James Reid won the South African marathon champs title for a second year in succession
recently. He’s not focussed on marathon racing though, he’s chosen to race the highly competitive, international XCO circuit – the Olympic discipline of mountain biking. Despite having an impressive string of results in XCO races, he wasn’t chosen to represent South Africa at the Commonwealth Games, but he did get chosen to represent South Africa at the Marathon World Champs, where he was South Africa’s top finisher in 17th place… It’s a confusing space to be in, especially when you’re only 22. We asked Reid, a known thinker, to give us his thoughts.
“Me? I’m a bike rider. I make a living racing bikes.”
Responses vary. Strangely so, but I’m used to it by now. The youngsters look at me, wide-eyed: “That’s awesome!” The older generation folk are more disbelieving: “No, but seriously, my boy, what are you doing with your life?” – James Reid
The truth lies somewhere between the two reactions. I didn’t plan it. It was a natural progression from a passion I had at school.
Yes, the clichés warned me about pursuing it as a career. Making a living from your passions is still largely discouraged at school level, but I was young, curious and ambitious, like many my age. I had found my niche, where I could excel and I wanted to better myself. To be faster and to win on the biggest stages.
Sport is an essential part of youth. It sets up mental models that govern our feelings toward competition, fairness, friendship, camaraderie and a healthy lifestyle. But just as it has the ability to empower, it can also be destructive, crushing hard-won self-esteem.
I went to Kearsney College, a small private boys school in KwaZulu-Natal, which prides itself in being amongst the best in the country at sport. Being the best was expected of me, and I took to the task with enthusiasm. But I had chosen the lonely sport of cycling – something that doesn’t exactly invoke a sense of school pride. Or, at least it didn’t a few short years ago when I was making my way through the system.
I didn’t struggle at school. I was lucky like that. I managed to balance the academic pressure, leadership roles and a racing schedule that took me overseas. I had options when I matriculated, but also a very serious choice to make; one vastly different from what my father and his peers faced when leaving school in the apartheid years in South Africa.
Professional cycling seemed so close; I could be an ordinary scholar on Friday and on the start line with my childhood wall poster heroes on Saturday. I found a friend group and a community on those Saturdays, and every time I managed to stand on a podium it felt deeply fulfilling – in a way that my clumsy hand-eye coordination with rugby and cricket never did.
There were other pressures and expectations facing a school-leaver in South Africa in 2011. I was well aware that we live in challenging times, with many diverse problems. I come from a medical family, and I felt an unspoken pressure to pursue a career that made a difference, but I knew I first needed a real world education. Wrestling with the infinitely complex equation of the pursuit of speed seemed like a good starting point. So after school I decided to chase the dream, and I went for it.
The pressure parents place on kids to achieve in sport has a profound psychological effect. Inevitably, over time, kids either excel under it, or crumble. But it’s the lasting impression of that support that will sustain or hinder us throughout our lives. Intrinsically, I expect parents want their kids to be better, to see and do more, to progress further than they did. For me at least, it was always reciprocal; I wanted to make my parents proud. When I showed an affinity to cycling at a young age my parents encouraged it. Most parents would, albeit with varying levels of enthusiasm.
But kids develop their athletic ability at different rates. The differences between individuals start from the moment you can walk, and continue into the teenage years. Fighting naturally slower development with better equipment, more money and extra coaching may work. But you may simply be on the start line with guys and girls who started a year or two later than you yet possess more physically mature bodies with more developed motor-reflexes and cardiovascular systems. It’s important to take this into account when considering a career in sport after school.
It’s not a career, mind you – certainly not straight away. Coming to the decision to pursue a career in sport via organised school systems with franchises eager to help you transition to the professional ranks is one thing, but deciding to become a professional cyclist from the continent of Africa is another thing all together.
In South Africa, cricket, rugby and soccer enjoy the lion’s share of public interest, media coverage and therefore corporate sponsorship. In the last five years or so there has been huge growth in mass-participation cycling events in South Africa, particularly mountain biking. Access to a powerful group of well-heeled riders has sparked corporate branding and client hospitality activations at events, with obvious positive knock-on effects for retailers and other parts of the cycling industry. The profile of our world-class events has attracted some of the finest athletes to our shores, and allowed retailers and distributors to support local professional athletes on modest salaries.
While South Africa enjoys a very healthy and expanding local mountain biking scene, it needs to be viewed in context. Compared to mature markets, such as those in Europe or the USA, South Africa is still a relatively small market for international bike brands. And as much as we believe marathon and multi-stage events are the be-all and end-all of racing, the truth is the global engine room of the fastest mountain bikers in the world remains the UCI’s World Cup Cross Country series. And it’s on this global stage where I want to be test my abilities.
I’ve learnt the hard way about the underlying economic principles of professional mountain bike racing. The podium, by nature, is not a spacious place, with room for only the best on the day. Athletes differ from other professionals in that they’re judged, valued, and promoted based on how well they use their bodies. The proper nutrition, sleep, and training make all the difference, along with the right opportunities, personal development and ‘natural talent’ (an entire separate discussion on its own). For every Nino Schurter winning a world title, there are 100 others working as hard to take his place, without the job security or large pay cheque. Professional cycling has a comparable high-end income spread to that of golf, with large contracts and big endorsements for the best, but there’s relatively little for those outside the top 10. Comparable to a natural habitat of wild animals, sport caters for & rewards the best, but it can be a cruel and difficult place for those trying to break into the top ranks.
It was hard. A lot harder than it looked. In my first year as a ‘professional’ I didn’t win a single notable race. I remember senselessly attacking a bunch for minor placings in a few races only to sheepishly admit later to a friend that I simply had to be ahead of the guys with day jobs in the group. I came a mediocre 31st at Under-23 World Championships in 2011, but determinedly I pressed on. There is a closeness to the stars that separates cycling from more exclusive sports, like tennis and cricket. I could line up on the same grid as former World Champions, and race in the same bunch. After the battle, while I was laid out on the couch recovering from another mediocre result, their post-race commentary arrived magically – digital bite-sized missives from all corners of the globe, combined with crisp images and impossibly stylish videos.
It appealed to me and my generation, but I was learning quickly that it was no easy road. There is little magic. Hard work was what won. And professional management teams supported the winners. Fairly early on I became frustrated with the effort to reward ratio, and I turned to part-time studies through UNISA for stability in my journey of innumerable ups and downs. Notable perks were the exotic destinations I traveled to, meeting new and interesting people and the exposure to different ways of being in the world. These were liberating and incredibly valuable experiences for a fresh-faced 18 year old. But I began to realise there are a lot easier ways to make a living.
As I pause to draw breath and reflect on the past three years of my ‘career’ in bike racing, I realise I am in a healthy, growth orientated position in life, stable but learning quickly about the world, in an experience quite dissimilar to that of my university-attending peers. I have found acceptance in the duration and distance of the journey, but more that that, I realise that I am learning real life lessons, growing up and taking responsibility for poor performances in seeking the limits.
There were times when I came close to calling it a day, but winning the South African Marathon Championship in June 2013 changed a lot for me. I realised that professional cycling was a commitment, and the journey was more important than the destination. I learnt, together with my studies, some refreshing ‘old school’ values that cycling teaches. That you get what you want in life through hard work. You get what you put in – no more, often less. And if you want more you get it by challenging yourself to work harder. I learnt that your headspace and environment is important, and you become aware of pressure, expectation and your own capabilities, and constantly look for ways to improve them.
It is an alternative road, but the lessons are immense and longstanding. Education is expensive, but that lack of it even more so. And while I’m in my 20’s, I want a real world education.
So what does it cost?
Mountain biking is not cheap. When compared with soccer or running, it’s downright expensive. It’s the small expenses like travelling to events and never-ending bike maintenance that add up. Yet, a relatively inexpensive bike around the R10 0000 mark is all you need to be competitive, and that’s a relatively small price to pay for hours of entertainment and liberation. Taking it more seriously brings on the expenses, but I would recommend steering away from always having the latest and greatest equipment. Rather match the average competitors lining up on the start line with you. In short, don’t blame your equipment for a lack of performance. At the high end of the sport, equipment eventually takes care of itself but remember it’s your character, motivation and skill that set you apart.
By way of example, I spend around R5 500 on a weekend to attend a national-level race that’s not in the Western Cape.
Here’s an average breakdown of the costs:
Air travel: R2400
Car hire: R800
Bike parts and maintenance: R300 (Pre-race service) + R 200 (Sundry, cables etc)
How serious is too serious?
I’ve seen kids racing in the Sub-Junior and Sprogs categories with full-blown training programmes and warm-up routines! Some of them have equipment that rivals mine! Simply put, it’s unnecessary for their level of competition. If you want to keep things healthy and fun:
Younger than 10 years old: Just explore. Discover the independence and freedom of two wheels.
11-14: Have fun. Mix it up with other sports and use riding or events as family bonding time. Enjoy the beauty of the outdoors.
14-16: First taste of training and structure. Work in a pre-planned session here or there, such as a ‘hill climb’ day. If you enjoy it, race a lot. Parents, remember to make riding a bike with your kids enjoyable. Savour the last chance you’ll get to ride with your son/daughter before they’re faster than you!
17-19: Getting serious. Conflict between academics, sport (and a social life!) is inevitable in these years and your natural order of priority will emerge. You’ll want more structured training programmes, with racing on a national level, maybe even an international level. Plan carefully.
19 onwards: You should be self motivated and directed by now, with an awareness of your own training and racing process, Whether it’s an Enduro ride with mates, a hill-repeat session in the hurt box or a chance to pit yourself against the world’s best.
Follow James on twitter: @james_reid01
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*Originally published in TREAD Issue 30, 2014 – All rights reserved