Erik Kleinhans is one of the more experienced professionals in South African (and world) mountain biking. He’s competed at most South African races and a number of international events. He raced cross-country (the South African Elite champion in 2009), marathons and stage races. He’s raced solo and in teams – Mixed and Men. He was fourth overall and the first South African at the demanding Fairview Attakwas Extreme MTB Challenge last weekend and is preparing to help his Topeak-Ergon teammates win the 2017 Absa Cape Epic.
By Sean Badenhorst
You’re preparing for another Cape Epic as a back-up team rider, a role you’ve played for a number of years. You’ve got the strength and experience to probably challenge for an overall podium (with the right partner), does it get to you a bit that you are riding for someone else? Just a bit. Be honest.
This will be my fourth consecutive year riding as a support team in the Cape Epic. Racing in support of someone else I would say suits my personality; I like to look after people. In my school years I did a lot of team sports and love to be part of something.
However, it was always mostly a business decision that I ended up as a backup team. With RECM there was a really big cost saving on the budget with Specialized picking up the tab and offering us healthy bonuses for successful outcomes.
For the 2016 and 2017 seasons with Topeak-Ergon it was a fantastic opportunity for me to join one of the best marathon teams in the world, ride with legends and spend time in Europe. And in the process, it puts food on the table – having a job and giving me the chance to ride my bike, be in the mountains and travel the world.
I would, however, love the opportunity to race for myself and see what I am capable of! There were years that I had great shape, and yes, then it got to me a bit that I could not go for it as hard as I can. Hopefully I will get the chance to challenge for the overall, preferably with another Saffa, in the near future.
This will be your 10th Cape Epic! Which would you consider your best Cape Epic performance – and why?
I could hardly believe it when I received a mail from the Cape Epic organisers inviting me to the dinner for all tenth-time participants! I am a very lucky guy with regards to consistency finishing all the Cape Epics I started. Actually, I’ve finished all the weeklong races I’ve ever started, including joBerg2c and Cape Pioneer Trek.
My best Cape Epic was in 2014. I had great shape, nothing against my good friend Franti Rabon, who raced with Sauser that year to second place overall, but I am very sure that if I had the chance to race with Susi that year, second overall could definitely have been on my CV, maybe even better – in a very confusing and exciting year. Nico (Bell) and I lost an hour on the first day after helping with mechanicals. We even managed to race back to less than two minutes for the African jersey, but had to give a wheel away again on the second last day ending that dream for the greater good.
You do a lot of training with Christoph Sauser. Tell us something about him that’s not widely known.
We often stop at Ride-In Café, Stellenbosch after our training rides for lunch. He always eats a good, healthy lunch and has no problems with gluten or dairy. But we often finish it off with something sweet from Ice-cream Community. He holds the ice-cream in his hands, letting it slowly melt and carefully eating it as it melts away from the sides! Both our favourite flavours are the Beetroot Honeycomb. Oh, and he loves wine, now even studying it a bit and sharing some of his new wine knowledge. For sure the reason he lives in the wine regions of ‘Swissland’ and South Africa.
As a Topeak Ergon team rider, you ride Canyon bikes, which aren’t very well known in South Africa. What can you tell us about this brand that makes it stand out from other brands?
My experience with all the top-end bikes is that there isn’t much of a difference. All these bikes are so competitive, and the Canyon Lux full-suspension bike is for sure up there with the best. Any bike that can win the Cape Epic must surely be good enough! The Exceed hardtail was redesigned last year with big success. I did not ride the older version, but the steering in particular feels great and comfortable. I think the road bikes are very well known though with Canyon sponsoring world-tour teams Katusha and Movistar – these bikes feel so fast and are beautifully designed.
You are probably the most experienced South African racing at the top level currently, what changes over the past 10 years please you.
The biggest change is for sure the amount of people riding their bikes! It is great to see so many people enjoying active lifestyles with bicycles. In Stellenbosch, where I reside, the growth of trail networks is incredible, and it just adds to the fun. For sure the biggest thanks has to go to all the people making it possible for us.
The amount of races in SA pleases me too. We are so spoilt with amazing options, and all the races set a high standard as the success of your event depends on if you can offer a product that is on a level high enough to create interest.
On the racing front there were a few bad apples; it really threatens the livelihood of the honest racers with a real passion for being outside and fighting to make a living in an honest way; and now I feel there is a really great atmosphere between the racers. We also get the opportunity to regularly ride with and race against the top marathon riders in the world; it lifts our game, I just wish we could deliver another XCO star or two!
And what would you still like to see changed in South African mountain biking?
I would love to see better cohesion between all parties involved in cycling. Since I make my living as a mountain biking marketing tool, and because I love supporting racing, I would like to see the professional part of our sport grow into making the athletes into heroes like our rugby, cricket and soccer players. That will most likely help with the development/motivation of our future champions, just like I would love to see the Springboks win the World Cup again. There are no real big teams anymore and it would be great to have a few strong teams fight it out with the smaller outfits, mostly to create compelling media and marketing content.
The media channels in SA are really great and the athletes and sponsors get great exposure. I know this because I’ve seen the return on investment we achieved at Team RECM. But especially when you get a bit older, the financial security for professional mountain bikers in SA is just not there yet, definitely not to support a family.
Maybe the big companies do not bite into big teams because they are scared to trust the cyclists; we hear that a lot and it is sad that some made it tough for the honest hardworking riders. On the other hand, we have some great events and since I’ve organised some events before, I’m sure they make a very healthy income. They use the riders for promotion before and after events, which is great for marketing.
But it sometimes feels like the athletes get used for their brand/image/status, which they work hard to upkeep, but almost never get start money, mostly not even a complimentary entry.
The high entry fees also make it tough for middle-class ‘hobby riders’ to do these great events and I do hope it is not slowly pushing our sport over the edge. Bottom line, it would be great to see events, the national federation, participants and professionals work together to uplift mountain biking as high as we can so that the longevity of the sport is preserved.
Which South African races would you say are your favourite – and why? Pick one stage race and one one-day race.
The Fairview Attakwas is for sure my favourite one-day race. It is the toughness and the journey from the Karoo to the coast through the rugged mountains. Maybe also because it is the first one of the year and there is excitement and uncertainty. It is well organised and I love it!
We have such a great selection of stage races, how do I choose one? I like the famous and well-organised ones like Wines2Whales, Tankwa Trek and Sani2c. Then there are the more rugged ones off the beaten track with a more homely atmosphere like 3-Towers and one of my new favourites, the Berg and Bush. But the long stage races have got a special place in my heart and after last year, I have to choose the Cape Pioneer Trek with it’s relaxed vibe, now with the more exciting loops, great stage towns with more than enough accommodation, and always the best after party!
Do you think there should be a different infrastructure to help identify and nurture young mountain bike racing talent. If so, what do you think should change?
I think we do have a great structure at the moment for helping youngsters get into the sport and develop. They can start off with the Spur High School League, then move up to provincial leagues and, if the talent is there, move up to the National XCO series. The problem is often that some of the talented youngsters do not have the funding to travel to the National League events, as there are not many sponsors at that level and it is mostly all thanks to parents that have the means to get their kids to these races.
Like I mentioned before, if there is a great working structure, where all the top teams have to assist with the funding of developing a rider or two, it could help. It is for sure great to have riders like Ariane Lüthi and James Reid visit the Spur Series and pass on some motivation as part of their sponsorship, but I must say, it would have been great to see Spur invest in a U23 team to help the talented riders from the school series into a setup where they can grow and get as much racing experience to move up the ranks.
It seems like that is where there is the real gap as most sponsors are, rightly so, looking for TV and media time, and a younger rider just does not often make the cut. It is great that so many parents ride bikes though and invest in their kids, and for the ones that do have the opportunity, there are some real talented ones!
As you spend a lot of time before the Cape Epic with international riders that are in South Africa preparing, can you confirm that SAIDS is regularly testing them?
Firstly, it is not really SAIDS’ responsibility to test the international riders; they need to get the go-ahead and funding from the specific rider’s national federations. Just like SAIDS have to fund the testing when I am racing abroad, unless it is in competition of course. I know SAIDS are probably the best when it comes to testing their (the SA) mountain bikers. None of the international riders that I have any contact with gets tested nearly as much as I do.
It is a running joke in our team how much I get tested compared to the rest, so I give SAIDS loads of credit for fighting a good fight in SA! I trust all my teammates completely. There is a very big anti-doping spirit in our camp, but for example, Kristian Hynek isn’t even on the Whereabouts programme. Even he thinks it is crazy! So, to answer the question, they do not get tested much – or at all – when out of competition in SA.
Follow Erik on Instagram and twitter – both @erikkleinhans