Mountain bike racer Candice Lill fell in love with cycling as a toddler, when she took her dad on a marathon ride
The Cape Epic star has achieved much in her career. Now, with solid sponsorship and her husband behind her, she is dreaming of the ultimate prize, a medal at the Olympics.
For South African cyclist Candice Lill, standing on the podium at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 was a lifelong dream come true. The 31-year-old mountain biker had crossed the finish line third in the English countryside.
It was a surreal moment, especially because in the days leading up to the race, she was fretting over whether she would even be able to take part.
“That was an amazing race for me. Firstly, because of the challenges I had going into that race. My bicycle didn’t arrive on the trip to Birmingham,” Lill told DM168.
Her Cannondale Scalpel machine had been left in Frankfurt where she caught a connecting flight to Birmingham. Because of delays related to Covid-19, the plane her precious bicycle was on was held up. A further miscommunication meant it remained in Germany for days while she sat worrying in the athletes’ village.
“I spent a few days in the village not having any bicycle, not knowing if my bicycle was going to arrive for the race, and also not able to practise the course in the same way that the others were,” said the King Price Xtreme rider.
“That was pretty stressful. My bike ended up arriving a day or two before the race, thankfully. At that point I had missed out on some training, but I really believed I could do well in this race.”
She did, duelling with Australia’s Zoe Cuthbert to the bitter end in pursuit of a silver medal. Cuthbert had a bit more in the tank and was able to hold off the determined South African.
Naysayers might dilute success at the Commonwealth Games, saying its restrictive criteria mean some of the best athletes in the world miss out.
On occasion even the athletes who do qualify opt to skip these games in order to participate in other competitions.
But for Lill, the bronze she won in England sparked a fire within her.
“To win a medal at a games has always been a big dream of mine. Winning a Commonwealth medal was the first step. Next, we go for the Olympics,” she said.
A great trek
The Durban-born cyclist has always loved riding bicycles. One memory stands out whenever she reminisces about falling in love with the sport.
“The earliest memory I have is from when I was three. I said to my dad: ‘We’re going to ride to the hotel and back.’
“We lived on a farm. It was 22km in total. So, when I was three, I rode 22km.
“I remember parts of that ride. My dad helped me along, of course. But it was coming from me that I wanted to do that,” she said.
A decade and a half later, she clinched her first international medal, at 17.
“I was selected to go to the World Championships and it was in Australia. Obviously, it was my first World Championship and I had no idea what was going to happen or what to expect,” Lill said.
“I came home with a bronze medal. From that moment, I knew that this was really something. There’s a reason it’s been a part of my life in such a big way and it’s definitely something I want to pursue.”
She has not looked back since and has gone on to become one of the most respected female mountain bikers in South Africa and the world. Though she is hungry to make the Paris 2024 Olympics her most memorable event to date, it won’t be her first experience of the Games. She was at London 2012 and Tokyo 2020.
Other career achievements include winning multiple national and continental championships and finishing second in the gruelling Cape Epic in 2019, 2021 and 2022. Last year, she won bronze at the Cape Cycle Tour, though road racing is not her forte.
“I love to do that as one of my road races of the year. My style involves some risk-taking and trying different things. Last year, I made an attack at a point where no one was expecting. And it actually worked out really well. It took three of us to the line. And I ended up third because I’m not a sprinter… But it’s always super cool to go all out in that moment.”
All sport has its ups and down and the cross-country ace has thought of taking the easy route of racing exclusively in South African races. But that would have gone against her competitive spirit.
She currently races largely in Europe, to sharpen her skills against the best in the world, but does local races, too. It is all crucial in her quest to qualify for the Paris Olympic Games.
The big fish for Lill in this regard is competing at the African Continental Championships. The event was scheduled for April, but has been moved to July. The contest carries a lot of weight in points for her Olympic qualification hopes.
“That’s really what I’m focused on at the moment, just getting as many points as possible. And then just carry on believing that those races and the experience I get internationally will stand me in good stead to compete at the Olympics,” she said.
Lill is married to former South African cyclist Darren Lill. Having someone at her side who understands the sport and its rigours makes life a bit easier.
Over the years she has had to foot the bill to represent the country internationally. This year, however, the tide turned for her and she can focus exclusively on what she does best: wrangling a bicycle.
“After competing for many years overseas, this is the first year I feel like I have solid sponsorship backing to do races I need to do.
On the back foot
“It’s difficult because other countries I’m competing against in Europe all have this support. Everything is paid for and they don’t have to travel as much. A lot of the time I’ve been on the back foot. It’s taken a long time to build relationships with sponsors. But it’s been so worth it going into this year.”
The stage is set for Lill to do big things on a bike. She carries in her heart a toddler who trekked 22km as she plots a lasting legacy.
“Doing sport is about enjoyment and fun. That’s something to remember, even as a professional. It can get extremely stressful, so I try to keep a balance.
“But I would like to achieve my ultimate dream of an Olympic medal.” DM168