RACER BLOG: Jean’s road to Tokyo 2020

South Africa’s foremost track star recaps his last two month’s of training, travels and racing.

For any elite racer the Olympic Games qualification, build up and participation is quite the journey. What’s more, reaching that ultimate destination is not a guarantee for riders, even for those at the top of their game. Saying the challenges along the journey are plentiful is a gross understatement.

Every few weeks we will check in with Jean as he blogs about his journey to Tokyo 2020. Jean will tell it as it is and in the process offer you insights into the sacrifices, challenges, triumphs and tribulations of his undertaking.

The World Cup Series and World Champs event, explained

The annual UCI World Cup Series consists of six meetings, held in different countries during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter of October to February. The series is only open to the top 45 world ranked riders and since World Championship qualification is at stake, the events attract the cream of the crop. These World Cup meetings have a variety of races preparing and qualifying riders for the events which take place at the World Championship.

Riders can compete for either their national team or their trade team.

Events won and points scored by the riders throughout the World Cup series count towards qualification slots both on an individual level and for their respective nations at the season closer, the World Championships.

The UCI Track Cycling World Championships are held every year, usually in March or April. There are currently 20 events within the World Championships, 10 for men and 10 for women.

The 2019 World Champs will be held in Pruszkow, Poland from 27 February to 3 March 2019.

Food for thought from us..

75kph, no brakes, no way to stop pedaling and sitting in a bunch with riders who are chomping at the bit for a result, with just a skinsuit for protection, it’s fairplay to label track racers as totally cray cray. There is significant inherent danger with track racing. It’s properly nuts. It’s also a discipline that builds a pedigree in riders like none other. The skills garnered on the oval translate to other disciplines very very well, witness Mark Cavendish, Brad Wiggins, Elia Viviani et al.

Jean’s midseason roundup.

Getting into the zone.

Part one – World Cup focused whilst racing in SA

Howzit everybody! Its the start of the end of the 2018/19 season and I am writing this while sitting in a shoe box Airbnb in Hong Kong waiting for our last world cup of the season to commence.

Looking back at the December ‘holiday’ there was a lot of heavy lifting, long rides and bloody throat / vomit filled intervals to get into shape for the last races of the season. On the up side, at least we were not in Europe at that point and in sunny South Africa.

We had SA national championships in Cape Town in December and to be honest I thought it was really stupid having the racing at that time of year for two reasons; 1. I had to forfeit two World Cups and a Class 1 race in order to attend the compulsory national champs and 2. It’s December for crying out loud people!

The first part of our ‘end of season’ stint was the African Continental Track Championships. Frustratingly the event kept shifting in location and dates – it changed from three different countries before settling in SA. Then it swopped between different tracks inside of SA. Then there was a date change which made physical preparation and logistics tricky.

With my focus being Olympic qualification we took the decision to rather build the training blocks around that bigger goal which meant sacrificing some form for the African Continental Champs. Not that Conti champs are not important, they are one of the main qualification/selection criteria’s of the UCI and IOC for Olympics and are a “must win” event for me to keep the Olympic dream on track. We knew my legs might potentially be overcooked at Conti champs with all the training, but we took the gamble.

The racing was decent. It is great to see how the standards are creeping up. Even more exciting is the juniors had some of the fastest times which bodes well for the future. I just hope they get the right advice, coaching and guidance to have an opportunity to have a go at the world circuit.

Continental Champs in Pietermaritzburg was good racing, hair raising at times, but good.

For me, throughout these events (SA’s and Continental Champs) the general training times are more stressful than the actual racing itself. Sounds weird I know. But let me elaborate. Last week was the New Zealand World Cup, the warm-up sessions can have up to 74 riders on track at one time. It’s insane. But it works out ok. Think about that, there were 74 riders on a 250m track at the same time! Pursuit squads, sprinters doing efforts and Madison riders training changeovers, remarkably without a single incident. The main reason is the riders follow the basic safety rules on track and respect one another. Back home this example should be studied and learned from. Everyone will benefit from less aggression and more considerate riding during pre-event final training sessions. Things got pretty chaotic at times at SA’s and Conti champs with riders just pulling up or down the track without considering who might be coming up behind on a fast lap. At 75kph with a 62-13, no brakes and no way to even stop pedaling it takes a long, long way to stop the bike. Okay, rant over. Everyone needs a rant right? I feel better now. But please. Let’s train smart and race hard without silly danger.

Hong Kong is quite the city!

As Conti Champs came to an end Brige [Ed inserts “Boss”] and I had to hustle big time to get back to Johannesburg, change from concrete track tyres to wooden track tyres (seems simple but I use tubbies), pack and race to the airport to start a 24h travel route to Hong Kong. Fortunately, the trip was without too much stress or lost baggage.

To offer some insight into our mid-race experiences, try this for size: so we are donation funded right and everything is on a budget. Everything. We are super grateful for the funding we do receive yet things are still tough. Like, we can’t afford the event hospitality package and this sets up for some really interesting if not challenging logistics like arriving in Hong Kong traveling with 2 bikes and luggage and using public transport, running after trains, buses and the like and then arriving at the Airbnb cheapo accommodation only to find out we are on the 10th floor with no elevator. This kind of stuff is the norm I guess, it happens all the time, it’s just not that glamorous. ZAR’s don’t go far outside of SA. Ok, rant’s done. 

Track racing is big in Hong Kong, real big.

Onto the World Cup: the first days back on the wood is always difficult and different. Yes it’s riding a bike and yes the track angles are roughly the same everywhere but the thing is, it is wood. It feels alive, it reacts differently, the legs feel different, your bike feels like it’s gliding. Almost like when you are riding your mountain bike with the suspension locked out on a corrugated dirt road and then switching over to smooth tar.

Wooden velodromes ride so differently, so smooth, the bike just glides along.

It’s cold outside, okay freezing actually, then when trackside its far warmer at 26°c with 70% humidity and so the body reacts differently in those conditions compared to the ones we race in SA.

World Cups are awesome, the environment is so pro, it’s full-on pro here. We riders are here to do a job and the organizers go out of their way to allow you to do your best. 

We are three days out from competition, I am still trying to find my legs. I am jet lagged. Tired. On my form, the numbers are there and the indicators are good but I am hoping the zipp and snap pitches.

End of part one.

Part two. – World Cup synopsis

The legs came round….

A big thing for us is to make sure we learn stuff at every event we go to. This time was no different. Racing at this level is tight, extremely tight. The keirin showed how cruel this could be.

The first race up was the keirin. It was awesome! I found myself in the right position in third place behind the Japanese and French rider with 250m to go. I just needed to get past one more rider…… Deciding to go around the outside I found myself being flicked by the twitchiness of the race and having to go the long way round. As we got close to the finish a rider from Czech dived down the inside and stole the final qualification position on the lunge for the line. A wheel width seperated the top 4 positions of the race.

Onto the repercharge round. One more chance to qualify. Difficulty with this race is that only the winner advances to the next round. 
Again with one lap to go I found myself in 3rd place. Desperate to get past I waited till the last point of attack. 80m from the line I swung out and kicked as hard as I possibly could. But alas the line came too quickly. I had to settle for 3rd with yet another lunge for the line.
This in the overall gave me a top 20 (17th) not a bad place to be with scoring some decent points. This has also moved my world ranking up.

Round about now i am just repeating the basics to myself and trying to stay 100% focused.

What I definitely learnt from this was that I need to be more patient and wait for the inside gap to open. But how do you be patient at that speed….? Oi.


The final day of competition was the sprint qualifying rounds. The goal for the whole of the World Cup season was to break the 10sec barrier. Alas this was not to be. Conditions were slow and I made a huge mistake costing me time. I hit the pads (track marker) coming out of the final corner. For flip sakes don’t hit the frickin pads!!!
I ended up qualifying with a 10.3s the fastest time was a 9.9 that’s only half a second off. Doesn’t sound like much does it? Well, there where a whopping 29 riders between myself and the fastest time. It just shows how every 0.001 of a second counts in this wonderful world of professional racing.

So, my world rankings as of 29th January 2019 are:

Kilo 15th
Keirin 27th
Sprint 41st

The World Championship slots will be announced on Monday. With these rankings I should be safe and qualify for all three of the events but we won’t count our chickens before they hatch.

World Champs is four weeks out. It’s back to that grind stone, sharpening all my pencils for the final exam of the 2018/19 season.

Jean Spies

End of Part Two.

Quite remarkably, Jean’s Olympic campaign is relying exclusively on donations from private citizens and helpful business owners.

Follow, support and cheer for Jean here @jean.spies

Images courtesy: Shutaro Mochizuki and Brigitte Mileson

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