Ariane Kleinhans has stood on the top step of the Cape Epic podium, and many South African and Swiss marathon races since beginning her international racing career in 2010. You would think that someone with this racing calibre would have people running around after her at the World Marathon Championships. However, the understated marathon specialist is to all intents and purposes sorting herself out here in Val Gardena. Despite this she managed to find 20 minutes to talk to Rachel Fenton, squeezed in around a massage from a friends’ boyfriend and shopping for her lunch ingredients (all salad, with some Swiss muesli afterwards).
Ariane talks about how she got into the sport, the excellent support she and her team get from Specialized, and what her season holds.
MMTB: So, I’ll start with a bit of a boring question – how did you get into mountain biking?
Ariane: I come from a swimming background and when I finished my pool career I did some triathlon races as part of a relay. I was always the swimmer and there you obviously connect with cyclists. There was one triathlon that I did starting from the town that I lived in. It was a really beautiful route and so I thought I would do the whole thing. It’s kind of like an ultra thing, so my finish time was around 11 hours. It required both road and mountain bikes. At this stage I already had a road bike and I did a little bit of triathlon but I needed both, so I got myself a mountain bike. Before the race, to prepare, I went to a training camp in the Engadin valley just over the mountain. And it was just so amazing. I liked riding the mountain bike off the road. It was really, really beautiful. So I did that race and it went really well.
Shortly afterwards I really wanted to do another mountain bike race but it didn’t fit because I had to finish my studies – I was finishing my thesis at the time. There was only one race that worked, the Roc d’Azur. My cousin was entered and asked me to come too. It was perfect, I handed in my work and then I flew to Nice and there I actually met Patrick Griessen from Sputnik bike shop – he was the former mechanic for Christoph Sauser. So I met him and he wanted to sponsor me!
He got me a Specialized Epic – I think I had a better bike than Sauser in my first race because he (Patrick) likes to tune the bikes. So I had ceramic bearings and titanium bolts. The Epic itself is a really cool bike anyway. So I had this really great bike and thought, this is amazing, so cool, I have to do some more mountain bike races. But he wanted to sponsor me for the triathlon again because it was local to him and his shop.
The next season I started doing more mountain bike races and I won the first race in the series, but the middle distance – in Switzerland we have a long distance and a middle distance. Which was pretty cool. Then I thought I’d do the next one as well, so I got the idea to do the series. Then it also happened that I twisted my ankle and I couldn’t run anymore so then I though, ok lets just stick to the mountain biking. Screw the running and triathlon.
That year I did the Swiss series, that was 2010 and at the end of the year I went to South Africa to do the Pioneer (Cape Pioneer Trek) and that’s how I got to that side of the world.
MMTB: And you’ve been halfway between ever since?
Ariane: Yes and that’s how I met Erik and got into the pro team basically.
MMTB: So you have been living in perpetual summer ever since 2010?
Ariane: More or less – well if you can call what happens around here summer!
MMTB: Have you always done the longer distance stuff then?
Ariane: Yes, I started with the marathon and stuck with it. Only recently I have done a few shorter races for training. They were in the Western Cape, not big races. But I’m going to do Leinzerheide now (the next round of the UCI XC World Cup). It never fits better than right now and I have some points so I won’t be too far back on the grid.
MMTB: Ah yes, one of the perks of the stage races having XCO points.
Ariane: Yes, exactly. I’m a little nervous about certain sections of the course but I’m going to have a look at it and I’m just going to try and see how it goes.
MMTB: Well you have ridden some pretty technical stuff in South Africa and in marathons.
Ariane: Yes, you always have technical sections in a marathon as well. So we’ll see. Maybe just the jumping and stuff I’m not quite that comfortable with. As long as I can stay on the ground I’m pretty ok.
MMTB: So what do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t ever discovered mountain biking?
Ariane: Still a swimming coach I guess. I mean I was swimming and in the swimming scene for a very long time. And I worked as a swimming coach, in fact that was my last job before mountain biking.
MMTB: So you’ve always been into sport?
Ariane: Yeah I studied sports science and its kind of my thing. I would definitely do something in sport. In fact before I went to South Africa I was thinking of going into Xterra. I mean, you can always run.
MMTB: I’m not sure about that in my case but yes I understand.
Ariane: Well you can walk if required!
MMTB: So obviously there is a lot of talk around women and cycling at the moment. If you were in charge of the UCI today for one day – what would you do?
Ariane: I would, just for this race, start the men ahead of the women. At least 20 minutes ahead of us so that we don’t catch the slow guys. That’s what I would do right now. It’s actually going to affect the men more than the women because they are going to get stuck with us. It’s just not cool.
Then otherwise, it (women’s cycling) is getting better and better. But more promotion of women’s cycling and writing about it is needed. You need to know the faces, the people, and the stories. As soon as you get to know people then you are more interested. I have seen it with the (Cape) Epic. It’s never been so big, so much of the media has written about us and the response is massive. Just because there are stories about us. They know our names and then it just goes… In fact a good example I once heard is that cyclocross in Belgium is so big because for one year in Belgium or Holland, the national TV didn’t have the rights to show the football league. So they filled that window with cyclocross and ever since then… So that just shows that media is really important and telling the stories. MarathonMTB with Imogen (Smith) has already talked about the advertising and she is really right.
MMTB: You have obviously benefitted from the equal prize money at the Cape Epic. Do you think that matters?
Ariane: I think it’s just fair but you can’t generalise it. But for example at a stage race like the (Cape) Epic, where everybody does the same route. Why would it not be equal? In fact, even if it’s not the same route, if we race shorter distances we might take just as long. It’s not even always just about putting the same effort in. Actually it’s not about the effort that you put in at the race as such, it’s more how professional you are throughout the year. There are a lot of ladies who put as much of an effort in as the men.
Road cycling, well I can’t speak for that, but mountain biking, especially in Switzerland it’s actually quite bad. Always unequal, never the same, and that’s a little bit sad.
MMTB: I noticed that this event, without the World Championships has only 4% participation by women. Why do you think this might be?
Ariane: I think it takes time. Doing the right thing, advertising in the right way. Putting a female face onto the sport. That will be reflected in the participation. And I think that maybe ladies don’t always want to compete. That is maybe not in our nature. There are so many ladies riding bikes but they don’t necessarily want to compete.
MMTB: Have you been to the Dolomites before? What do you think of the area?
Ariane: No this is my first time. The area is absolutely amazing. The scenery. I mean I’m pretty used to mountains coming from Switzerland but this here is pretty special. It’s just a different kind of mountains, very unique. I think it is even a heritage area. I could stay here, I could live here. Yeah, it is beautiful; it’s just a little steep.
MMTB: Yes you pay for the beauty in the climbs! You said that the first bike you had was pretty blinged up, your Specialized Epic. What do you think of the technical developments over the last few years?
Ariane: I haven’t been in the sport for very long. I’m quite young in it. But one big thing was going from a hardtail to a really nice dual suspension. Specialized has got a really fantastic dual suspension.
MMTB: Do you always ride a full suspension?
Ariane: Here I won’t. But in South Africa I am never on a hardtail. There the Specialized Epic is really the top bike I would say. The wheel change (26 to 29) for me was a real benefit, for marathon racing. Much, much more comfortable and the other big change was the handlebar width. I started off with really narrow ones and realised its easier if you have them a bit wider. Much more control. Then small things like going from 2×10 to XX1 SRAM. I really like it. Obviously on this course you need to make a decision on chainring size but I think it is doable. It’s very simple and I like that.
And the one massive change was my saddle. I have a new, new S-works Power saddle from Specialized. It’s been really life changing for me! I have always struggled for so many years and honestly it is the first year I felt like my bum would have lasted 4 hours on the saddle after the (Cape) Epic (although my legs might not have felt that way). I have always struggled on the second day previously where I almost couldn’t sit anymore. I changed my position on the bike a little bit too, so that lowered the pressure on the soft tissue, but the saddle itself for me was really a big change.
MMTB: Will you stay in Switzerland for the rest of the summer?
Ariane: I will stay until the end of July. I might do the Swiss cross country champs and then after I will fly to South Africa to do two marathons. Then hopefully the plan would be to come back to Switzerland to do the Eigerbike and the Grand Raid and hopefully the Swiss Epic.
MMTB: You guys had it quite hard actually with the Swiss Marathon Championships last weekend and then the World Championships this week. Was it good preparation?
Ariane: I’ll tell you on Sunday!