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A life in the saddle

3 April 2017

  • Andrew McLean is a cyclist, TV presenter, the owner of Cycle Lab and a mountain-bike fanatic. He loves exploring new places on his bike. He has ridden the Cape Epic many, many times, and he’ll be riding it again this year. He is a Toyota ambassador and drives a Fortuner.
  • Carrying his bike over an unrideable section of the Cape Epic.
  • Andrew was part of the Leisure Wheels team during the recent Toyota Fortuner Challenge. He and teammate Danie Leonard walked away as overall victors.
  • Coming off the bike during the Cape Epic is a virtual certainty. Here Andrew takes a hard fall on a tricky section.

Andrew McLean made a name for himself as a professional road cyclist. These days, though, he’s best known as the man behind Cycle Lab and an avid mountain biker.

To say that Andrew McLean is an avid cyclist is a gross under-statement. Andrew lives and breathes cycling. “Whenever someone proposes a holiday destination, I immediately ask if I can bring my bike. If it’s not a place where you can cycle, I probably won’t go. For this reason, places like Thailand have never appealed to me,” he says. He cycles six days a week, getting up at 3:30 every morning to spend some time in the saddle before clocking in at his well-known cycling store, Cycle Lab. Leisure Wheels sat down with him to chat about his cycling career, the rising popularity of mountain biking and fistfights on the Cape Epic.

How did you get into cycling?
I was studying physical education with the aim of becoming a teacher. One of the requirements of the course was to take part in a triathlon. I’d always been into sport, but had never really done any proper cycling. I gave it a try and just loved it. I fell in with cyclist Gary Beneke, who was a year ahead of me, and we started training together. I was only an amateur for one year before I got a professional contract.

What prompted your move towards mountain biking?
I still cycle on the road, but mountain biking has become a passion. One reason was because of Cycle Lab. As I saw the popularity of mountain biking take off, I realised that I should explore that world for the sake of the business. Another reason was the fact that I was looking for some-thing new. After many years of road cycling, I was keen to try something different.

What in particular do you like about mountain biking?
Mountain bikes take you to places that you otherwise wouldn’t go. Also, the riding is exciting and unpredictable. All you need is one serious thunderstorm to completely change the nature of a trail. Then there’s the social component. It is a very social and family-friendly sport. People take their kids along, ride with friends and have coffee afterwards. Finally, there’s the safety aspect, especially when it comes to younger riders. Not many parents would let a child of 14 or 15 ride alone on Joburg’s busy streets these days. Mountain-bike trails offer a more controlled environment.

What has caused the rising popularity of mountain biking?
I think people have an urge to live healthier lives these days, and mountain biking is a fun and accessible way to get healthy. Taking up running when you’re in your 40s or 50s isn’t easy – it takes time and effort to get to a point where you can enter a race, and you can’t really go running with young kids. Mountain biking, meanwhile, allows most people to progress to a decent level fairly quickly.

Can you tell us about your Cape Epic experiences?
The Cape Epic, like many other South African mountain-bike events, really is world-class. We have some of the best races in the world, and the Epic is the Tour de France of mountain biking. I’ve done it nine times, and I’ll be doing it again this year with Arrie Rautenbach of Absa. We’re training for it at the moment. The Cape Epic is a tough event. You need to be fit, both physically and mentally. The first couple of days you’re hoping to crash into a tree so that you can exit the race without feeling guilty. The last few days, you’re praying not to crash into a tree, since you’ve put so much effort into the race. You just want to finish. In order to be successful, you need the right partner. As the saying goes, if you want to really get to know someone, just take them out of their comfort zone. The Cape Epic does that. I’ve seen partners jump off their bikes and get into a fist fight during the race. It brings out the best and the worst in people.

How do you train for the Epic?
I think the average fitness level of the competitors is consistently improving. You need to spend about 18 hours in the saddle every week while training for it, and the odd run or gym workout is also recommended. It is a tough race, to be sure, but that’s what I like about it. It’s one of the few races in any sport where amateurs can line up next to some of the best athletes in the world and measure themselves.

Have you had any close calls in the saddle?
I have. Ironically, my scariest moment happened close to home, not on some far-flung trail. And it wasn’t caused by a motorist, but by a buffalo… in Fourways. I was travelling downhill on Cedar Road at 60km/h. It was around 5am, so it was still quite dark. One moment I was riding down the street, the next I crashed into this massive thing on the side of the road. It turned out to be a buffalo that had escaped from some game farm. It had been hit by a truck and was lying in the road. I broke my arm and wrote off a R160 000 bike.

What are some of the most memorable places you’ve explored on a bike? One of my favourite overseas races is the BIKE Transalp. It is a spectacular race that incorporates some of the most splendid mountain scenery you can imagine. But I find that a bike is a good way to explore just about any new environment. I love exploring cities like Paris on a bike. I also always take my bike with me on holiday. Mauritius is one of my favourite destinations. It is great for cycling, and it’s just getting better all the time. Another holiday destination I really enjoy is Ballito. The Holla Trails there are a great place to ride.

Can you tell us about your relationship with Toyota?
I was introduced to some of the folks from Toyota through a friend, and a relationship started. I’m a brand ambassador for the company and they sponsor our cycling club, which has grown tremendously over the last few years.

You also drive a new Fortuner. What do you think of it?
It’s a lovely vehicle. I drove an automatic Prado previously, so I was curious to see what the difference would be. I’m very impressed: it’s very smooth and refined, a great vehicle for a cyclist. It’s got lots of space, and is a good all-round performer. You can use it around town or in the bush.

What’s you biggest regret?
I don’t really have any regrets. A while ago, I moaned a bit about the fact that I’m in retail. It can be difficult, especially during tough economic times. I mentioned to a friend, who is a very successful investment banker, that I perhaps should have done things differently earlier in life. He pointed out to me that I was doing something I loved every single day. He was making loads of money, but he hated every moment of it. If you get to do something you love, you should see it as an extra zero at the end of your pay cheque. No amount of money can replace the privilege of being able to do something you love.

In a (favourite) nutshell
Baked potatoes and a rare steak.
Drink Belgian beer.
TV show Any live sport.
Music Just about anything from the ’80s or ’90s.
Place on Earth Anywhere, as long as I’m on my bike.
Holiday destination Ballito and the Eastern Cape.