Bicycling (South Africa)
HOW A BUNCH OF SAFFAS HELPED WIN THE TOUR DE FRANCE
We’ve known it for a while, but South Africa’s sports science expertise is now officially world-class.
Thanks to a team led by Dr Jeroen Swart, who is Head of Sport and Exercise Medicine at the University of Cape Town’s Sports Science Institute (SSISA), a 21-year-old Slovenian sensation called Tadej Pogačar won the world’s greatest cycle race on the Champs-élysées in September.
The UAE Team Emirates phenom became the second-youngest winner in Tour de France history after Henri Cornet won in 1904, at the age of 19; but the baby-faced Pogačar was also the first to win three of the four available jersey categories: yellow, polka dot and white.
Pogačar’s performance on the penultimate individual stage up the famed 5.8km Les Planche des Belle Filles climb was epic; and the team’s sport director and coach, Capetonian John Wakefield (who is also part of Swart’s Science2sport coaching business), documented the behind-the-scenes action and often posted footage on his Instagram account, Pelotrain .( It’s worth a follow. – Ed)
Wakefield is now based in Girona, Spain, at the team’s European headquarters – having spent most of his life in Cape Town coaching many of South Africa’s top riders, along with Swart.
Since the beginning of 2019, Swart and a team of South African physicians and coaches have been intimately involved in helping get the team back to the top echelons of Worldtour cycling.
Swart was initially approached by the team’s performance director, Us-based Iñigo San Millán, who was looking to overhaul the struggling outfit.
“I had some interaction with Iñigo on social media and we began chatting, since he was looking for someone to take over as medical director and we shared a lot of similar philosophies and ideas,” Swart says. “Eventually he asked me to put a team together, at the end of 2018; and by 2019, we were on board.”
In all, six South Africans are members of the medical and coaching staff: Swart, 45, is head of the medical team, which includes doctors Raaghib Fredericks, Adrian Rotunno, Jason Suter and Jarrad van Zuydam, all of whom are part of the Cape Sports Medicine Group based at SSISA.
On top of that, besides the team who were part of the Tour de France entourage, another South African – biokineticist Warwick Cross, also from SSISA – works alongside Rotunno in helping develop the team strength and conditioning programmes.
Despite early cultural challenges faced trying to convince experienced pros of the advantages of new ways to train, Swart and his South African team recently re-signed their contract with UAE Team Emirates, and are looking forward to more success in 2021.
In 2018 they were ranked a lowly 17th in the world. By the end of 2019 they had moved up to fourth; and this year, after their TDF exploits, they now rank second.
“It’s absolutely awesome to be part of it,” Swart says. “There is no higher step in the sport I’m passionate about – other than being a rider.”
Swart, himself a semi-pro mountain biker who has represented South Africa, has spent over two decades working with some of South Africa’s (and the world’s) best riders. In 2006 he worked with former TDF winner Jan Ullrich, and has also been involved in testing with Chris Froome.
Swart also coached the late Burry Stander, and – most recently, with Wakefield – SA'S former Under-24 World Mountain Biking Champion, Alan Hatherly.