Mannie Heymans – An African MTB pioneer
07 April 2016
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. It is a wonderful sport, mountain biking with a variety of characters and personalities. That make the events, the sport so colourful and bring it to life. Not only on the bike, but off the bike as well. Over the years the sport has grown from humble beginnings to, as we know it now, one of the most popular recreations and competitive sports in South Africa.
I’m talking now today to a man who in a way put Africa on the mountain biking map. He was known in those days as Mr Africa, Mannie Heymans from Namibia. Mannie who competed, I think at two Olympic Games is that right? Three Olympic Games, when was your first?
Mannie Heymans: The first Olympics 2000 in Sydney, 26th position. So that was my best Olympic Games finishing position. Then the following year was Athens, 2004, which was actually one of my biggest years on the marathon scene.
Winning the ABSA Cape Epic with Karl Platt, winning the Trans Alps together with Karl Platt. Then when the Olympics came, it was a bit of, I was pretty tired. But you take it with, it’s a brilliant experience and position I think was upper 30’s or something.
Then three years later I got selected again to go to Beijing, riding more in South Africa. So I don’t think I was as fit as I should have been and fell sick just before the event. I think I finished in the top 40’s position, but after that, four years later I was there again, together with Mark Bassingthwaighte as his manager/coach, so four Olympic Games for me.
GDK: And a life of mountain biking.
A life of mountain biking
MH: Completely. I’ve dedicated my life to cycling. It’s just, some days I ask myself, how do I cope with all of this. But it’s just, I’m passionate about the sport. I’m passionate about letting youngsters not do the mistakes I made. Because if I didn’t make all of those or had more chances earlier, you never know. Because I started at a very late age and now I’ve got all these kids just following in my footsteps.
GDK: Let’s go back to when and how you started competitively?
MH: I was a road rider all my years and then at Commonwealth Games, I was there for road and I said I want to go to Olympics and people said –
GDK: This would have been Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur?
MH: Before –
GDK: Oh, even before then,
MH: Yes, it was ’94 in Victoria, British Columbia. So ’96 Olympics didn’t work out and then I’ve just decided, okay, I’ll make a change from the road to mountain biking. Because mountain biking is more an individual sport and road being more a team sport. Out of Namibia where I’m like a loner.
Then I actually qualified for Olympic Games by winning the African Championships Mountain Biking in Hilton in 1999. That just gave me a very big breakthrough, the year prior to that I won the Trans Alp. So the guys knew that I could ride a mountain bike.
Getting the Olympic ticket, I got a pro-contract from Team Focus Race Division in Germany. Since then I just actually dominated a bit of the marathon scene in Europe. The people that know Karl Platt, he was my youngster, I think I taught him quite a lot. Now Karl is still out there and still winning the ABSA Cape Epic and it’s just great to have ridden with these guys and see that they’re still going strong.
I quickly saw that I’m a marathon rider, but Olympics being cross country, you had to focus on that. My team, they actually sent me to all the World Cups to get me as prepared as possible. World Cups in California, World Cups in Mexico, so World Championships was in Spain, much earlier. Because of the Olympic Games.
I went there, but after that I was a bit demoralised because it’s different. Marathons and cross country, if you’ve got fast twitch muscle and you’ve got slow twitch muscle, that’s different. But I had the backup from the team and I gave them more than what they wanted from me on the marathon scene. It was a great combination and we worked well together.
Lessons from your youth?
GDK: You spoke about the youngsters coming through now and you’re trying to help them not make the mistakes you made. Was there anything, if you look back now you say, oh, I wish I’d done that and not that?
MH: I won’t call it mistakes. I went overseas not knowing what to expect. So I had to make my path. I call myself and Robbie Hunter the two guys that actually went out there, the pioneers. I know a lot of guys that went over two months and three months and came back and never went back again.
To go out there, the weather is bad, the language is different, the culture is different, there’s so much traffic on the roads. For me coming from Namibia, so it was just a complete chaos. Either you had to make it stick or you were wasting your time. For me it was, I actually chose the first one and the success has just spoken for itself.
GDK: Which brings us around to 2016 where we are now. When was your last competitive race?
MH: I think my last competitive race, call it internationally out of Namibia, must have been the ABSA Cape Epic when I did it on the Fat Bike. When a lot of people say are you crazy but I like to be different. I think a lot of people know me for that and my slogan at the bike shop is Impossible is Nothing.
So it gets me into trouble sometimes because I start things or people say, oh, but your slogan says this, let’s make it happen. That was my last competitive event. I do a couple of events, try to do in Namibia, but I think my own bike shop, being involved in cycling and administration in Namibia, in the UCI. I’m in the UCI Mountain Bike Commission, a member. So it just takes up so much time that there’s not really time left for cycling.
Fully entrenched in Namibian cycling
GDK: Let’s touch on a few of those things. Mannie’s Bike Mecca is your bike shop and business going well in Namibia?
MH: You know, times are tough, I can see it in the shop. but I believe that if you give a good service people will always come back. That’s what I try to teach my personnel, the guys that work with me. We’re a great bunch of guys and I pick them up to my standards. I think the clientele can see that. I don’t say we’re perfect, but we work very hard to be perfect.
GDK: President of the Cycling Federation as well, so a lot of administrative duties there. Your duties of the Mountain Bike Commission, the UCI, so you’re clearly spending a lot of time on the road and travelling. It must be a whole new challenge for you. You were focused on riding and maybe the business. What’s that doing to you in terms of how you see the sport growing and how you see the sport advancing?
MH: Again, I believe the administrative part, in Namibia, the way we organise events and the way it’s transparent. That helps that there’s a lot of sponsors that throw their money at our sport in Namibia. I’ve just sat with our Olympic committee and they’re very proud of how we run the Namibian Cycling Federation.
If other sporting codes can be run like that, they’ll be very happy. That’s all part of, if you’ve been a winner, whether it’s on the bike, whether it’s in business. I never thought that I would become President, although everybody said ja, that’s for you, but I’m not a committee person.
I don’t do minutes and I don’t like all of this, but I bring something to the table. The moment they see a successful person, sponsors are happy, government’s happy, sports commission is happy. So I think I bring a lot to the party, so I don’t have to be able to do minutes and stuff like that.
Is cross country becoming too technical?
GDK: I don’t see you sitting behind a computer writing reports too often I would think. But you probably have to. Now, let’s talk about the UCI Mountain Bike Commission. How you’ve seen the sport evolve and I mean it’s moved so fast now and is it in a healthy place?
MH: I’m not too happy, me personally, I’m not too happy about the technicalities of the cross country courses.
GDK: Are they becoming too technical?
MH: Well, they’re becoming technical. I know of a couple of riders that stopped doing it because they say, if I want to do downhill, I’ll do downhill. The flipside of the coin, it’s spectacular events or spectacularity that sells. That will draw people to the television, so the UCI and the event organisers, they had a bit of a catch 22. So I don’t think it needs to be arm breaking or leg breaking.
There can be sports in there that can draw public and that can draw the publicity. With the cross country, that’s Olympic sport, that will always be there. Marathon riding, your bigger events, they will always be there. problem for me in Namibia is that there becomes too many events. I think South Africa has got the same problem.
What we’ve done in Namibia, we actually brought out a minimum race standards contract. So if you want your race to be sanctioned by the Namibian Cycling Federation, you’ve got to adhere to certain couple of points. So that you don’t send a rider 400km to a race and there’s bad marking or no facilities. We don’t want to do that.
Because then the rider has just spent money on travelling 400km, the next weekend there’s a race close by which is very well organised. That’s been there and then you just say, maybe it’s the same as the previous one and then you’re losing out.
We’d rather try and make a little bit less events, make them better organised. So that if the rider and people spend their time and effort to go to an event, they come back with positive feedback and I think doing that, we will keep the numbers high.
Best rider I have ever faced
GDK: We’re running out of time, but I want to pick your brain, who is the best mountain bike rider you’ve ever seen or ridden against?
MH: Ridden against, must be Absalon.
GDK: You’re looking at the Olympic Games this year, who would you pick to win it?
MH: I would go for Absalon again.
GDK: It’s a hell of a battle that, Schurter and Absalon.
MH: For sure, I just don’t know where the others are, it’s unreal to think that those two are so much better than the others. It’s a pity actually but again, there are always super stars. Every once in a while there’s people like that and unfortunately for guys that race in their era, they’ll always be 3rd or 4th, unfortunately. In a different era they could also be winners.
GDK: What do you think of Peter Sagan riding the Olympics?
MH: Interesting, I think to myself, don’t write him off, what’s going to be good is going to be good for the sport. I can just imagine that so much focus will be on the Olympic mountain bike event. Maybe we’ll have to do maybe one or two events leading up to that. I can just imagine that will also be sold out and bring the popularity of mountain biking a step or ten higher.
GDK: Which is what you’ve done to the sport over the years here. Mannie, thanks for chatting to us, good luck with all your many duties, there are a lot of them.
MH: Thank you very much, thanks for having me and chat soon.
GDK: Right, that’s Mannie Heymans, President of the Namibian Cycling Federation, owner of a bike shop in Namibia, Mannies Bike Mecca. He’s on the UCI Mountain Bike Commission, there are a whole lot of other things that he does as well.
He’s the Race Director of the Nedbank Desert Dash as well, he’s a man who is very busy in the sport and thankfully he’s still deeply entrenched in the sport. We need more of Mannie’s type in mountain biking. Thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, until next time, cheers.