“I think I was about three years old when I did my first 22km bike ride,” recalls professional mountain biker Candice Lill. “I remember my dad had somehow fixed a piece of a broomstick onto my tiny BMX bike so that when I needed help (which I would never want to admit), he could just grab onto it and help me along.”
Eventually the broom disappeared and off Candice went on her own two wheels. This interest in bikes started growing from a very young age: “My parents rode a little bit when I was young and I remember often trying on their cycling kit – which was obviously too big for me. I would tie stuff around me and find a way to make it fit!” she laughs.
From the pool to the mountains
It wasn’t exclusively an interest in cycling however. Sport in general has always been a part of Candice’s life. “I had an extreme fascination with the Olympics. Back in the day when we used to have VHS tapes, I’d record the Olympics and watch it repeatedly for the next four years, over and over and over…”
“I also did a lot of swimming, track running and cross country and ended up going to boarding school in Pietermaritzburg because I got a swimming scholarship,” says Candice. “Looking back now I realise that many of the professional mountain bikers I now race against used to do swimming when they were younger as well.”
One could expect that someone with such energy and a drive for adventure would soon tire of swimming up and down a pool with no change of scenery. “Though I loved swimming and the whole vibe, I knew that’s not what I wanted to do after school. Swimming is super competitive and to be quite frank, I found it boring after a while.”
Clearly naturally talented, Candice excelled from a young age and she did her first bike race around the age of 11 or 12 years old. When she reached the age of 17, she made her way down under, to Australia, where she competed in her first mountain bike championships for juniors (under 18s).
“I had no idea what to expect. I remember how at the last minute, the National Federation who was going to fund the trip, pulled out. My dad however made a way for me to get there – I have no idea how because it certainly wasn’t cheap!
“I came third at the championships which was quite shocking to me because I used to win everything in South Africa. I was so used to winning and I actually think the fact that I didn’t win was the drive I needed to get me fully into mountain biking.”
It wasn’t all breezy from there. Says Candice: “I took a major dip during under 23. I found that when winning comes so easily when you’re young, you don’t necessarily work as hard and dedicate as much as others who didn’t always come first. It’s not that I was lazy, I think it was more of a mindset. People that competed against me that came fourth, fifth or sixth in the World Champs wanted to win and they were actively working towards it. When you win a lot when you’re young because you are naturally talented, you don’t know what hard work it actually requires to win.”
A Faces-sponsored athlete since 2019, Candice says that being on her bike is one of her happiest places on earth. “Yes it’s my work and it’s a place where I need to constantly push myself to improve. But at the same time when it’s just me in the mountains on a single track, not competing but just enjoying it for what it is… I can get totally lost in that. It’s my way to process the world around me and one of my favourite escapes. It is however right up there with another happy place of mine – when Darren (my husband) and I take the scooter and drive to our favourite spot on Chapman’s Peak for sundowners and sushi,” she smiles.
“Riding, for me, is about pushing boundaries and using my ability to its maximum potential,” says Candice. “At the same time, it’s also about major personal growth – daily but also over time. There are still things that are a challenge for me and where I need to have a breakthrough, whether it’s a technical aspect or a challenging session. It’s about breaking through those things and seeing progress. I love that feeling! Fear is definitely present in what I do in many ways and I continuously have to push myself to face and overcome my fears. Fear will always find a way to creep in and we just have to learn to acknowledge it and shut it out,” says Candice.
“This may sound cheesy, but my inspiration really is to become a better person. Darren has always believed more in me than I have believed in myself. And since the beginning that just fed so much positivity and made me want to believe in myself more and more.”
What lies ahead?
“During lockdown we’ve seen what the world would be without sport. I’ve spoken to so many people who say they really miss watching sport. It’s something that brings people together – whether it’s cheering for a team or supporting someone in their sport. I think watching people push the limits is quite inspiring in whatever way you interpret it.
2020 would have looked pretty different for Candice if not for a global pandemic. The Cape Epic would have been mid-end March, then the World Cup season would have started in May. The World Cups run from May-August and there are usually seven of them, all in different countries. The World Championships were supposed to be in June in Germany and the Olympics were going to be at the end of July in Tokyo. They were just about to announce who qualified for the Olympics before the lockdown was put into effect.
No doubt super excited, Candice is currently travelling for the first time in months, first to Nove Mesto Na Morave, Czech Republic and then to Leogang in Austria.
Keep your eye on Candice here as she races over the coming month (the short track races are qualifiers for the cross country (XCO) start line)
- 29/09 at 5pm- UCI MTB World Cup Short track
- 01/10 at 12:20- UCI MTB XCO World Cup 1
- 02/10 at 5pm- UCI MTB World Cup Short track
- 04/10 at 11:50am- UCI MTB XCO World Cup 2
- 10/10 at 12:00- UCI MTB XCO World Championships
Established in 1997, the 947 Ride Joburg is held annually over an eight-day period in November and is South Africa’s ultimate celebration of cycling. It includes kids events, a mountain bike event, a high-profile expo and a road cycling event that enables between 20 000-30 000 participants to enjoy a pedal through the closed-to-traffic streets of Johannesburg, the country’s largest city.