Donovan van Gelder interview

Donovan van Gelder has certainly “been there and got the T-shirt” in endurance sport. Over a sporting career spanning 25 years, it is a wonder that he is still at the top end of whatever endurance sport that he competes in, be it triathlon, duathlon or cycling.

A top triathlete in the early Nineties, Donovan has made a comeback to the local tri scene eyeing out a medal in the 40-44 age-group Worlds in the near future.

We were fortunate enough to chat to the evergreen Van Gelder recently about his long career.

CRANK: Donovan, you have been at the sharp end of endurance sports for over two decades – to what do you attribute your longevity?

DVG: I love to train. I am generally quite a solitary individual and this type of personality lends itself to training for the sports that I take part in.

Another big factor I think is that, over the 25 years that I have been competing, being relatively proficient in more than one discipline has allowed me to race in a large variety of events, which is always motivating.

CRANK: Not many people will know that you were a member of the first ever South African duathlon team to compete in the World Championships in Palm Springs way back in 1991. Tell us about that experience.

DVG: Probably because it was such a long time ago!

It was an exceptional experience. It was my first trip overseas and, as you mention, the first international race that SA multi-sport athletes were allowed to compete in. I actually think that it must have been one of the first SA teams overseas in any sport, post isolation.

The race itself was a disaster for me. At the time I did not eat red meat (my father is a vegetarian) and I really battled with the food available in Palm Springs. As a result I came down with a bout of food poisoning the night before and ended the race on a drip. Needless to say, I now eat anything.

But that didn’t dampen the experience much for me. We had fantastic support as the junior team. Others on the team were Conrad Stoltz, Greg van Holdt and Raynard Tissink. We were completely sponsored by Perm Laser. At the time they had a weekly TV program called Perm Junior Sport and they sent a camera crew with us to the USA.

I think that is evidence of what can be achieved if we support our up and coming youngsters. All of us have had long careers and Ray and Conrad are still at the top of their game.

World Duathlon Championships 1991: Donovan with two future SA triathlon superstars, Raynard Tissink and Conrad Stoltz.

CRANK: You were part of a group of highly talented group of triathletes from KZN in the late 1980s and early 1990s – what made you guys so good? Did you guys have much interaction such as group training or did you do your own thing?

DVG: Yes, we certainly had a competitive local scene back then.

Simon and I are the same age and lived about 10km from each other. Together with my neighbor at the time, Scott Richardson (Springbok cyclist and Olympian), we did do some riding together while still at school. We also ran the odd time trial at Hillcrest Villagers but Simon would have to be on an easy day for me stay with him!

I spent my whole junior career in Simon’s considerable shadow. It wasn’t too bad being the second junior when the first one was winning the race overall. Simon actually won the first triathlon that I ever did and I was second. It was a pool triathlon at Kloof high school, organized by the late Dave McCarney – another strong athlete from KZN. He was part of a wave even earlier than the guys you mention including Nigel Reynolds.

Trevor Meyer, the Myers brothers, Andrew and Mike, Guy Ronaldson and Manfred Fuhs used to put up with a laaitie like me on their weekend group rides. These were hammer sessions up and down the coast and I certainly learnt a lot from them. Sometimes we were joined by ‘Father Myers’, Big Bad Bill on his motor bike for a serious motor pace session. Not all the things I learned were sport related and not all good stuff my folks would have been happy with, had they known!

There were others snapping at their heels as well. Guys like Donovan McCullum (‘Big Don’, I was ‘Small Don’), Paul Kraus (who went on to specialize in cycling and did pretty well), Malcolm Kapp, Wilfred Hurwitz, Wayne Gierke etc. etc. We really had a deep field at the local races.

SA Triathlon Champs 1992: A youthful Donovan with another KZN tri legend, Trevor Meyer.

CRANK: Having been at the “top-end” of the sport right from the early days on to the emergence of the Energade tri series and now with today’s scene, how has triathlon in SA changed/stayed the same?

DVG: Things have certainly become a lot more structured and organized, which I suppose is a good thing but a lot of the innocence has gone.

There were no real “pros” in those days. Everyone had a sideline job to pay the bills and trained around that. Now the guys have great opportunities with regards to making a life out of triathlon and that is definitely a good thing if we are going to be competitive on an international level.

I suppose the biggest thing that has changed is that the whole provincial competitiveness has gone. In the late eighties and early nineties we used to be very proudly provincial and the biggest events were the Fedlife interprovincial in PE and SA champs. I suppose that was a legacy of the sports boycott and that we couldn’t get any international competition.

Energade Series 1997: Donovan pounds a strong field of youngsters.

CRANK: Being a cycling specialist and successful sub-veteran rider, did you ever consider pursuing cycling full time as opposed to triathlon?

DVG: Ha, ha, funny enough I got into triathlons as more of a runner. My cycling only really progressed as a result of my National Service stint, where I spent time in the medical core. Cycling was a big sport in the SADF and triathlon wasn’t, so I spent a lot more time on the bike with some of the countries top riders of the day.

I never really considered myself anything other than a triathlete but there were a number of people who tried to convince me that my talents lay in bike racing when I was a youngster. The late Dave Geoghegan (son of Cyril after whom our local velodrome is named) and Dave Wiseman, ‘Mr. Cycling’ in KZN were some of the most insistent when I was younger.

My strength in cycling is the time trial, probably thanks to the hours I put in with Guy and Manfred as a junior. Those were like motor paced sessions for me. So stage racing suits me because the TT generally decides the GC. The vets have been fortunate in that they have a number of short tours and these I really enjoy.

I have always done road races in KZN, more as training for triathlon but I have been fortunate enough to win my share (first road win was back in 1991). It was only between 2005-2008, when I raced amongst the vets on the road, that I only rode my bike and I must admit that I did have one or two moments when I thought that I might have gone down the wrong path.

I am probably the World’s worst sprinter though so if I finish with one other rider they will beat me at the finish. So I would probably have ended up as someone’s domestique and I don’t think my over-developed ego is much suited to that!

So definitely no regrets and I am enjoying being back in triathlon again now since the beginning of 2009.

Evergreen: Donovan is one of SAs top sub-veteran cyclists

CRANK: As with my earlier question regarding KZN triathletes, we now have Claude Eksteen performing well overseas as well as the legendary Storm brothers still prominent on the local long distance triathlon scene – what makes KZN produce so many top athletes across the board?

DVG: I think the biggest factor is probably that we have always been blessed with lots of events. In the Eighties and early Nineties we had four different series sponsored by: Instinct; Dave Wiseman Cycles; Cycle Centre and Kingston Rum.

Then in the Nineties the Cycle Centre series carried on and we also had the Bananactive Duathlon series, which later became sponsored by Time Freight. The Cycle Centre series has now become the Suncoast Winter series, which is currently sponsored by Compendium.

There is a secret there as well. We have such great weather here that we can race all year around. In fact, although they allow wetsuits, the water temperature during the Winter Series is still above the legal wetsuit limit.

CRANK: Have you ever spent an extended period overseas competing in triathlon or cycling?

DVG: Apart from one off trips to big races I have spent time racing in Holland and Belgium. I have a strong connection with my Dutch heritage and have grown up with the language so the culture and way of life over there required no adjustment. Just hated the weather!

CRANK: What is your impression of the standard of veterans cycling in SA?

DVG: I would say that the top 30+ vets and quite a few 40+ riders are of a very high level. I have done a number of races where the front split of the vets has caught the pro bunch. We have to add here that tactics in cycling does not often result in fast times, so the pros were probably approaching the race slightly differently.

As we get older the first thing that goes is our acceleration and snap. This is why vets racing tends to be at a more consistent, high pace while the younger categories have periods of insane speed followed by lulls in the pressure.

I have always been of the opinion that, if we made up a team of the countries top veteran cyclists, we would definitely hold our own against the pros.

If you look at the pro peloton, Malcolm Lange and Nic White just to name two, are all eligible to race as vets. So 30+ is certainly no handicap if you have the desire to do the work.

CRANK: What are you up to these days work-wise?

DVG: I have an online coaching business called CyberCoach through which I work with athletes of all abilities from recreational to professional. Obviously triathletes and cyclists but also runners; swimmers; paddlers etc. etc.

It is something that I have done since I worked in a bike shop, hand writing sessions for people but now, with advances in technology, I am able to train people around the globe. I currently have athletes in Australia; New Zealand; the UK; Dubai and Tunisia.

In addition I have a couple of sports product agencies that I handle in the KZN region.

My education is actually in journalism and I also write articles for magazines and websites.

Return of the Cybercoach: KZN Tri Champs 2010

CRANK: What is going on for you in terms of sponsorship?

DVG: I currently sponsor myself. is the logo on my clothing. I am also starting a deal with Inov8 running shoes as of now. I have actually been very fortunate over the years as far as financial backing goes with: Mr. Price; Energade and more recently GreenOffice but I like to use my presence at the races to promote what I do with CyberCoach nowadays.

Also, the youngsters need the money, my time is passed and I can support my own hobby.

CRANK: Could you give us an insight into how you juggle training and racing with work and personal life? Tell us a little about your training. Do you train to science or intuition?

DVG: I am very fortunate in that everything that I do, work-wise, is time-flexible. So I have the facility to plan my work around my training. I don’t have to ride in the dark, cold mornings and can spread out the training sessions through the day in order to get in the recovery.

Since pursuing a career in training others, I have spent a lot of time studying the science of training and obviously have been motivated to keep up with modern techniques and ideas. I use a HR monitor on the run and a power meter and HR monitor on the bike and I have a Poolmate swim computer for the pool

I use these more to analyze my sessions after the fact though and rather let my perception and ‘feel’ guide my sessions. I think that I do this fairly well as a result of doing this for  25 years.

I believe that the most important aspect of the training is meticulous planning. I plan my training in great detail and can generally be assured of being at my best at the right times as I know how my body responds to different stimulus.

Whether my best is fast enough is the big question but that is out of my hands. As I approach my forties, I have to come to terms with the fact that it is more often the case that it is not.

CRANK: What are your goals for 2010 and beyond?

DVG: Well… I turn 40 in January so I am happy to race vets in triathlon in 2011. Something the aforementioned ego has prevented me from doing up until now. I am happy to concede that, at 40, I will never run or swim as fast as I have and that age really is a factor now.

I would like to have a go at the Olympic distance World’s in that category sometime soon. Possibly 2011 or 2012.

I would also like to have a go at the Master’s World Champs on the bike. Definitely in the time trial but, if I am there, I might as well have a crack at the road race as well. Again, no definite date but sometime in the next year or two.

Those are the big goals but I really like to race so I will be throwing my hat into the ring at any and every race that takes my fancy. I am planning on some of the Energade series towards the end of 2010. No goal there other than keeping the youngsters looking over their shoulders. It is draft-legal and short, which doesn’t suit me at all and they swim and run way too fast for me now!

Then hopefully some good performances in the Olympic distance, non-drafting events on the calendar including SAs in PE in 2011. Again, that one as a 40+.

Then also some bike races (possibly SA Champs if it doesn’t clash), running races (especially cross-country and trail events), open water swims etc. etc.