The name Zandile Ndhlovu may still be relatively unknown in pro mountain biking circles but the newest addition to the Bestmed ASG women’s team is quietly blazing trails for black women in the world of endurance sport.
The 24-year-old already has several impressive stage racing credits to her name, including the six-day Cape Pioneer Trek near Oudtshoorn and, most recently, the three-day Nedbank sani2c in KwaZulu-Natal.
“I aspire to be a stronger mountain biker and, if I can, be competitive in the sport. I’ve set some high goals for myself and hope to reach them.
“Owen (Botha), our team manager, supports my aspirations which is always so crucial for growth.”
As the outfit’s only off-road specialist, Ndhlovu teamed up with former BMX racer Botha in the mixed category for the competitive Race segment at sani2c.
“I’d indicated earlier to Chris van Rooyen of the Bestmed-ASG men’s team that sani2c was one race I really wanted to do.”
Some 4 500 riders participate across the Race, Adventure and Trail components but Van Rooyen managed to secure their spot in the sold-out event when another team dropped out.
“When he called to tell me we had an entry, I was Michael Jackson-ing around Woolies in the Design Quarter. I’ll never forget that happy moment!”
And, says the Fourways resident, the renowned single track and breathtaking downhills more than lived up to the hype.
“No words can describe the joy – it’s heaven on a bike. My Pinarello Dogma XC handled like a boss and the muddy Umkomaas descent on day two made for so much fun.
“Owen and I played proper to the 39km mark at the bottom. You’ll never ride anything like the Umkomaas. Anywhere. Ever. I’m sure of it.”
Because this was her first mixed category race, Ndhlovu says their goals were simply to ride and finish well together, which they achieved in an overall time of 17:21:42.
“The first day from Underberg to MacKenzie Club was okay but we could have done better I think.
“Day two, on the Umkomaas descent, we rode even better together and got batched up. The third day, from Highflats to Scottburgh, was a stunner – I rode hard but I think Owen was cruising.”
She counts this personal “suffer fest” as the low point of the race.
“On the last day, I sat behind six massive Afrikaans men, Owen pacing in front, at a tempo I never thought I could do. Think that was honestly the hardest I’ve ever ridden in my life.
“I was under strict instruction to stay in the slip. I did.”
Completing the race marked the culmination of an interesting personal journey for Ndhlovu, after a serendipitous encounter at the same event two years ago.
In her day job as key account manager for the Itec Group, she runs the business and internet connectivity centre at sponsored events like the FedGroup Berg & Bush, Old Mutual joBerg2c and Nedbank sani2c.
“I’d chat to the cyclists everyday thinking these people were crazy. One day, at the 2011 sani2c, one of the Adventure riders dared me to get a bike. I already played hockey and was athletic so I thought, ‘Why not?’
“In October that year I got a mountain bike, learnt how to ride it as I was clueless, did the Momentum 94.7 road race on it three weeks later and I’ve never gotten off since. A few rides and races later, I knew I loved off-road more and pursued the dirt!”
Then a chance meeting with Bestmed-ASG’s Van Rooyen after finishing the MTN national marathon series race in Sabie saw her donning the team kit in March.
“Being in the same team as riders like An-Li Kachelhoffer and Linda van den Biggelaar, who are so talented and yet so humble, and having them for guidance and advice is definitely valuable beyond words.”
But Ndhlovu faced a steep learning curve at the Absa Cape Epic in March, where she paired up with Petro Labuschagne from Cycle Lab Centurion.
“Epic was hard, we missed the cut-off on day one and got blue boarded, but we carried on riding. On day five a mental breakdown had begun – I finished the stage and couldn’t carry on.
“I’ve never not finished anything in my life, so the cut ran deep. But better, stronger next time – onwards and upwards!”
The petite and positive athlete, whose surname means “elephant” in a number of African languages, always tries to keep the bigger picture in mind when it comes to the sport.
“It’s important to remember why you started riding. When you start chasing so hard that you forget the fun aspect of the bike, I think you’re losing in a way.”
It’s this passion and enjoyment that sees her waking up at 4am to train, while juggling work and other personal commitments.
With many big goals still left to achieve, Soweto-born Ndhlovu does not reject comparisons with adventure sport enthusiast, Survivor SA runner-up and Cape Epic finisher Letshego Moshoeu.
“Massive respect for Letshego and all she’s achieved. It’s when you dare to step out of your comfort zone and try something new that you could find the passion that sets fire to your soul – I can’t imagine life without my mountain bike!”
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