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Amy Beth McDougall - The Pocket Rocket of South African Mountain Biking

The pocket rocket of South African mountain biking. Amy shares some of her darkest moments as well as her brightest highlights as we look back on her career so far. Lets take a look at this powerhouse of women's cycling.

Hi Amy. Thanks for sharing your amazing story with us. How old were you when you started riding bikes?

I picked up a bike for the first time when I was 19 years old. I was a hairdressing student and although I was a natural athlete, I hadn’t done a stitch of exercise in about 2 years and was smoking, drinking, and partying up a storm instead. This lifestyle was mostly due to my rebellious nature and strict parents so it lost its appeal once it was allowed. The moment came 6 weeks prior to the 94.7, my parents were always recreational cyclists and being a kid who was always “too cool for school” I would cringe and gag at the very sight of them (and all other cyclists) in lycra. It was the last day to enter the race and my dad was busy entering himself and my mom. As a courtesy he offered the rest of the family an entry and I thought, hey, this could actually be a good fitness goal! Upon my verbalisation of this revelation, my mom, purely out of motherly concern, said sternly “Amy! You CAN”T do that!” That’s all I heard her say, and that was enough for me to retort with a stubborn “ok Dad, I’m in!”. We still laugh about it to this day. My mom was only looking out for my best interests, I mean, the level of unfitness was almost as astounding as my level of cluelessness about riding a bike… Never mind the lack of an actual bicycle, helmet, shoes, and kit. I also had my final practical exam the day after the race.

Photo: ZC Marketing

I borrowed my mom’s bike and helmet and set off on my 1st ride with this new found determination and vigor! It hurt!!! I could barely make it up the first climb (it’s really short and not steep) The gears were confusing and my lungs and legs were on fire. A full 8km around Morelleta Park in Pretoria left me bedridden for the rest of the afternoon and traumatised…I remember being in tears thinking “This is so hard!! How am I ever going to do 94.7km of this??... My meltdown morphed into determination and 3 days later I did 21km with my ever patient Dad. 2 weeks later I did 50km. My younger sister ‘Heather and I decided to do the 94.7 together, so we started training together. Trauma of all traumas, she was significantly stronger than me. I was always the sporty one, that was MY thing and she was riding away from me?! More fuel into the fire, I trained every day, especially on the days that she wasn’t.

By the time the 94.7 came, I was ready. My sis and I rode it together in a time of 5:30 (including a puncture which took about 30 mins to figure out). I was ecstatic, I had done it!! I was introduced to mountain biking around that time and the bug bit instantly I was fearless on the downhills and was told from very early on that I had talent which was a big motivator.

photo: ZC Marketing

My fitness improved in leaps and bounds – that’s the coolest thing about the beginning! And I just couldn’t get enough of the rush of the downhills. The dangerous combination of no fear and no skill did leave me with a constant superfluity of bruises, cuts,and scars. I think it was about 6 months later in 2009 when I was 20 that I won my first, albeit a tiny race in Pretoria somewhere. In 2009 I moved to Joberg to focus on my Hairdressing career at Jeauval Hair Salon. I attended as many spinning classes as my schedule would allow and rode and raced when I could.

I got introduced to the holygrail of MTB; XCO racing and fell in love with it instantly. I used to get lapped by the top girls, but still, my passion grew and I was a quick learner. I was a sponge, I bumped my head plenty but each time I’d pick up the pieces, and having learnt another lesson, I’d try again. I rode with people better than me, copied them, asked questions, raced all the time, feeding off the feeling of improving on my previous performance and slowly working my way up the ranks.

It felt like a lifetime at the time but in hindsight, my improvements were very big in a very short space of time. In 2011 I quit my job as a hair stylist to ride full time. I won Single Speed SA Champs the very next day and met Grant Usher (who 4 years later became my boyfriend.) He has played a pivotal role in my career; he was the only person who didn’t tell me that I am an idiot in the beginning; he instantly believed I could do it which was so motivating! In recent years throughout our relationship I’ve gone through so many mental dips but his belief in me has always been unwavering which makes such a huge difference.

What inspired you to take up the sport?

The golden words “You can’t do it” was the spark,and my dad nurtured the flame.

Photo: Ian McDougall

When did you begin to think and believe that you could be good enough for the professional ranks?

Very early on funny enough… I remember doing a Nissan race on my first bike, an archaic Trek with caliper breaks and a coil front shock. I was watching prize giving with my dad and I said “one day I’m going to beat that girl” pointing at Yolande Speedy on the top step. It’s funny remembering that because I sucked so badly, Yolande must have put at least an hour into me, I had no idea how I would make it happen, but somehow I guess I just knew.

My first stage race was a 2 day race in George called the Rock Pedal Classic in December 2008. My next one was the Honda Mountain Trophy which I managed to win, it was my first and is still one of my best wins to date because it meant so much at the time. A few weeks later was Sani2C with my first semi-sponsor, Mike Hewan from Complete Cyclist where we came 2nd to Ariane and Erik and then I did Cape Pioneer later that year. I have done a few Berg ‘n Bushes, 3Towers and other local races and had my first big-ish win in 2014 at Joberg2C where I won the ladies event with Janine Rawlinson. I really started doing well last year and particularly this year with plenty of events under my belt and top 3 finishes in Iron Bike Italy (World’s hardest Stage race), Joberg2C, ABSA Cape Epic, Tankwa Trek, 3 Towers, and La Leyenda in Colombia.

We have seen you taking part and dominating in a few of the mountain biking disciplines? Give us a little insight into your favourite one.

I can’t imagine my life without XCO (Cross Country Olympic), XCM (Cross Country Marathon) or Stage racing. Other disciplines like Enduro and Ultra Endurance events are not something I specialise in but have also added a lot of value to my career. If I had to choose 1 I’d say stage racing. I love it particularly because it is always an adventure; you see and experience places, sometimes so remote, you would never have otherwise known existed and you get to meet, socialise and spend enough time to really get to know some of the the most amazing people. From a racing point of view, I like the challenge, the strategy, the personal journey mentally and physically, and the amount of riding you get to do.

Favourite training ground/training route or ride?

I have a few. Locally would be Thaba Trails and PWC Cycle Park. Mankele Bike Park is a favorite, bush tunnels for days, rocks, technical climbing and an awesome XCO track. Drakensburg is my happy place with all the Berg ‘n Bush routes and the trails they used for the Ashburton this year. Karkloof is another one, I don’t go there often but when I do, I am totally in my element! Cascades is spectacular and then there is all the riding in the Western Cape. We are truly spoilt!

Give us a sample of your training schedule at the height of your season.

In the height of the season, racing forms a big part of training, so you end up kind of topping up during the week before the next race. So a general week of training with a race would be:

Saturday: Race

Sunday: Long ride

Monday: Recovery easy hour,

Tuesday: Hard morning ride and intervals,

Wednesday: generally a longish ride (3 hours)

Thursday: if it’s an important race coming up I’ll either rest completely or do a 1 hour IMTG ride on the trainer, if not, a bit of a longer ride with some more intervals.

Friday is either an easy recovery ride or a race activation ( 1 hour with a few short intervals)

Saturday race, or long hard ride..


Photo by Sam Clark/Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Off season would look much different with heavy strength training and long endurance rides. That is a general week. If I am peaking for a race, I’ll rest more the week before and get 1 massage a week. Diet wise, I just eat as clean as possible. Lots of veggies, protein, and carbs are important especially pre, during and post workouts. For dinner (unless it’s before a race or I’ve done an evening workout) I generally just have veggies and lean protein. Before a race I’ll have rice, a bit of veggies and chicken or fish. Except when approaching an “A” race, every now and again Grant and I will treat ourselves to some Roasted Sesame Seed Lindt dark chocolate (my weakness) and a glass or 2 of red wine. I don’t believe in being extreme measures like cutting out any macro nutrient or depriving myself completely.. You still need to live a little! Well I do… Each to their own!

We know you advocate cross training in your schedule. What types of cross training do you do and why are they so important?

I do advocate cross training as I believe it plays a big role in injury prevention and gives you an edge with strength on the bike. There is however a fine balance, especially in season as strength training fatigues your muscles and thus effects the quality of your cycling training. With strength training, as with everything else, it is seasonal. I generally do a big block twice a year in a non-racing block. The idea is to build a very solid strength base in the off season in addition to long base rides. That way, you can be in a constant state of muscle fatigue from heavy weight training without it effecting racing or hard training. Once that solid base is established and racing starts, you only really need to top up the strength once a week or so. A proper periodised cross training program would start with Endurance (low weights, high reps) then strength (High weight, low reps) 3 times a week,and then you go into power endurance and plyometrics which help with explosive power. In the height of racing and traveling I just fit in what I can which is sometimes nothing, but the effects last for along time in your legs!

How does travel affect your training and racing? I’m sure the excitement of visiting different countries sometimes outweighs the effects on your training.

Traveling can definitely have a negative impact on form. For one, you spend loads of time sitting in a plane and at airports, not sleeping or eating properly.In one month of my Europe Trip and Colombia, I was on 12 flights. There is no way that would not negatively impact your performance. You also have to be disciplined with what you eat as it can be very tempting to try out all the interesting yummy local foods! I think it does become easier the more you get used to it and learn to manage it better.

I believe a talent that most top level riders have is this ability to push past the uncomfortable and sustain their effort. Describe the moments in racing when you hit your lowest points? What tactics do you use to get you through or push past those moments?

You learn from experience that sometimes you can push yourself harder and further than you think, but other times if you push too hard in the beginning, your legs just don’t have the answer no matter how hard you try and that’s where pacing and nutrition come in. Oftentimes we all have the feelings of "I can’t carry on, this is too hard, I wish it was over" etc. It’s those time where you need to take a deep breath, and tell yourself that it’s just your mind playing tricks and you can do it, it’s just pain and it will be worth it. Pain is temporary but quitting is permanent.

Let’s talk about sacrifices. Top level racing always has the athlete giving up something for success and it is never an easy road. What does it take to be a professional athlete?

At first the change in diet and lack of partying was a sacrifice but now it has become a lifestyle that I really enjoy and wouldn’t change. Your real friends will stick with you no matter if you can’t always make a social event or if you have to skip the wine. I make an effort to see my friends and my family regularly during the week because I’m busy on most weekends. If it is in season, I’ll just skip dessert and eat healthy. If it’s not in season, I’ll still enjoy a glass of wine or 2, and once or twice a year in the off season I’ll go big. You need to live too, we are not robots. For me, I was a big joller in my school, college, and hairdresser years so I’ve been there and done that and don’t miss it. Its a balance between enjoying the lifestyle but also enjoying letting our hair down occasionally (so to speak) :)

Photo: ZC Marketing

Describe your greatest achievements on and off the bike.

Off the bike, in hairdressing I started as an appie at Jeauval Hair Salon in 2009 sweeping floors and making coffee in Fourways. That same year I won a competition and qualified quicker than any other apprentice. In 2010 I was selected as an A-list stylist. It was a hard journey but I grew as a person so much, I can even attribute some of my mental strength and vasbyt to those days. On the bike I have a few; finishing the Munga and Iron bike were huge personal achievements, in hind sight I sometimes can’t believe how I pulled myself through the dark places I saw. Coming 15th at XCM World Champs this year is another one.

Tell us about some of the greatest moments you have spent on a bicycle...

Way too many to mention! The Munga had so many pockets of magic, out there alone in the Karoo, I spotted an Aardvark on the first night, I lay under a blanket of stars in Sutherland on the 3rd, and many others in the vast beauty of the Karoo where it was just little old me in the majestic wilderness, humbled by how insignificant and fragile I was, yet I found strength in me I didn’t know I had.

Others include a lot of special moments with Grant in our stage racing and riding adventures together. Moments at Iron bike where I had to get right behind my saddle and just commit down the steepest rockiest terrain I’ve seen; sometimes I crashed and sometimes I made it by hook or by crook, the challenges I overcame were incredible in that race! All the jumps, rock gardens, drops and obstacles that I conquered in XCO, such a rush and feeling of empowerment that never gets old. In La Leyenda, Colombia, we rode up a Volcano to 4000m of elevation and it was dense jungle with birds tweeting, it was magical. Winning a massive stage in La Leyenda ending in a town called Salamina we were swamped by media and hundreds of people asking for autographs and selfies and treating us like NFL players! So many moments in Colombia would qualify as some of the greatest, I could go on.

Photo by Cape Epic/SPORTZPICS

Anything in this crazy sport you would like to see changed to make it better?

I would like to see more people put a bigger effort into improving their skill. It would mean fewer crashes, greater enjoyment, more participants and less “dumbing down” of races. If you think of the amount of money people spend on their equipment, racing and fitness coaching; spending some cash on a few skills clinics is insignificant.

How would you describe the culture of Mountain Biking in SA? The sport is still growing substantially in South Africa. Are you proud to be a part of that?

We have an extremely healthy mountain biking culture compared to most other countries. Our races are exceptionally well organised; we have more stage races than any other country, the standard of our racing is high, we have fantastic weather which allows us to race and train all year round, and our trails are amazing!

Thanks Amy, we look forward to following the rest of your journey...

*As posted in Dirtyheart Magazine Oct 2017

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