jacobs told me, he couldn’t get the wheel turning when he blasted with the high-pressure washer on it, my mood lightened and my hopes came back.
I would say my highest point was the next day. I started Stage 2 with more confidence than the day before but I did feel very tired from the effort I was putting in because of the blocked brakes. My start was rather slow and for quite some time Annika and I were lying in 4th position just behind the orange jersey. I thought, ‘Ok, at least we have them still under control, the GC is the most important after all’. In the first downhill we managed to drop Team Ascendis Health as Jennie had a crash and slowly but surely we managed to make up some ground to the leading team of Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina while having a ding-dong battle with Topeak Ergon’s Sally Bigham and Adelheid Morath.
Stage 2 basically finished with a very long singletrack downhill of about 800m descent. We entered the trail in third, but we could see Sport For Good (Sabine and Yana) not too far ahead. I threw in a gel and just went all in. With our very solid Grid tyres we were riding, I knew we were safe to let it go full gas down there. We managed to not just pass Sabine and Yana but also caught up with Topeak Ergon. We truly surprised ourselves there to have pulled off that stage win. It was one of my greatest moments ever on the bike! The harder the fight the bigger the reward, I believe.
You didn’t seem to win as many races in 2016 as we have become accustomed to. Did your rivals improve or did you struggle a bit this year?
I think it is a combination of both. Robyn de Groot and Jennie Stenerhag but also Candice Neethling – to only name a few of my competitors here in South Africa – have really upped their game from year to year and certainly made it harder for me to win races here in South Africa.
On the other hand, I did struggle with motivation this year. The divorce from Erik left me feeling depressed for a long period of time and I felt as if I couldn’t function well. As I already mentioned my confidence was at an all time low. Most of the days of this past months I would have been happy to just sleep all day and eat chocolate. That’s how I felt.
However, I was not the only cyclist out there facing great challenges. Jennie overcame a very serious heart problem and Robyn as well as Candice had to heal some broken bones. That’s what makes the sport interesting. We are not robots and apart from the obvious, there is so many subtle variables determining our performances. As much as we try to control all these variables as professional athletes, shit can happen any time to all of us. That’s life.
Another point to consider is probably that I haven’t raced as many races as previous years and sacrificed less important races for my main goals even more. Together with my coach, I learned to plan and periodise my season more carefully over the years. I am thankful to my coach, Andrew Smith, for his guidance and proud of myself to actually have achieved almost all the goals I aimed for. Only the podium spot at Marathon World champs I missed by just one position, so there’s still some unfinished business…
You spent more time in Europe this year and raced a few World Cup XCO races. Is XCO racing something you’ve always been keen on or were you under sponsor pressure to compete?
The opportunity to race XCO came at the right time and happened to be a great theme to my new chapter in life. After we knew RECM would not be able to continue their sponsorship I asked James (Reid), who was always focusing on the XCO, if he’d be keen to start a team together exactly because I wanted to ride for a team, who would be able to support me at UCI XCO World Cups. I raced a lot of marathons already and even though the competition is rising, I needed a change and a new challenge that made me excited and motivated to still improve. My first participation at a World Cup in Lenzerheide in 2016 got me hooked, I must say.
Also, I always knew I had still a huge amount of potential in terms of my technical skills and I really want to be a mountain bike rider who can do jumps, wheelies and all that fun stuff. It’s like learning how to juggle. I loved juggling as a kid and used to practice all different tricks with 3 balls. To have the XCO’s as a goal pushes me to go and practice those things and overcome the fear, just like the juggle contest we had at school pushed me to practice every day.
I’m incredibly thankful to my sponsor Spur and Nic Lamond, our manager, who gave me the opportunity to basically be a ‘student in XCO racing’ this year. In my opinion, I failed greatly at all the UCI XCO World Cups but learnt immensely. I hope I’ll be able to draw from that experience at next year’s XCO events.
XCO racing is obviously still fairly new to you. Do you enjoy it?
It is just super exciting! It can be cruel, but I love it. The atmosphere at a World Cup is goosebump material. You just have to have experienced it! The competition is on a super high level and the courses also make for a challenge that truly presses all my buttons to become a better rider. It’s why I do this, I want to become the best I can be and for that I need to be challenged greatly. Me too, I become lazy if I don’t get pushed to my limits.
You raced for Team Spur this year. This took you into the schools end of MTB racing in South Africa. What has impressed you most about the Spur Schools Series?
Quite frankly it was Zandri Strydom when she was wheelieing one-handed around a pole while we were all playing around on our bikes on the rugby field! I’m in absolute awe of her talent. It is fascinating to me if someone has this kind of control over their body and I truly wish I’d have such skill.
The weekend at the Spur MTB schools league final in Magaliesburg left a huge impression on me. I could see that mountain biking in South Africa has a very promising future! It was fantastic to see so many scholars just having fun racing their bikes, but also having a great time with their mates. I didn’t go to school here in South Africa and unlike James, I never got to race a Spur league event unfortunately. But the event reminded me of my time with my swimming team 15-20 years ago. The stories made there are the ones I’m going to tell my grandkids one day, if I ever have any – otherwise my mates at the old age home will have to switch their hearing aids on.
Do you eat at Spur restaurants regularly? Do you pay for your Spur meals? What is your favourite Spur meal?
It’s interesting how many people have asked us this over the last year, if I eat at a Spur Restaurant? Eating burgers and chips and trying to be a healthy, lean mean racing machine don’t seem to go together, right? But if I only eat carrots every day, that wouldn’t be healthy either.
My nutrition plan mainly consists of nutrient dense foods such as vegetables and I am very strict in terms of my nutrition when I need to be. But a burger is just a piece of meat with a bit of bread that tastes really great and won’t do any harm, if it’s not the only item on your eating plan.
I truly enjoyed the well made Spur burger and chips at the finish of Wines2Whales, for example. I don’t eat at Spur regularly, as I enjoy preparing my own meals, but I really like the steak fillet and salad at Spur before races. And we pay our own way!
Which Specialized bikes did you race this year? What did you like most about each model?
I raced the Specialized S-works Era Dual suspension and S-works Fate Hardtail mountain bikes as well as the Amira SL4 Pro Race road bike.
I’m a huge fan of the Brain technology, which the Era comes with. Because the suspension with the Brain sensor is automatically firm or soft when it needs to be and I don’t need to spend a thought about my suspension ever, I can use all my brainpower for more important things like focusing on the line I want to ride, check my watts, think about tactical moves or the timing of my nutrition.
For the marathon races in Switzerland, where we do a huge amount of climbing and where there are a lot of smooth roads, the S-works Fate was my weapon of choice. Specialized replaced the Fate with the Epic Hardtail for 2017, though. I haven’t ridden the new Epic Hardtail yet, but I read that it’s Specialized’s lightest frame ever and that the stiffness to weight ratio sees no competition so far due to the latest carbon molding technology used to produce this frame,. It gets me already very excited about the bike! It’s going to be the perfect bike for Marathon Worlds in Germany in June.
I haven’t raced much on my Amira road bike but I feel very comfortable on it when I need to put some mileage in. The geometry works just perfectly for me.
You have switched to using your maiden name, Lüthi. Tell us about this decision?
Erik and I sadly broke up beginning of 2015 and got divorced early this year. It took me a long time to accept the fact that it just didn’t work out between the two of us.
I only realised a few months ago what an impact it had on my identity to have a different surname suddenly. It’s really not a small thing to change a name, not for me at least. The way Erik and I lived was a fusion of two people. We did everything together, basically 24/7 for the first 3 years. I feel that I didn’t keep my own individuality; which I completely blame myself for, just to be clear!
To change my name back to Lüthi wasn’t a quick decision I made. It was a long process of letting go of the past and finding back to who I am and what I stand for. I was born as Ariane Lüthi and I am proud of my family name. Now that I made the change it feels right and since I am the only one left in our whole family with the name of my father, who sadly passed away, I almost see it as a duty to keep it for the rest of my life.
You have been working on improving your skills. Tell us what you have been doing exactly and what difference this has made to your racing?
I’ve been working with Jo Dobinson from Biking In The Bosch on a weekly basis since I came back to Stellenbosch end of September. We start each skills session with a circuit that includes basic skills such as cornering, bunny hop, launching off pavement, track stand etc. After a few laps of that and a better feel for the bike, we normally head to the G-Spot Trail and session some jumps. I was very scared of jumps and avoided them as much as I could in the races! But Jo is a natural when it comes to encouraging people. She always had the right words to build my confidence. Also she took it step by step and had me started on the less dangerous table tops, went to camel humps and now I already manage to ride a few small gap jumps. It makes me so happy to feel how much I already improved in this short time. And it literally paid off already. I managed to save loads of energy at the Nissan Trailseeker in Wellington by just riding smoother through the trails and being more relaxed. Precious energy that I rather invested where I really needed it – up the climb to Ape d’ Huez!
Our next goal for the skills session is to session the A-lines of the Coetzenburg XCO course. I heard through the grapevine that we’ll have a UCI MTB World Cup in Stellenbosch in 2018, so I better get this course dialled to be able to shine at my ‘home World Cup’.
What are your three biggest objectives for 2017?
To win the Cape Epic for a 6th time (ok, 4th time if we only count the ladies category ;), win marathon world champs, and ride into the top 15 at a UCI XCO World Cup.
Keep up to date with Ariane’s progress by following @Team_Spur on twitter.