16 Oct, 2014

Enjoying Cycling


For most of us, becoming a champion cyclist is a huge challenge. But grand masters rider, Johan Spies has managed to get six national titles in 2014 alone with a gammy leg. Raymond Travers met up with him at a coffee shop and swapped cycling “war stories”.


“I cut all the tendons off as a kid. The big tendon coming up to my left knee is non-existent and I had a motor cycle injury. And I also tore the ligaments playing rugby, so my leg has taken a hammering over the years,” Johan smiled.

So it must have been quite a challenge for him to do his first mountain bike event when he was “in his 30s”.

“As a joke, I was invited to go and do the Rhodes mountain bike race where, in one day, we got snow, rain, sleet and sunburnt … in November!” the 60-year-old explained.

The Rhodes Xtreme was South Africa’s oldest and toughest mountain bike challenge - according to the “official” website - and last took place in 2012 at Rhodes Village in the Drakensburg.

 “But that is where the bug bit me,” he said, “and I then did mountain biking for at least four years, or it could have been five?”

Johan’s leg injuries meant he had to develop his shoes and pedals, which took “around three years” to get right. And it didn’t take him long before he tried out road cycling.

“The transition to road at that time was very difficult. It was not how the guys see it today,” he explained, “there was a distinct, and I stress distinct, separation between mountain biking and road cycling.”

After “butting a few heads”, Johan eventually cycled his way into the “click” that was road cycling and later on, he even followed his son Jean into track cycling.

“And that’s how my career went, you know, between the three disciplines. And I still enjoy all three of them because they all use different tactics. Some guys have been cycling for 10 years,” according to Johan, “but still don’t understand how it works.”

So road cycling is all about tactics, and mountain biking is more about the skill and fitness, according to Johan, “but it’s cool!”

Johan finds it “so cool” that he currently holds six South African national cycling titles. He is the grand masters national road champion, the national cross country mountain bike champion and the national champion in four track disciplines: the 1500 metre, the points, the scratch and the two kilometre pursuit. And those awards join an already crowded collection in the Johannesburg based electrical contractor’s home.

“It’s weird, because sometimes you plan to compete for certain titles, and you go to SAs and you fall, or puncture and you are out. It is never a certainty,” he said, “but this year I’ve had an exceptional year.”

Johan stressed that he doesn’t plan performances like this at all.

“Some guys chase titles. I don’t. I enjoy my cycling and it is my lifestyle,” he commented, “I love being out there in the mornings. If you’re a cyclist, you’ll know what I am talking about. You look up at the skies and see the birds and you just enjoy it. At the end of the day, that is the most important thing. It’s a bonus if you can get podiums or titles, but that is not really the main thing.”

During his 26 year cycling journey, Johan has met “a hell of a lot of nice guys in cycling.”

“A lot of people say that cyclists are snobs,” he explains, “but they are not. Go and talk to them, they are all approachable. Obviously don’t approach them when they are standing on the line or when they are preparing for a race.”

One cyclist who Johan singled out is Robbie Hunter, who currently works as a director of sport at the professional Continental team Garmin Sharp.

“I think in about 1996, he said it would take South Africa 10 years to get cyclists into the great races in Europe. At that time, everybody wanted to jump on his back but he was right. And I don’t believe he gets the proper recognition for everything he does for South African cycling.”

Another person who Johan holds in high regard is Doug Ryder, team principal of MTN Qhubeka.

“MTN Qhubeka does amazing work and we basically need more Doug Ryders in South African cycling,” he stressed. “But the major problem with our cycling is that it needs more money. More investment to promote our amazing talent and to hire professional coaches.”

Johan also coaches cyclists, and prefers a one-on-one approach.

“I work out a month’s program and he needs to stick to that program. I need the feedback afterwards as then I can give him something else to see what he is capable of,” he explained.

He also works with older cyclists.

“There are a lot of coaches out there who don’t understand that, with older cyclists you need to change your coaching. Older cyclists need more time for recovery, so that’s the main key,” he said.

When asked about his highs and lows of cycling, Johan stressed that cycling in general was his major high but that the bad falls are his major lows.

“I had a nasty one two years ago. It was a mountain bike fall and was a lack of concentration really. In fact I’m still recovering from it. I broke six ribs, punctured my lung and snapped my hamstring,” he said, “and the problem is you quickly get back on your bike but, the older you get the longer it takes to recover.”

He stressed, however, that cyclists have to accept that you are going to fall as it’s a part of bike riding.

But, at the end of the day, Johan stressed that cycling is for everyone.

“A lot of people are scared to get out there because of the roads. But if they do go out, I say they must enjoy it. I also say that perhaps they should start with mountain biking because they can ride on the pavement and don’t buy the expensive one at first. Rather get used to it first and then go and buy whatever you fancy,” he advises.

He then advises anyone to do at least one stage race per year if they can.

“If it wasn’t for cycling, I wouldn’t have seen the places that I have seen,” he concluded, “and I love the camaraderie on rides like the Sani2C. You must enjoy it, because a life cycle can be two years, five years or 100 years, you don’t know, so you have to make the best of it.”

Johan is married to Merlene, “who doesn’t cycle at all” and has two children. They are previously mentioned elite cyclist Jean and his daughter Chané, who is presently studying at the University of Pretoria.


Johan’s tips for cyclists who want to improve are:

·         Know your strengths, abilities and weaknesses;

·         Don’t go into cycling for the glamour as “you’ll probably not get far”;

·         Ride as often as you can because “you have to cycle to be a better cyclist”;

·         Perhaps most importantly, Johan urges that you should “enjoy it first before you start aiming too high”.

Raymond Travers

Raymond Travers

Modern Cyclist Editor |