Will Hannele Steyn be the last lion standing?
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast where we talk all matters mountain biking. We meet the trail builders, the event organisers, the riders, the tent erectors and the characters and personalities that make up this incredible sport.
Today I’m sitting alongside one of the true mountain bike legends. I can’t even tell you when she started mountain biking because she’ll tell me that I’m sure. Hannele Steyn joins me here. Hannele heading into Cape Epic number?
Hannele Steyn: 14.
GDK: That’s ridiculous! When did you do your first race ever?
HS: First mountain bike race or first race? My first mountain bike race was in 1987.
GDK: And here you are in 2017, just about to head into the 14th consecutive Cape Epic, that’s quite remarkable. They unveiled a beautiful Lion statue made by Dylan Lewis, it’ll go to the Last Lion standing. You’re one of four still standing, John Gale, Craig Beech and Mike Nixon the others. How do you feel about all that?
HS: Gerald, I must first say, this was really one of my biggest honours in my sporting career and I had many. I was blessed with many, many incredible things, but this was really a special thing to me. I must say, I did tell you, I checked and it’s a lioness that’s lying there. So obviously it must say something to you!
How do you motivate yourself to keep coming back?
GDK: That Last Lion is a lioness and this is the only lioness in that quartet sitting alongside me. Hannele, what motivates you, what drives you to come back each year?
HS: It’s a question that many people ask me and I had to think about it because what makes you come back to the same race 14 times. I realised and I’ve said it before, there’s something about the Epic and everyone talks about this ‘something’ but I haven’t figured it out. But I realised today that you don’t go back to things that do not challenge you.
You don’t talk about things that wasn’t challenging and there’s something about this race that challenges you in the sense. Whether it’s the weather that they throw here, whether it’s the routes, it’s that stress of eight days where you have to stay focused, stay calm, stay in the moment, stay in the enjoyment of it. That’s a challenge in itself because if your mind and your whole mind-set goes down on day three, believe me, this race is going to change, you’re not going to finish it.
GDK:… you look for in a partner, you’ve won the race, you’ve raced at the sharp end, but now, what do you look for?
HS: When I asked this woman of last year, she said to me: Why did you ask me to do the Epic with you, I’m a beginner. I said: I look at people, their integrity and mind-set, someone that is passionate about something. I’ve never been able to do something if I didn’t have passion. I look for a partner that’s alive and it says so much, someone that wants to be alive. Someone that wants to grab the opportunity and the moment. Because there’s a million tomorrow’s, cliché, and a million yesterdays, but you only have that day.
If you can enjoy every single day, even when it gets tough. No one can say: I’m enjoying this tough challenge and the fact that I’ve got a puncture. But to stay positive and to stay joyous, that to me. Also wanting to, I always say make friends with pain. I think I’m looking for someone that’s friends with pain, that can be friends with pain.
GDK: Clearly you are.
HS: Yes. The one thing about the Epic, you have to be able to deal with pain. They say keep your enemies close, is that it? Why don’t you just make pain your friend, it becomes much easier than to deal with it.
Big changes in the last 20 years
GDK: Go to ’87 and the equipment you were using, the bikes you were riding then and what you’re riding now. It’s a different stratosphere isn’t it?
HS: I think if you can watch a movie of the First Epic and now, it will be like watching science fiction. If you had to tell me I’d be riding a Momsen bike with a one by eleven and DI two gears, those words wouldn’t even have made sense. I would have said: Don’t be ridiculous, it’s like putting an engine on your mountain bike.
We were having V brakes where the brake pads fail, we had to stand. I remember in Greyton the first year of Epic, I was busy at 11:00 at night, still trying to seat a tyre because there was no such thing as a tubeless wheel. The sealants only came out then and you had to find a strong enough pressure to pump up that wheel. At 10:00 we were sitting at garages trying to get the wheels to seat.
GDK: There are many stories I’m sure that you can tell. Was there a moment in all those Epics where you saw that lioness wonder off into the distance?
HS: About three years ago and I must say, I’m blessed to have been able to finish 13 Epics and be so lucky in a way that nothing major went wrong. But that year, really, something major went wrong. It was in the first 20km where my partners free wheel body broke and there was nothing we could do. There wasn’t tech zones back then. There was maybe one mechanic somewhere on the route and we had to break off wire from the fences, I shouldn’t say that because the animals that got out, sorry about that, we had to fix it.
I had to push him the last, I think about 12km, he was 2.1m. But that’s passion, I wanted to finish. But really, in the back of my mind it was like when do I really say goodbye to this guy now. Then quite a fun, hard race was when I raced with a German lady that’s quite a legend in the Epic as well. She told me in German: Hannele, just let your brakes go.
Real advice for other riders
GDK: You have some wonderful phrases as well in terms of advice, many people hear them. What are your go-to’s for new people, for novices, for people setting out there?
HS: Gerald, the other day we were talking and people were saying: The Epic has become like a business thing or a corporate thing. I said: No. All I want to say to people, and luckily this race is of such a nature that you cannot come unprepared. So I always say to people, when you go and swim in the sea, I always say I have respect for the sea because it’s not my territory. Have respect for this race, when you do the preparation, don’t be sort of laid back about it, be very serious.
Enjoy it, but be prepared, put in the correct hours, experiment with nutrition and speak to experienced people. You can go to 10 laboratories, they cannot tell you what happens out there. 10:00 on stage three, maybe on Groenlandberg and the heat, it’s like 40 degrees Celsius, it’s rocky, I’ve got all the respect for science, I’m a scientist, but for experience, wow, I’ve seen that work.
GDK: 2017, suddenly now it’s real, it’s happening, there’s a beautiful trophy you’ve so graciously exposed today from Dylan Lewis. Now your racing days are over and you’re relaxed, but this is a different kind of pressure now. There’s only a four horse race here, is it starting to trickle down?
HS: It’s almost a little bit like when I race, you know, I always said I race no one, I’m my biggest competitor, I’m most scared of myself. Because it’s me that has to push myself through pain. I have to make friends with pain, like I told you.
Now the race has become to who is going to be the last woman/man standing. Like I said, I checked, it’s a lioness, I’m very, very upset with myself that I didn’t give that lion a kiss. But yes, it’s stressful in the sense, it feels like a race, it feels like I’m going back to a race because I’m racing against these three guys. It’s not even against a team, it’s against three teams.
GDK: What a fascinating story, who would have thought you’d be here, talking about this.
HS: I didn’t. When Kevin Vermaak came to me I think in 2001, he said to me: Hannele, what do you think about something like this? In my nature I will always yes, jump into the deep end and then figure out a way to do it. I just said to him: It sounds awesome. If you told me back then, Hannele, you are now, how old was I in 2001, I can’t even remember, that’s how old I am, but somewhere in the 30’s. Someone told me you’re going to be 50 and still doing this race I would have said: You’re crazy! Then people say to me: You are crazy and I said: Yes, that I have accepted, it’s just you that has to accept it now.
Can you imagine, if you think back 13 years, it’s such a big lifetime, it’s a lifetime. I look at pictures 13 years back of my first Epic and I think wow, I looked good, but it’s just because I look so young!
Firm focus on that last lion trophy
GDK: You look fantastic now heading into your 14th, so don’t worry about that. Now, there’s this trophy, it’s a big, beautiful one, you’ve got a mantelpiece?
HS: Like I said, I don’t have one yet, but I’m going to buy one now. It’s going to be bought for the size of that and to carry the weight of that trophy. I tell you Gerald, my first thing, I said to my dad when I started competitive sport, when I started running and riding, I said: I will not stop until I have a trophy. I still remember, I got my first trophy when I was 13 and I had pictures taken with this trophy, posing, so now I’m telling you. I saw this trophy, I’m not stopping until that trophy is on my mantelpiece.
GDK: John Gale, Mike Nixon and Craig Beech, the other three Last Lions, it’s out there, you know, you’re in a race, enjoy it. We’ve enjoyed chatting to you Hannele, thanks so much for the chat. Good luck for 2017’s Epic and all the other endeavours you take on.
HS: Thank you very much Gerald and gentleman, the three, you know who you are, be warned!
GDK: Hannele Steyn, one of the four Last Lions remaining, they’ve done every single Cape Epic, 10 000km, 205 000m of climbing, believe it or not, that’s 23 Mount Everest’s, that’s quite remarkable and they’ll be at it again next year.
HS: I just want to have a last little bit of information Gerald, my car that I just sold had 10 000km on it, it was 10 years old. We worked out that I cycled almost 60 000km throughout my cycling career, so do you know what a car looks like with 600 000km on it?
GDK: If it looked like you, I’d pay a lot of money for it! Hannele Steyn, always wonderful thoughts on this great sport of mountain biking, an inspiration to everyone. I hope you’ve enjoyed that chat right here on our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, if so, download once more, until then, cheers.