Billy Stelling – from cricketer to mountain biker
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual mountain bike podcast where we bring you the personalities, the riders, the people, the event organisers, the sponsors and anyone who is anyone, who is everything in mountain biking. It is, after all, a passion for us and I’m being joined now by a passionate mountain biker.
He’s an amateur, but he rides very often amongst the pros and he wins races, he finishes on the podium regularly. He’s a former sportsmen, in fact he was an international cricketer, Billy Stelling joins me now from Cape Town. Billy, thanks for joining us, thanks for giving us your time. Firstly, your cricket career, in a nutshell?
Billy Stelling: Interesting, it wasn’t a planned career choice. I kind of stumbled across it while at UCT, on a rugby bursary and just after fresher’s week I had first team squad training and I’d drunk a lot in fresher’s week, so I figured I’d better go and play cricket for a little while. Everyone else finished up and then everyone joined to play rugby.
I thought that would give me a better chance and in that time, got into the cricket again. Once the rugby season had finished, the next year I was picked in the first team at UCT, and then by the end of that season I was playing for Western Province, so it just kind of went from there.
GDK: You did play international cricket, didn’t you?
BS: I did in the end, the quota system kind of got the better of everything in South Africa and I moved to the UK and started playing county cricket and with my Dutch passport, ended up playing for Holland.
GDK: In a World Cup as well, but now you’re a mountain biker and as passionate a mountain biker as I think I’ve met. Where did that all happen?
How did you get into mountain biking?
BS: When I was at Leicestershire County Cricket Club, I had a back injury and I used to run, so my back was so bad. I was told by the doctor, after some treatment, that I couldn’t run for a year and being an energetic kind of person, I wanted to exercise.
So I went down to the local bike shop where I moved to in Winchester and there was a chap working in the shop called Gawie du Plessis. Immediately we kind of bonded and he sold me a bike and gave me some expertise and so it went from there. He started riding with me and I thought, I’m quite athletic, I’ll show him what’s what on a mountain bike, that wasn’t the case!
So I realised that running doesn’t mean cycling and so I just started riding more and more and really loved it. Tried to do the road racing as well, but when you see someone for the first time in a race, 500m from the line, you haven’t seen the whole day, that didn’t appeal to me. So I figured, I’m more of a mountain biker.
GDK: When did it become, you obviously put a lot of hours of training in and you became, like, I’m going to try and do quite well at this, how did that happen?
BS: Probably the same as my cricket story, I just kind of stumbled across it. I suppose, I don’t know, I think it’s the nature of the game, where the more you ride, the better you become and that just happened. I didn’t really say, I’m now going to get a training programme, eat better, I’ve never done that. I’ve just kind of ridden and enjoyed it and that’s been the key for me, is to enjoy it. Ride with a smile on my face and that’s the essence of mountain biking for me, to be happy and enjoy it.
Competitive by nature
GDK: But you have that sportsman’s ethic, when you’re on the bike and you’re in the competition, in other words, in the race, it’s all in.
BS: I can’t deny I’m competitive, I am and we were discussing it earlier and sometimes it’s with yourself that the competition lies. I can go for a ride on my own and end up riding harder than if I was in a training ride with someone who was stronger than me, it’s just to try and better yourself I suppose.
GDK: You’ve followed a sport and you’re deeply into it now, it gives us so much enjoyment and so much pleasure. But there’s a dark side to it as well, that has complicated and messed up the sport in many ways and our view of the sport. Yet we still ride and we still have a passion for it. How do you balance those emotions out?
BS: I don’t do very well at balancing those emotions out, as everyone kind of knows how passionate I am, against anti-doping and riding clean etc. When I first started making a bit of a noise about that, people were sceptical, I suppose and kind of frowned upon what I was doing, stirring the pot it was called. Maybe I should have minded my own business, but it’s come to fruition, what all those rumours were about and where there’s smoke there’s fire.
I’m not going to stop doing that. I think there’s a lot of realisation from the public that these things happen, unfortunately, but it’s not only cycling. It’s human nature, where there’s money involved, where there’s sports, where there’s business, people will take short cuts and unfortunately we’ve got to deal with that.
Is there a solution to doping?
GDK: Do you see a solution, let’s talk the cycling angle of it?
BS: Not a solution, I don’t think you ever find a solution to this problem because again, it’s human nature and unfortunately people want to cheat and take short cuts. But I think with the realisation from people around South Africa that this does happen, from the corporate side, from the sponsorship side, I think there’s a lot of heat on people who are doing this.
I think it’s lessened and drug-free sport has got a big part to play in it, who to target, they’ve got to listen to people giving them a heads up. I think the elite pro circuit is a lot cleaner than it was say four years ago, but the age group thing is still a problem.
GDK: Life time bans?
BS: Absolutely, without question and criminal charges, that would be my way. I think if you’re a businessman and you defraud someone, there’s a chance you can go to jail. So why is it different if you’re cheating and making money out of a sport, why should there not be criminal charges?
What’s on the horizon?
GDK: You’re a late bloomer in the sport, in terms of coming to it late but there’s ambition in you. You set yourself a few little goals, you ride unusual races, you go all over the world and ride them. But I suppose that’s the beauty of our sport, there’s so many different things to do. What are your challenges for 2016?
BS: My main focus for 2016 is the Trans Portugal, I’m fortunate enough to have really good sponsors that have taken care of that side of things, so this race now, the Trans Cape has been sort of training for that. It’s the closest thing I could find, solo, to mimic that self-supported event.
Then I’m going to do the Swazi Frontier, the Lormar Endurance, these obscure kind of races that aren’t mainstream. I kind of quite like that, that they’re not mainstream. Then I’ll look to next year to try and find more like that.
GDK: What’s your view on the mountain bike scene, I suppose the stage race scene which is so huge in this country and we all gravitate towards these races, be they the big mainstream ones or smaller, rather intimate ones. Why is it that us South Africans are so hooked on these things?
BS: I think South Africans love a challenge. If you look at Comrades, who would run 90km, are they mad? Look at the 36ONE race, that’s growing every year. People love an endurance challenge, it’s amazing that there are so many events that you can do. I would urge people to try different things.
Not enter the same events every single year just because you’ve got an entry from the previous year and you prefer an early entry. Go and experience the country and see different parts, I think it’s a wonderful thing you can do in the sport.
GDK: Do you think it’s become a little too corporatized, a little too, I say elite, events and entries, or there are special areas for people who are aligned to sponsors and all that.
BS: Again, I think that’s also the nature of the beast. It’s a bit of a vicious circle where we see smaller events really struggle to get going and once they take off, sponsors are then keen to come on board and they then kind of change the event to lay down laws that they want. I don’t want to mention events, but we’ve seen it for the last 10 years and I think they’ve got to make money, but I think there needs to be a cap on these things.
It would just make it a better race for everyone, all concerned. You don’t need to have 1 200 people in a race, that’s just ridiculous. You queue for everything and no one wants to do that, especially with the money you’re paying. For a smaller, more intimate race, where you get to meet a lot more people and the vibe is more relaxed, that’s so special. It’s a pity that sponsors don’t identify that earlier.
GDK: Billy Stelling who went so well at the Trans Cape is the top solo rider, thanks for chatting to us Billy, good luck for your goals this year. This has been another edition of our Old Mutual mountain bike podcast. We’ll have plenty more for you as well.