Checking in with Sarah Hill – “Women in this country require a ton of support…”

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey

Who is Sarah Hill?

I am a 30-year-old professional off-road cyclist who works for “The Threshold Coaching.” I am also currently the head coach for the 2024 Absa Cape Epic #SheUntamed Project which allows me to work with the all-women’s team that Absa will be sending to the Cape Epic next year. On the side, I coach mountain bike skills in the afternoons and am currently studying my Master’s degree part-time in Sport and Performance Psychology.

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey
Getting muddy on the slopes of Table Mountain during the 2021 Cape Epic prologue.

Where are you from and where do you live?

I am from Johannesburg, South Africa, and currently live in Magaliessig which is right next to Montecasino.

What do you do for a living?

Phew. Lots of things. I create individualized training programs for cycling and running for The Threshold Coaching. I also teach mountain bike skills for Skills & Drills MTB Coaching and I’m a performance consultant for MindShift Performance. Currently, I am also managing and coaching the 2024 Absa Cape Epic #SheUntamed Project. Oh ja, I also race bikes both nationally and internationally as a UCI Elite Women.

Cortado or tea?

Tea – Earl Grey is my favourite!

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey
“I actually loved the way the marathon made me discover more about myself” – Sarah

Favourite recovery meal?

Enduren Recovery Shake blended with ice and banana.

Who or what inspires you?

There are two people in my life that have inspired me the most. The first person is my Dad. Not only is he insane for running 11 Comrades Marathons, but he has also completed 2 Absa Cape Epics, a full Ironman and raised 3 kids whilst juggling the CA/CFO lifestyle. Growing up he was a professional soccer player, and when I made the bold decision to attempt to pursue a career in mountain biking after university, he was incredibly supportive because he has walked a similar path in a different sport. The exercise environment was something I grew up in, so being outdoors and playing as many different sports as I could was normal for me. My Dad has overcome so much adversity in his life, yet has always shown strength and adaptability in his decisions. He inspires me every day with the way he has juggled his life, and I look forward to spending more time with him when he retires next year.

The second person, which I’m sure most people could guess, is Theresa Ralph. My fellow JoBurger who has recently moved to Pretoria was beyond a mentor to me when I entered the world of cycling. She taught me so much, from learning how to manage your efforts during a stage race, to understanding who I was and where I belonged in the world of mountain biking. She started off as a mother figure, which evolved into a sister-type relationship. I call her as often as I can, and still to this day she provides guidance and brainstorming sessions for how to go about racing in South Africa.

What hobbies do you have outside of biking?

With my Masters Degree, I do have to admit that hobbies have taken a back seat and life is all about reading and studying research papers and books. I often have class in the early hours of the morning (I studying at an American University) which leaves me tired during my “free time” the following day. I am in a phase in my life where I am juggling a lot. Firstly to be able to fund my racing season for the following year, and secondly to pursue my passions outside of cycling – Sports Psychology. There is an enormous gap in the market at the moment with a lack of sport-specific psychologists, and I really want to make sure that I am qualified and experienced enough to step into the cycling world and make a difference.

I don’t believe my competitive edge in cycling will disappear any time soon, but I want to have a parallel career that supports female riders as they transition through the sport in South Africa. You only truly understand the step up from the National to the International level once you have been there, and the bar is continuously being raised. Women in this country require a ton of support, and I want to be an element that helps get them there.

The closest thing I have to a hobby right now is probably traveling. With no kids, I know that it’s time to invest in myself. Whenever there is a race internationally, I try to extend the trip to explore the world more and more. I have met some incredible people along the way, and absolutely love my global family.

How did you get into riding?

I was a high-performance rower in high school. We trained 10 times a week and dedicated our lives to the sport. When I was in my final year, I was thinking about going to provincial trials and went to my current coach to talk about it. My biggest question was “Do you think I could be great at this sport?”. His answer was – no. As much of a shock that was to me, he followed with, just because this might not be YOUR sport, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other options out there for you. He encouraged that I row in university, however, my heart was already searching for something new. My dad suggested I try ride a bike. I entered an event at Thaba Trails and I fell in love! It was scary, dangerous, overwhelming, difficult, challenging and exciting. I couldn’t get enough of it!

Tell us the history of your racing experience.

I started off racing XCO and managed to get myself a scholarship to a University in the USA. I went to Lees McRae College for a year and then transferred to Brevard College in NC to pick up a BSc degree. Collegiate sports in the USA are on another level. I aimed for a Division 1 college that could provide me with quality training as well as a good education. I was exposed to every single discipline there. Track, road, time trialing, criterium, cyclocross, downhill, dual slalom, team relay, cross country, marathon, enduro, gravel and four cross. I was spoilt for choice and eventually found a love for XCO and XCM. I returned to South Africa bright-eyed and ready to begin working and racing full-time. I quickly found myself splitting in half between short and longer-distance events. My dad encouraged me to choose what I enjoyed the most, and I knew in my heart that although the technical elements of racing were my strength, and I had an unbelievable talent for just sending it downhill, I actually loved the way the marathon made me discover more about myself. You can imagine how much stage racing became exciting too. Theresa picked me up at the last second, to race Transbaviaans, and from there, it all evolved into where I am today. There are times when I miss the thrill of racing XCO, and I do wonder if I would have ever made it to a World Cup level if I had given it 110%. But after racing gravel professionally for a year, I can confirm that if your heart is not fully invested, you are unable to perform to your peak capacity. Knowing what you love and loving what you do is essential in this sport.

Which of your racing results would you say is the one you cherish the most? Why?

Winning the African Leaders Jersey at the 2019 Absa Cape Epic, with….. Theresa Ralph. It was a difficult Epic, we had received a 30-minute penalty after the prologue and were playing major catch-up. Our competitors in the category ended up getting food poisoning and we had the chance to climb the ranks until we came out on top. We were also 6th overall in the UCI elite category at that Epic. What a result for my first attempt.

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey
“…the cost of racing way surpasses the prize money that one could potentially earn.” – Sarah

Whether racing or riding, what is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced on a bike?

In 2021 & 2022 I received a contract to race for an international team. It started out being a promising path to explore the XCO world cup scene, but Covid quickly changed things up and before I knew it I was racing all the Lifetime Gravel events based in the USA. The experience of racing in the US again after studying there was incredible, but I couldn’t help but think I was racing in the wrong discipline. The greatest challenge was training and racing in a discipline that my heart didn’t belong in. I am known for being a multi-disciplinary rider. I thrive the most when I race MTB XCO/XCM/Stage Races and gravel all in the mix. To specialize in gravel made me realize how much I loved marathon and stage racing on a mountain bike. To have that conversation with my manager at the time was like breaking up with a long-standing boyfriend. The team agreed that it was in my best interest not to continue with them for 2023 so I could pursue my love for UCI-level, marathon and stage races. The financial knock was immense. I completely buckled under the pressure of earning enough to afford what’s required for a pro-level racer. I know I keep talking about it, but the cost of racing way surpasses the prize money that one could potentially earn. If it weren’t for my passion for the sport of mountain biking and my determination to simply commit to this path even though I didn’t have the necessary resources was another big risk. I made it through 2023 by the skin of my teeth and an enormous amount of personal feelings of accomplishment. 2024 is a whole new beast, but I will continue racing and searching for potential partnerships to help keep the dream alive.

In the professional ranks, inside SA, who do you have the most respect for and why?

I would say Theresa Ralph and Candice Lill. Theresa for her never-ending support and willingness to help others in need, and Candice for remaining humble throughout her rise to the top. She always has time to share and doesn’t submit to cliques or groups that form in different provinces. Her ability to see the person next to her for who they truly are is a quality that not many people have.

What does it feel like to pull on the SA jersey and compete for your country?

This year in particular, I felt more nerves, pressure and emotions attempting to get selected to race for South Africa. I had set out a goal and wanted to see if I could achieve it. When the selection was announced, I felt this enormous sense of relief, almost like a confirmation that I was “good enough”. As professional athletes this is something we struggle with the most. Comparison is the killer, and ironically when we compare ourselves to the people we once were that doesn’t help move us forward either. I had to learn how to stay in the present moment, and not let my past define or dictate who I was and the decisions I make. When I arrived in Scotland I was so stressed from the travel that my body shut down and I unfortunately got sick. I couldn’t race XCM World Champs in the way that I wanted to, BUT the achievement of getting to that start line was enough to help get me through to the finish. I can’t wait to learn and try again in the years to come. Every time I show up on a world-class start line I feel more prepared than the time before. The nerves remind me of how much it means to me to not give on my dream.

The explosive nature of XCO, the sustained effort of XCM, Gravel, Road or multi-day racing – for you, which is tougher, which do you relish? What discipline scares you?

From an intensity standpoint, I would say XCO, but the nice thing is that it only lasts 1h30. Similar for XCM 1-day events. You go as hard as you can for 4-5hrs and it’s over. Gravel is interesting as the body takes quite a knock over 100 miles. In the US, most of the gravel events I did were much longer, with an average race time of 8 hours + per event. From sore hands to mentally just feeling so blown having stared at the same dirt road with no single track for hours on end was really tough for me.

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey
“Gravel is interesting as the body takes quite a knock over 100 miles.” – Sarah

Stage racing I would say is the hardest on the body. Yes, the intensity is lower per stage, but at the end of an event like the Absa Cape Epic, you have nothing left to give. I have been subject to my body shutting down and me having to pull out of the 2022 Epic, which was the hardest decision I have ever made in my life. It was the loneliest, worst overnight trip in a hospital bed and it took me months to come back from it. Mentally I felt incredibly defeated, so finishing the 2023 Cape Epic allowed me to open the door back up to competing at it again. I am really looking forward to what Hayley Smith and I can do next year. I’ve come 6th twice overall, so that top 5 is within reach if we can remain consistent, healthy, and driven to ride our strongest as a team.

When I was racing downhill in the USA, I would say that was the scariest one. Not so much the track ironically, it was just the fact that you only had one chance to make it a perfect run. I would shake on the start line and scream at the finish in relief at the amount of pressure you are under to perform. I loved the thrill, but when you have a bad run or a bad accident, your result get thrown out the window. At least with stage racing, a bad day might not mean a bad result. There’s always a chance of coming back!

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?

This is a very big topic of conversation. If we look at the investment in women’s cycling on a global scale, it looks promising! We are seeing more and more of the women at the top be able to live their lives as true professionals. In South Africa however, the struggle continues as our economy declines. I believe there is still money to invest in women’s cycling in South Africa and that the financial barrier can be broken with multiple small investments to get our girls up and running.

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey
“To specialize in gravel made me realize how much I loved marathon and stage racing on a mountain bike.” – Sarah

Not all riders have the “luxury” of working full-time and financing their own calendars. To every bike shop that has provided discounts on equipment and services, every product sponsor that has stretched their capacity to allow their female riders to fuel correctly, ride on new tires for an event, replacement helmets, kit to wear and even the event organizers for every discounted entry provided to those in need. We see you and I am personally so grateful for those investments that keep us going.

If you could change one thing about the bike industry – when it comes to women’s cycling – what would it be and why?

I wish it were a rule that there were an equal number of men and women on a sponsored team. If that was one thing I could change it would be that.

4-hour solo training ride on the menu for the day – as you walk out the door, what do you have in your pockets?

Enduren Cranberry Nugat Bar, a banana, ear phone case for music, my phone, apartment keys, all my spares in my Ciovita Carry bag.

What are the challenges involved with being a coach and what do riders have to gain by being coached?

The challenge involved with being a coach is when riders look for instant results. Training effects take time and consistency, and my goal with all of my athletes is not just to provide a training program, but to teach them why we do what we do, when we do it. I understand the massive investment people make in themselves when they get a coach, and I actually want to educate my riders enough to help them eventually graduate from prescribed training. Understanding how your body ticks, what training works well during different phases/blocks, how to taper or prepare for A-level events and how to debrief after a poor performance is what I focus on the most. I coach the whole athlete, not just provide a program and send them on their way. I guess this is where I see the biggest gains for being qualified in Sports Psychology. I know ways to enhance performance that go above and beyond the training program. That’s where I believe I can make the biggest difference.

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey
Hopping gaps whilst wearing the leader’s jersey at the Cape Epic.

Your favorite training loop is?

Through Asidlale MTB Trails right next door to me. Loads of fun single track, it also makes me feel like I’m not stuck in the city stress.

Your dream destination for a bike ride is?

I’d love to go back to Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Both are beautiful places with incredible trails.

Who would you like to thank?

It’s quite a list! Ciovita Cycling Kit, Enduren Nutrition, Vivo Vita Sport for their USWE Packs as well as Alba optics sunglasses. Dinaoactive for their Challenge Tires for Road & Gravel. Cycloworx for their support with bike maintenance over the years. Abus helmets for keeping my brain safe for 2023. Sox footwear for keeping a sense of humor from my toes up. Symtech for helping me with MTB shoes for 2023. Liv Cycling South Africa for helping me with a bicycle to teach MTB skills on for 2023. My dad for supporting my Masters degree journey. My boyfriend, Spike, who parallels my career with his career as a Ferrari Technician. All the late hours we worked and the insane budgeting we did to make our little apartment a home has been so special this year. My brothers for cat sitting when both Spike and I were away on our separate work endeavors.

What one thing would you like all riders to remember/embrace?

“Every champion was once a contender that refused to give up.” – Rocky Balboa.

13 december 2023; johannesburg, south africa | interview with professional mountain biker sarah hill as published on bike network by myles kelsey
All the best for 2024!

| WORDS: Myles Kelsey | IMAGES: Supplied |

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