BEHIND THE SCENES WITH TEAM BULLS
A MANAGER’S TALE
It is a quarter to five in the morning and the race village of the 2011 ABSA Cape Epic is beginning to stir for another tough day in the world’s premier MTB stage race. While the majority of the field is being accommodated in the tented village, many of the professional riders are staying in the adjacent camper van area and this where the defending champions, Team Bulls are readying themselves for the days action.
Team Bulls have two teams entered in the race along with their support staff, who are busy preparing the rider’s food on only a few hours sleep after working late into the previous evening to make sure that everything is in order.
These are the men and women behind the scenes, who keep the team rolling ensuring the riders need only ride their bicycles in pursuit of victory.
“What keeps the team running smoothly is that while we all have our individual functions, we all help each other out if need be, whether it be laundry, shopping, mechanics or other errands, we are one.” These are the words of Freidemann Schmude, manager of Team Bulls. The affable Schmude welcomes me into the Bulls ”kraal” of two camper vans, support “bakkie” (South African for pickup truck) and a gazebo which shelters team mechanic Lukas Nottarp as he tweaks the Bulls bikes after the rocky singletrack above the South Western Cape hamlet of Tulbagh.
“I have been friends with Karl (Platt) since the mid nineties when I was still racing as a full time cross country mountain biker” explains the affable Schmude as we discuss the team’s origins. “I was a good rider but found that I was only seeing marginal improvement in performances annually. Combined with my university studies at the time, I was a rather busy fellow wondering how much longer I could continue along that path.”
It was in the beginning of 2007 that Platt approached his longtime friend Schmude about the possibility of managing a brand new mountain bike team with a marathon focus, an opportunity which Schmude says he grabbed with both hands. “It certainly was a great time,” reflecting on his racing career, “but the chance to manage a top MTB squad was exciting and four years later I can say the definitely made the correct decision.”
But what attributes does one need in order to manage the world’s premiere marathon MTB team? “Sure, being a former pro rider is an advantage and you will see that many former riders make a smooth transition to team management for both MTB and road disciplines. But you also need good organizational skills as a well as a calm temperament – things do not always go to plan. When that happens, we need to focus on staying calm and not stressing the riders out. After all, our (the backup staff’s) job is to ensure that the riders need only worry about riding their bikes.”
Friedemann is a very “hands on” manager, something he explains is imperative in creating a good esprit de corps. “It not just sitting back and barking orders. In order for the staff to respect you, you need to talk to them as equals.”
THE SOUTH AFRICAN CONNECTION
It is fairly well known that Karl Platt and his team mate Stefan Sahm have spent a large part of their buildup for this year’s Cape Epic preparing in sunny Cape Town, sampling the delights of the Tokai and Silvermine mountain bike trails on a daily basis. “Typically Karl and Stefan would spend some time in South Africa every year in the pre-season phase,” explains Schmude, “but this year has been slightly different with Karl spending a longer period here in South Africa. Being based in Camps Bay. He also participated in the Attakwas and Sabie MTB marathons. We were also training in Cyprus like other years, but Karl spent more time in Cape Town this time. Stefan was also here but for not as long.”
Another South African angle of Team Bulls is their soigneur, Vincent Durand, a Paarl-based sports massage therapist and passionate cyclist who has been with team since its inception. I meet Durand as he is working on Stefan Sahm, soothing the aches and pains of another long day in the saddle. “I was helping Mister African Mannie Heymans and the Team GT riders in the 2005 Epic when we struck up a friendship with Karl (Platt) and his Rocky Mountain teammate. They had come to that year’s Epic alone without any support staff or masseurs and parked their camper van next to ours. So I basically became their masseur as well, often working until eleven or twelve at night to ensure all the riders were massaged and fed – certainly a busy time but very rewarding.”
This inevitably became a long term working relationship between Durand and Platt with Vincent being approached to join Team Bulls in 2007. “I’m certainly privileged to work for such a professional set up. I reached the point in my sports massage practice where I achieved all I wanted to. I view my work with the Bulls as a vocation which has also led to my other business as a bicycle importer.”
Durand is the South African agent for Bulls Bikes, a German brand, which falls under the umbrella of a holding corporation, ZEG. “I run my bicycle agency, Stage N9ne Distribution along with my wife in Paarl. While I am away with the team, my wife runs the show.”
STAGE N9NE Distribution – The story behind the name: “The company name originated after the 2009 ABSA Cape Epic, which Team Bulls won,” explains Durand. “We had a huge party late into the night and when I woke up the next morning with terrible hangover, Karl and Stefan had already gone riding on the Jonkershoek MTB trails. After the eight stages of the Epic, this was the ninth stage – their passion for mountain biking was evident even after eight days of hard racing.”
THE SCHEDULE – A QUESTION OF PRIORITY
“The Cape Epic is our big goal of the season” explains Schmude when asked about the teams annual schedule. “We tend to plan our season around the two biggest MTB stage races, Cape Epic and Trans Alps, the two intermediate stage races which include the Trans Germany and the Trans Schwarzwald and the international and national marathon titles.”
Other races are factored into the schedule but only if they suit the riders and are beneficial to the team. “We fill up the rest of the season with smaller MTB races and festivals which are very popular in Europe and include road races if the schedule permits. It is important to balance the riders racing schedules with proper recovery.”
While Schmude is a full time employee of ZEG, he coordinates the team from his home in Stuttgart, a set up which he feels is advantageous for running a bike team. “Working from home enables me to be more flexible with my time, which is divided over many tasks. I sometimes have to work late into the night to ensure that everything is order. Media releases and website maintenance take up a lot of time. Even whilst on the Cape Epic, we maintain our Facebook page with regular updates and photos so our fans know what is going on here in South Africa.”
While away on a tour such as the Cape Epic, Schmude often finds himself multi-tasking, which is exactly what he was doing when I approached him to do this article – he talking on the phone while sending an email. “Yes, I definitely help everybody out from time to time” he muses as I note the food table we are sitting next which would rival any hotel buffet. “I was fortunate that I was sort of self-taught in the bike mechanics when I was still riding, so I help Lukas (Nottarp – team mechanic) out from time to time. Shopping for food is also very time consuming, especially here in Tulbagh with town being way from the race village.”
I notice that the Team Garmin-Adidas camp are situated next door to the Bulls camp and ask Friedemann how well Mannie Heymans is known in Germany, given the Namibian’s long association with Karl Platt. “Mannie still has a good profile in Germany, although I think it was better some time back. Karl and Mannie, while not normally on the same team, would often pair up for the stage races in Europe making quite a formidable combination. It is great to see him still doing so well, even with him getting a bit older now and the standard of marathon racing on the upward spiral. His contribution to the sport by mentoring his young rider’s is phenomenal.”
MISTER AFRICAN – The legend continues: Mannie Heymans (40) proves that age is no barrier competing in this year’s Cape Epic with the Rwandan prodigy Adrien Niyonshuti and finishing ninth overall. But how did the nickname “Mr African” come into being? “I won a big MTB marathon in Germany in 1999 and some guy asked the race organiser where the black guy from Africa who won the race was. He didn’t know that I was standing right next to him!”
Obviously still in good shape, Schmude reveals that he still rides when he finds the time although not at all seriously. “I ride maybe 3000 kilometers a year, but to echo Thomas Frischknecht, I don’t train anymore. I just ride my bike. If it starts raining, I turn around a go home. After all those years of training and racing riding a bike is a purely leisure activity for me.”
TEAM BULLS 2011
Friedemann Schmude (manager)