A Dutch Olympic rower comes to SA to mountain bike
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast where we talk to the people that make this great sport tick. Be they riders, the people who make the events happen or the people who put the trails out, lay the trails out or feed the riders, whatever it might be, or fix their bikes.
Today we’re speaking to a rider who has come a long way to ride a race in SA, he’s from the Netherlands, Mitchel Steenman. He’s a tall man who has succeeded at another sport, rowing. In fact he’s just come off, about two months ago from competing at the Olympic Games at rowing. Mitchel, is that right?
Mitchel Steenman: Yes, that’s right.
GDK: How did it go?
MS: Well, in Rio we didn’t do as well as we expected, we had been on the podium all year and in Rio we came eight, so that was a bit of a disappointment. But we had a really good season the rest of the way.
GDK: It wasn’t your first Olympics either?
MS: No, I went to Beijing and London in the Holland Agt, which is the Dutch National Eight. I wanted to do something else on this Olympics, so I went for a pair.
Rowers do tend to have a knack for mountain biking
GDK: You’ve been to three Olympics, here you are riding a mountain bike race a few weeks after your Olympic experience. Clearly the fitness and the strength you have there works for you in the mountain bike race?
MS: Well, a rowing race is six minutes and I found out that it’s pretty hard to do the four hours instead of the six minutes. I got power in the legs, but I’m getting used to it now.
GDK: We do have a bit of history of rowers in this particular race in the Southern Cape, the Cape Pioneer. Because James Thompson and Matthew Britton, two of our top rowers who won Gold’s in London competed in this a couple of years after that. So the engines are good in the rowers, you’ve got really good, you say the endurance is difficult, but you’ve got the power?
MS: Yes, I think we’ve got the power. Their advantage is their lightweight in rowing, so they run under 72.5kg and I’m 2.1m and 95kg, so I think they’ve got a little advantage in the mountain biking.
GDK: Aside from all that, how did you get into mountain biking and when did you get into it?
MS: Well, as a rower I get sponsored by EkoPlaza in the Netherlands and the CEO of EkoPlaza asked me whether I wanted to do the Epic with him last year. So, after the World Champs in 2014 we started riding the bikes together on the weekends and then got to riding the Epic last year.
GDK: Was it a challenge and how did it go?
MS: Yes, I was a bit fitter than he, I think he’s 45, something like that and of course he’s CEO of a really big company. So he’s doing 60-80-hour work weeks and then training next to it, I think it’s incredible how fit he was.
But I was the stronger rider of the two and it was also my, I wanted to be the stronger rider. If I would have pushed myself there and crashed in an Olympic qualifying year, well, I don’t think I would have forgiven myself that. It was really nice to ride with him and we were pushing each other and now I’m riding with someone else and we’re pushing each other.
Focusing on the fun over the danger
GDK: It’s still quite a risk in an Olympic year, going off to do a fairly dangerous event where you could injure yourself, do you think about that? You obviously thought about it a little bit?
MS: I wouldn’t have done it this year, but of course it was 2015, so a year and a half before the Olympic Games and there are so many risks. If you ride your road bike in the Netherlands, you can crash against a car, whatever you’re doing, you’re always at risk, maybe mountain biking is a bit more risky, but it’s a lot of fun as well. It’s fun against risk.
GDK: Is it more fun than rowing?
MS: It’s different, you see so much more in mountain biking, the experience is incredible.
GDK: In terms of the training you’ve had to do for the mountain biking as opposed to the rowing, did you do specific mountain bike training coming into the Epic and coming to this?
MS: Well, the Epic is after our winter, so then we’re doing a lot of miles in the winter. I find the transition to mountain biking a lot easier because now we come from, well, preparing for the Olympics. So that’s all a lot shorter work, a lot more intense and then the transition to the longer distances is harder than when we just come off the winter training sessions.
GDK: Are you still going to pursue rowing or is the line drawn there?
MS: When I get back I’m at least going to do another rowing race in the Netherlands and then I’ve set myself, the first of January I should decide whether I continue or not. Like I’m doing mountain bike race, so I’ll be fit at 1st January. Then I can decide whether or not I can continue rowing or not. I’m 32 now and if I go on, I want to do another Olympics. It’s four more years and then you have to be really sure.
GDK: I want to say it’s a mature athlete sport, rowing in a way, obviously you started young, but you tend to get stronger and stronger as you go on?
MS: Yes, I think if you look where medals are won, it’s around 33/34, so I would have been good at the Olympics. I would have wanted it to happen on this Olympics, but maybe I go for another one.
Toning down your competitive edge
GDK: You’re clearly competitive, you’re competing at a very high level, you’re winning at world class events at another sport. How do you match that competitive element to riding as you did with the Epic or even here where you know you’re not going to win? So where do you channel your energies in terms of the competitive side?
MS: You try to push yourself and see where you can end up. I find it quite hard, if you’re riding in a group, I find it quite hard if people don’t try to get the group faster. I always try to get the group as fast as possible, so I find I’m pretty often in the front of the group and maybe that’s not smart. But I like pushing myself, so we’ll just continue doing that.
GDK: How have you found South Africa? You’ve had these couple of trips out here, how have you found the terrain and the riding?
MS: I think SA, it’s amazing. The views, the roads, you get to so many places on the mountain bike where you wouldn’t have come to if you were a normal tourist in SA, it’s incredible fun to ride here.
GDK: In the Netherlands, do you ride mountain bikes there regularly or are these just once-off?
MS: Normally if I train on the bike, I try to do mountain biking because there are so many cars in the Netherlands. Hitting a car would be, well, if you fall with mountain biking, you fall and of course you can break something, but hitting a car with the road bike is much more dangerous.
GDK: There might be some more rowing, would you have an aim to push yourself into maybe an age group category racing situation in terms of mountain biking or your top end racing stay with the rowing. Do you think you’d be able in five or ten years’ time be racing at the veterans?
MS: I don’t think if I stop at top level rowing, that I would continue rowing, I’ll just get worse every year. I’m never going to train 12x a week anymore for just rowing. So yeah, I would do something else and mountain biking is quite a nice challenge. You can see there are a lot of different speeds and you can always compare yourself with someone in the mountain biking. I really enjoy that and pushing myself and see if I can get better than what I did the day before.
A professional sportsman is a professional sportsman
GDK: Mountain bikers think they train hard, you just said you train how many times a week as a rower?
MS: We train at least 12x a week, but a maximum session is two hours. So most of the times it’s 8-10 sessions a week in the boat and then two or three weight sessions and then one or two alternative sessions a week.
GDK: You’re a fit man! Are other rowers doing mountain biking amongst your crew?
MS: Not in the Netherlands, most of them are road bikers because the Netherlands is quite flat and you really have to go somewhere to do mountain biking. The closest mountain bike track is about 50km from my house, so I have to drive there by car to do a session of mountain biking.
GDK: Finally, you and your partner, how are you going her, mid-way through the race here?
MS: Yesterday we had a bit of a low, I was pretty well recovered and he wasn’t, so he had a massage yesterday and slept in a hotel. Today I think we’re quite equal again and had a really good day.
GDK: You were in a pair in the rowing, when you were rowing in Rio, what did you row?
MS: I rode the pair, but with someone else.
GDK: Just that dynamic, you’re in the rowing boat, you’re both together there, here you’re riding with another partner, obviously slightly different dynamic?
MS: No, it’s pretty similar because in the boat you have to put exactly the same power because you’ve both go one oar. So you have to go straight and you have to make sure your partner is on top of what he can do and it’s about the same in mountain biking. You can be really good on a day, but if you’re not both good, then you won’t go fast.
GDK: In a rowing boat, can you carry your partner as well as perhaps you can in one of these, in a mountain bike race?
MS: No, almost impossible because you’ve both got one oar and if one is stronger, then you go to one side, to the side of the one, which isn’t the stronger one at that point. You have to look after your partner really well and I think it’s the same here, you have to look what his strengths are, how fit he is, how you can improve, if he’s got the better day. Then maybe he should stop at a water point and get back to the weaker one and the other way around, so help each other.
GDK: Mitchel, thank you very much for taking the time and sharing with us some thoughts and good luck here at this race and perhaps in Tokyo in four years’ time.
MS: Thank you very much.
GDK: Mitchel Steenman from the Netherlands racing here in the Cape Pioneer Trek stage race and just one of the many foreign riders who have come and raced out here. Lots from Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, about 109 international riders showing that South Africa is a mountain bike destination, sought after by many from around the world. I hope you enjoyed that informative chat, if you did, download once more on our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast and we’ll keep you informed and interested. Until next time, take care, cheers.