Ben Melt Swanepoel & Yolandi du Toit – a biking couple
06 March 2016
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Gerald de Kock: This is the Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, I’m Gerald de Kock, thanks for downloading. It’s good to have you with us and as ever, we’re talking mountain biking, meeting the people, going to the places, riding the trails and experiencing what it is about this great sport that has attracted so many people to it.
Some just for fun, some because it just keeps them out there and gets them riding and others because it’s what they do for a living. Which is where I am now, talking to two young riders who make it their living and their life. Ben Melt Swanepoel and Yolandi du Toit. Ben Melt, let’s start with you, do you make a living out of the sport?
Ben Melt Swanepoel: Out of cycling in general, I would say yes. I work for a company, Squirt Lube. They’re in the industry and they allow me to ride my bike, as a big part of the job I do. I don’t think we, for one moment, take it for granted, we see it for what it is every day. We try to make the best of it because that place can be filled by so many people at any time, so we really try and bring the best to the table every day.
GDK: Sitting opposite you is your riding partner, your life partner, Yolandi du Toit. Yolandi, you also make a living out of the sport, don’t you?
Yolandi du Toit: Yes, I do, I would agree with Melt, I make a living out of cycling. But I think professional cycling in South Africa has changed. I don’t think you get riders that can only ride their bikes these days. Obviously we’re a marketing tool and sponsors expect also to get marketing from us in return. I do a lot of product review for my sponsor, Garmin and also all my race reports. I actually do some of their events and on the side I coach as well.
How has the environment changed in the last 10 years?
GDK: Ben Melt, you have been cutting edge for the last 10-12 years, how have you seen a change, particularly at your level of the sport?
BMS: On a professional level, it’s only become better. Guys these days talk about marginal gains like it’s the only thing that’s out there. They do everything to go faster at every race. Whether it’s equipment, whether it’s diet, whether it’s training, everybody is looking for that little edge.
As such, the differences between everyone is much smaller. Guys definitely target different races, different events because you can’t be good the whole year. It’s become much more professional and I can only see it going the same way for the next couple of years.
GDK: More and more riders coming across on the road and making it more competitive?
BMS: That’s definitely part of it. I think the road scene, having, not died down, but having stagnated a little bit and the mountain biking scene booming as it is. It has drawn a lot of guys across from road cycling and with that comes a change in mentality, for sure.
Guys looking at races a bit differently, maybe looking at prize money rather than looking at the event itself, before doing it, stuff like that. On a professional level I think it also lifts the game because the more competition there is, the better the guys have to be to do well. It’s definitely good in the long term for the game.
Riding as a couple
GDK: I know the pair of you don’t always ride together, you don’t always ride the same events, at various times, do you train together a lot Yolandi?
YDT: Most of the time. Unfortunately, in South Africa, for a girl, it’s not safe to ride on your own. So I’m very fortunate that Melt, I think he sacrifices a lot of his own performance to ride with me. I’m in that sense, very lucky.
GDK: What’s he like to ride with, is he as calm and nice and friendly as he is sitting here?
YDT: No, he is, a lot of the girls actually ask me, do you guys fight or what happens when you’re out on the bike. I say to them, Melt is a real gentleman, so I doubt we’ll ever have a fight. He’s very thoughtful, so I’m in a very fortunate position.
GDK: It’s an interesting discipline, riding in the mixed, racing in the mixed, isn’t it Melt, is it a challenge?
BMS: It’s definitely a challenge because it’s a different style of racing, so it’s something you have to adapt to. I’m learning slowly, this is all new to me and to us. But we’re definitely learning pretty quickly because we’ve both been doing this for a while. Hopefully we can perfect it pretty soon.
It’s not just about chasing the prize money
GDK: You touched on it a little bit earlier, about people riding for the money and those that ride the events for what they are. I get a sense, I know you do this for a living and obviously you try and make some money out of racing, but you also like to ride events that appeal to you?
BMS: Definitely. I find smaller races, community driven races, events, where people really want you there, they want to show you what they’ve got. I find those, especially in the early years, are the best races to attend. It feels like you contribute to those races.
Whereas established events often run by themselves, whether we’re there or not, it doesn’t really make a big difference. It’s nice to participate in them, but there’s definitely a change when you go to a smaller event and you feel part of that community and part of the race growing. It’s nice to be part of something that becomes very successful, like it has been over the last 10-12 years.
GDK: You’ve travelled as well, you’ve spent quite a while in the United States the last few years, tell us about that?
BMS: I went over for Squirt Lube last year, part of my contract with them was to spend eight weeks there in May and June and then another eight weeks in September and October. doing some marketing and also some racing. It was a huge experience.
I also went in 2012 for them as well, taking part in the National Ultra Endurance races, which were 100 milers, so 160km races. Which were a bit long, but good experience. Last year when I was there, obviously it was a different angle working for Squirt Lube, getting the product out there. Trying to penetrate the American market.
Then of course the racing there, where I was, I was fortunate in Colorado, it’s some of the best racing out there. On a different level, not so competitive, not the depth that we have here or in Europe. But definitely more technical and some different characters out there. You get to the top of a mountain and there’ll be a guy playing a banjo, so it was a really privileged experience.
GDK: Is it something you’re going to be doing again?
BMS: I don’t know you never know what the sport brings! We take the opportunities as they come along. I mean for Yolandi and myself, this year Garmin approached us and asked if we’d do five events together as a mixed team. That came about, out of the blue, which we were both very happy about and grabbed the opportunity with both hands and trying to make the most of it for now.
Do we need to get more women into racing?
GDK: Yolandi, there’s a strong push at the moment in mixed racing, we saw it at the Old Mutual joBerg2c where the focus was almost more on the mixed than the women’s race. There’s a sort of feeling that we need to get more women into the racing. How is that going to happen, how do you see that happening?
YDT: Yes, it’s a difficult one. I think girls, to begin with, if they take part in races, they like having a guy at their side. Because guys, if you get a puncture or for mechanics, guys can quickly help you. So for them, I mean they feel safer to start with.
Even, if we can get the mixed category strong, it would draw more girls to the sport and eventually they can actually ride with another female partner in the future. It’s definitely a good starting point and I’m glad races like joBerg2c and Sani2c, they pay attention to the mixed racing as well. Because I think that would draw girls to the sport.
GDK: You spend a lot of time racing on the road, Europe and out here, and now, the last how many years on the mountain bike?
YDT: Eight years.
Loving the social side of mountain biking
GDK: Have you derived more enjoyment out of mountain biking than out of road? What’s the difference here?
YDT: To be honest, I actually feel more like a mountain biker than a road cyclist, although I’ve spent a lot of time riding on the road, I feel a lot more at home on the dirt.
The people are a lot more, they’re like a family and they socialise more. It’s actually real people and we get to meet amazing people along the way. So yes, the racing is also much harder for me. I think mountain biking actually reflects your true performance, while in road cycling you have to have a team that works for you. Tactics plays a big role, while mountain biking, the result is much purer. I think that’s why I enjoy mountain biking a lot more.
GDK: You’re nodding in agreement Ben Melt?
BMS: I think it’s a very personal sport. Normally the strongest wins. Road racing has its own appeal, it’s a beautiful sport. We both love it we watch it when we can. The Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, which is on at the moment, we love all of that. But when it comes down to it and it’s our choice, we really like the mountain biking.
It’s much more individual, although we’re riding as a team at the moment, but it’s still just the performance of two people at most. Like Yolandi says, I think she summed it up when she said it’s a pure reflection of what you can do. In everything, your skill, your power, your speed, bravery, stupidity, whatever you want to put in there, it’s what you got on the day.
Our lives do revolve around bikes
GDK: Is there a distraction away from bikes and cycling?
BMS: A big thing for us is to try to keep it balanced, so I mean, we try not to talk about bikes and stuff too much, especially at home, but it comes naturally. It’s a profession, so when we talk about work, it’s work and away from the bike, we talk about everything else and our relationship is much deeper than that. If we didn’t have bikes in our lives, there’d be something else, but at this stage it’s something nice we can share.
GDK: All things being equal, if you had one thing you would like to still achieve on the mountain bike, what would it be?
YDT: That’s a difficult one. Actually, since I’ve been riding with Melt, it gives me actually, not more motivation, but it’s a different dynamic. I enjoy riding with him and I really hope that we can be a strong team, not only on the South African circuit, but internationally as well. We’re going to do Trans Alp this year and actually Glacier 360, a race in Iceland. So I really hope the two of us can make a success of not only our partnership in life, but on the bikes as well.
GDK: You, is there a fantasy saying, one day I’m going to stand on the top step of ….
BMS: No, strangely enough, I’ve never been motivated by one specific goal. I try and approach everything as professionally as I can and give every race what I have, at that specific time. Obviously there are certain things that stand out, when you look back, but at the end of the day, the sport has given me so much and I can’t say enough about how thankful I am for the life that I’ve had.
GDK: What’s one thing that stands out when you look back?
GDK: Putting you on the spot here.
BMS: Oh, meeting Yolandi – that’s easy!
GDK: You see, the right answers come out at the right time! It’s not all about winning races is it? Ben Melt Swanepoel and Yolandi du Toit, thanks very much for chatting. Good luck in your endeavours this year and for the rest of your lives together.
YDT: Thank you.
BMS: Thanks Gerald, much appreciated.
GDK: That’s been another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking, if you enjoyed that, please download more. We’ll be back with plenty more people, personalities and places from the great sport of mountain biking, until next time, cheers.