If we were to choose a First Lady of South African mountain biking, it would be foolish to name anyone other than Erica Green. Today she’s a mum, a business owner and a coach, but it’s her journey that began almost three decades ago and includes two Olympic Games, that sets her apart. We find out more about what she’s doing now and what she sees for the future of SA MTB.
By Joanne Badenhorst
Erica Green poses with the new SA flag at the announcement of the 1996 Olympic team.
On 28 July 2020, the seventh edition of the women’s XCO race was to have taken place at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Of course, that’s no longer the case and the Games have been moved to 2021 due to Covid-19. But it’s fitting to reflect that this month (on the 30th to be precise), is 24 years since Erica Green was the first and only South African to be selected to compete at that first ever Olympic mountain bike race.
There was a start field of 29 women from 22 nations at the Atlanta Games, who had to complete three laps of a 9.6km course. Back then the XCO laps were relatively long although the sub-10km distance per lap was considered short at the time. The historic event attracted a lot of attention as it took place in the country that invented mountain bike racing…
Italy’s Paola Pezzo claimed the gold medal ahead of Canada’s Alison Sydor and the USA’s Susan DeMattei. Green finished a solid 17th. This after finishing 35th in the Women’s Road Race nine days before. Green went on to compete in the Sydney Olympics four years later where she finished 25th in a field with a lot more depth and unfortunately, while recovering from recent illness.
The start of the first ever Olympic mountain bike race in Atlanta, 1996, which Erica Green contested.
Today, Green lives in Somerset West with her husband, Spook Groenewald and their two children, Tim and Stefanie. They all ride mountain bikes. We thought it would be appropriate to catch up our first mountain bike Olympian.
TREAD Femme: You’ve been in mountain biking since the beginning in South Africa. What do you miss most about the early days?
Erica: What a privilege to have been involved from the beginning and to see how mountain biking has evolved over time. It is heartening to see how many people ride mountain bikes; how many roadies race mountain bikes now; how the race courses have changed; and how the need for proper cycling skill is more important now, than ever. To see how mountain bikes have evolved, developed and improved. However, what I do miss about the early days is the pure enjoyment of just riding your bike, training hard and racing harder.
In the early days, as racers, we used to race all disciplines at any national event: Dual slalom on Friday, Cross-Country on Saturday and Downhill on Sunday – this, I feel should still be the same for all young categories (up to age 16), while Junior, Under23 and Elite riders then specialise in their favourite discipline. OK, perhaps except dual slalom, because this would be a budgetary issue. However, I strongly believe that all competitive events for young categories should have a Skills Competition prior to the main race – race start position is based upon each riders’ skill competition result. This way, South Africa would produce better skilled mountain bikers.
It seems that through all the evolution of just ‘everything MTB’ there is an element of ‘analysis paralysis’ and simply riding your bike is something that is missing in a lot of mountain bikers I have come across lately. This is not meant to be said in a judgemental way, but it seems the pressures of the market, where racing is so prioritised, sometimes overshadows the innocent gains of riding off road, high up in the mountains, for pleasure.
Erica Green during training for the 1996 Olympic Games mountain bike race.
TREAD Femme: What would you consider your three best achievements in mountain biking as a racer?
Erica: Sheesh, what a question. It’s going to be a long answer:
- My first ever SA XCO Championship win: It was at Van Staden’s in Port Elizabeth. I was new to the game and I had only raced against my idols a handful of times. However, when I won the race, that I had not actually thought possible, that was it from there – onwards and upwards! I knew how much work went into preparing for that race, and this was a single indication of ‘what you put in, you get out’.
- I was going through a huge box of photos during lockdown – and I couldn’t believe all the adventurous shit we got up to, with all the radical travelling, racing etc. Going from race to race to race overseas for months on end – all the while chasing points to qualify for Olympic Games! Wow! We had to qualify individually – well, that was part of our country’s initial qualification criteria. So, in other words, we had to ensure our country was qualified, then also have to fulfil an individual criteria with our Olympic committee (I think it’s similar still, but the sport is much bigger now, so there’s more national body support).
Obviously the two Olympic Games:
Atlanta Olympic Games, 1996, where I raced in both the road and the mountain events. If finished 17th. It was best MTB result at that stage internationally and it was really amazing to achieve it amont the world’s best.
(Sidenote: I remember representing SA at the Track World Championships, in Norway and feeling completely out of place on my steel track bike while all the other cyclists were on their state-of-the-art carbon aero bikes; and thinking to myself ‘Green, what are you doing here?’ Well, I only realised when standing on the start line at the Atlanta Olympics, that standing in the starting blocks in Norway at Track Worlds, put me in good stead – I’ve never struggled with pre-race nerves.)
Sydney Olympic Games 2000: Most perhaps don’t have an inkling of what it takes to prepare, single-mindedly, for one specific event, that takes place only every four years. We will do anything in our athletic powers to achieve our goals. Well, apart from a very shaky preparation between Atlanta and Sydney Olympics, that included a two-month bout of pneumonia, and a couple of broken bones requiring surgery to fix, professional athletes will keep on keeping on. It’s in every thread of their minds and bodies – to keep on pushing to that goal. I was in the best shape of my life. Then, 10 days before my event, I caught Sydney flu! I couldn’t believe it. I questioned why I had gotten this far, and then been stopped. Anyhow, even though I didn’t win any medals, working this hard has certainly shaped me in so many profound ways and I ended up in 25th position.
- Racing the 2008 ABSA Cape Epic with Hanlie Booyens for Team ABSA: after a seven-year time-out of any form of exercise or training, Hanlie and I teamed up against probably the strongest women’s field ever! Hanlie was going through a really tough time and I used some pretty different training sessions to attempt getting back into shape – in the form of reversed periodisation and extremely focussed training that target only the very specific characteristics and demands of the event. Now in coaching/training, this seems very obvious, but when you’re galloping from the back of the field, it worked famously. I hit, probably the best form of my life. We missed third place overall on GC by a few seconds, but boy, was the racing exciting!
Erica Green in 2020 with her Liv Pique 29er.
TREAD Femme: And what do you love most about mountain biking in South Africa as it is now?
Erica: #outsideisfree is a hashtag I love to use because having spent a fair amount of time working with, and talking to other mountain bikers, national and international, amateur and pro, in South Africa, mountain bikers have really enjoyed a calendar full of quality events. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we have the best quality of mountain bike events in the world. Such events have put South Africa on the world map, as a mountain biking destination.
Obviously depending on where you live, down here in the Western Cape, and more immediately in my hometown of Somerset West, we have over 2000km (two thousand kilometres!) of purpose-built mountain bike trails within a one-hour drive. If this is not mountain bike heaven… Obviously, where we all are currently, events are on hold, however, cycling (MTB) was one of the first forms of exercise that was allowed, when we were ‘let out of our lockdown cages’. Never has a flat trail ride through vineyards felt that amazing, as during those 6:00-9:00am Lockdown Level 4 rides! Ah man! And, Amen!
I also love the way so many people are riding mountain bikes. I must single out the Spur MTB Schools League as this has seen to a rapid increase in numbers participating at provincial and national XCO events. This is very encouraging. I just hope that the ‘powers that be’ protect our youngsters and help them develop correctly.
And the other element I wanted to single out: e-Bikes! I have been observing and listening to people who ride e-Bikes and when looking at obvious reasons, and chatting to them – the common denominator is that, if it wasn’t for e-Bikes, they would never have started mountain biking. Perhaps due to age, perhaps due to medical reasons, and perhaps because (and I admit this myself), it’s just soooo darned nice riding an e-Bike!
TREAD FEMME: What exactly do you do these days – business-wise?
I started mentoring young road and mountain bike riders in 1999. It was during this time that our coaching business began – DCS (Daisyway Coaching Systems). I retired from racing in 2000, but have continued to coach to this day. I love it. I love to help others not make same mistakes I made when I was racing. I love to motivate people. I love to see improvements in my athletes, and of course, I love to see success with athletes I get to work with. Each person is just so different and I love to do my best to figure out how best to get a ‘good tune’ out of them. I learn from every person I work with – I love learning!
So, getting back to the point: I write training programs (and all that comes with that), do skills training, conduct training camps and corporate tours, work on events in many different profiles (from commentating, to course building and marking, to mapping of routes, and a couple of other events overseas. This is good as I get to travel too.
Erica (second from left), with her Daisyway Coaching partners, from left, Spook Groenewald (her husband), Louise Jansen, Lance Stephenson and Michard Meets.
TREAD Femme: Your son, Tim, is a ‘sender’. Do you agree the next generation of mountain bikers are riding more for fun than to compete?
Erica: He he! I think the ‘senders’ certainly ride more for pleasure and fun, but they’re also very dedicated towards their skills development and love an opportunity to hit the air/crash bag when it’s available. You’ll mostly find the ‘senders’ jibbing in the afternoons after their school work is done. This is a great way to socialise whilst being outdoors, with friends, and away from possible negative influences. I have certainly noticed that this generation of kids, who ‘send’ and jib together are level-headed and happy kids, which is what a parent wants, right? (PS. My daughter, Stefanie, also ‘sends it’ every now and again, too).
Jibbing: a term from snowboarding, meaning to perform tricks on man-made obstacles – there are plenty of obstacles on any mountain bike trail – it’s where manuals and wheelies are learnt, bar spins and the like (you see, I’m learning all the new lingo).
Interesting to note: Andrew and Jonty Neethling, pro downhillers from just a couple years back, strongly suggested that we take cleat pedals off our kids’ bikes. Their reasoning was that the moment they learn how to do a bunny hop on flat pedals, they can begin to learn how to jump. This was probably the most profound piece of advice ever received. The results have been astounding! Total bike control. It’s great to see that Schools Cycling SA has also joined in and making flat pedals compulsory for all cyclists under the age of 11. Yay!
And . . . don’t be fooled by a sender’s fitness. They ride their bikes for hours on end – they’re pretty fit!
TREAD Femme: Do you see enough being done for women’s mountain biking in South Africa? If not, what do you think is missing?
Erica: Actually, no. Not enough is being done. Gosh, I could write a couple of pages on this. In a nutshell, girls certainly don’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool, quite the contrary. I believe lots is in the pipeline with Cycling SA’s new president, Ciska du Plessis-Austin, however, this will still take time. Girls and women do very well with ‘pathways’. Even as a parent, if I wanted to know how my kid could become a pro athlete one day (in any sport), there should be some co-ordinated pathway for athletes to follow. I do believe in careful pacing of training and racing when it comes to young athletes, but my hope is that if there were a clear road to follow, we would definitely see more girls and women on the start line at races.
Erica Green being interviewed before the Tour de Sydney in 2000.
Since my days of racing 1992-2000, I had to create my own pathway in mountain biking. Granted, mountain biking is an individual sport, as opposed to road racing, which is a team effort, and if one looks very closely at the South African mountain bikers that have really made it on the international scene – they’ve all gotten there themselves, pretty much, through their own ‘pathways’. A bit off the topic of women’s mountain biking, but this country is still so far behind so many of the top countries when it comes to high performance, because, well, perhaps we should just leave as it as ‘sport politics’.
TREAD Femme: You’re a Liv ambassador. Tell us about your mountain bike/s?
Erica: Yes, I’ve actually been a Gaint-sponsored rider and ambassador since 1995! Yes, I had a few bike brand changes in between, but am back now with Liv, Giant’s women’s range. I’m loving my Liv Pique 29er – even though it’s the alu frame, it has the great handling of the new geometry. Oh, and the colour is pretty cool too! It’s been a revelation riding with my ‘sender’ son, who not only advises me on fork and shock settings and tyre pressure, but I also have been enjoying his skills coaching. We ride on our local trails, Helderberg Trails, almost every day, and I cannot believe how my skills have picked up. I feel like a ‘sender Mom’!
It’s the first time I’m riding a women-specific bike, and initially I was a bit worried about the length, sizing, geometry etc. But I was pleasantly surprised. The Liv Pique 29er is the women’s equivalent to the Giant Anthem 29er. Pretty much. In my humble opinion. It feels good to represent a women-focussed brand.
TREAD Femme: You still ride regularly. What do you think keeps you motivated to keep riding like you do?
Erica: Jip, every day if possible. I love feeling fit and strong. But mostly, I love to ride with my family! If we’re not riding trails together, on the uphills, we’re doing shuttle sessions on the downhills – I get to drive my Landy up and down some pretty gnarly 4×4 trails too. And it’s packed with cool, chatty downhillers on the back. During lockdown, I’ve never felt more liberated and privileged to call mountain biking my sport!
Erica Green loving her Liv Pique 29er
TREAD Femme: Covid-19 has changed the local landscape – no races for months. How do you feel about this and do you think post-lockdown will be better or worse for competitive mountain bikers?
Erica: Gosh, I think the pandemic lockdown has impacted not only cycling, but all sports! I’ve been watching how each sporting federation/code has dealt with managing their members, participants and professional athletes. I don’t think any sports person will ever take their total freedom for granted again, this is for sure. I feel very sorry for all the pro athletes – it was as if their balancing pole was ripped away from them, whilst walking their tightropes. It takes meticulous planning for any professional athlete to prepare for any season, and, as a coach, it was a real eye-opener as to how to suddenly re-focus, recalibrate and learn how to make best use of time we had not known would become available.
As far as events are concerned, sjoe what can I say? Apart from financial loss of hosting and staging an event, participants have also spent a great deal of time, money and effort working towards taking part in events. This has had huge financial impact on the cycling community and fraternity. It has been very interesting to see how each event organiser has dealt with cancellation or postponement of their events. After all, without participants, organisers don’t have events. The mountain biking industry in SA, seems, at best, to have all stood by each other (as far as I know), and this is heartening.
I think that the future of big events will see changes: changes that will force us all to think out of the box in terms of risks involved, not only safety, but also presentation of events, logistics and such elements. I’m certain though, that normality will return, but this is still far off, for now.
Erica Green with husband, Spook Groenewald, himself one of South Africa’s mountain bike racing pioneers.
TREAD Femme: Based on your own experience and knowledge of the current state of mountain biking, what advice would you give ambitious teenage girls who dream to become international racers?
Pace yourself carefully – too much too early = burnout and loss of interest. It only really counts to win, when you are in Elite category, so ensure your building blocks are solid!
Skills first – if you can’t keep up on the downhills, then you’re not near the front on any of the uphills…
Only ask the best for advice. There’s lots and lots of advice out there – find a mentor before you find a great coach. If I could do my professional cycling career over again, I would have learnt how to enjoy what I was doing a bit more. It’s really hard to be a professional athlete, so why not set yourself up in an environment that is conducive to positive experiences and positive outcomes. And of course, prepare yourself well for after your cycling career.
Find out more about Erica’s business here.
Follow Erica on Instagram: @daisyglug