Amputee athlete Reuben van Niekerk talks training, racing and giving back

Catching up with: Reuben van Niekerk

Amputee athlete Reuben van Niekerk talks training, racing and giving back
“….There was a big perception that the Epic was almost impossible, even for an able-bodied rider. Like it was really on a pedestal (which it still is, and takes serious commitment), but I think by me doing it, it showed what was possible….” – Reuben.

Reuben van Niekerk lost the lower part of his one leg in 2008 after a truck crashed into his motorcycle. The accident didn’t keep him off the bike for very long however and less than a year after he was back in training and eyeing big things.

In 2014 he became the first lower-limb amputee to complete the Absa Cape Epic. He went on to finish five in a row, in the process becoming the first person with any disability to join the hallowed Amabubesi Club (for three-time finishers). Through it all the man from Centurion has worked hard to help inspire other amputees, both young and old, to reach for their dreams. We recently had a chat with him.

Amputee athlete Reuben van Niekerk talks training, racing and giving back
Reuben is a hero and inspiration for all.

Firstly, let’s talk about those Cape Epics. All five of them! Haha, yeah, I was riding a wave of sorts, you know… But no, that first one (with Dagmar Muhlbauer) in particular was really cool, because no lower-limb amputee had done it. There was a big perception that the Epic was like almost impossible, even for an able-bodied rider. Like it was really on a pedestal (which it still is, and takes serious commitment), but I think by me doing it, it showed what was possible. It sort of paved the way and broke some barriers. After that, the base fitness was there and it was easy to get into the conditioning every year. It became a big part of my life – kind of became routine, but I think that’s also why I’ve taken a bit of a break since 2018. Now we (Kevin Benkenstein and I with whom I’ve done most of my Epics) have started to feel the itch to roll it again though. 

Benky can be a bit of a bad (good) influence, right? Haha, I’ve gotten into the gravel riding thing a bit over the past few years and it has been quite fun. Being mates with Kevin you can’t help it! We’ve been enjoying the longer events, such as Race to the Sun and have also done some tours.

Being a motoring journalist and classic car collector, you’re a bit of a petrolhead — does that translate well to bikes? Indeed, I’ve always been quite mechanical and have built up many of my own bikes. For the gravel thing, I recently built up a rigid hardtail because of the gearing that gives you. Back when Santa Cruz wasn’t really yet that big in South Africa and you couldn’t buy complete builds I bought a Tallboy frame and built it up to my own spec. I’ve always enjoyed that and sometimes I feel like it offers better value because from the start you have all the stuff that you want. I also recently did a home mechanic’s course through the Cytech guys which was really helpful. I went on the course because there are so many little tricks and finicky things – like removing a BB – that kind of stuff I’d never done. I guess it also comes from lockdown a bit where for a long time there the bike shops were closed and one had to be more self-reliant – if you had a problem you’d have to sort it out for yourself.

Amputee athlete Reuben van Niekerk talks training, racing and giving back
Almost every image you’ll see of Reuben has that infectious smile.

So lockdown forced you to get even more hands-on with your bikes. Did it also turn you into a bit of an indoor racing junkie, like so many others? It didn’t, hey! I have rollers and don’t own a smart trainer, so I was on rollers for those initial weeks and doing crossfit workouts at home. Then when we got the 6-9am I was outside on the bike. I’ve never been super keen on the whole indoor thing: Working from home, I want to get out of the house, that is what riding means to me. I guess that is also why I’ve been mostly a mountain-bike and gravel guy – riding bikes is about getting out there.

You’ve always been big on giving back and raising funds and awareness for amputees, are you still doing a lot of that type of work? Since doing that first Epic I’ve been in touch with a lot of people who were about to get amputated or were post amputee. Many were looking for advice on how to get the best solution(s) and get back into riding bikes. I enjoy being an advisor or sounding-board of sorts. I didn’t have someone so it’s good for me to be able to help. As an amputee athlete, I know the frustrations that people like me have to deal with. Then, I’ve also been actively involved in the Jumping Kids Foundation since that first Epic. The NGO was set up by Johan Snyders, who does my prosthetic, and I often go meet with some of the kids. The main aim behind Jumping Kids is to help take kids out of special schools and put them in normal schools and show them that they can become whatever they want – a plumber, or a pilot or whatever. Many of these kids don’t have prosthetics so they’re in a wheelchair and it’s almost as though their mindsets change when you show them that it’s not necessary (to be in a wheelchair or in the special school system). So, for me, that is about showing that an amputee can build any kind of career, drive cars and the like. It not just about sport.

Amputee athlete Reuben van Niekerk talks training, racing and giving back
Working hard on one of the link roads of the Cape Epic.

What is next for you? Racing is starting up again, which is cool. I do like how some events have adapted where it’s basically a time trial and you have like three days to go set a time. I’ve never been a fan of overcrowded parking and clogged trails so I’m excited because events have evolved. I have been looking at the Swartberg and Karoo to Coast however for the near future and then definitely another Absa Cape Epic somewhere down the line. //

Follow Reuben: @reubenvn


| WORDS: Jazz Kuschke, IMAGES: Cape Epic, Kevin Benkenstein |



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