Three South Africans have been chasing their Olympic dreams for the past few months. What exactly can we expect from them at the greatest sporting show on earth?
By Sean Badenhorst
Photos: Chris Hitchcock/Raymond Cox/Dino Lloyd
An Olympic Games medal – it’s one of the most coveted medals in sport. Only given to the first three; probably the worst sports event to finish fourth. There’s no finisher’s medal and it’s only held every four years – that’s what makes it so special.
Once you’ve competed at the Olympic Games, you’re always an Olympian. Not an ex-Olympian or a former Olympian. It’s an exclusive club with lifetime membership and widespread respect. The Olympics is a place where dreams come true and disappointment is tenfold. That it’s a global multi-sports event that captures the attention of the world makes the Olympic Games a really big stage. The biggest.
Three South African’s will carry our nation’s hopes on that stage. They’re all hoping the Olympics will bring out their best. So are we. Here they are:
Employer/team: Specialized Racing
Lives in: Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal
Olympic history: 15th in 2008
Prospect of a medal: 8/10
After winning Round 6 of the 2012 XCO World Cup in Windham, USA, Stander confirmed his status as a very strong Games medal contender. It’s worth noting that the two guys likely to be his biggest rivals in London, Nino Schurter (SUI) and Julien Absalon (FRA) had opted to skip that round. Absalon won gold at the past two Olympics and just when he was starting to be written off after a poor (by his high standards) 2011, he won Rounds 2 (Houffalize) and 4 (La Bresse) of the 2012 series. A little reminder that the sport’s most prolific global champion is still able to win – on a 26-inch bike. Schurter, bronze medallist in Beijing, won the World Cup overall in 2011 and won Rounds 1 (Pietermaritzburg) 3 (Nove Mesto) and 5 (Mont St. Anne).
So Stander won Round 6 and in the process moved into World Cup Series title contention – and into the Olympic podium limelight. And his timing seems to be spot on. It should be a cracker contest!
Employer/team: Contego 28E
Lives in: Pretoria, Gauteng
Olympic history: None
Prospect of a medal: 0/10
South Africa qualified two starting spots for the Elite men’s cross-country race in London. Let’s be honest, most of the qualifying points came from Burry Stander, one of the world’s leading racers. The question was briefly bandied about as to whether or not we should second a second rider and the answer was yes. Then the question was who? James Reid, Rourke Croeser and Buys became the three main options. Reid and Croeser both excelling in the Under-23 ranks and Buys upping his game since mid-2011 to be second consistently to Stander in major local races. Some felt Buys lacked BMT, while others thought he just needed that one break. And he got that break at Round 6 of the World Cup where he survived the heat and worked his way up to 15th place just 3min 12sec down on Stander, the winner. Boom! Suddenly he’d discovered a new level of performance, which, interestingly, is more mental than physical. He’ll be super-motivated going into the Olympics where the depth is less than half that of a World Cup race. There can be more than 150 riders in a World Cup race, whereas there are only 50 starting spots at the Olympic Games. A medal-winning performance would be pretty unrealistic, but a top 15 is a possibility.
Employer/team: BMC Racing SA
Lives in: Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal
Olympic history: None
Prospect of a medal: 0/10
South Africa was ranked 26th in the nations rankings when the Olympic deadline arrived. That meant we qualified one spot for a woman at the London Games. But who would go? Yolande Speedy, our Beijing Olympian was hitting some top form early in the year but then broke her wrist just days before Round 1 of the World Cup in Pietermaritzburg. Under-23s Mariske Strauss and Candice Neethling were the only other women competing internationally on a regular basis. When Neethling went from being a top-10 finisher to challenging for podium places in World Cup races, she made it an easy call for the selectors. Her lap times are, on average, between 2-3 minutes slower at World Cup races than the third-placed Elite women (who usually do one more lap than the Under-23 women). So her participation in London is one of investment. At 20, she still has some physical development time on her side and will surely be a medal prospect when the 2016 Games roll around. There’ll be 30 women on the start line. Neethling’s biggest challenge will be to finish on the same lap as the winner. In the past few months she’s grown significantly in confidence. Barring any incidents, it should be possible.
STANDER AND DELIVER
Burry Stander is taking his medal-potential status seriously. Here’s some insight into what’s gone into his Olympic Games preparation…
Obviously the plan is to get Stander into peak form for about 90 minutes of high intensity performance on 12 August. And helping him achieve that – since October 2011 – is Dr Jeroen Swart, a sports physician that raced cross-country at national level himself a decade ago.
Stander was self-coached until then and did a pretty good job for someone with no real scientific training knowledge.
“I know my own body and capabilities well, but you can only reach a certain point when you’re self-coached. It’s mostly guesswork and gut-feel. If I wanted to raise my game I needed an expert. And I can now say, with hindsight, that I should have been under Jeroen’s guidance for a year longer in order to be at my potential for London,” explained Stander.
“But we can’t change that, so I’m looking forward to the future. It takes time for your body to adapt to structured, scientific training because it continues to build and build, each time recovering faster and building stronger or faster, or both.
“I’ve improved 5% since starting with Jeroen last October, which is a lot. And it’s shown in my results, both in terms of finishing positions and consistency. And also how much more in control I feel during races. I believe I will improve another 2.5% in the next year.
“To illustrate, I improved by an average of 15 Watts over a four minute period. That translates to between 10-15 seconds faster on a climb. And that can be the difference between finishing first and 15th in a World Cup race,” explained Stander.
Stander explained that Dr Swart prescribes his training in meso-cycles.
“I am always in one of three mesocycles at any one time – Base or Strength or Pre-competition. Base is very volume-heavy with low intensity, so it means long, steady rides and gym work. The Strength mesocycle means low cadence, high torque pedalling and gym work. And the Pre-competition cycle involves very high intensity, low volume and no gym,” explained Stander.
The former Under-23 World Champion says that Swart has also helped him improve his race-day taper.
“We now have my taper perfect! I start every goal race in a state of complete confidence. It’s great to have that under control, for obvious reasons.”
Stander has three defined goal race periods in 2012 – mid/end-March (Pietermaritzburg World Cup and Cape Epic); mid-May (Nove Mesto and La Bresse World Cups) and mid-August (Olympic Games). The focus has understandably been specifically on cross-country racing.
“Each mesocycle can vary in duration and can be as short as two weeks. So at any one time, I’m focused on a certain mesocycle. This means my training is properly structured and measureable. Unlike when he was self-coached and did one session a day, Stander now does two, sometimes three training sessions a day.
“It’s still a similar total duration, just divided up to be more specific and focused in smaller segments. Recovery has become such a high priority for me now. It’s pretty obvious, but most of us don’t respect the fact that you can’t get the most from your body if it hasn’t recovered properly from the previous session.”
Stander does virtually all of his training on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast where he lives.
“It’s hilly here and the roads are quiet. Because it’s quite remote, I’ve spent most of my life training alone, so finding motivation to train these days isn’t difficult for me. There are also some proper climbs here, which is important. A climb that lasts 15 minutes or more is key if you want to improve your climbing.”
As with most elite athletes, travel, especially across time zones, causes havoc with Stander’s rhythm. But he and Swart now take that into account.
“I can take three or four days to recover properly from long distance travel, so on those days I just revert to Base mesocycle training, even if I’m in a different mesocycle at the time. It just settles me in nicely again.”
From a nutrition perspective, Stander says he’s not changed his regular whole-food diet much.
“There were a couple of things I changed, but I’ve always been pretty aware of what foods are useful to me as a professional mountain bike racer and what foods aren’t. My supplementation has evolved a bit though. Jeroen consulted with Albe Geldenhuys at USN, my supplement sponsor, to help fine-tune which supplements are best for my training and racing. I wasn’t getting it spot on for race day in the past, but Jeroen has helped me there. I now have it just right. At that high intensity, your body can only process 10-15% of the carbs you drink, but you want to start on an empty stomach. So the type of carbs you consume during the race is critical. I use USN’s BCAA Vitargo, VO2Max and Cytogels during cross-country races.
It’s all very scientific, but this is what it’s come to. Every little thing counts and Stander hasn’t left anything to chance for his quest for an Olympic medal.
“If you prepare properly that’s a big part of the battle won. Race day becomes the last act. On race day, it’s all about how you put it together in your head and your heart. If you’re properly prepared though, it does wonders for your confidence, you know your body is primed. If all goes to plan, as it has so far, I should be in the best shape of my life in London.”
*Originally published in TREAD issue 19, 2012