Ariane Luthi is very much an adopted South African. With a part-time home base in Stellenbosch and years racing on SA soil we root for her as one of our own, so when she powered her way to the podium of the 2020 UCI XCM World Champs recently (resplendent in her Swiss Champs jersey), the Saffa fans rejoiced.
| Interview by Jazz Kuschke |
“For me it’s not just looking (back) at this funny year with COVID and everything, this (medal) really has been a dream for 10 years now. So I am just so incredibly happy with the result,” she said after. “The feeling is just something else, really. Everything seemed to come together this year, regardless of the ‘weird’ year we’ve had,” she added. “My training went well, I got my weight down to where I knew I could be really competitive and I have good product partners and great bikes. Also, the build-up in the week before Worlds was perfect – I had a good mechanic and an excellent massage therapist and all these small things made such a big difference. I’m super grateful to everyone who was part of it!”
Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing to that bronze medal, her highest placing in her 10th XCM Worlds… We caught up with her to find out what she learned throughout her career so far; this more-than tricky year; the XCM podium and, what the average rider can apply to his or her riding challenges. Life even.
SOMETIMES YOU NEED A BREAK
For me it was a blessing to have a longer break than usual. To be able ‘open’ the usual narrow racing focus a bit and do other things. You know, explore a different side of me and not just rushing from one race to the next really helped. You’re always so busy prepping for the next race that there are so many other things you have to ignore and push to the back of the priority list. It kind of jams up you know, at some point you almost feel overwhelmed by all that other stuff. So it was really, really nice to be able to take it slower during lockdown. If you try to be on a high level all the time it can be really draining and – for me at least – the motivation can wane. So, the slightly longer break helped me to get that extra 5% out of myself when it counted. Being fresh (from the break) helped me but in that extra effort and energy into the details needed to really perform at a race like Worlds… Things such as studying the route and working out exactly how much water and you need. Making sure your nutrition and gear is as good as it can be. Now I need to take a step back again and be a bit of a ‘normal’ person and get some perspective on things so that I can go back into that tunnel vision of racing.
DON’T GIVE UP
Eventually, if you stick to it (and put in enough effort), the results will come. I don’t consider myself as the biggest talent at all – there are definitely riders who need to put in less effort for more outcomes, but I think the fact that you have to work hard for it makes it even more rewarding. I have had many very low, lows during my racing career where I questioned it all and wanted to throw in the towel. But I love bringing out the best in myself and figuring out the ways to do that – that part of my job really fascinates. You know, how to do it better and smarter and put all the puzzle pieces in the right place. On Sunday I managed to make the perfect picture with all the pieces I had after nine years of racing full time and that is so satisfying.
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS
Over the years I have obviously gotten to know my racing strengths (and weaknesses) so well, and, while I know (some) of my competitors’ strengths, during the race on Sunday I had to be very realistic and use all that I have learned. I’m more of a time-trialist than a super high-intensity racer (like the XC specialists) so I had to play to that and manage that so that I wouldn’t blow up. During Worlds I had to let go of the lead group on the first climb and that was obviously mentally super challenging. But I had to get over that. You have to play to your strengths and keep believing that your strategy will eventually pay off. So consciously I let them go, obviously not too far and they were gone for some time and I eventually joined again after about 24kms. I made use of the downhills and steady tempo to rejoin, but this scenario played itself out over all six big climbs. There was a lot of strategy at play in the front, with them playing ‘cat and mouse’ with each other, I just kept believing and pushing on.
CREATE THE ENVIRONMENT YOU NEED
I have learned a lot over the years of what I need (to succeed) and what makes me tick. I think people need to find that and then create that environment around them. For me it is to have really supportive people around me. Sponsors and family (my boyfriend’s and mine) have been really important this year. With the sponsorships, there are also always people involved and those relationships are also crucial to help motivate you. Doing a lot of the work directly (with sponsors) a bit this year has created some balance and fulfillment outside of ‘just’ racing for me. It gave me something to do instead of just sitting around thinking about my numbers, which is often a bit counterproductive.
ANSWER THE ‘WHY’
Over the past decade I have often asked myself ‘why am I doing this?’ … Often, especially in the early days. I think that translates to the average rider too. If you can answer it, that creates the correct motivational environment. I definitely don’t do it for the money, I could probably work a till in Switzerland and earn more, but something I figured out is that I now kind of have a bit of a voice and it is nice to be able have something of a positive impact using that profile. I’m working with the Cyclist Alliance and I really love that I’m able to help the women’s side of the sport grow. I had hardly any female role models growing up and I think it is so important that that changes. I hope to help pave the way for some up-and-coming girls (there is so much talent coming through) and that makes me super excited. I found that purpose and that has given a new meaning to what I do and that has been crucial.
| WORDS: Jazz Kuschke & Ariane Luthi |