How Paul Furbank defies his age
07 January 2016
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual app, which is available here.
Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, talking all matters of mountain biking from the races to the courses, to the faces and the characters, the personalities. The racers, which is where I think we’re going to start now because Paul Furbank is going to join me now.
Paul is a mountain bike racer, he takes it seriously, but he sees the good side, the other element of mountain biking as well. Paul, I think first off, put it in a nutshell, tell us what you’ve done in the last number of years on the mountain bike, your achievements?
Paul Furbank: On the mountain bike I won World Championships in 2013, Cross Country Championships. The following year I came second in the rainbow challenge. We came second in the Cape Epic against very strong opposition, a very distant second I’ve got to say. but comfortably away from third.
I guess I’ve won a few of the other marathon things. We’ve won the Sani over the years, joBerg2c, we’ve done a couple of times and we’ve won that. Just fun events really. I’m looking for fun events, new events, interesting events now.
GDK: Look, you allude to, you said on the mountain bike, so there’s a road aspect of that as well, is that where it started for you?
For the love of trails and road
PF: I did start on the road, yes, for the first 4-5 years. Then I took an option to race the Epic three weeks before, I said I’d never do the Epic, but it just seemed like a good idea. I rode it with Greg Anderson and the following year Andrew McLean was short a partner.
I’d just come back from Zanzibar, so that was the Wednesday. Friday I agreed to do the Epic and Saturday we flew, Sunday we did the prologue. So it was a difficult ride that, but it was fun because there was no pressure to do well there.
GDK: The road, obviously there’s a competitive element, there’s an instinct in you to race isn’t there, whatever you ride?
PF: I don’t really like to lose. I do fairly regularly, but it’s nice not to. I like road because there’s attacks, some surges, there’s mental aspects, there’s techniques. There’s tricks in the wind, there’s places where attacks are made. Because of the drafting, you don’t necessarily have to be the strongest person, you have to be the savviest person in many instances. I think I might be a little savvier than I am strong. Because mountain biking is a long, hard grind. It’s very difficult, it’s very hard and I do okay at it, but there are people who do it better.
GDK: There are, but I’ll say your age, you’ll be 61 very shortly –
PF: I just turned –
GDK: You just turned 61, who do it as consistently well as you at a level. You finished inside the top three at various, overall on some stage races. I know in the Kalahari Challenge recently you did, so you’re racing against, in quite a lot of cases, people who are half your age. It must suck being them if they’re getting beaten by you. How did they react to when they see you come up?
PF: I don’t know really. I chirp some of them, particularly if I’d like them to pull me a bit. I’m old enough to be your dad, get a move on. But no, I think there’s a general respect. A lot of the guys would know me, I know a lot of them. Nobody minds if I hitch a ride because I kind of shouldn’t be there, so I hide away and nobody complains.
A neck breaking fall
GDK: Paul, in 2015 you were preparing for the National Cross Country Championships in Stellenbosch with a view to heading to the World Championships I think that year as well. You had a really nasty fall. Just take us through that scenario and what happened there?
PF: Oh, I wanted to try and win SA Champs in Stellenbosch. The courses have gotten progressively more and more difficult; they’re really challenging now. I decided I wasn’t going to do any of the AB’s, I was going to do all the B’s and none of the A’s. But there was a series of jumps that was A or B, depending on how you did them and I got sucked into doing the A version.
GDK: In other words, you had to do them, but you could do them in a more conservative way.
PF: Yes, there four jumps with logs and I could bounce my way through them, which was ungainly and uncomfortable and not much fun. Before the most magnificent single track below there. Or I could do, like I saw other people do and jump each of the four, gracefully and land comfortably and disappear off down the single track. I looked at that and I thought, what’s the worst that could happen and it didn’t occur to me I might break my neck! I got over the three jumps, but not properly in control, it was downhill, I was probably building speed and it was just, I should have followed somebody.
I should have known my own rules, speed is everything when it comes to those jumps and I just thought, what’s the worst that could happen. I fell awkwardly, it wasn’t I fell over like a little boy falling off a bicycle. I just toppled sideways, but head tucked in and twisted and I broke my, the little thing that your head turns on, on your second vertebra.
It was an unstable fracture and I was in hospital for a month in traction. Then subsequently with a brace with screws and bolts in my head, holding it in traction again. I lost 10% of my bodyweight in three weeks, just lying there, it was terrible.
I don’t think I would do either again and I’m not going to do those jumps again, that’s for sure. I learnt that lesson and I think if I was given the option for going in traction again, I probably would say no. Just screw it together and get me out of here, it was a terrible time.
Getting back to optimal condition
GDK: You’ve obviously taken the decision not to do those jumps again, but it would be cause to think about the sport you’re doing and maybe to question whether you should carry on doing it?
PF: Well, cross country championships is a fairly niche discipline. It has grown quicker than I have, I think quicker than most of the old guys. There are techniques we just don’t have, or at least guys my age don’t have. I would like to do it, but I have more fun doing it, maybe three or four years ago.
Now it’s, you have to avoid the most serious obstacles and take the B route, which may be challenging too. I’m tempted, but it’s a half hour to an hour sort of race and it’s a long way to travel to do them. I was going to Andorra in Spain, it turned out to be a 35-minute race and I’m not going to travel to do that
GDK: Now you race obviously a lot of the marathons and the stage races and you’ve put yourself back into relatively good competitive condition. How long and how hard was that process to get back to somewhere where you’d want to be?
PF: Where are we now? It’s the beginning of June, I started at the beginning of December thinking I’d get back into the old routine. Found that I could only manage 5-6 hours in a week because I was exhausted. I had to sleep in the afternoon because I was so tired. But I built it up gradually and slowly it came back.
I agreed to do the joBerg2c with a friend of mine after he plied me with a few beers and we rode Grand Masters, which we actually won together. That gave me some good base. I was stronger than I expected, I was stronger than he was, so I could ride within myself.
I built up a really solid base through to the end of the joBerg2c and here I’m just curious. I wanted to know how good I am, whether I can make it. Whether it’s worth going to Road Champs in Perth in three months’ time, whether I’ve got the legs and the heart to actually get stuck into it again.
GDK: That’s it, isn’t it? The heart and the mind?
PF: I think the mind is really important. There’s a lot of discipline involve with the training. Always doing intervals, you can create on road and things, but it’s hard and it’s sometimes a bit lonesome as well.
GDK: How much training do you do?
PF: I do 10-12 hours a week, then 2-3 weeks. I used to do it three weeks on, one week off, but I’m too tired. Maybe I bite off more than I can chew, but somewhere around two weeks, anything between 10 days and 2.5 weeks I’m wrecked. I have to take an early break.
I’ve started riding a single speed road bike in the Cradle recently, which is really challenging. That, if I do a three hour ride on that, I have to sleep in the afternoon, I’m absolutely wrecked. I can only do it for about a week before I have to get back onto the geared bike again because physically I’m exhausted, but I do have fun.
Life away from the bike
GDK: Away from the bike, in your life, you work, your family, what’s that all about?
PF: I’ve had a medical business where I import mainly ear, nose and throat related products for 32 years or something like that now. I’ve got tired of doing that now and I’m trying to bring my children in a little bit. My son is trying to run it right now, got some new products, some new interest. I’d like him to go with it and I would like to get out and travel and do all those things I promised my wife that we haven’t quite gotten around to doing yet.
GDK: You spend a lot of time on your bike, but the balance is there?
PF: Yes, it is, we have it really good. I’ve been married to Claire since 1983, so quite some time. She gives me a lot of space to do what I want to do. I think she’s a little reluctant for me to do cross country racing now. But she encouraged me to do the joBerg2c, maybe to get me out and doing things. To get me over a mental obstacle, I don’t know. I think I’ve been very fortunate actually.
GDK: Most of us started mountain biking late in our lives, are you someone who looks back and says oh, if only I’d been able to do this, or if it was around when I was in my 20’s?
PF: No, I don’t really think that, I didn’t have the discipline then to do it, I was more into, I lived in a commune, I drank a lot of beer. I was an article clerk, I did a CA, but no, I think you’ve got to be really good to make anything out of it. I was lucky in other areas. I’m having fun doing this now.
GDK: That’s what it’s all about. Paul, thanks very much for chatting to us and good luck with your aims and ambitions I think on the road this year.
PF: Thank you very much and it’s been a pleasure as usual speaking with you.
GDK: Paul Furbank, a man who has gone to the very highest of the sport in his age category and despite setbacks like a serious accident, is still there and racing and riding hard. Which is what this sport is all about, but essentially he gets a great deal of fun out of it as well, which I think that is the essence of this sport. Thanks for listening and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. Until next time, cheers.