Martin Dreyer – helping change lives
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Welcome to another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Biking podcast where we talk all things mountain biking. We meet the people, the personalities, the event organisers, the riders, and the trail builders and we’re at an event at the moment. It is the biggest three-day mountain bike stage race in the world, the KAP Sani2c.
An opportunity to catch up with a number of people including Martin Dreyer. A man who made a name for himself as a seven-time winner of the Dusi Canoe Marathon but is very much involved in many sports. Mountain biking is very much part of those.
He is the record holder for the Freedom Challenge and the man who is supporting paddlers on one side and of course the RMB Change a Life Mountain Bike Academy on the other. Martin thanks for joining us. When did you first ride a mountain bike?
The time came to borrow a bike
Martin Dreyer: Well, quite a while ago but it was on a borrowed bike. I did my first Sani2C where Farmer Glen was in the Dusi coming across on day two and he was absolutely shattered. I was racing that 2005 Dusi for charity with Bruce Fordyce and Farmer Glen begged me please to sit on the wave. It’s the same in cycling where you can draft, there’s a 25% saving.
So I put Farmer Glen on the wave and he just kept begging me to slow down, slow down. We did. I nurtured him to the end but before the end he said, “Yes, Martin I’m starting this new race Sani2c and you’ve got a free entry. Thank you so much for looking after me”. That’s when I borrowed a bike and got a little taste for the love of mountain biking.
GDK: I suppose it ties in quite nicely with your sense of adventure and your seeking out of endurance events.
MD: Yes, having spent so much time in the boat and dedicating 10 years of my life being a professional paddler, it’s quite time consuming. Because you’ve always got to load a boat in the car and drive somewhere and you’ve got to get fetched if you’re on the river. Whereas a mountain bike, I can just leave from my backdoor.
Now being an older dad with a young family, time is everything for me. To be able to train just from my backdoor and come straight back, wasting no time sort of with other stuff other than getting on with it. It suits me perfectly and it’s amazing where your bike can take you.
I mean I also choose routes where you might have to carry your bike, but you get to the top of the hill and the views are stunning and the best part is going down. I mean running, that’s where your knees hurt, riding, that’s where the fun starts.
Great to experience events with my wife
GDK: Jeannie, your wife also rides. She’s a top athlete in her own right. I mean you both have that competitive edge to it. But you both, I sense get the other side, the other picture of mountain biking, the full picture.
MD: Yes, it is for us about having a good time but we’re both endurance junkie. We like to extend ourselves so much so that last year we did the 900km ride across the Rockies called the Colorado Trail Race. 3300m average elevation unsupported. So you sleep next to your bike.
Harder than we thought and it wasn’t as romantic as we also, we pictured and envisioned. But we do seek those sort of things just like we did the Freedom Challenge as our honeymoon. It’s so awesome to be able to spend that sort of quality time with your loved one. To have that experience also is quite special.
A great privilege to help unearth talent
GDK: Now let’s turn our attention to the RMB Zulus on the mountain bikes and I suppose an offshoot originally from the Change a Life Paddling Crew.
MD: Yes, the Change a Life Paddling started when I won with the first black person to win, Michael Mbanjwa in the 2008 Dusi. Then I just wanted to give back. I’ve taken so much from that race and in that valley and I put a programme together called Change a Life.
Yes, history, 10 in the top 36 in that first Dusi that I focused on. I never raced since because it’s just become such a management, people sort of, and intense. About three years ago RMB came to me and said, “Your paddling programme is so successful, don’t you want to start a similar blueprint, grassroots identifying talent and giving a support structure?”
I did that and it was just for me, like just so awesome. Because I’m loving my mountain biking and I put systems in place and the team was born. The guys have just risen through the ranks and I’m sad to say when I started it I was top dog. I could, and I had huge respect. But now and in the 10 in the team I’m ranked eigtht but I’m not 10th because the ninth and 10th are two schoolboys and they can’t train as much. So I’m sliding down the ranks, but it’s just a phenomenal initiative.
I really think it’s more than just riding your bike. The whole thing of coming to the KAP Sani2c with sitting around the table with CEO’s and super successful business people of South Africa. These guys coming from the valley, no running water, electricity, it just grows them as a person from a holistic point of view. The life skills they learned, yes, are un-measurable and for me I think it’s a great programme.
GDK: You’ve seen one of your protégé’s move out of the programme and onto bigger and greater things, he went on and won the Munga. John Ntuli, does that sort of thing inspire other youngsters to come through?
MD: Yes, John Ntuli is exceptional, he’s a great role model. Clean cut, hardworking, and with having won the Munga it just elevated him to sort of a global status. It had a great following that race and people took note of the RMB Change a Life Academy. Yes he’s got a sponsor, Merchants who have taken him to a whole different level where he’s supporting his family in the best way possible.
Financially he’s doing great and he still lives in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. He hasn’t forgotten where he’s comes from. He’s just got a sound head on those shoulders and I must say he is the ultimate sort of goal for the guys in the team to aspire towards.
Plenty of talent to come in the future
GDK: It’s quite interesting then because there’s no question that mountain biking is an AB income, affluent environment. Transformation, if you like is a slow burner really. Are we not going to see a rush of riders coming out of the RMB Change a Life Academy and other similar things?
MD: Yes, the talent is there and it is a financial constraint in terms of how many people you can support. Because mountain biking, as you said, it’s not cheap. But for me the guys just being on the programme, it’s more about them dedicating themselves to train hard, twice a day. The spinoffs alone, getting driver’s licences, guys are getting bursaries for education, food parcels for their families.
So it’s more we’re using the cycling as a means of identifying talent and to giving a support structure to guys that are very deserving. Same as the paddling and same as the running in the Change a Life. It’s all a means of giving people an opportunity through sport. I couldn’t do it through administration or something else because that’s not my speciality. Sport is my life and I would do it anyway so having these guys to mentor is just the best thing ever.
Crazy events are in my DNA
GDK: Well, mentoring is what you’re doing here at the KAP Sani2c this year. What’s your next mountain bike challenge? Have you got something in mind at the moment?
MD: For myself personally, I was hoping to do the Freedom but that didn’t happen. I had a late entry but I’m going to the Ride to Rhodes, which is the next best thing. It’s the first six days of Freedom. I like to extend myself, redefine my limits, and push my boundaries. So I know it’s going to be a suffer fest of note but I just love that pushing yourself. Going into the night below zero temperatures and seeing how you can handle it. That’s the next challenge in a few weeks’ time.
GDK: That’s an extraordinary aspect of your makeup isn’t it that you know, most of us will think well, I’m not going to ride at night, why would I do that? No, if it’s too cold well you know, I’ll take it off, you relish that sort of thing.
MD: I do because I think it’s just my DNA got rewired when I jippoed the army. I had to do national service still when I finished university at UCT way back and I left the country. I went and lived in Canada for six years and I became a commercial fisherman. From the two weeks when I started there from when I was 23 to 29 and that was just the hardest thing ever.
We worked 18 hour workdays, so six hours sleep. The boat started at 04:00 in the morning and shut down at 22:00 at night and 12 days at sea, one day off. That one day off, it wasn’t actually off, you had to unload the boat, get groceries, shower that once every 12 days and refuel and back to sea. I did a nine-month stint and then had three months off a year. Then six years in a row and there was nowhere to hide.
When you’re on that boat, you no matter rain or shine, sleet, feeling sick or not you had a work role to play. That’s just, that was life and since then all the endurance events, in a way I go back to my experiences on the boat and they seem quite easy.
I think I just, I was fortunate to have that sort of grounding. I do like a challenge and my wife tests me equally. So because Jeannie is the ultimate endurance lady, okay I’m biased, she’s my wife. But she definitely takes on these challenges that I put out for us. Thus the Freedom Challenge was our honeymoon, and she wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
Passing on talent to the next generation
GDK: Well the children are going to be pretty special as well in that respect.
MD: I’m not sure, our little boy, he’s quite intellectual, academic, creative. Yes, I think the little daughter is going to be a real little pocket Hercules. But I mean, yes being an older dad, I just want to be supportive. I really don’t mind if they’re actually not good at sport and that’s actually being selfish.
Say your son’s a top swimmer then he’s got to train three hours a day and you can’t go on holiday because the coach says he can’t miss two weeks of, so I’d rather actually being selfish that they’re not good at sport and I could have them all to myself.
GDK: Martin thanks very much for the chat and good luck with your endeavours and with both the paddlers and the mountain bikers and the runners.
MD: Yes, I feel like I’ve got a good life, a good balance in terms of that real emotional fulfilling feeling of giving back. There’s not without its hiccups where you, it’s people management and that’s also not my expertise. But yes, it’s all going fantastically and I thank all the sponsors of the Change a Life Academy. It’s just, it wouldn’t happen without them and the Change a Life Cycle Tour which is my bread and butter for the paddling team.
GDK: Well the helicopter’s taking off here from the start of day one at the Sani2c and Martin is about to head up Sani Pass for a little training ride or just a bit of fun.
MD: Yes, I mean I’m support driver and day one started. I’m getting that FOMO feeling so I thought let me just take my bike, go to the top, have a cup of coffee, ride back down and then I’ll see the guys at the finish.
GDK: Just give me the numbers of Sani Pass. How far and how high, how many metres do you climb up?
MD: Well, it’ll be 16km to the border post but the border post is where the pass actually starts. My wife and I did it last year as an Everest in exercise where we had to do it 10 times in a row. So I know exactly, it’s 7.2km in distance and it’s 905m vertical gain.
GDK: Just for a cup of coffee. Martin Dreyer, one of South Africa’s truly iconic sports people. Thanks for chatting to us and thank you for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Mountain Bike podcast. Join us again for another, until then, cheers.