Doug Ryder interview

The Boland Bank Cycle Tour of the 1990s was a popular end of season sojourn for many of the world’s top professional cyclists after a hard year of racing on the unforgiving roads of Europe.

The 1995 edition was no different boasting a line up that included the mighty Spanish ONCE squad who, along with Team Telekom and TVM were expected to dominate the race and earn some easy money.

But a young Cape Town rider had other ideas and in a week-long tour that came down to the final sprint in Stellenbosch, a plucky Douglas Ryder riding for the Old Mutual SA National Team held on for a nail-biting victory over a classy field of professional and amateur riders alike.

Now the owner of Team MTN-Energade, Doug kindly relayed his journey through the world of cycling from an aspiring pro to running a professional cycling team over a number of disciplines.

CRANK: Douglas, Team MTN/Energade has had some great results this year with talented group of largely younger riders. You certainly seem to have the knack of identifying and nurturing young talent – Jay Thompson, Daryl Impey and Darren Lill being the most obvious examples. How do you manage to identify young talent year after year? Would you say that you have found your vocation?

Doug Ryder: In the early days when I was racing it was easier to spot talented riders while riding with them in the bunch and racing against them. Once they were a part of our team we focused on their development so that they could be the best that they can be. Our team is not for everyone – we have big bold goals, which the riders sign up for and are held accountable too.

Today we are far more scientific; we have dedicated coaching and training from Dr. Carol Austin at Activeworx. Carol looks after the rider’s total health, wellness and training load. Each year when we look for new riders, we get them tested with Carol and she takes them through a full eBike Assessment that includes: body composition, threshold power estimate, pedal stroke efficiency, flexibility and upper body and core strength. Once we have these results the potential rider will go through a few interviews with the team manager and coach of that discipline (Road Men, Road Women, MTB or BMX) and then if we are interested I will interview them as well. Each year we test dozens of riders and take only a handful: if you do not want to be a world champion and if you do not have the will and determination to be the best that you can be then you will not make it with us.

CRANK: Having been a well-travelled professional rider yourself, how much of an influence does your experience as a rider have on your team management style?

DR: Today I do less and less actual team management and hands on rider management. I spend most of my time focusing on the team strategy across all the disciplines we are involved in. I do believe that ex- professional cyclists that have a lot of international experience do make the best team managers as we have seen in many Pro Tour teams in international cycling. We have amazing team managers on our teams that create an environment conducive to successful performance. We also have many performance review meetings which keep the riders energized and focused on their goals.

One thing I must add is that it is very difficult to be the team owner and the team manager. Managing the sponsor’s expectations and managing the riders at the same time is not an easy thing to balance – they need to be separate people hence the reason I have stepped away from team management where possible. We will be taking the team to another level in the very near future, which is going to keep me very busy – you will hear about it soon enough. The future is bright.

CRANK: In the early 1990s you were one of the brightest prospects in South African road cycling. Being based in Cape Town, could you give an insight to your mindset and ambitions at that stage? Tell us about some of your fellow Western Province riders.

DR: My ambitions were to make cycling my career, to make it internationally at the highest level. This never materialized for many reasons, which is a separate discussion. There was a very successful group of us racing in Cape Town back then: Colin Parsons, Mark Blewett, Moolman Welgemoed, Kevin Green, Blayne Wickner and others that were used to winning races often, so when we went to race the Rapport Tour or races in Johannesburg against the professional like Willie Engelbrecht, the Beneke brothers, Fransie Kruger, the Wolhuters etc we raced to win so we did really well. The Joburg-based amateurs were used to getting beaten by these guys’ week in and week out so they had a different mindset when racing. We raced to win and we loved to travel – every race was an adventure that brought us closer together as a team and we raced liked that. We (Cape Town) riders dominated the national teams back then.

CRANK: In a previous article with fellow Capetonian Mark Blewett, he mentions a core group of riders including yourself, Nic White, Malcolm Lange etc that could have gone a lot further internationally. Your thoughts? How difficult was it to carve out a European career during that period?

DR: It was the Nineties and when we campaigned in Europe it was like racing against motorbikes. There were no structures in cycling then to look after young riders; no U23 category or Pro Tour, Pro Conti and Continental teams. We rocked up at races and raced against professional and ex-professionals and the racing was different, really fast and hard. National team races were far more prominent then and that was fun but racing the World Championships was really tough. Back then there were two ‘worlds’, amateur and professional. The amateur worlds were for any rider that was not a Pro of any age group or an ex-professional that had lost his contract so it was really hard. I race in two ‘amateur’ worlds and one ‘pro’ worlds and they were not much fun. My best world’s was in 1993 in Oslo, Norway when Jan Ullrich won. I was in a breakaway with him and Axel Merckx with about 30km to go and was the only South African rider to finish that year.

1994 Commomwealth Bank Cycle Classic: Doug certainly has been around the block

CRANK: You certainly underlined your class by winning the 1995 Boland Bank Tour against the mighty ONCE and Telekom squads. Take us through your buildup to the tour and the race itself. Was there a strong “gees” in the National Team?

DR: My build up was odd as I rode the Professional World Champs three weeks before this event in Bogota, Columbia one of the highest cities in the world. I spent about ten days there and got some really good altitude training which in those days was never thought of as a competitive edge like today. I raced only 140kms of the 260km worlds as the racing was so hard and the course was terribly difficult. Only a handful of professionals finished that year, Abraham Olano won that year on a flat tire with Miguel Indurain second and the late Marco Pantani third – it was really hard and took over seven hours to complete. After the worlds my flight got canceled so I spent some time in Bogota watching Indurain attempt the Hour Record and then flew via Rio back home and spent a day or two there. All this time I never rode at all and when I got home I was left out of the national team and was the reserve. Andrew McLean became sick so I got a spot in the team at the last minute. I had not ridden much at all in the 2 weeks leading up to the event. In terms of ‘gees’ the team was positive but on the first day we lost Willie Engelbrecht to illness so we were vulnerable.

The start of the 1995 World Road Cycling Championships in Colombia, possibly the hardest championship race in recent history.

On one of the days I made the decisive break and got into a good position and then I finished 2nd in the individual time trial to put me in the leader’s jersey. I finished 2nd in the TT to Magnus Backstedt who won Paris Roubaix a few years ago and became a really good pro in Europe. It was a great event with the last stage covered live on TV as we raced the circuits through Stellenbosch. ONCE was the best team in the Tour de France that year with Johan Bruyneel wearing the yellow jersey. In the Boland Tour he won the points competition and I have a photo of us on the podium with me in yellow and him in the green jersey. Old Mutual who sponsored the national team doubled our prize money for the victory as we received huge exposure. The national team that rode that year consisted of Malcolm Lange, Allan Wolhuter, Jac-Louis van Wyk, Willie Engelbrecht and myself.

Eventual winner, Abraham Olano, leads the late Marco Pantani (sporting red Spinachi handlebar extensions) in Colombia. Olano crossed the line as World Champion on a flat tyre.

CRANK: Were you courted by any overseas teams after your Boland tour win, given that several European teams were participating in that tour?

DR: Yes I was and did a stint on a Belgium Pro team for a few weeks, which was an eye opening experience of note in terms of substance abuse by riders.

CRANK: The MTN-Energade team of today was borne out of the IBM-Lotus squad which you started over a decade ago. Could you give an insight into how you got this team off the ground? Did you always aspire to have your own team?

DR: I returned from racing on an American team, Team Plymouth, after the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and I started looking for sponsorship to support South African riders and a team to race around me. I had ridden on the Hollard Insurance and Peaceforce Security teams locally before and when I returned after a few years racing internationally there was no local team I wanted to join. I wanted to give back to younger riders and put a team on the road that could grow to be the best in South Africa. So it was something that just happened and seemed logical.

CRANK: Given that you continued to ride at an elite level while holding down a full time job, how did you manage to combine the two? Could you compare a “day-in-the-life” of Doug Ryder as rider/manager/full-time job/family man versus the Doug Ryder of say 1994/1995?

DR: I started working and riding in 1997 which is something I enjoyed at first. Interacting with people on a daily basis in corporate life was something different to the once lonely hours of training most of the day and then eating and sleeping. I used to train a lot on my own and so cycling was quite lonely for the most part of the day. It is tough being in a relationship with someone like a top sportsman as it is all about you: the rest you need, the food you eat, the social life you lead depending on the race schedule etc. As I progressed in my professional work career and moved from Lotus to IBM and then to Microsoft it became harder and harder to maintain the level required as a professional cyclist although in that time I did manage to win an Argus Cycle Tour in 2001 and ended that year as the best pro rider in South Africa. I continued to captain the SA National team until 2003 and then rode more as a supporting rider to other riders in our team like Malcolm Lange.

When my son was born in 2004 and then our twin girls in 2006 it was pretty much over for my cycling career as our team had grown to sponsor other disciplines like an MTB team and BMX so I was running out of time. I had become a global account manager for Microsoft so I was travelling internationally every month and that did not help either in terms of maintaining any sort of fitness or work-life balance.

A typical day in 2004 was wake up at 4am; ride 100km’s before work, home by 07h30; at work by 08h30. Work until 17h00 and race to Kyalami race track to do another 60 – 90 minutes before dark on the track. Home by 19h30, kids were already asleep, have dinner and catch up with Nicky my wife and then in bed by 21h00 – the same again the next day. In the Nineties it was up at 07h00, ride from 08h30 to 13h30 or 14h00. Eat lunch and rest until 16h00 and then chat to friends and do stuff to try and look busy and the same again the next day.

Early bird: most of Doug's training was done pre-dawn but didn't hold him back from riding at an elite level.

CRANK: What are your plans and goals for 2011 and beyond?

DR: In 2011 we will have a bigger and better program for our UCI Men’s Continental Team with a goal to win the UCI Africa Tour and qualify as many riders as we can for the Olympic Games in 2012. We have added depth and strength to the men’s team and I look forward to seeing them performing not only locally but also internationally.

Our women’s road team will no longer be a UCI team in 2011 as we have lost our star rider Carla Swart (10th in this year’s World Championships) to HTC and some of our other women too who no longer want to perform on the world’s stage. We will have a very young team in 2011 and build these riders to hopefully be the next stars of South African Women’s Cycling.

Our MTB team will register as a UCI MTB team and we will give our MTB women the opportunity to race most of the UCI World Cups to gain as many UCI points so as to increase their chances of competing in the 2012 Olympic Games. The MTB Men will support our Rwandan rider Adrien Niyonshuti to become a serious contender in the Ultra Marathon races in South Africa.

Our BMX star Sifiso Nhlapo will change his focus next year and he will focus on the ABA Pro rounds in the USA as well as all the SuperCross UCI rounds globally. Our mission statement is to become a recognised African Cycling Team in World Cycling and to be a part of developing a South African and African World Cycling Champion.

CRANK: Are you still an active cyclist? When will we see yourself and Mark Blewett team up for an assault on the Cape Epic?

DR: The team and family consume a lot of my time and I ride occasionally, at best twice a week. My wife is running a lot and she wants to run the Comrades Marathon in 2011 so I spend time with the kids while she is training. One day I guess I will tackle the Epic, next year I turn 40 and Mark and I have chatted about doing the Epic so we will see in the future but nothing planned at this stage.