Last Lioness – the Hannele Steyn interview

A little girl is born with a life-threatening heart condition, the Doctors advised her parents to keep her away from strenuous exercise and that in all likelihood she would not live for very long. 16 Cape Epics later Hannele is the only woman to have completed them all. Dubbed “The Last Lioness” she is however far more than just a competitor or finisher of events, she is a former Cape Epic winner, SA XCO Champ, African Continental Champ and has a 5th place finish at World Marathon champs on her palmares — quite remarkable. This is Hannele.

An understandably emotional Hannele crosses the finish line to complete her 16th Cape Epic. When asked to caption this image she replied with one word: ‘Grateful’.

BN: Where do you live and what do you do for a living?

Hannele: I live in Cape Town and I own a business called Passion4Wholeness which develops and manufactures healthy foods. I am also a partner in Breakaway Rides with Katja Steenkamp where we teach MTB skills and fitness.

BN: You were born with a heart condition, tell us about that, how it impacts on your riding and are there any adjustments you make in your everyday life because of it?

Hannele: I was born with a hole in my heart which was a big thing back in the 60’s and the doctors told my parents that I must not take part in any intensive activities and that I will most probably not get very old. I decided to do just the opposite. I think the condition fired me up and it motivated me so yes it did change me. I was also diagnosed with extreme ADHD and that didn’t help me to sit still for very long. So yea, if any of those Doctors are reading this, sorry, but I think I might have proved your theory wrong!

BN: What was it that attracted you to mountain biking and when did you first start riding?

Hannele: I remember getting my first bicycle when I was 3 and I spent almost all day on it. I also tried almost every sport in school and I loved running but didn’t do well in anything really that involved any skill or ball sense, but then I discovered that if I just train harder and longer than anyone else in running and swimming, I can start to beat everyone.

At the age of 13, I started doing some biathlons, athletics and cross country running and I guess I realized that the tougher the event got, the better i tended to do.

My parents didn’t want me to do any extreme activities, but I was in boarding school and hid it all from them. At Varsity, I discovered road running, Triathlon and Duathlon and needless to say, my studies were always a second priority.

After I got my degree, I started to work, but I was very fortunate to get an offer from the President of the ITU back in 1993 to go to the USA and race the Triathlon World Cup series. I never looked back really. I got a 7th in the Elite ranking and won the World Champs in 1994. I also won the Roth Ironman in 1995.

In 1997, I discovered mountain biking after I retired from professional triathlon and that became and still is my drug. I raced XCO at first, then the marathons and now I love the multi-day and ultra distance marathon style events.

The 2005 Cape Epic winners.

BN: Did you have any role models in those early days – you know, riders you looked up to and wanted to emulate?

Hannele: Not really one no. I am inspired by people that are successful in any area though.

Hannele and the G.O.A.T after a stage of the Cape Epic.

BN: You have done 16 Cape Epics. What was your most enjoyable one, your toughest one and tell us why?

Hannele: I can honestly say I do not have a favourite year. I simply love riding my bike and especially to ride it in the Epic. There were 4 that I didn’t enjoy so much, which had more to do with the team dynamic than the route or weather.

Katja Steenkamp and Hannele salute the crowds at the 2019 Cape Epic.

BN: You are obviously smart with your approach to training and racing – tell us about what the key areas are that you focus on to ensure you arrive at the start line in shape. Talk a little to your strategy or your approach to racing which has led to so much success.

Hannele: I have always felt I had a certain kind of instinct about training and health. I used to do certain training sessions and training methods that I worked out myself – long before they became well publicized and known to most. I created all my own training programs but had two mentors who I learned from initially.

I guess my approach has been based around being passionate. Passion for riding is what drives me. I would say from motivation you then create a plan on how to achieve success and then follow that plan CONSISTENTLY. It’s always ket to put in a little more effort or work than the rest in the world.

I use visualization techniques too, but I am very different from most sports people in that I never look at a route or the other competitors and fear them. I am my biggest opposition because it is only me that can push myself beyond the limits, so I focus on myself. I believe in being in touch with your physical and spiritual senses too.

“Life as a professional athlete is about living what you love, but it is not an easy life. It is a very selfish way of living.”

BN: What would you say your biggest achievement on the mountain bike is?

Hannele: I have a few that I am really proud of. Winning the Cape Epic, South African Champs and being the African XCO Champion are really special wins for me. I guess my 5th place at the Marathon World Champs is right up there too.

BN: How has you bike setup changed over the years, what noticeable gains has new equipment made for you and what kind of technology do you think our sport still needs?

Hannele: I am pedantic about bike setup and I believe it is one of the most important things to have right before you start to ride. That is now the set-up of your position on the bike.

Regarding technology, I love it when new stuff is released but I like to test everything myself rather before buying into it. I believe in speaking from results so I like to ride it and see the actual benefits for myself.

On a more personal note regarding setup, I have shrunk 4cm due to two back fusions and had to change my setup quite a bit to compensate. I had my first one in 2008 and the second one in 2013 and did an Epic, 6 months after each one, although the surgeons said that I would have to rest for 6 months.

“I am pedantic about bike setup and believe it is one of the most important things.”

BN: What are your future racing plans, have you set a goal in terms of how many Epics you want to do still and are there any other races you have your eye on?

Hannele: I have actually retired from professional and competitive racing, but will always be competitive within myself and that means to always give my very best at that specific time, but I needed to let go of the pressure of trying to win everything as I am way past the age of becoming better than I have ever been. I now rather focus on ‘not getting too slow too quickly’ – as the years tick on.

In 2011 I tried unsuccessfully to stop racing Elite. It was hard to let go. My team still finished 2nd Elite ladies in 2011. We were actually leading the Cape Epic until a big crash relegated us to 2nd. I stayed in Elite until last year. I eventually realized that I was damaging my body too much at this “mature” age.

It’s similar to when I retired from professional triathlon, it’s not as easy as what people think. All I knew for 35 years was to train as hard as I could and to race to win.

Life as a professional athlete is about living what you love, but it is not an easy life. It is a very selfish way of living.

BN: What advice would you offer riders coming into the sport in terms of equipment choice, physical training, living healthy off of the bike and skills training?

Hannele: Come and see me. Part of my company is to do just that and I love to help people now, pass on my advice and so on.

Chapeau Hannele!


Credits: Cape Epic, Jacques Marais, ZCMC & Hannele

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