15 Questions | Ariane Lüthi – Born in Switzerland, Developed in South Africa

Swiss mountain bike racer Ariane Lüthi as interviewed for Bike Network by Myles Kelsey on 20 April 2020 in South Africa.
“…I was terribly concerned about the people at the lower end of society and particularly in the townships of South Africa who will be hit the hardest by the effects of the Coronavirus crisis.” – Ariane

Outside of cycling, who is Ariane Lüthi?

I have a thing against social injustice and a drive to fight it. That’s why I’m interested in politics, listen to political podcasts and follow the news but also joined the rider union for professional women cyclists, The Cyclists Alliance. Together we strive for more equality in the sport of cycling. When I finally realised what this Coronavirus may do to this world – I was in such a tunnel vision leading up to the Cape Epic, that I didn’t realise how much of a danger it really is. Once it sank in, I couldn’t sleep because I was terribly concerned about the people at the lower end of society and particularly in the townships of South Africa who will be hit the hardest by the effects of the Coronavirus crisis. I felt extremely helpless which kept me awake at night. It’s a small drop on the hot stone but it soothed my restlessness a little bit having started the fundraiser #EpicSolidarity. #EpicSolidarity is a Strava Challenge of completing 647km in one month from 10 April to 10 May. My main sponsors Andermatt Swiss Alps and Canyon have thrown in some amazing prizes to attract more cyclists to the initiative. To join the challenge people need to donate R200 towards songo.info. The charity buys food to feed the families of Kayamandi in need during the Coronavirus crisis with the funds raised.

You are Swiss-born but say you are ‘developed’ in South Africa. Tell us about that statement….

My mountain bike career started in South Africa. Before I put my foot into the country, I was a swimming coach and amateur cyclist in Switzerland. I didn’t know much about racing bikes yet. In 2010 when I visited SA the first time to take part in the Cape Pioneer Trek, I met Erik Kleinhans and we became a couple. Erik and my South African coach at the time taught me lots about racing and I had South African sponsors ever since. Without the support of these people I wouldn’t be where I am. Apart from that, the amazing trails of Stellenbosch did a lot to develop my riding. That and the fantastic marathon racing in SA certainly contributed to my progression as a rider.

With the 2020 racing season currently on hold and many countries under various forms of lockdown can you talk to some of the challenges specifically that as an elite athlete, this brings.

I am very fortunate that I made it to Switzerland just before SA’s lockdown and here I am still allowed to train outside. It would be super challenging for me to train on rollers. I don’t even own an indoor trainer and have never done online cycling. I don’t mind too much that there is no goal in sight. Of course, the planning is not easy, but with the training I am doing now, it wouldn’t be difficult to get into race shape quickly. I do some race simulations on an XC loop which keeps me sharp and I use this time to work on my weaknesses. This keeps me motivated. The biggest challenge is the financial insecurity and the worry whether I will be able to make a living from my passion in the future as well. 

Regarding your current form, – its obviously difficult to test under real-world conditions but do you feel like you are able to maintain form and do you have any basic advice to offer on this?

I was in very good shape for Cape Epic and was excited to see where Alice and I could have ended up. After the race got canceled, I used the opportunity of having a media team with us, to shoot content for our sponsors. It was pretty exhausting actually. After that and the traveling which also involved a lot of organizing, I needed a few easier days. I also felt that this crisis is affecting my mental state. My depression was flaring up and that immediately affected my capability. Since I have started a fundraiser for songo.info I feel a lot better and I can sleep again. I also feel a lot better on the bike again. I’m not in peak shape obviously but I am maintaining a solid base. My advice would be to keep some structure, set some goals and find a good balance. My coach still sends me a program, which helps me to keep a good training rhythm. He asked me which weaknesses I’d like to work on and set goals to improve on these parts. If you’re not allowed to go outside, do what you can endurance wise. But maybe it’s easier to increase on the strength exercises, work on your balance on and off the bike, improve your flexibility or train your mind with meditation. I am meditating for 10 minutes a day for the last three weeks. It’s one of my little projects. There is always things one can do even under the most difficult circumstances. But it is most important to do it in a way that is sustainable. We don’t know, how long this corona crisis will affect us, so we better acknowledge that this is a difficult time and figure out a way of training that keeps us happy and healthy of course.

Where is your favorite place to ride and why?

What I love about mountain biking is that I get to ride all different kinds of terrains. The one trail I have a particularly fond memory of is located in the Valais mountains in Switzerland close to Sion. I don’t know why, but it’s called the Argentinian and it starts at 3000m above sea level where the view is absolutely breathtaking – The Matterhorn, the Mont Blanc, you are surrounded by all these beautiful white peaks. After enjoying the views you head down the loose and rocky terrain that one finds at such high altitude where basically no plant is growing. A few 100 meters lower, the trail becomes more smooth through the little bushes that cover the ground and eventually you are amidst the trees and rides some super cool rooty trails. It’s like riding in 3 different worlds. The Argentinian takes you down 2500m of elevation with very few pedal strokes in between and just enough to cool off the brakes.

You have been racing for quite some time. Looking back, which is the one race that you would say you are most proud of?

This is my 10th year as a professional mountain biker and that leaves me with many memories I’ll never forget. One of them that stands out is actually the 100th stage of the Cape Epic that was stage 2 of the 2016 edition. It was the last time Annika Langvad and I rode together. I had a terrible 1st stage, where I bent my disc brake with 15km to go, but not noticing that this caused a lot more resistance I ended up riding myself to pieces. I was devastated to come second on that first stage, after we led the race until two kilometres from the finish. Stage 3 didn’t start that great either, I still felt tired from my effort with the bent rotor and we were sitting in 3rd up until the last long downhill to the finish in Tulbagh. There we managed to overtake two teams and took the win. It was a very emotional win after what happened not only the day before but also in the light of the divorce I was going through while I was preparing for the race.

You have had many race victories. What is the one race that you haven’t won that you have your sights set on for the future?

Marathon World Champs. Since I started my mountain bike career this has been my dream and my biggest motivation to push myself over and beyond.

If you were able to send a message or piece of advice to the Ariane of 10 years ago, what would it be?

It is unhealthy for your mind to put everything on one card. Sport does a lot for you, but it’s not everything. You do need some sort of balance to be able to do this for a long time. A great result doesn’t make you happy for long, it is more important to have meaningful relationships in your life.     

What has bike racing taught you about yourself and about life in general and how was that lesson learned?

Trying to race at the highest level has revealed to me that I am struggling with a mental illness. It came up during my time as a swimmer already, that my brain couldn’t differentiate between a little bit disappointed and absolutely devastated. Whenever I wasn’t happy with my performance it felt like the end of the world to me. I was crying for hours and nearly wanted to end my life. Only because of a bad result. I went to a therapist back then already, but I didn’t quite understand yet, that this depression thing is harder to fight than I thought. It doesn’t work to just pull myself together. Well, it does a little bit and I have been doing that for 20 years, but at some point, I was exhausted trying to fight this constant resistance that is pulling me back. In 2017 when I didn’t win the Cape Epic after a 5-year streak, I fell into a very deep hole. It is thanks to that experience that I went to therapy again and finally admitted to myself that I have a mental illness that I need to take seriously. Pushing myself to the limit showed me my strengths but all the more my weaknesses and made me work on those.

What’s the best piece of advice for bike riding you have ever been given and why?

To do skills training. Jo Dobinson from Biking in the Bosch helped me improve in that department tremendously. It’s so much more fun riding bikes when you have better skills.

In terms of your bike setup, is there anything that you are pedantic about, or that irritates you immensely?

I struggle a lot with sitting problems and am still waiting for that miraculous saddle that never hurts me. The saddle height and tilt is something I am really pedantic about to keep the pain at a minimum.

At the end of a long training ride, when you are absolutely spent, take us through the next few hours of your recovery routine?

An important part of the recovery process already starts before and during the training. I eat muesli for breakfast and fuel myself during a hard training with Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition and their Raw Energy bars. Immediately after I come home and before I shower I drink a bottle of Vegan Recoverite from Hammer. Then I go take a shower and have another meal, mostly some more muesli with fresh fruit, different cereals, nuts and seeds and a carrot. After my meal I take a rest on the couch, maybe even a nap. Before I prepare dinner I attend to my admin or housekeeping and after dinner I do some stretching and foam rolling to get rid of stiffness. If I struggle to fall asleep I practice meditation to calm my mind.

Swiss mountain bike racer Ariane Lüthi as interviewed for Bike Network by Myles Kelsey on 20 April 2020 in South Africa.
“…in my 10 years as a professional I have only broken one bone. Touch wood!” – Ariane

What would you say is the biggest misconception around being a professional mountain biker?

That it is a dangerous sport. Of course, there are different disciplines and DH is something else, but Cross Country mountain biking and the marathon discipline, in particular, I don’t find as dangerous as non-mountain bikers may think. In fact, in my 10 years as a professional I have only broken one bone. Touch wood!

Have you given any thought to life after a professional racing career? Like where you would want to live and what you would want to be doing?

Yes. Last year I considered ending my career because of burnout and I thought a lot about where I could see myself after racing professionally. I came to the conclusion that I would want to work for a non-profit organization as it fits best with my values. For example, I could imagine getting more involved with The Cyclists Alliance which is a rider union for professional cyclists. Since I bought an apartment in Switzerland 2 years ago, my base is likely to be here. But I would still want to visit my friends in South Africa as much as possible and will need to figure out a life after my career that allows me to do that.

When are you happiest and why?

This crisis reveals all the more, that it is the basic things that truly makes me happy. Just to be able to go outside and ride my bike makes me incredibly happy every day. The one thing that will make me burst with happiness is when I am finally able to see my boyfriend from again. He lives in Belgium and the borders are closed so we can’t be with each other currently. //

| IMAGES: Craig Kolesky |

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