Phathokuhle Zondi is the CEO of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA), where world-class progress in Sports Science happens on a daily basis, including the coaching of leading mountain bikers and cyclists. In what might be considered research, she’s about to dip a toe into the Absa Cape Epic ‘pool’ as a #SheUntamed ambassador for Absa.

The keen runner, cyclist and mother of two will be one of 45 women to spend two days on the fringes of the 2020 Absa Cape Epic as ‘Epic Day Trippers’. On their mountain bikes, the women will be guided in small groups along short sections of the route of Stages 3 and 4 in the Tulbugh region, to get a taste of the world’s most prestigious – and toughest – mountain bike stage race.

The initiative forms the launch of #SheUntamed, the first step in Absa’s effort to lower the barriers for women to gain access to mountain biking in general and the Cape Epic in particular. In 2019, women made up just 6.44% of the the total Absa Cape Epic participants (this does not include Day Trippers).

As a South African woman, what do you enjoy most about mountain biking?

Without a doubt the beautiful landscapes! I am exploring places I would never have reached on foot as a runner. When you find your cycling tribe there’s also a wonderful sense of community that draws you in. Going to beautiful places, with good company and fun chatter is always a winning formula. Finally, being someone who likes to stretch themselves physically, I really enjoy the endurance aspects of the sport and the sense of fulfilment as my technical skills and riding improve.

How many years have you been cycling, and how many hours a week are you able to train on your mountain bike?
Before 2014 I went through a period of enjoying road cycling and triathlon events, but I started my mountain bike journey in earnest in September 2019. Admittedly, I’m a “go big or go home” type of person, so my first MTB goal was a three-day stage race six weeks after I got a bike. It was fantastic. I aim for two mountain bike out rides a week – one shorter two-hour mid-week ride and a longer 3-4 hour ride over weekends when possible.

What other training are you doing to prepare for your ABSA Cape Epic Day Trippers experience?

These days I train 8-12 hours a week. My training is a combination of watt bike sessions, strength sessions, running and the two outrides. My training isn’t only focused on the Day Trippers, I’m also training for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon and a road cycling event (Maluti Double 90), both in April.

Why do you think Absa chose you to be their #SheUntamed ambassador?
The #SheUntamed campaign aims to encourage more women to participate in mountain biking and also celebrates bold, courageous spirit. Both these themes resonate deeply with me. As a sports medicine physician and advocate of gender equity and inclusion, I am passionate about the role that sport can play in influencing physical and mental wellbeing and in shifting social narratives. Absa likely recognised this untamed passion and invited me to be an ambassador because of how well this fit into their campaign.

How are you using your ambassador status to introduce more women to mountain biking?
I am sharing my journey as a new MTB rider (and momlete) on social media platforms and in every day conversation – it’s great to see how this is sparking interest. I’m a good connector, and I am most proud of being able to connect curious women to platforms (coaches and clubs) where they can explore this interest. There are at least six women I know who have decided to give it a try based on our conversations and I have personally converted four ‘roadies’ to MTB. Often waves of change start as ripples.

What do you feel the biggest barriers are to South African women getting into mountain biking?

Some of the themes that have come up in conversation relate to safety, time and fear (of falling)! Safety and fear can be addressed by finding a club to ride with who also coach MTB skills. This doesn’t have to be intimidating –I started with a ladies only club that caters for all levels of rider called Trail Angels, and it really has been a game changer for me. This setting provides a “safe space” that nurtures and pushes one simultaneously. As for time, the issues here relate to finding time to train (a universal problem) but equally important finding child care to be able to go out for those long rides.

How are you planning on making Mountain Biking more accessible to women?

I have been in contact with some local cycling clubs and my workplace to address the issue of child care so that mothers can enjoy a guilt-free long ride at least once a month. We’re hoping of to launch the platform in the next month. Specifically, we want to pilot a Saturday morning ride that starts at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Newlands, Cape Town. Moms can register their children at the creche (0-3yo) or at kids club (4-14yo) where age-appropriate activities will be led by child minders or kid coaches (kinderkinetics). Riders will be able to choose from three club rides varying in distance and difficulty and know that their kids are safe and being stimulated while they’re enjoying their time out. I know the idea has been well received by some of the ladies I ride with and as a mother of a two-year-old and a four-year-old, I can’t wait! This would be open to non SSISA members who would just need to pay a fee for the kids club if they wanted to make use of it.