Samantha Sanders fell into cycling by winning her first MTB race on pure talent. Her love of two wheels has taken her from a young amateur road and mountain biker, up through the ranks and onto the elite female top step. So what does this icon of South African Cycling have to say about bikes, learning, living and loving cycling to get to the top step of the podium again and again.
Hi Sam, Welcome to Dirtyheart MTB magazine. We are very excited to hear your story. Give us a short overview of your cycling career. Where did it all begin for you?
I was a late starter to the sport. I grew up racing MotoX and it was only at University that I decided to buy a bicycle. Mostly to commute to Campus and keep fit . I was sold a super entry level Merida Kalahari 500 mountain bike but being non-the- wiser, I thought it was the business. The guys at the shop told me to join them that weekend for a race. I was completely clueless about cycling. I didn't even know that there were different formats of MTB. Needless to say, I attended the "race" which turned out to be a National XCO. I rode in my age category and I won on pure talent because I had zero fitness, my bike handling allowing me to be that much quicker through the technical stuff. Plus I was in tekkies and running uphills was quicker than riding LOL. That, quite literally, was my introduction to Cycling. I was a complete novice in every imaginable way- you name it, I probably didn't know about it. But I was totally eager and progressed from total novice to competitive age grouper. At every step I realised that I needed to do more to be better so I learnt about nutrition, then training, then proper coaching, and eventually I got selected to represent South Africa, I was competing with the best, competing with the riders I once looked up to all starry eyed. It's been a passionate journey of learning, living and loving CYCLING.
Tell us how cycling and sport have changed your life?
I love sport, it is universal beyond all boundaries. Cycling itself has taught me MANY things. By nature, being an Elite Athlete, you have to lead a healthy wholesome lifestyle. The greatest changes have however been of character. I firmly believe in goals and the importance of having goals, BUT, I will say that its not the end of the world if you have to shift the goal posts. We are, after all, humans in this thing called life. Sometimes you get thrown a curve ball, it happens. Chill, adapt, refocus. Over the years, some of the most important lessons I have learnt are: 1. Hard work and positivity always yields results. 2. Appreciate the small things, growth is often small and takes committed effort, but it comes and when it does, appreciate it and what it took to get there. On that note, patience really is a virtue. 3. Stay humble, you never know when your going to have a bad day. Dealing with disappointment is challenging, but even more so if you have isolated yourself with a massive Ego. 4. Enjoy the journey, don't sweat the small stuff, life will challenge you, but that is where you will grow and evolve the most- embrace it, live it. And Yes, you will face disappointment, learn to pick yourself up.
Why is riding a bike important to you?
This is a complex concept to convey. In a nutshell, its not so much about riding a bike, but about following my passion and not wasting my talent. As a younger person, I never reflected on the fact that I could get on a bike and do things, ride lines, do jumps, switch between road cycling and XCO. Once I realised that I had a talent for riding a bike, I grew to appreciate what I was capable of, I learnt to respect my own skill and take myself seriously. It is now important for me to live up to what I believe I am capable of. I am so grateful for the opportunity to live out my passion and even more grateful for the people that support me and allow me the privilege to do what I love.
Can you describe a few stories or moments that changed the landscape of your career?
A defining moment or me was World Champs in France. It was my first ever Marathon World Champs, and it was the first time I had been exposed to Professional Cycling. From the moment I arrived at the airport I realized that I was completely in over my head. My experience and lack of knowledge was blatant. My fellow teammates were casually discussing everything from racing at altitude to nutrition. I knew NOTHING. This trip exposed me to professional sport and sadly I realised that I was no Pro. It was frightening, but exciting because it put me on the path to becoming a Pro.
Has your journey to professional sport been a difficult one? I think a lot of people assume money and sponsorship is just thrown at you when you show some talent…
Haha, this could not be further from the truth! Money and sponsorship have definitely not been thrown my way. My own journey has been challenging because I started at a late age with absolutely no experience, no previous professional sporting background, no exposure, guidance or network to grow with. For the earlier part of my career, I worked to support my riding. Every cent I had went to racing. And of course, like many other passionate cyclists in SA, I struggled financially. You race to live, race for prize money. You budget so finely just to get to races but then you're staying in dodge cheap hotels so you don't sleep well and you don't eat well. Its a recipe for disaster because you burn out and start over racing, chasing prize money. Its tough because you cant afford not to race but your form and performance eventually suffers. These challenges left me even more grateful for the position I am in now. I see myself as privileged and thankful to my sponsors and the people I have around me.
Sponsors are vital to an athlete’s success. Explain how important those relationships are and how these companies ensure you race at your best.
I cant even begin to explain to the importance of sponsors, without a doubt I would not be able to compete at the level I do without my Principal Sponsor Valencia Vbike. Having the best equipment, the best nutrition and the support structure is only a fraction of what you need to compete but having access to these allows you to race as best you can. This is why Valencia Vbike is paramount in my success. It took me some time to learn how to be a Professional Athlete. It is so much more than just performing on your bike, you have to offer a return on investment for your sponsors. You need to be willing to accept the role you play and the responsibility that comes with representing a sponsor. I only learnt this concept as I got older and I try to convey this message to younger athletes. I worry that they feel entitled to things simply because they are competitive. But I view a sponsorship as something to need to earn and respect once you have it.
Lets talk about women in sports. What are your views on the current position of women in sport and in cycling in particular?
I feel in general, that woman's sport is alive & well. But that is simply from a TV spectator point of view. Woman seem to get the same level of exposure in sport like tennis, cricket, golf, swimming, hockey and athletics. To me, woman's MTB in SA is healthy and on the increase socially but I would love to see more competitive elite athletes. Road racing is in a dismal state, in particular on the elite level. We have talented riders, but sadly there isn't really much incentive to be a Pro roadie in SA. It is a sad state of affairs.
How has being a women impacted your career? Are we winning the war on equality yet?
I cant say that it has directly or negatively impacted my career. But, I am not the kind of person who ever even thinks that I would be discriminated against because of my gender. I don't define myself in that way and I don't limit myself either. I am just me, and I am here to compete like every other person. Growing up with three brothers, I think that winning the war starts with you. Don't allow stereotypes to limit you, just be.
Do you have any ideas on how we can improve the position of women in cycling within South Africa?
I honestly believe that we have a really kiff bunch of woman in the racing group. Professional, driven, competitive but down to earth and fun. To me that is the perfect platform to work from, woman who are just doing what they love and inspiring others through exemplary conduct.
What tips or suggestions would you give to women who are new to the sport or are scared to get started?
Don't be scared :) I have found that many woman struggle with being comfortable on the bike. For those starting out, I certainly would advise finding a bike shop that makes you feel welcome and comfortable. Its important to ask questions, your investing money and you shouldn't be shy to ask whatever questions you have. A bike that is fitted properly is vital. Before buying a bike, make sure that you are being sold the correct size frame. I would also recommend investing in a professional bike setup. Again, don't be shy to say what is hampering your ride, whatever the issue. Its about enjoyment and if your not comfortable riding- you will not enjoy riding as you should.
We are so blessed in south Africa with amazing weather, trails, and routes to explore on our bikes. Describe your favourite bike adventure to us..
Like most cyclists, I absolutely love riding new trails and even road rides. It is the best way to see the world and experience an area, your just that much closer to the earth. I have been lucky enough to participate in different races this year. I went to race in Botswana at the Kalahari Challenge and it was such a unique and special experience.
Lastly, what upcoming events do you have planned?
Upcoming races are the remaining Ashburton National events, Nissan Trailseeker events and then quite a few stage races including the Grinrod Bank Berg&Bush, FNB Wines2Whales and Mankele 3Towers. I also have some Road Racing with my Cycle Nation team.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Sam and best of luck for the rest of the year and we will catch up again with you soon.