Darren Lill – enjoying the freedom of mountain bike racing
01 January 1970
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Welcome to the Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, I’m Gerald de Kock. Thanks for downloading, nice to have you with us. We explore all avenues of mountain biking on this podcast, as you know; meeting the professionals, the amateurs, the race organisers, the route, the planners and everyone who might have a passion for this great sport.
Today I’m talking to a man who’s a cyclist by profession, he started off on the road, he’s now a mountain biker. Judging by the scars on his arm, he definitely is a mountain biker. Darren Lill, the former South African Road Champion, now mountain biker. How many years have you been mountain biking Darren?
Darren Lill: This is my third, maybe fourth year, I’m losing track of time.
GDK: It seems longer than that.
DL: No, I think I really only started mountain biking properly in 2013, so this is the third year.
GDK: If you look at it now and you look at what you did on the road. What you get out of this and what you got out of that, how do you assess it?
Enjoying being able to run the show
DL: I don’t know, I don’t really assess it in those kind of terms. It was more, I realised that mountain biking was a growing sport in South Africa and exciting, if you will. It was a new avenue for me to pursue and I liked the idea of being able to run my own setup, so to speak.
Be just part of a team structure that I could build from the ground up. Coming from a road background, there’s bigger team structures. You fall under other management and things. I think I was just looking to run my own show, so to speak. That’s more what it was all about.
GDK: More independent setup and do you decide what you ride, when you ride and where you ride?
DL: Pretty much. I mean obviously there’s certain races that are prerequisite, things like Epic and things like that. That are a necessity for the sponsors. But generally we’ve been blessed with understanding sponsors and they don’t say to us you have to do this or you have to do that. But they also know that Waylon and I want to be at the big races anyway and we’re going to be there, provided we’re healthy and whole. It’s a good hand in hand relationship.
Long history racing Waylon Woolcock
GDK: You ride with Waylon Woolcock in USN Purefit colours. That’s a relationship, you obviously have a great relationship on the mountain bike. You might have raced with each other a bit on the road, but against each other a lot as well?
DL: Yes, predominantly raced against each other, ever since junior days even, on the road. We never lived in the same town or anything. So didn’t really get to know Waylon really well, like I do now. But I disappeared overseas for 5-6 years racing on the road. Only got to know Waylon a bit from 2011/2012 onwards and in 2013 brought him across to the team. It’s been a great relationship for us.
GDK: What’s the essence of your partnership, what makes it tick?
DL: I think having come from similar backgrounds. I think there’s not many guys that have raced since they were teenagers, if you will. I think it just takes certain characteristics to have made it through, that we both have certain characteristics. We just have a good understanding of each other. We trust each other and that’s a huge part of the sport. You have to trust your partner 100% in all aspects. I think we’re balanced both on and off the bike and I think it’s our biggest strength.
GDK: What is your strength as a rider, when you’re out there? If your rival is looking to say, well, we’ve got to look out for Darren here?
Strongest suit and getting the technical stuff right
DL: I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it from their side of what they would think. From my side, I mean one would think generally climbing because I’m smaller. I’m light and good power to weight. I don’t actually often get to put that to good effect on a mountain bike race. Because generally it’s too rough or too rocky.
You don’t really have a lot of smooth climbing where I can really put that to good use. But personally, I consider myself an all-rounder, but specifically a stage racer. I think the same for Waylon. I think our strength is multi-day events. We recover well from day to day. I think we’re both mentally tough actually.
GDK: Did you have to do any serious technical homework when you came into the sport, into mountain biking?
DL: I didn’t actually do any initially. I learnt a bit by trial and error, but more recently Waylon and I both worked on it. I’ve gone to a number of different people, Sean Badenhorst. USN and Albe, he got him down to Cape Town the beginning of this year. Got Sean down to come and do some skill sessions with Waylon and I, which really helped a lot. I think it’s more a matter of putting those things into practice and making them work for you.
Epic to have won the African jersey
GDK: Great ambition achieved at the ABSA Cape Epic this year, after a lot of hard effort. Was that a goal for you?
DL: Definitely a goal, it’s been a goal for the last three years. It’s been a real, more of a battle than I would have thought to win that African jersey. Came close two previous times and it’s mountain biking and a lot of things can and do go wrong. I think the first two years that I rode with Waylon, things have gone wrong for us during the event. They cost us that jersey.
This year we had a smoother run and I think we knew we were capable of it, even the years before. But it was a matter of actually delivering. We were happy to deliver and personally, would have liked a higher GC place than, I think we finished 6th. But yes, something to aim for next year.
GDK: Therein lies the big topic of conversation around South African marathon racing and stage racing. Is when and how are South African teams going to get into that top three and onto the podium and onto the top step?
DL: It’s difficult. I think each year it feels like there’s more and more depth of the Europeans coming out to Epic. This year I think specifically there were more, in a way more top teams that came from Europe and abroad. I think because there wasn’t maybe a clear favourite for this year’s Epic, like in the past it’s been Sauser and guys like that.
I think, even for the Europeans to come, it’s big budget and things. I think they want to come here and know that they stand a pretty good chance of winning. I think that’s why this year, it felt to me like there was more depth, let’s say, in the top ten teams. Definitely with the European teams that came over and it makes it difficult.
I think realistically, in order for the South Africans to finish on the podium and that, my feeling is there needs to be more sponsorship of the pro riders and development of younger riders. We’d love to be able to have a youngster on-board, if we had the budget to do so and develop the guy.
Maybe Waylon and I only ride another couple of Epics and maybe we do or don’t finish on the podium. But I think to get youngsters involved earlier and mentor them properly and bring them up. You can’t take guys and just throw them in and be like, why aren’t you finishing on the podium? You learn and grow so much each year through an event like that.
Even Waylon and I, it took us three years to get that jersey. I think it can be seen in the way we ride together and how we handle any mistakes or technical that happen along the way. But that’s all just coming from experience. I think the main thing is to get youngsters on the bike and maybe their parents to see there’s some sort of a semi-viable career for them. That they’re not just forking out their own money to keep them there. But that the guys can actually earn some money themselves and have a career out of it.
Doping is putting a strain on attracting sponsors
GDK: Therefore, more distressing with the doping issues that go around in South Africa, I know you have strong feelings and are quite outspoken about all that.
DL: I think some people maybe think I’m too outspoken about it. But I definitely feel very strongly about it. It’s not necessarily just the impact that it’s had on let’s say this generation. Or on myself and Waylon and us trying to find sponsors. It has, it’s made it extra difficult.
Like I said, we’re really blessed with USN and with Albe believing in us and trusting us with his brand. For the young guys that are trying to make a career out of it or guys that are in the 16-18 age group. For them to see guys that they’ve looked up to, or icons, if you will, or who are their heroes in the sport. Then the guy tests positive and things like that. It’s really bad and it sets such a bad precedent that I don’t know, that’s almost worse than us struggling to find sponsors. It’s really sad and hopefully that era or generation, if you will, is coming to an end.
GDK: In a mountain bike race, one rock can end your whole race. It can be day one of a nine day or it can be day three of a three day. What is going on in your mind that you’re able to cope with that and handle that?
How to deal with the race day knocks
DL: I think it’s one of the hardest things. I think any pro sport, overcoming difficulties and setbacks. For people, I think people easily just look at success stories or people that are doing well. I think it’s any sport across the board.
They might look at a famous runner or whatever and they see the guy winning. Or a famous rider and they see the guy winning. They’re like, that’s cool and it looks like it comes easily and naturally. Or that they’re winning regularly, but for 99.9% of the rest of us, we’re working hard. More often than not, having setbacks and disappointments and having to overcome those. It’s definitely the hardest part of the sport.
In your build-up to a big event like let’s say an Epic or whatever. Your goal event is, Epic is a good example. But you’re not just putting in long hours training and diet and sleep and everything you’re trying to get right. You’re also putting a lot of emotion into it. A lot of, you’re thinking about it and it’s a big goal. You’re getting your hopes up.
I don’t know, if that gets taken away, it’s really a big blow to overcome. I don’t actually know how to describe how; one, how that actually feels. If and when that does happen, two; how you overcome it. You basically have to get back up and keep moving forward. It’s not going to help to sit on the side of the road and have a cry about it. It really is tough.
GDK: One ambition for you left in the sport? Probably lots more, but what’s one?
DL: I would like to finish on the podium in the Epic, at least. Unless you aim high, it’s never really going to happen. Hopefully, I think at the moment I would like to do at least another two Epics and we’ll decide after that whether I’m going to do more. I’ll see how I feel mentally. But I’d like to have a smooth Epic in terms of not having technical and things going wrong. Hopefully challenge for a podium overall.
GDK: Darren, thanks for chatting. Darren Lill, one of our top mountain bikers, former Road Champion, maybe one day a Marathon Champion in South Africa on the mountain bike as well?
DL: I hope so, I don’t know if anyone has done the double, road and marathon. I definitely had that in mind for National Marathon Champs, it was in Clarence this year. Unfortunately, a couple of punctures and a tyre that leaked the whole way. It was a bit of a set back there, but ja, this next year and maybe the year after and definitely going to keep pushing for that.
GDK: There is the essence of the sport, disappointment and ambition and achievement. Thanks very much Darren for chatting to us. Darren Lill of Team USN Purefit, he rides with Waylon Woolcock. You have been listening to our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, thanks for downloading, do so again. Until next time, cheers.