Within the sport of professional cycling comes a certain degree of uncertainty with regards to employment and December 2010 highlighted this fact with implosion of the much vaunted Pegasus pro cycling team due to licensing issues with the world governing body. This meant that a couple dozen riders and staff were suddenly without work for 2011 including four South African riders: Robbie Hunter, Daryl Impey, Jay Thomson and Cape Town’s own Darren Lill.
While Hunter and co managed to find alternative employment fairly quickly, Lill was left stranded and without any viable options to return abroad, prospects were looking bleak for 2011 until he signed with DCM at the eleventh hour.
Lill certainly has been through the “school of hard knocks” since bursting on to the local scene in 2001 as a fresh-faced eighteen year-old, quietly building up an impressive palmares both locally and abroad.
We were fortunate to speak to Darren shortly after his inspired victory at the South African Road Championships held in Port Elizabeth earlier this month.
CRANK: Congratulations Darren, you are the 2011 SA Road Champion. Was this a major objective for you? Could you give us a bit of insight into your preparation for the championship? Any specific training or just base miles?
Darren Lill: Thanks. Yes, it was a major objective for me. I’d been thinking about winning SA’s since late November when I started training again, and when the international team I had signed with, Pegasus Sports, collapsed in December, I was even more determined to win it.
I did do base miles, but started with specific strength and intensity work earlier than I usually would have due to SA’s being so early in the season.
CRANK: You also were on the podium in the individual time trial on the preceding Thursday. How did you spend the days into between the time trial and road race? Give us an insight into your typical daily routine between these two disciplines.
DL: Well, it was only one day in-between really, the Friday. I took it easy, slept in as late as possible, which for me means around 7am! I then went for a 2hr spin with my teammates, and met up with our MTB half, Brandon Stewart & Max Knox, for a coffee during the ride. After that, just put my feet up and focused on what I wanted to do during the race the following day.
CRANK: You were one of the four SA riders affected by the already well documented demise of the Pegasus outfit. How badly did this affect you? Were you in South Africa when you found out the news?
DL: I was in SA, and found out pretty much just before Christmas, so the timing couldn’t have been worse. It didn’t affect me too much at the time, because the team was still saying that there was a good chance of them working things out, and that they had the finance in place to run the team as a Pro-Continental outfit. At short notice we all re-signed new contracts for less pay on the hope that the team would still continue, but the UCI denied us the license. After that, it was just one story after the next from all sides. Obviously things didn’t pan out, but it was a while before the reality of it set in.
CRANK: You are now riding for Ian van der Walt’s DCM team – how did this come about? With Robbie
Hunter being snapped up by Radioshack, Jay Thompsom going back to the USA and Darryl Impey signing for MTN-Quebekha, all within a short space of time, did you have any other overseas options? How did you spend December and January with such uncertainty?
DL: I didn’t have any financially viable options to go back overseas. I have a wife and commitments here in SA, and it was just too late to be offered what I’m worth. By December most teams have their budget allocated and their riders signed, so finances are scarce.
I didn’t really spend December and January with uncertainty. I had faith that God had a plan for my wife and I, and if that didn’t involve cycling, I was fine with that. I just focused on SA Champs and on Tour of SA where I had some options to ride as a guest rider for a couple of teams. I was prepared to stop riding after that if nothing had come up.
I had been speaking to DCM on and off. Ian Mcleod was down in Cape Town in December and we’d discussed the possibility of my riding for DCM if things “went south” with Pegasus. In January, I was looking into a couple of options for the Tour of SA, when my friend, Alan Hodson, said he’d call up Ian van der Walt about me riding for DCM. At that point I called up Ian Mcleod again, and discussed the option of riding for them for the whole year, not just for tour of SA. Long story short, I flew up to Jo’burg that week, met with Ian van der Walt, was happy with everything, and signed on the spot.
CRANK: You have been riding in the US for several years with some solid results. Do you still aspire to race professionally in Europe?
DL: After the blow of the whole Pegasus fiasco, I’m not putting too much emphasis on it right now. I’m just going to take things as they come this year, and not base too much on where I may or may not be next season.
CRANK: A former US-based Kiwi pro once said that with criterium racing being huge in the States, the US pro riders are all clones of a fictitious figure called “Crit Man” – he who trains one hour per day and lives on Red Bull! What is the US racing really like? Is criterium racing really the staple diet over there?
DL: Not at all. There are some “crits” with decent prize money in the States, and one could probably make a career over there as a “crit” specialist, but I definitely don’t think it supersedes the tours they have. A lot of the tours do have a downtown criterium stage in them, which is actually great for spectators and draws a lot of attention to the tour. SA should really look into doing something similar to draw spectators.
CRANK: You first came to prominence as an unknown eighteen year old mixing it with the big boys in the
2001 Giro del Capo and Argus Cycle Tour. What is your cycling background – did you race extensively as a junior?
DL: I was a fun-rider from a young age, doing the Argus on a MTB, etc, but never really started racing seriously until I was a 2nd year junior. I did Juniour tour in Ermelo, and my 1st national champs (in Port Elizabeth ironically), where I finished 3rd. I haven’t participated in many national championships, but three of them have been in Port Elizabeth; 2000 – 3rd, 2006 – 2nd, & 2011 – 1st. So I have a good track record there.
CRANK: You’ve been part of several teams both here in South Africa and abroad. What are your thoughts on the local pro scene today versus when you started with the IBM Lotus team ten years ago?
DL: Unfortunately, from what I have seen so far, I would have to say that I don’t think things have progressed all that much in terms of SA teams and racing.
CRANK: Give us an example of a typical day-in-the-life of Darren Lill when back here in Cape Town. Do you keep a routine with regards to training, resting, massage etc?
DL: Routine is very important. I like to head out the door for training ASAP in the morning. The longer I leave it, the more my motivation wanes. I’m definitely a morning person. After training, lunch and a nap are usually the order of the day, depending on other commitments. I try to get regular massages as well, especially during intensive training.
CRANK: We saw you at the 2010 Anchorman Challenge in your hometown of Fish Hoek during December. Not only did you compete in the MTB leg, but you were quite competitive in the running discipline as well. Do you run or do any other sports during the off-season?
DL: I think I did better in the run than in the MTB, as I’d only just started riding again after a month off! I like to do trail running in the off-season. I enjoy a host of other activities, like surfing, but unfortunately have to leave stuff like that on the back burner while I’m still a cyclist. I build excess muscle mass in my upper-body quickly, and it takes a long time to lose that weight again on the bike. Other than that, diving, spear fishing, fishing, and competition shooting are some of the other sports I enjoy.