She reached dizzy heights riding for SA in the London Olympics, but IT consultant Jo van de Winkel disliked school sport and only took up cycling to please her husband | Photo © Cheryl van Lingen Studio
JO VAN DE WINKEL (35) grew up as one of four children in an arty family in Pietermaritzburg and enjoyed very little about school sport. A UCT scholarship brought her to the Cape, where she discovered a passion for rock climbing and hiking while scaling a first-class degree in electrical engineering. Moving on to Johannesburg to start a career in IT consulting, she met and married Belgian economist Tijl, who lured her onto a bicycle. A love affair with cycling was soon to follow and, within four years, Jo was setting off for London 2012 with fellow cyclists Robyn De Groot and Ashleigh Moolman.
Bad luck and a fall resulted in her finishing in 28th place, but she lived to see another day. After the Olympics, she gave up competitive cycling to become a mother to her two sons, now aged 4 and 2, but in 2016 got back on the saddle to compete domestically. A number of top race placings followed and in May 2017, she and Tijl came third in the challenging three-day mountain bike race, Sani2c. Here, Jo reflects on her drive to succeed and explains how she squishes high level cycling in with motherhood and a full-time job. Oh yes, and a husband too…
Jo (centre) with team mates Robyn and Ashleigh at the London Olympics
HOW COMPETITIVE ARE YOU? I used to work so hard my parents had to encourage me to have a social life – I’m very competitive! But this drive doesn’t come without issues: I suffered from stress as a child, afraid of not getting top marks. Discovering rock climbing and other sports at UCT [the University of Cape Town], however, changed me. I still wanted to achieve great things but sport helped me deal with the stress and pressure of it. I also discovered that after exercise I only needed a fraction of the study time to get the same results.
How did Tijl get you into cycling? I thought cycling took up way too much time and didn’t understand why someone would cycle on busy roads, so I discouraged Tijl from doing it. He gave it up for me for a year, then slowly tried to encourage me to cycle socially with him. Since there were no real mountains to climb in Johannesburg, I eventually relented. Tijl always motivated me and stayed with me when I was struggling to keep up, but soon I wasn’t willing to settle for him and his mates beating me! Within six months I was getting up daily at 4am in the dark and cold to train before my nine-hour working day.
Jo discovered at university that sport made her happy
Your London Olympics? Huge highs, huge lows. I went into the games hugely motivated and excited, honoured to be representing my country and believing we could pull off something special as a team. The support was deafening as we rode our warm-up lap past Buckingham Palace: even Tijl’s 88-year-old Belgian gran was there, cheering for SA!
My job was to follow any initial breaks upfront so that Ashleigh could conserve energy for the final sprint by slipstreaming in the main bunch. It started raining heavily and unfortunately my co-cyclist Robyn was caught in a crash in front of me. I reacted too quickly, uncleating my feet from the pedals so that I didn’t fall too. Having wasted precious time, I made a high-speed dash for a side gap, not realizing a Brazilian girl had had the same idea. I was by far the smaller opponent and had a painful, gravelly landing. I jumped back on my bike again, only to realise my chain had come off! My Olympic dreams and hopes were disappearing before my eyes, but I’d promised myself I wouldn’t give up so I started out again on a misty descent with the rain stinging my leg wound.
I caught up with Ash, who was riding an amazing race upfront and staying calm despite not knowing what had happened to her teammates. In the chaos, three top riders managed to escape from the rest of the bunch. Despite our attempts to chase them down while others in their teams tried to stop us, it came down to a smaller bunch sprint for 4th place. Ash ended up coming 16th out of 75 Olympians, and I came 28th.
We walked through a line of media back to our tent, witnessing some girls crying with disappointment, others with happiness. So many dreams and expectations over in what felt like the blink of an eye! But that’s the Olympic experience. And so we become stronger and more experienced as a nation. A few more years of hard work and support and I believe an Olympic medal is beckoning for South Africa!
The return to the office after your sporting high? Going back to work was a bit of a letdown: from ‘celebrity’ to ‘just another employee’. No recognition for all the hard work, pressure, sacrifices, pain and extreme highs and lows. An office job is easier than a sporting career but, as in cycling, I take up the challenge to go beyond what’s expected.
How to achieve a dream? Dreams don’t often happen by chance. Getting there is rarely easy, but the more you have to push yourself, the greater the reward generally is.
In 2017, Jo and Tijl came third (mixed category) in South Africa’s gruelling Sani2c, the world’s most popular mountain bike stage race
How did the Olympics prepare you for motherhood? When you push yourself to the limit, you learn a lot about yourself and how you cope with stress, pressure and lack of sleep. It taught me perseverance. I was not worried about childbirth because I knew mentally how to deal with pain! Motherhood’s similar to cycling with its highs and lows, hard work, sacrifices and rewards. I do miss the freedom of being out on my bike and the adventure of travelling, but there’s a time and place for everything.
Which is harder? Both are hard and both rewarding. Cycling at least had rest periods and time for yourself which I don’t always get as a mother! I loved my time as a professional cyclist, and I do miss being on my bike. I have thought of trying to qualify for future Olympics, but at this stage of my life my boys need my time and attention.
Your South African races are still incredibly demanding ones. What gives? I make the most of the time I have to train which is mostly early morning (5 to 6.30am), then we pay our nanny extra for a few hours on a Saturday morning so my husband and I have time to spend together riding our bikes. I have to be selective in the races I do so I’m not away from my family too much, and I’m lucky to have a very supportive husband. It’s hard for me not to put more pressure on myself to train more and perform better at races but I have to keep putting things in perspective and being realistic in my goals!
Why God? He makes me whole, gives purpose to my life, provides strength in hard times and loves me unconditionally. God got me through the tough times. When I was doubting myself, I’d remember the verse: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4:13).
How God? Through prayer and witnessing the beauty around me. I always feel closer to Him when I’m cycling through beautiful surroundings.
Guilty pleasure? Too much dark chocolate.
Most irritating habit? I like being right!