Next week LEADout Academy from South Africa starts their journey in Europe and for most of their juniors it will be the first time to taste European racing. Read my interview with one of them, Aidan Van Niekerk
Hello Aidan, for the start, could you give us a small introduction about yourself?
I'm Aidan van Niekerk, an 18-year-old cyclist from George, South Africa. I've been a massive cycling fan since I was about 11, but only started cycling with serious intent when I turned 14. Most of my cycling thus far has been racing on our MTB marathon scene, but since the beginning of the year I've had a more serious focus on road racing. I love all kinds of climbing - but being quite a small guy, I'm pretty sure it's the only terrain that suits me.
How did you start cycling?
Contrary to popular belief, we don't actually live in grass huts and ride around on elephants here in the RSA, so sorry to disappoint if you're expecting a story of where I was forced to ride 30km to and back from school everyday! My parents actually started MTBing to improve their health (and probably because of a mid-life crisis), and being a little 11-year-old, I followed suit. As the years progressed, I discovered my competitive nature and started taking things seriously.
I know you are now riding for LEADout academy in South Africa. Can you tell us more how did you get there and how is the academy working?
Well, I guess Barry Austin (LEADout Principle) was impressed by something I did in race and I got a call from him offering me the opportunity. LEADout academy is actually "restarting" this year after a few years of absence. The academy aims to develop young riders and give them the opportunity to get some exposure against the best juniors in the world when we race in Europe. It was previously know as "ACL" and its alumni include Louis Meintjes, Johann van Zyl, Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg, Jacques Janse van Rensburg, John-Lee Augustyn, and Jaco Venter. This year LEADout will be sending a 6-man junior squad over to Europe with Barry Austin and John-Lee Augustyn as our managers.
How would you sum up this season so far ? Are you happy with your results?
Up to this point I'm quite happy. I really aimed to win a national title, but that didn't go as planned. That being said, my biggest aim is obviously when we head to Europe next month, so I'll evaluate my season based on what I achieve there. In January, I didn't even dream about going to Europe, so having been offered that opportunity I can already view this season as a success.
Next month, you are heading to Europe. Which races are you planning to ride ?
We'll be based in Oudenaarde, Belgium for the most part and will do a few kermesses in the area to keep us race-ready. Our UCI race schedule is as follows:
- Oberöstereich Juniorenrundfahrt
- Internationale Niedersachsen Rundfahrt
- Ronde van Vlaanderen Juniores
- Aubel-Thimster-La Gleize
- Ronde des Vallées
Are you going to ride as national team in Europe or as LeadOUT academy ? I've noticed that none of the races are from Nations Cup calendar, why is that ?
We're representing LEADout Academy in all of our races and not acting as a national team. Quite honestly, I'm not quite sure why there's no South African representation at some Nations Cup events because we have quite a few capable riders who are already in Europe. There's too much politics involved, I guess.
Does the national federation support your trip to Europe ? Seems like an important part in developing future champions!
Unfortunately there's no structured development system like the well-oiled machine that the Americans have. We have to go about covering all our expenses at our own cost (luckily LEADout helps with subsidising certain expenses). For example, bringing my TT bike with us just creates a bigger logistical nightmare and extra expense, so it's staying behind. If it wasn't for LEADout and their work, I'm really not sure how SA talents like Meintjes, Van Zyl, etc., would've got the necessary exposure as juniors. Sure, we might not be a cycling nation like Belgium or France, but there are a lot of young South African juniors who have the talent and work-ethic to become professionals. All they need is the high-level exposure in Europe and they're good to go. It's a pity that many talented guys will never get that opportunity because of the financial constraints of traveling abroad for weeks. It's definitely something that is lacking on the part of Cycling South Africa, and I would love to see that change for the good of our national development.
MTN-Qubeka seems like a team focused on developing African riders, they have u23 team but what about juniors ? Does young riders in SA get any support from MTN team ?
There's no development team for juniors. We don't receive any direct support or assistance, but the feeder team does a very good job at developing the u23 African riders. For this season, they signed a few juniors from last year and, if anything, it's an incentive for juniors to perform.
I have heard you never rode on cobbles! Is that true ?
Another aspect lacking in South Africa is cobbled roads! Besides for a few driveways, there are no cobbles in sight. We do, however, have some really shitty roads which could pass for cobbles - and I spent some time on gravel to get used to a different kind of surface to tar. But I'm looking forward to tackling the pavé in Flanders!
What are your expectations before heading to race in Europe ? Any specific race that you would like to perform well ?
It's my first time ever riding at such a high level and I expect to get my ass handed to me at every race! That being said, I am in the best shape yet, so maybe I won't be too useless. The biggest aim would be to learn as much as possible to build a platform to come back in the coming years. I'd like to target climbing races and stages, most probably Oberösterreich and La Gleize.
Which race was the highlight of your career so far ?
Having never had the opportunity to race internationally, I can't really say I've had any major results. Grabbing a podium at SA TT champs was probably my best ride. It was my first-ever proper TT and considering I was mostly a mountain biker up until then, I can view it as a nice surprise.
In few months you will end your career period as a junior. What are your plans for the future ?
I've never planned on turning pro, despite loving the sport and racing, because riding in Europe was more of a fantasy. With LEADout I now have the opportunity to head to Europe in the coming years as well, which has opened a lot of doors. I'll be studying in Stellenbosch (which is SA's cycling-Mecca) and will hopefully return to race in Europe during July-September of every year. Guys like Chad Haga, Adam Hansen, and Romain Bardet have convinced me that studying and a cycling career can be combined. Perhaps I can do a post-grad course in Europe and turn full-professional in that year. It is a cliché, but we can never be sure what the future will bring, can we?
Do you have a cycling idol ? Or a rider you are cheering for ?
I draw a lot of inspiration from the South Africans on Team MTN-Qhubeka. I can relate to them a lot and have a lot of respect for being able to get where they are. Seeing Louis Meintjes ripping it up on the mountain slopes is definitely something to cheer for too.
Last question: who will win Tour de France 2015 and why ? :-)
Mmm... I think it may be Quintana's year. He's been trying to keep a low profile so far and that may be with good reason.
Thanks for your time!