18 May, 2015

Aiming at a grand tour

Ryan Gibbons on the road again. Photograph supplied.

You can often see Europecar’s under 23 hot shot, Ryan Gibbons, on the podium after most local races. So Modern Cyclist went to find out what makes this rising star’s cranks turn.

It seems Ryan Gibbons must be one of the luckiest young riders in the South African professional road scene, but his luck came with a number of harsh lessons and back-breaking sacrifices.

According to him, his first break came after he came back from a stint in Europe.

“I went to Europe, all self-funded. It was very hard and I really struggled. You carry your bike and spare wheels onto trains and it is hard. Living by yourself, you get home after a race at around 10:00 at night, and then you have to worry about food,” he said.

His sacrifices seemed to pay dividends and Ryan was able to get on a few podiums in Europe.

“I was spotted and approached by JP van Zyl, the director of the then-brand-new MTN Qhubeka Feeder Team and started riding for that team in 2013,” he explained.

Then, at the beginning of 2014, Ryan switched to Europecar, where the more relaxed atmosphere and additional benefit of living at home in Johannesburg enabled him to take on more endeavours.

“I am studying a B Comm in Accounting and Quantitative Management through correspondence,” he explained, “and not all teams give you the freedom to do anything else if you are a signed pro rider so Europecar is perfect for my situation.”

If that wasn’t enough, Ryan also took on additional employment and did part-time work at CycleFit.

“Arran [Brown, owner of CycleFit] was also pretty understanding of my racing and studying commitments and said I could work there part-time,” he said.

Unfortunately that was also a bit difficult for Ryan, who then decided to concentrate on his cycling career and his studying.

This shift of attention shows, with Ryan achieving some pretty good results during the last half of the year. These included an eighth place at the Campus2Campus, a third place at the Tsogo Sun Amashova, a fifth place at the Satellite Classic and a 12th place at the highly entertaining but vastly different Momentum 947 Cycle Challenge.

Europecar was also able to achieve remarkable results in events like the Engen Cycle in the City Series, in spite of the relative inexperience of this young squad.

“We still don’t have the depth needed to compete,” he explained, “when we get to the end of a race, teams like Abantu and Bonitas have five riders and we only have two or three. But I think we are improving and personally, I am definitely going to stick with Europecar for 2015.”

Now, firmly entrenched in the Europecar set up where he is one of the main riders, Ryan says the team has learnt the hard way.

“People don’t realise just how important it is to ride as a team. Everyone wants to win but you do need to have your climbers, your support riders and your sprinters and we are learning to sacrifice for each other. We get podiums but we will soon get wins,” he vows.

It is a steep learning curve, but once the breakthrough comes, it changes the dynamics of a team and that team starts winning races, like Orica Greenedge and Astana.

“Recently, we were in a race where four guys broke away and won the race. However, we were in the bunch and sprinted for the line and I was able to beat some of the best sprinters in the country, including Nolan Hoffman, Tyler Day and Herman Fouche, in that sprint,” he mused “and I realise we were sprinting for fifth place, but we took a lot of encouragement from that.”

For this month, this former TrinityHouse Randparkridge pupil, has a simple goal. To wear the under 23 road and time trial South African colours.

“I came second last year, only beaten by MTN Qhubeka Pro-Continental Team rider Louis Meintjies, but now, with Louis leaving the under 23 category, there is a good chance for me,” he said confidently.

The South African Road and Time Trial Championships will take place in Mpumalanga on 7 and 8 February.

So, with a training regime which includes around 25 hours a week, with a bit of spinning on an indoor trainer, gym and core training added to the mix, “I really think I can get that title.”

The cycling “bug” bit Ryan very early on, with his parents Grant and Karen Gibbons, who were so keen on the sport that they actually finished an Absa Cape Epic together.

“When I was about 12, I went with my dad to a mountain bike race and absolutely loved it,” he reminisced, “and when I was about 14, I actually got a third position in one of those races.”

Seeing this as a sport which he enjoyed, Ryan then concentrated on cross country in the sub-junior category. This racing eventually saw Ryan winning the Spur High School Series when he was 16.

Thinking that road had more opportunities than mountain biking, Ryan “unfortunately moved away from mountain biking completely” shortly after that.

“I really love the road, so I’d rather stick to what I’m good at,” commented Ryan, “but I really do miss mountain biking.”

It seems matters of the heart have also not escaped this young but professionally-minded road cyclist.

“My girlfriend is Heidi Dalton. We’ve been dating for about two-and-a-half years. I met her when I was 17 in Europe. It’s really nice to have a girlfriend who understands cycling,” he added.

Heidi Dalton is currently a professional cyclist for Belgium pro women’s team Lotto Belisol and is probably South Africa’s top under 23 woman cyclist.

“When she is here in Joburg,” explained Ryan, “we go out on training rides together. I ride with her for her four hour ride and then add another two hours to complete my base training ride.”
The future for this 20 year-old looks bright.

“I have two more years riding in this category, so I also have time,” he said, “but I would like to get a pro-continental contract and ride the big races in Europe, like most cyclists.”

Ryan has a realistic approach to this ultimate goal.

“I know it is really hard as unfortunately most European teams aren’t going to consider someone riding in South Africa. They race 200 kilometres, three times a week or every day if they are busy with a tour. We are lucky if we race 100 kilometres in a week, and that is on relatively flat, wide roads,” he explained, “whereas in Europe they race more technical races with the roads, often cobbled and rough, only wide enough for one car.”

But Ryan believes that MTN Qhubeka and Robbie Hunter (currently a sport director with Garmin Sharp) have opened doors for African riders in Europe.

So with yet more sacrifices, hard work, effort and plenty of luck, perhaps the name Ryan Gibbons will be written on that painfully short list of South African names who have ridden cycling’s great grand tours.

Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |