South African cyclist, Catherine Colyn, was selected as one of 35 pro women to contest the prestigious 2023 Lifetime Grand Prix, a seven-race series of high-profile mountain bike and gravel races in the United States. Here’s how she managed to adapt to a very different environment to what she’s accustomed to.

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Back in January, we reported on the selection of Colyn by the oraganisers of Lifetime Grand Prix – a wonderful opportunity and a proud moment for South Africa to have a female racer in the mix. The costs would be significant though and most would have let the opportunity slip. No athlete needs that additional stress. But Catherine and her management company, One Movement, accepted the challenge and secured the funding, thanks to a couple of South African companies that committed their support.

Energy Innovation Holdings (EIH) stepped in to support Catherine, which would see their financial contribution turning Catherine’s dream into reality. The Instagram posts of pro racers generally show only the highlights – ride cool bikes wearing the latest gear in scenic places and stop for good coffee along the way. But there’s a lot more than that to be a full-time cyclist as Catherine occasionally reflects on her social media posts.

Of course, leaving her home and comfort zone and heading to another continent in a different time zone with a different culture would be one of Catherine’s biggest challenges so far. That doesn’t include the races, which are generally much longer with much bigger fields. Some of the races are also at high altitude, which for the Paarl resident, would require further adjustment. We asked her a few questions about how she managed these major changes.

It must have been intimidating to head to a foreign country with no real support base or network. How was that initially and has it improved?

I raced on the road in the US in 2019. I was based in California, but I went to Boulder, Colorado for a few weeks to do some altitude training. The family that hosted me is the same family that offered to host me for this four-month Lifetime Grand Prix campaign. So, there was already some familiarity and a stable place to stay from the beginning. It’s been a huge help. Amazing really!

Catherine during the 2023 Leadville 100, a 100-mile mountain bike race at over 3000m above sea level.

From a race-support perspective, I was offered assistance by someone, but when I got here, it didn’t materialise, which was quite disappointing. So, I had to start from scratch. It’s all been a big learning curve. Luckily my host family are also cyclists, so they have made some recommendations in terms of a bike shop, sports masseuse etc. After two of the races, I have met some of the other competitors and we have collaborated to assist each other where possible, such as sharing transport and accommodation. It was a difficult start, but it’s a lot smoother now. I’m finding my groove!

Specialized has been amazing. At Leadville, the Specialized crew helped me before and after the race. They also assisted me get a different gravel bike. There are some really good people that have been a huge help.

Where are you based and how is that going?

I’m based in Boulder, Colorado, which is at about 1600m altitude (similar to Johannesburg). But I can ride up into the higher mountains with an average altitude of 2000 metres on a four-hour ride, which is decent. There is really good riding here and good people. They call it the ‘Boulder Bubble’ which attracts lots of active people and students. The culture reminds me of Stellenbosch. The majority of the gravel racing I’m doing here is at a high altitude, especially Leadville, which was over 3000m! So, living and training in Boulder makes sense. It’s a really good base for me.

Do you train alone or with others?

The majority of my training is by myself. I enjoy riding by myself because I can dictate my own pace. Some days include intervals and I need to focus on those and not be riding someone else’s pace or to their plan. Also, many cyclists have full time jobs so just can’t be riding at the times I can, especially on weekdays.

Do you feel safe training alone?

I feel super safe! That’s one of the great things about going overseas. At home I ride with pepper spray and I am constantly worried about being attacked and my bike being stolen. I love having the freedom to ride where I want to and explore amazing routes without fear. Obviously, I need to be careful of motorists and deer, which can run into the road.

Catherine says she loves the freedom of being able to do solo training rides in Boulder, Colorado where she is based. | Photo: Ray Cox
Your second race was the Leadville 100 which is at a high altitude. What was the hardest thing for you to manage while preparing for Leadville – and racing it?

At home in Paarl, I think the altitude is like 100 metres, which is nothing. So, altitude isn’t something I was used to. However, living and training in Boulder and going to race at Leadville was an easier transition than going to Boulder from Paarl. I was already partially acclimatised to riding hard in thin air. My coach, Mike Posthumous, was very in tune with my reaction to altitude and was able to work with me to adjust my power outputs to be appropriate for the elevation and effort required. I trained at 3000 metres in Copper Mountain in the two weeks prior to Leadville to be as prepared as possible. But ultimately, racing at altitude affects you no matter what and I just had to ride to feel in the race and not try ride to power numbers. The race starts at 3000 metres and peaks at 3800 metres. Climbing in a fatigued state at that altitude is tough. I feel I did well in that I paced myself well and completed the second half faster than the first half. For my first high-altitude race experience, I think I did a good job.

You follow a selective diet. What is it exactly and have you managed to follow it while in the US?

I am a vegan and my coach tailors my nutrition plan as well as my training plan. It works very well. He periodises my nutrition according to my training load. As a pro athlete, it’s all about maximising the gains that you can make from nutrition to completement training and racing. I’m very fortunate that Mike does that for me.

On arrival in the US, The Feed agreed to support me whilst here. The Feed and Powerbar USA have been of huge assistance to me while here.

Paid partnership with EIH