Frankie du Toit is an 11-time South African Champion. That’s three National Championship wins in XCO, two on the Road, one in Marathon, two for Enduro and three in Downhill. Humble and grounded, she is quick to point out that some of those wins are age group titles. In my book, 11 titles across so many genres screams talent and pedigree. On her return from the World Championships in Scotland, we caught up with her about making the shift from Endurance to Gravity racing, how it feels to be ‘throwing’ herself down the mountain as millions watch on live TV, how to increase female participation in the sport and more. Here’s Frankie.
Who is Frankie du Toit?
I am a bike rider who is passionate about the bicycle industry, getting more girls (and people!) on bikes and making the little moments count!
Where are you from and where do you live?
I grew up just outside Pietermaritzburg and moved down to Stellenbosch to study. I made my home and my friends down here and haven’t left! The abundance of great trails and lekker people are an added bonus.
What hobbies do you have outside of biking?
I enjoy the outdoors, so I love anything that allows me to be in nature – hiking, running, swimming, camping. I’m also an avid reader and an enthusiastic (but unskilled) cook and baker.
How did you get into riding?
My parents are big into bikes so it was a big part of my childhood. We would go to the local races where my parents would do the longer events and my sister and I would each get given an entry into the 10km fun ride and 10 bucks for a boerie roll while we waited for mom and dad to finish their race. My natural competitive drive saw me start winning the local races and I pushed my parents to let me get a cycling coach and start taking the racing more seriously. After a pretty successful XCO, marathon and road career as a Junior and U23 rider, I fell out of love with the intense side of XCO racing and was drawn to the adrenaline and freedom of the gravity side of the sport.
Who or what inspires you?
There’s a boatload of people that inspire me! To name a few…my parents for all the incredible things they have done together (IronMan, Comrades, Dusi, numerous stage races, multiple bike packing adventures, etc); Tahnee Seagrave for speaking out about the mental side of the sport and the difficulties about being a female in a male-dominated sport; Vali Höll for just being the most incredible rider; all the Saffa boys that are giving racing and the World Cup scene a proper go as privateers – it is so much harder than most realize – I could carry on all day! What inspires me in my riding is doing things I thought I couldn’t – that’s the ultimate rush!
You recently returned from Scotland where you competed in the World Championships. Tell us what it feels like being on live television, with millions watching, as you throw yourself down the mountain.
Haha, to be honest, I don’t think about being on TV – that would make me even more nervous! I try to focus on myself and my riding – if you let yourself get distracted you’ll make silly and avoidable mistakes. But hearing from friends and customers that they saw me on TV is pretty cool – it’s nice to know how many people watch the racing!
Just how special is it to race abroad in the SA jersey?
It’s unreal! Representing your country is the ultimate honor as a sportsperson. Our team kit is also pretty recognisable so it’s so cool to hear people shouting for South Africa as you ride down the mountain. Sharing the experience with the other SA riders, some of whom are incredible and experienced riders and racers, and others who are just starting their international racing journey is also pretty special.
You’ve raced very competitively in XC, Enduro and Downhill. Which are you most passionate about and talk to your progression from one side of the sport to the other?
Each is challenging in its own way. XC is some of the hardest and most brutal racing I have ever done. I don’t think people who haven’t raced XC realize just how deep riders go and how hard it is to stay focused and pushing when your heart rate is up at 190, your vision is blacking and you have to stay focused to send some crazy feature on a bike with 100mm of travel while only wearing lycra and a half shell helmet! The intensity of the lifestyle – train, eat, recover, sleep, repeat – you have to maintain to be a competitive rider is also wild, I don’t miss it! Enduro is unreal – it is difficult in a different way to Downhill. Having to stay focused while fatigued and trying to remember what’s coming on each trail when you only get one sighting lap of each stage is a challenge! It is also slightly less pressure because you can afford to make mistakes, whereas one mistake in Downhill and your race is done. The higher pressure and all-or-nothing nature of Downhill makes it more exciting, the risk is higher but so is the reward! To be honest, at the moment I wouldn’t be able to tell which I am more passionate about between Downhill and Enduro – they each present their own set of challenges and triumphs.
As a South African, what is the hardest part of racing DH internationally?
Wow, where to begin? Visa’s, cost and accessibility – getting there and traveling around paying in Euro’s is a challenge, the lack of up-to-standard local trails to train and prepare on, the lack of support when you are over there. The level of racing and riding, as well as the technicality of the tracks, is so much higher than back here it is practically a different sport. I take my hat off to the boys who are over there trying to make the dream work – it is a lot more challenging than it looks from back home.
Staying with Downhill, what do you believe to be your biggest strength and weakness and what plans do you have to work on that weakness?
Ooh, difficult one! I am physically strong, so I can handle the bike quite well, and I am calculated. I am also good at focusing which has come from racing for so long. I think sometimes I can be too calculated which borders on cautious, I struggle with fear as well in the Downhill. To get over that I practice doing things that scare me – so fear exposure. Also, honestly, just riding more!
What’s your technique or approach to memorizing a new race track, before racing it?
We get a lot of practice time on the tracks we race locally, and they are short enough that memorizing them isn’t an issue. When I have raced overseas, I rely heavily on POVs to help me get familiar with a track. It helps me piece sections together and get the flow of the track. Visualization is also a great tool to get familiar with lines and the track as a whole.
Jumping onto a new downhill bike, the Trek Session, does the high-pivot design ride a lot differently and what did you feel are the main advantages to it?
Well, first off…jumping onto a downhill bike is very different! This is the first Downhill Bike I have had, previous ones were very kindly lent to me for races, but having my own has been a game changer. The first thing I noticed was that it’s super planted. I could go offline and be fine, I could take big hits and the bike would absorb everything. It also speeds through corners, the first couple of laps it felt like I was lagging behind the bike in corners and it took me some time to get used to that feeling! I am not a super-sensitive rider but this time I could really feel the difference!
Whether racing or riding, what is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced on a bike?
I am not necessarily the bravest person on the bike, but I have huge admiration for the younger generation of girls that are coming through the sport that just send some huge jumps and features! I was definitely not doing such big things at their age and still have more reservations than them now! So one of the most challenging times on the bike for me has been trying to get over some of the features on World Cup Downhill tracks by myself, with no one to talk me up or lead me in. It doesn’t sound like a big thing but it can psyche me out! To deal with it, I stay calm and watch POVs of other people hitting whatever I’m trying to hit, visualize hitting the feature, think about times I have hit similar things and then just go for it. I know this doesn’t seem big, but when I was getting into the sport and I saw everyone riding with seemingly no fear it made me feel like shit because I got scared so often so hopefully speaking about it will make someone else feel braver! I also spoke to Chelsea Kimball, one of the girls who rides Darkfest, and she said that she just acknowledges the fear and does it anyway. So I find working through it works way better for me than just pretending I’m not scared!
Locally and internationally, more and more women are taking up mountain biking. What do you think some of the barriers to entry are and why do you think there are more and more women riding and racing?
Yes, it’s so cool to see more ladies get involved! Looking at my own journey, what stopped me from getting involved in the gravity scene for so long was intimidation. It is a very male-dominated sport and I didn’t think I would be good enough and I was worried I would hold everybody else up and didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Once I tried a local Enduro and started to get to know more people in the scene I felt a lot more comfortable but it was hard for me to make that first step, and I see that with a lot of other women as well – they are definitely good enough to race and ride but are too scared to. There are more and more women-only or women-specific events that are popping up that take away the intimidation factor and introduce women into the sport in a friendly environment which has definitely helped. Seeing other women do it also encourages ladies to get involved! There are also more and more women to look up to on the world stage as women are featured on a more regular basis in mountain bike media, which is so cool to see! To have ladies who inspire and show what is possible is so important. I think this cycle will continue – seeing more women racing and riding will encourage more ladies to get on bikes.
Here in Stellenbosch, on top of your training as an athlete, you also manage a bike shop, chair an Enduro race organization and do many social group rides. Talk us through a typical weekday in your life, offering insight into how you schedule everything.
Haha, it is busy – but I just try and use my time wisely! A typical day in my life starts with a gym session at SkyGym studios (conveniently over the road from the shop) from 6 am – 7 am, followed by a coffee at 18Coffee (at the shop) with the group we gym with. We have a shower at the shop so I can shower and get ready for work there. I have breakfast while we’re busy opening up and then it’s work as usual until lunch when I try and fit in a ride during my lunch hour. I manage to get a lot of the Enduro stuff done during the work day which helps! I also try to get on a ride after work, whether it’s one of our social rides, a ride with the shop boys, or a solo cruise. Then it’s hometime, supper, cleaning, prepping food for the next day, and in bed by 8:30 pm latest. I would love to have more time to ride and do specific training sessions but at this stage, it’s unrealistic with the amount of time I have. I don’t do anything alone which makes a big difference – the Enduro committee is amazing and we all help each other, the shop boys are great and although they always give me shit they will also always help me, and my boyfriend, Tim, is the real MVP at home, doing most of the cooking and cleaning!
What is your favorite local trail?
I have a couple of favorites for different reasons – I love Afterburner in Banhoek because it’s impossible to not finish that trail with a huge smile on your face; I love Rocky Zamboa (I don’t know what its real name is, the shop boys have christened it Rocky Zamboa and it’s stuck), it’s a rocky and tech trail that starts at the top of Coetzenburg that’s quick and easy to get to you and is always a lekker challenge; I love Red Pheonix in Jonkers because it’s a high-speed trail that makes me feel fast and I love Plumber in Jonkershoek because it’s always a challenge and I feel like a bad b#tch whenever I ride it!
What are your hopes for the rest of this season and beyond?
We only have SA Enduro Champs and a couple of Downhill provincials left for the season, so we’re nearly done! I am going for the double (SA Downhill and Enduro Champ in the same year) so I would love to win the SA Enduro Champs which is being held in KZN. Next season I would love to go to all the national Downhill and Enduro rounds, as well as get over for more international racing. I am still deciding whether to focus on Enduro or Downhill at the international races as it’s very hard to do both! This is however logistically very hard with having limited leave from work and being self-funded. I would also love to grow our Western Cape Enduro Series to include more venues and more rounds and make it a bit more professional.
| WORDS: Myles Kelsey | IMAGES: Supplied selfies, commissioned work with Rob Ward and social media |