69 – just a number for MTB nut Fred van Zyl
01 January 1970
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual app, which is available here.
Gerald de Kock: Hello and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast where we talk all things mountain biking. We meet the personalities and the people and the places that make this sport so inviting. I think people get attracted to it and suddenly they get hooked and addicted. It’s a very difficult thing to shake if you are addicted to this sport of mountain biking; which takes us to my guest today on our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking podcast, Fred van Zyl. Fred will be 70 next year and he is built like a man of 30 and rides like a man of 20. Fred’s with us now and Fred, let’s start with firstly, people say you’re 70, you just have been riding all your life, would that be right?
Fred van Zyl: No, no, I’ve only been riding 10 years now and that’s it. I started and I wish I’d started earlier.
GDK: It is like that for us, you sort of get so much enjoyment out of it, what was it that hooked you?
FVZ: My wife started a spinning class in Richmond and she needed some guys to fill up her class. So I volunteered. I started spinning and then there was a road race a week later, got stuck into that. Then I got addicted.
A child of the Karoo
GDK: Now we’re talking Richmond in the Karoo here, now let’s rewind and go back a little bit. Where’s your background, not necessarily in the sport, in life?
FVZ: My background is actually, I was born in the Karoo, in Colesberg. I went to school in Cape Town, Rondebosch Boys High and from there I started farming. First farm that I purchased was in Napier, farmed there for 14 years.
Then we moved to Stellenbosch and farmed there for nine years. From Stellenbosch we moved to the Karoo. We actually farmed in Namibia too while we were in Stellenbosch, I forgot that already. We were farming there as well for about 6-7 years and then we finally retired from farming in the Karoo, that was about nine years ago.
GDK: Were you doing other sports at that time?
FVZ: I’ve been sport mad, I’ve done marathons, I played rugby until the age of 40. Played cricket, school, university. So I’ve always been sporting and involved. Golf, I played a lot of golf as well and I even played bowls, so I’ve always been involved in sport.
Developing a love for riding late in life
GDK: Let’s get to this mountain bike thing. You did the road race and probably enjoyed that but thought there’s something else here, I can get more out of this?
FVZ: I’m a bit of an adventurous guy, it gets a bit boring just riding on a tar road. So I was looking for something more adventurous, more exciting. Then I took to mountain biking, I saw that was very exciting.
GDK: What was your first event?
FVZ: My first event, that was –
GDK: Fred’s looking across at Ina his wife sitting here, trying to keep him informed here. Did you do cross country?
FVZ: Oh, it was cross country. I started cross country and I did that for about 5-6 years. I even very humbly managed to be a SA Champ for the men in my age category, 60+. Then I actually had a fall and broke my hip. Then I went and recovered and I continued with it and I broke my hip the second time. Then my wife warned me, if I continue with cross country, there will be a divorce settlement!
GDK: So it became the endurance stuff, and of those events. You’ve done multiple events, just give us an idea of what you’ve done.
Who needs a Camper Van when you retire!
FVZ: I’ve done many. Okay, let’s start; we did the Trans Karoo, the Karoo to Coast, Epic, Cape Pioneer, two of them, Trans Baviaan, Imana Wild Ride, Namibian Quest, Namaqua Quest, Lesotho Sky. We went cycling in Italy last year for two weeks, so there’s been a lot of events I’ve done, taken part in.
GDK: You’re wearing a shirt now that’s an event that is a real test of endurance, 361km in a time limit of 36.1 hours and that’s the distance you ride. You have a little passion for this one though.
FVZ: Yes, this 361, it’s 361km, I’m crazy about it. I’m actually addicted to that race, we ride in the night and we do it between 19-20 hours. I just love it and I want to continue doing it for the next, well, I want to do it for the next 20 years. I’ve done five of them, so I want to do another 15 still.
GDK: Without being rude, where does that put you, at 20?
FVZ: The year 2032 and then I’ll be 84.
GDK: Don’t doubt that Fred van Zyl will be able to do that. I have absolutely no doubt, if I see him riding here now. What stokes your fire in these events? What is it about the sport?
A pioneer at heart
FVZ: Okay, first of all, I’m very competitive. I always like to compete against somebody or my time or whatever. But it’s just the thrill of it, it’s being outdoors. When we do these mountain bikes, we go camping and we sleep in our tents.
My wife comes along, my dog Chokkie comes along, so it’s a family affair. I wouldn’t like to do it on my own. I always want my wife as a back-up. I’ve actually got the old 1820 Settlers blood in me, I like to pioneer. I like to do new routes. I even look for new routes myself and I love that.
GDK: You’re now retired and living in Mossel Bay, what about training?
FVZ: I’m very disciplined, that’s my whole life. I’ve been disciplined, my father taught me discipline and actually with my training I’m very disciplined. I had my hours I must do a week. If I have the flu or I’m not feeling well, then I skip it. But otherwise I’ve been averaging for the last 16 months now, 15 hours a week on a mountain bike.
GDK: Do you have a coach?
FVZ: I had one in the beginning, but then I got a bit browned-off with the coach. I couldn’t agree with him. I’m in my 60’s and he’s 30-something, so it didn’t work out so well. So I know my body now, I know my limits and I train accordingly.
Don’t be afraid to start late in life
GDK: A lot of us coming into the sport as mature people, as adults in our 40’s, 50’s and even 60’s, as you did. What can you say to them that would get them to continue with it and those who are not in it?
FVZ: First of all, it’s your health. I just believe in my life, my health is my most important thing in my life. I want to say to any person that wants to start cycling, you’ll become healthy, your mind will be cleared. There’ll be less stress and strain in your life. The wonderful thing about mountain biking, the most fantastic people you’ll meet and different people and that opens your vision. It gives you stimulation, it stimulates your brain, so for sure.
GDK: You’ve had any health scares apart from the crashes?
FVZ: No, nothing at all.
GDK: Did you lose weight with cycling?
FVZ: Yes, I lost weight, I weighed about 77kg and I’m weighing 69. So I’m weighing my age at the moment. I’m 69 and I weigh 69km. So I’m going to stick to that and it’s not a problem for me anymore. I can eat as much as I like, I can drink anything and I don’t pick up weight, because I’m exercising mountain biking.
GDK: I’ll just paint the picture, we’re at an event in Botswana at the Gem Diamonds Kalahari Challenge and it’s a beautiful event. We’re about 90km from Gabarone here, the camp is beautiful, it’s peaceful. For those of you listening out there, Fred is sitting alongside me and his wife is sitting in her camping chair and Chokkie – hello Chokkie – was fast asleep. As soon as I mentioned Chokkie’s name he looked up at me. Chokkie goes everywhere doesn’t he?
Chokkie the dog loves the MTB life
FVZ: Chokkie goes everywhere. I’ve got a rucksack that Chokkie rides with me when I train. I’ve got a little karretjie, ‘n waentjie that I hitch behind my bicycle and she rides in that as well. Chokkie never stays at home, she’s always with us, she’s part of us.
GDK: I don’t want to offend Chokkie by calling her what she might not be, what is she, what breed is she?
FVZ: She’s a Jack Russell.
GDK: I thought so, but you never quite know. She’s a beautiful, peaceful animal, she’s lying in her own chair here, with a pink sheepskin blanket and looking very peaceful and very relaxed. Which I get the sense this whole campsite, your little camp is, so you’re a family man.
GDK: You’re not here alone out of the family are you?
FVZ: No, I’m not alone, my son has stared cycling, thank goodness for that. He’s a very good sportsman and he’s cycling with me. We’ve done a couple of races together and it’s just wonderful. For any father to ride with his child is such a privilege. I want to suggest that to any person. You can ride in your old age and you can still ride with your kids.
Always have my wife by my side
GDK: The person who actually started this wheel rolling with the spinning class is a wonderful support to you.
FVZ: Yes, my wife, she’s a wonderful support and she loves people and people love her. So wherever we go, she organises everything. Everybody knows her and everybody loves her and I can never do it without her.
GDK: What about her getting on the bike?
FVZ: She does cycle, but she’s just had a knee op, two knee ops, unfortunately. But she’ll be back on her bicycle and I think I’m going to get her an e-Bike, then she can give me a go as well!
GDK: What’s next on your calendar?
FVZ: We’re going to do the Berg and Bush and then next year I’ve got a little thing behind my head, New Zealand, six-day pioneer. That’s a new race that started this year. I want to go and take part in that next year.
GDK: Fred, you’re an incredible inspiration to all of us, I do think of you when I’m riding these races because you’re always an hour ahead of me, I’m sure. So you’re an incredible inspiration. May you fulfil your dream at 361 and continue riding all the way.
FVZ: Something I’d like to just say Gerald, that is my ambition. As being my age is to be an inspiration to younger people. Because a lot of times the young guys ride next to you and they say, ‘what’s your age?’ and I say ‘don’t worry, my age is this, but just continue, you can also ride like me one day.’ I just want to be an inspiration and encourage people that you can do it.
GDK: Do the younger guys want to race you?
FVZ: Yes, we do, but I can’t always keep up with them, but I do klap a couple of them.
GDK: Fred, thanks very much for chatting to us.
FVZ: It’s a pleasure Gerald, always good to speak to you, thank you.
GDK: Fred van Zyl who as I said is a pioneer, he’s a legend and he’s only been riding 10 years, not even, but already creating waves, well done. Thanks very much Fred van Zyl. Thank you for downloading our latest edition of the Old Mutual Mountain Bike podcast, we hope you do so again. Until then, cheers.