Johann Potgieter – downhilling it in Europe
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Mountain bike live, where we chat about this great sport of mountain biking from a very wide angle. From cross country, downhill, marathon and stage racing and well beyond. Recreational, putting events on, mapping out courses and the like.
Today we’re talking specifically downhill on a broader sense in terms of our guest because our guest in Johann Potgieter, former South African champion who is still racing, still riding. Finding ways to make it all work for himself as is often the case with a downhiller, finding ways to get overseas and finding sponsors. You are here with us now, where are you now in terms of your downhill career?
Johann Potgieter: Howzit Gerald, so what I basically do is every year I travel to Europe, basically in their summer our winter. So sort of from May to September is basically their season. In those months I’m usually in Europe doing some of the European Cup races, some of the World Cup races and then of course the one in Fort William also in the UK, which is not too far away.
In 2011 basically I travelled with a friend of mine, Stefan Garlicki who is the current South African downhill champion. We basically did the whole circuit, just traipsing in a van and doing all these races to gain some experience.
Since then we got onto a team and I’ve been missing most of the South African races, just because it was overlapping, falling in the same time. I’m still racing for a team this year, contracted to a team in Europe called Team Racing DUDES YT bikes. I’ll be leaving in May again and travelling to Europe and hit the season again, but this year I will return for South African Champs. So keep watching this space, maybe something happens there.
Why do you need to get over to Europe?
GDK: You’re finding that racing in Europe is obviously highly competitive and it’s where you want to be and the competition there is deeper. A lot more opportunity to race there, is that why you’re getting over there?
JP: That is basically the case. If you look at a lot of sport, swimming, Ryk Neethling, all those guys had to go to America to further their careers. It’s exactly the same with, well, probably mountain biking as a whole, but especially downhill as the series in Europe, they’ve got lots of series.
If you’d want to, you could do a race every weekend somewhere in Europe. Whether it be a German series or a Swiss series or a European Cup series or even most of the world cups are there. If you want to further your career and experience and try to make a living out of it, it’s definitely the way to go. You have to go race international and every year you go there, the competition is just more fierce. There’s more faster riders and downhill is quite brutal, so you’d have to do something like that.
How do you train back home?
GDK: You go there and you say that they’re faster, better, high quality. So how do you keep up with that in terms of preparation here in South Africa?
JP: That’s probably the most difficult thing, as you say Gerald cause when you go to Europe it’s almost like a totally different sport. Because in South Africa you’ve got more ‘pedally’ courses, which are shorter. Whereas in Europe they’re a lot steeper and harder on your arms and hands and that you can’t really train here. You have to sort of get ways of mimicking that type of training.
As the years go by and you gain more experience, you know what to expect, which is the big thing I think. You try and find ways or make ways, whether it be riding motocross or whether you take a rigid and go ride a corrugated ‘grond pad’, just to get your hands to get sore and prepare that way. Obviously the racing experience, the more you go, the more it sort of feels normal to you, that you haven’t got that shock to your system every time you get there.
GDK: What sort of training are you doing in terms of, obviously the skills training, but strength and fitness, preparing yourself for a season in Europe?
JP: It’s a learning curve. I’ve been racing now for over 15/16 years and every year when I come back I think about it. See what I can do better and we always do pedalling, we do sprints. Obviously like downhill is a more sprint orientated sprint, more high intensity.
We still do long rides also to get a good base, more upper body work, gym work and obviously the skills, which is the most important. However it doesn’t help if you have the skills and you can’t keep it flat out for four minutes plus. Stuff like squats, just overall body fitness, just so you can do that intensity and keep it going for 4/5 minutes flat out. Even Nin Schurter does a lot of that and he’s a cross country racer, so it definitely helps.
Injuries can plague a Downhiller
GDK: Absolutely! The other aspect of fitness, is fitness skills in the mind as well, that confidence thing. I think there’s no better mind racer than Greg Minnaar who seems to produce it when it matters most. The other side of it is injuries and you’ve had your fair share haven’t you?
JP: Ja, actually from 2013, middle of 2013 I broke my scaphoid in my left wrist. That sort of got better towards the World Championship which I luckily could race. I had a good result there also and then I went back to Europe that year.
Did a couple of races, came back and then the next year, 2014, March, I broke the right one and that was a bit more of a complicated one. I went back to Europe that year and I raced, but my wrist never fully healed, so I was always on the back foot that year.
Then at the start of 2015 I had to get an operation on my wrist and that was another 8-12 weeks of recovery. Which meant in 2015 I went over to Europe with a good wrist. However I was ill prepared, just of all the recovery time.
Basically at the end of the season, luckily, I got right a bit, my confidence came back. I ended up getting the steam for this year. I’ve got another chance. That’s the difficult thing about downhill is also to try and be calculated. Also with all the fierce competition out there and all the fast guys on these brutal tracks, you have to go fast. But you also have to think about injury because it can happen really easily.
GDK: It is something that obviously compromises your preparations and racing. I mentioned Greg as a role model, as a man, the beacon for South African. In so many of our sports we’ve had a player who has set the bar high and it’s something for us to aspire to in the country, is that something you use? Is he someone you’d like to follow or emulate?
Greg Minnaar is a great inspiration
JP: Definitely, he’s probably the guy I have the most respect for, being South African and achieved what he’s achieved. He’s a major talent. If you look at Greg ride, he just makes everything look so smooth and easy and he’s just such a natural on the bike. But the fact that he’s South African and he’s the most successful downhiller to date is crazy.
If I see all the South Africans like us trying to make it overseas, we’re already on the back foot financially and distance and travel-wise and all that. Yet South Africa has produced more fast riders than say for instance Germany who has 25 000 downhillers, plus. In South Africa we’re probably a handful of 400 downhillers, if you count everyone, so massive respect to that.
GDK: What will it take for you to make that step to become financially successful and therefore signed by a big team over there. Basically follow in the footsteps of Greg, what do you need to do?
JP: The big thing, I think, is finances, as it’s really expensive. I had to finish school, I never went to study cause I had to follow my dream. But I had to go work to go overseas for one or two races, that’s all I could afford. Then, since Stefan and I went over for the big season, obviously we had more chances there, things started going better.
I think it’s more a financial thing, as having time in Europe and being able to, for instance, if you take a World Cup, a lot of people don’t know how it works. Basically you have one day to walk the track, then the next day you have practice, but the practice at World Cups are really short.
You get 3-4 hours a day and if you have a flat tyre and you haven’t got a team waiting there with a wheel for you, you have to go down to fix it. It’s not just the flat wheel, you can break a derailer, all that. Then you miss all that practice. Then you’re already falling behind to know the track and all.
If you get onto a pro team, you’ve got a whole team helping you, they walk the track, they go look at lines that you possibly don’t see, which could make a big difference. The downhill courses get really rutted out and all that. It’s just having that whole team and not having to worry about a bike, knowing you’re riding the best lines on the track and all that. That’s just the thing.
Good results are the business
GDK: Do results, if you get good results in Europe, you attract the attention of those teams?
JP: Definitely, I in 2011, I won an Austrian race and I won a race in Germany. I had some good results in the European Cups and I immediately got signed onto a team. It wasn’t full expenses paid, but it was still; we got bikes, we got support. Every bit of support you can get, especially a mechanic, makes a massive difference to your racing.
Just coming back to the previous question also, if you look at guys like Troy Brosnan and Mike Jones, they were signed as young riders with no experience, but immediately on a pro team with guys like Sam Hill. They just ride with them, they get their experience quickly, they have that support and it’s a matter of 2-3 years and they’re top ten riders. Not everyone gets that opportunity, but it’s tough and if you just bike there, it could come right, if you don’t give up.
GDK: You’ve got to keep at it. Let’s go back to how it all started. How did it start that you ended up earning a living out of the biking industry and racing downhill?
How my Downhill journey began
JP: In 2006, when I finished school, I sort of thought to myself, well I am racing downhill and 2006 was the first year that I won SA Champs. So I decided to start skills clinics for mountain bikes, as there weren’t a lot of guys doing that. So that’s just been sort of booming now with mountain biking getting so big, with the Cape Epic and the Wines2Whales and all these big races.
That’s been going pretty good and I’ve also started a youth camp with the youth every December, which I made a video of this year. It’s really been successful, it’s been growingly madly every year, we just have fun with the kids and teach them how to ride and teach them about bike setup.
Besides the cool thing about riding with people and meeting people, it’s also a bit of a financial income for me. Then of course I’ve got some sponsors helping me, a little bit here, a little bit there. It all adds up in the end, so that’s basically where I got the help.
GDK: When you first started to ride a bike, most parents look at adults going downhill and think, I’m never going to let my kid do that. You obviously had some help there. Why did you want to go downhill, what’s wrong with a road bike or a cross country race or a marathon race?
JP: Gerald, as you know, every little boy, if you look at a little boys room, they won’t have a bakkie up on the wall, it’ll be something like a Lamborghini and it’s a similar thing. If you look at a bike, a young boy would rather look at a downhill bike with massive shocks and suspension and the brakes, rather than a road bike.
Even though we know now some road bikes are really technically advanced, but just the look of it and all. So it’s sort of a little boys dream, that’s where it started for me. Just the skill part of mountain biking, jumping, all that, the more extreme.
I always did athletics and rugby at school and swimming and all that, so I’ve always been athletic. I just had so much fun riding downhill and I by chance met someone who did it. They started showing me to the races, this was back in the year 2000. That’s basically how I started to know people.
I guess my parents, it cost my dad a lot of money in the beginning. But I think they thought it was just a phase that was going to fly over. Now it’s like 17 years later and I’m still riding. I think they realised, it’s going to stay.
Being able to sort your own bike is a big plus
GDK: Not only you’re riding ‘woes’ you have a bit of skill and talent at fixing bikes and maintaining them. I know you work at the Epic every year and at various other events, what’s that about?
JP: When I was at school, I started doing holiday jobs working on bikes, at bike shops. I just started working on my own bike also and that’s where I got experience of working on bikes. Also a lot of people don’t realise it, but as a professional rider, you also need to know what’s happening on your bike.
It’s the same with Formula One drivers. If Lewis Hamilton goes around the track, the mechanics can’t guess what the best setup for the car would be, he’d need to tell them. The car is sliding a bit, can we maybe change the cam of the wheel or whatever. It’s exactly the same with downhill where equipment is a big part of what we do.
Guys like Greg Minnaar, for instance, he will tell his mechanic exactly, I need a little less tyre pressure or adjust the suspension with a bit more compression. So I’m helping friends, mechanic here at the Epic, which is really just a big jol for us.
We fix the bikes and we just go for rides when the guys are on track and we just have fun. I’ve always been involved with bikes and working on bikes. I was also working as a rep for SRAM for five years which was pretty cool and that gave me a lot of knowledge about business and all that. So that’s basically how it all happened.
GDK: Good luck with your ambitions this year and in the future.
JP: Perfect, thanks Gerald, thanks for having me here.
GDK: Johann Potgieter, former South African Downhill Champion, let’s see him race the World Cups in the years to come and I hope he has some great success on the mountain bike tracks, the downhill tracks of the world. You’ve been listening to another edition, thanks for downloading it, of our Old Mutual Mountain bike live, tune in again for more from this great world of mountain biking.