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Chatting to Theresa Ralph

A prominent elite racer on the South African Mountain Biking scene, Theresa Ralph has achieved a string of victories and successes. Having to juggle your career, family and coaching commitments doesn't make this an easy task. We have nothing but respect as Theresa continues to compete in the top ranks of the elite ladies racing scene and with a full calendar too. Lets see how she does it all and more...

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Hi Theresa, welcome to Dirtyheart. Thanks for chatting to us. So you are a mom, a career women and a professional Mountain biker. Sounds like Super-women to us! Tell us how you balance it all…

Hi Kim… Thanks so much for chatting with me . Yes, I have quite a few jobs running at the same time which makes the balancing act rather challenging sometimes. Obviously the kids come first – hence I opted to work a half day position with FNB so that I can play Mom’s taxi and assist the kids with homework/projects/studies after their school day. As you can see my day is already full with just that. To find hours to train daily, I have to wake up in the dark to fit my sessions in. I also teach spinning classes at Virgin Active in my lunch hour to get another session in and to get paid while doing this.The other balls that I juggle is my massage business and my athletes that I coach. Added to that is of course …. My biggest passion ….. the racing/professional Mountain biking.

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How to manage all this, well you CAN DO IT. You need to choose the races that you want to do well in and train specifically towards those. You cannot do them all. My coach helps me with my schedule and manages my fatigue closely. Thanks Mike Posthumas at Science to Sport. Get your family involved too as most of the events cater for various distances and make a fun weekend for all. Support from your loved ones is also needed. My boyfriend Pieter is amazing and will assist me where help is needed and even sacrifice racing to allow me to race.

My son has great fun coming on his motorbike with us when we go for training rides out in our favorite training mecca, Dullstroom. My daughter rides horses and we will soon get to the stage of riding together … me on the bike while she rides her horse. My family leads a very outdoor life and we are all able to enjoy the outdoors together in various different ways. Lastly, but definitely not least ….. the support from my sponsors needs a mention. Without them, I would not be able to do what I love. I am able to ride with the best equipment and nutrition, have the best kit and get to travel to races all over the country…. What more can you ask for? Thanks to Galileo Risk, Navworld, Continental, Bolle, Merida, Magura, South Industries and PowerBar for the endless support over the last years.

How did your journey into cycling begin? Give us some highlights of your career so far.

Photo: ZC Marketing Consulting

I started cycling at the end of 2009. My brother decided to compete in the 2009 Cape Epic and I watched him train very hard and followed him closely throughout the race. I thought to myself... I could be good at something like that? The dedication he put in and the hours he spent on the bike seemed massive and I loved watching his discipline. At this stage, the only cycling I had done was on a spinning bike. My mountain bike had V-brakes and I had never done more than 2 hours on a bicycle. The bug bit and I competed in the mixed category in the 2010 Cape Epic resulting in an overall 9th position in the mixed field. There was no turning back after this and Epic seemed to become my goal for the years to come.

I skipped the 2011 Epic and aimed to race the 2012 Epic with my German partner. This was definitely a highlight in my career with an overall 2nd position in the ladies race. I was selected to represent SA in the World Marathon Champs in 2012 in France, another career highlight. Some other highlights included getting my SA Marathon stripes when I won the SA Marathon champs for my category in 2016. In 2017 I have managed to get some good podiums too, winning Transbaviaans for the 3rd time running in the ladies race, winning the Solo Ladies at the Knysna Bull and well as the Kalahari Challenge with Sam Sanders.

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We don’t like to talk too much about age, but you are still highly competitive with the youngsters biting at your heels… do you see age as a limiting factor or a motivator?

Yes …. We do not mention age in this sport , it is just a number. I must admit that in my late 30’s when I started racing, I felt invincible and recovered extremely fast. These days, it seems to take just that little bit longer to get the fatigue out of the muscles. I am not sure whether it is an age thing or the fact that racing has become much more intense over the past few years and the hammering on the body is just at a higher level. I try to manage this regardless.

I do think that the youngsters do have an advantage with their muscles being able to go flat out as the gun goes. Being those few years older it does seem to take a little longer to warmup. However with that said, being that little bit older also has its advantages …. At my age, you have built a solid diesel engine that can just keep going and endurance is definitely on your side. The youngsters are still developing this and if the race is long enough may have a diesel engine passing them in the last few kilometers. I think that age will become a limiting factor at some stage and for each person, it will be a different number. If you look at the likes of Jennie Stenerhag and Sabine Spitz and even Gunn-Rita DahleFlesja, we are all in our 40’s and still highly competitive at elite levels.

I think that age is definitely a motivator. I was chatting to Jane Seggi at last years W2W Adventure and we both agreed that we will have to stop racing at some stage, but do we really want to let go? We all have it in our DNA and the benefits are huge. Your body stays healthy and having the outdoor lifestyle seems to keep you young. Having an active body also keeps an active mind and gives you energy in the day to be an energetic mother and partner.

Seen as we are on the topic, do you think there is an age limit on a competitive cycling career? What are your thoughts on that?

There is definitely not an age limit on a competitive cycling career. I think that it varies from person to person. I do however think that us ladies have a longer racing bracket compared to the men. Men seem to last into their late 30’s while the ladies seem to go into their 40’s at Elite level. Having said this, I do think that cycling is one of the sports that has a long life span compared to other sports. Racing bikes starts as early on as the 94.7 kiddies race (Ages 4/5) to a 90yr old completing the 95km road race. I also think that athletes that used to compete at Elite/professional level don’t really ever stop being competitive, they just move into the category and keep racing, I.e: Sub-Vet/Vet/Masters. If you have a look at the Master Men field that competes in all the major races in the country, it is still a highly competitive field with a Master often finishing on the overall podium.

We think of all the top level riders in South Africa, you represent a very achievable dream for lots of aspiring female riders. You have managed a successful career, a family and less time on the bike as full time riders, and yet you are one of SA’s best female mountain bikers. What has helped you to achieve that? And stay at the top of your game?

In addition to what I already mentioned and what you highlighted in your question is how to stay competitive on the bike while actually spending less hours than what the full time athletes do. My answer would be to get a good coach. There is definitely a science behind training properly and with a trained professional assessing your performance and most importantly monitoring your fatigue, you can stay at the top of your game. Spending hours and hours on the bike daily is not the way to train. It has been proven that in most cases, Less is More. This doesn’t mean that you should get lazy, what it does mean is that you do your quality session properly and your recovery sessions in the correct zones. Many people go out and train in a zone 3 or 4 zone with every ride that they do. This results in racing in those zones as this is what you have trained your body to do. With structures sessions that push you beyond this into higher zones and other structures sessions that force you to train in lower zones to allow recovery, you will see a great improvement in your racing.

Has being a women impacted you at all, on or off the bike? What are your thoughts on equality in our sport?

Being a woman in sport definitely has some disadvantages. Living in Johannesburg with many incidents of crime and accidents on the road disables your opportunity to go out and train alone. I actually can never train alone. It is just too risky. So I find myself often doing indoor sessions for my quality sessions. I luckily have a group of talented men (The Bus Boys) that I often train with on the other days and we have formed a really great cycling family who protect me. Equality in sport is rather a hot topic these days in the MTB world and it is wonderful to see that many races have come to the party by making the prize money equal for both the men and ladies fields. This is definitely a step in the right direction and soon it will be the norm.

Another changing aspect in ladies MTBing is the ladies separate start. With the ladies category getting stronger and stronger I think that thisneeds to be applied to all races. Cape Epic, Nissan Trailseeker and the National MTB Series all have a ladies separate start and should be applied to more races that have a strong ladies field. Whines2Whales would be a good one to adopt this next? The ladies racing at this event was even closer than the men’s racing. Incredible!

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Another bug to bear with regards to equality in ladies sport is the coverage of the ladies racing. The men’s racing gets much better coverage and a much bigger percentage of airtime. With ladies racing going to new heights in the past few years, I definitely think that the race should be covered equally. Watching the ladies race at W2W Race this year, was nail biting stuff. Each stage was won by a different team and the overall 5 top ladies teams were just minutes if not seconds apart. This was closer than the men’s race at the same event. We have world class athletes coming over to our country to race our events and our SA ladies are up there with them. Super proud! I am excited to see what the new year of racing brings as I am sure that events will do something about this issue. I am aware that Vanessa Bell will be following the ladies race at the Nissan Trailseeker and National MTB series events to cover the social media aspect. I hope that other events will also have this additional coverage.

Lastly my biggest bug to bear in the entire sport, be it on the men or ladies side is the stance on anti-doping. Many of us athletes that have been disadvantaged due to an athlete ‘cheating or doping’ and feel very strongly about this very touchy topic. Prize money has been lost along with podium places and recognition as a result. I speak for myself, as well as many other riders and I feel that all races should take the stance of banning previously banned athletes for life. Many races have already taken this stance I believe that this is the only way to clean-up the sport and I urge all races to follow suit.

What advice would you give a rider looking to move into competitive events and races and doesn’t know where to start?

Firstly get a coach to assist you.

There are only benefits:

1. A coach can correct your cycling technique to improve your power through your pedal stroke.

2. A coach can put together a personalized training program to suit your fitness level, your goals and your available time.

3. A coach will motivate you to push harder and also show you where you have improved if you cannot see it yourself.

4. A coach will provide an element of accountability/guilt so that you train even though you may not feel like it.

5. A coach can answer any training questions you may have and provide you with feedback on your own training.

6. A coach will also hold you back when you are sick or injured and advise you to recover fully before you attempt intense sessions again.

Just remember that what you put in is what you get out – so along with a good coach go many other elements. Diet, sleep, stress, equipment, nutrition, recovery management can help you to improve. Get professional assistance in these areas.

What is the current climate of female mountain bike racing in South Africa? Is the field growing with quality riders?

Wow what a jump in the past few years and most of all in the past year. I would say that the field is growing as well as the level of racing. A great deal of the SA lady Pro’s have gone full time Professional. They have given up their day jobs and have acquired top level coaches too. I also see many international professional women coming over to partner with our SA ladies in stage races. This just shows that out ladies are racing at world class level and this should be recognized. The racing has also become really close in the ladies race. Many a sprint finish has happened at our National series events as well as at the bigger stage races. This is so refreshing and it just shows how the level has skyrocketed. At many of the events the winning ladies team comes in the top 20 or even the top 10 OVERALL in the GC. Class! Exactly the reason why the ladies race needs to be covered equally.

Share your highlights of 2017

2017 has been a solid year once again. With so many stage races on the calendar I need to pick and choose and schedule my training/racing program around these lovely events. We are so spoilt for choice these days in our beautiful country. As mentioned above, my highlights of the year have been Transbaviaans (for the 3rd time running) in the ladies field with Sarah Hill, winning the Solo Ladies at the Knysna Bull and well as the Kalahari Challenge with Sam Sanders. I won the FNB Magalies Monster and I think that I have won the Nissan Trailseeker Gauteng series with a few stage wins throughout the year. I placed 1st in my Vet age category in all the events. Being the fastest old lady is not the worst thing. LOL

Photo credit: Emma Hill

We wish you all the best for the next year of racing and thanks for taking some time out to chat!

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