Trailblazing riders conquer mountains to inspire women cyclists
Cape Town-based cyclists Tegan Phillips and Renata Bossi took on the challenging three-day KAP sani2c mountain bike race recently. The pair are part of the Wintergreen Barrier Breakers cycling team, which aims to inspire and connect women, empowering them as cyclists at every level.
The Wintergreen Barrier Breakers cycling team organises group rides, events and workshops, and tells the stories of women in cycling. Recently, they shared their experience of sani2c to break down the perception that these events might be too “hardcore” for an “ordinary person” who loves riding their bike.
In fact, there has certainly been an uptick in women taking on the sport of mountain biking, with women-only riding groups and skills clinics popping up across the country. But at mountain biking events, and particularly stage races, the percentage of women taking part is still quite low – 14% in the case of sani2c.
A member of the Wintergreen Barrier Breakers, 28-year-old comic illustrator Tegan Phillips is primarily an endurance road cyclist. “I was always bad at sport, but in 2014 I discovered cycling and I wasn’t terrible at it,” she says. Phillips entered a race using her mom’s bike and loved it so much she went out and bought the helmet and all the gear, and became serious about riding.
In 2015, she spent a year cycling 11,000km through Africa with her family. In February 2021, she cycled for five days from Cape Town to the Namibian border and back, covering 1,400km. And that was just a training ride for the mammoth task she has set for herself in early 2022: to set the women’s world record for cycling from Cairo to Cape Town.
Although she is an expert rider and an adventurous, accomplished road cyclist, her experience of mountain biking is quite limited, especially riding singletrack – a trail that is about the width of the bike and can have obstacles such as rocks and ruts. Sani2c is known for its high proportion of flowing singletrack, where very high levels of technical skill are not needed.
So she started to train more seriously and got a coach. Soon, she was invited to join Renata Bossi in the Wintergreen Barrier Breakers and got a mountain bike for a training camp in the Tankwa Karoo in October 2020.
“I was surprised to see how many women are involved in mountain biking compared with road cycling. I think a lot of women prefer the trails as they feel safer than on the road.
“My advice, and it’s the advice I was given, is to enter a race. There will never be anything so technical that you can’t just get off your bike and walk for a bit, and in a race you are pushed out of your comfort zone so you learn really fast. It’s a way of forcing yourself to practise.”
Bossi and Phillips started the “SHEveresting” platform as a way for women to take on the Everesting challenge as a group. Everesting is a recent trend in cycling – you find a hill and ascend and descend it as quickly as you can, climbing a total of 8,848m (the elevation of Mount Everest), as one activity. The pair have hosted SHEveresting events in Cape Town and Joburg.
About mountain biking, Phillips explains: “Going over obstacles… can be quite intimidating, you have to learn to trust what your bike can do. When the [Wintergreen Barrier Breaker] team entered PE2Plett in February, I did not realise exactly what I was committing to, but during the race I got through that barrier of trusting my bike. Having a partner like Renata who is a capable mountain biker makes a huge difference because you have to focus on keeping up, and I was constantly surprising myself with what I could do.
“For Renata and me, doing the sani2c in May was a way for us to communicate with and encourage other women to try things like this. We have received so many messages from women who have now bought a mountain bike or entered a race after seeing our journey in stage racing [on Instagram].”
The KAP sani2c is one of the oldest stage races in the country, founded by dairy farmer Glen Haw as a school fundraiser in 2005. It has grown into the largest stage race in the world, and travels 266km over three days from Himeville at the base of the Sani Pass in the southern Drakensberg, down to the sea at Scottburgh on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.
The event is known as one involving the communities along the route, where volunteers from farmers’ organisations, schools and charities provide the services to the event, from catering to trail building and maintenance, and a shuttle service for vehicles from the start to the finish.
“The highlight of doing sani2c was 100% the singletrack,” says Phillips. “As a relative beginner mountain biker, I was just at that level where I could ride singletrack but I’m not technically advanced, so to have this flowy singletrack was the perfect confidence-boosting stuff. Sani2c is a perfect singletrack crash course over three days that you are not going to get anywhere else. It stays at the same level, but each day you can push yourself a little bit harder.
“I can see why so many women find cycling addictive, because the confidence aspect is massive. The more I did the technical bits of singletrack, the more I felt confident to try something slightly harder. I got so proud of myself and found myself saying: ‘Wow Tegan, you are so badass!’
“By the last day, I was just flying compared with day one. The joy of singletrack I just can’t put into words.”
Bossi (25) works as a digital marketer and focuses on mountain biking, riding the trails in her backyard in Durbanville after work and on weekends. She was an avid trail runner until a long-term knee injury pushed her into cycling in October 2018. “I bought a road bike as a sanity saver while my injury healed, and I just loved it,” she says.
Within three weeks of taking up cycling, Bossi had planned and executed a 400km round trip, from Durbanville to Citrusdal and back. In September 2019, craving the trails and missing running in nature, buying a mountain bike was the natural next step, as she had moved to Durbanville where the trail networks are extensive. A month later she won an entry to Wines2Whales, the three-day mountain bike stage race from Somerset West to Hermanus. The mountain biking bug had bitten.
For Bossi, lockdown meant she started training on an indoor trainer (couriered from Joburg the day before hard lockdown), and she kept fit, and when the opportunity to do the sani2c came up, she jumped at it.
“We went into it not wanting to race, more to tell the story and assess how we ride as a team. The trails are the most exquisite I have ever ridden. Hands down that forest singletrack was mind-blowing. It’s so rewarding when a race gives you a pristine singletrack descent after a hard climb, and sani2c did that every time.
“We did a lot of talking on the ride about why there are so few women at these events. I think if it was 50% women it would be so much easier.”
Mountain bike stage races are generally team events with two riders, and Renata feels that this makes the races much less daunting.
“Just to know you have someone looking out for you and helping you get through a big climb is very reassuring. Sani2c is quite rideable, you just go slower if you are unsure of anything. I think getting a group of women together to do it would be ideal; there is a lot of off-the-bike time, too, and it’s so great to have people to share it with.
Through her comics that she posts on Instagram, Phillips shares her adventures, hoping to inspire other women to get involved: “Adventure is… a mindset and the more fun stories we can put out about it, the more other people can see it’s something they could do. The limited perception we have about ourselves and the world and what is possible, makes our world small. When you are in an adventure context and are forced to sleep under a bridge or speak to someone who doesn’t know your language, it expands your world and your depth of experience of the world.” DM/ML
There are a number of initiatives and group rides across the country that make cycling more accessible to women. The Wintergreen Barrier Breakers team collaborated with East City Cycles to start Femme Friday rides in Cape Town. Trail Angels is also Cape based and is a women’s training academy that does skills training, organises rides and tours and aims to create a community of women mountain bikers. In Gauteng, Cycle Lab Active Women (CLAW) organises weekly rides for women only, with the aim of building riding confidence. Dirt School KZN runs skills clinics and camps for women and they are based at Giba Gorge.
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved