Yup, the “I”-word. Athletes don’t like talking about it, but its shadow lurks around every corner.
Just ask Sifiso Nhlapo. A multiple national and continental BMX champ, he crashed out of the 2008 Olympic final after finishing first in his heat and second in his semi.
Since then, he broke his neck in 2009 and tore his ACL in 2011. He’s all too familiar with the taste of hospital food. “This is bikes,” he shrugs. “It’s a contact sport. Getting injured is unfortunately a part of what I do. There’s not much you can do to prevent it, so you need to just be prepared and not be surprised when it happens.”
That preparation includes back-stabilising exercises, and plenty of leg- and core strength-work.
“If you have a guy in front of you on a tight corner, you have to get past him somehow, but you also know that there’s two guys behind you trying to get past you too. It’s not like, say, swimming, where nobody else is allowed in your lane. In BMX, you have guys getting in your way all the time. So you prepare for that, physically, as best you can.”
But strength is only part of it. In any racing sport – whether it be sprinting, swimming or Formula 1 – the start is vital. BMX is no different.
“You need to have explosive speed,” says Nhlapo, “and not just for the start. You need it out of the turns as well. When a single run around the course is over in less than 40 seconds” – Nhlapo clocked 36.597 on the 400-metre circuit to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Final – “you need a lot of explosive energy. So a lot of what we do in the gym is plyometric workouts, squats and bench presses.”
And hours and hours of spinning classes, right?
“No. I’ll warm up on the spinning bike for about 15 minutes, but it’s really an all-round strength programme,” he says. “I practise on the track twice a day, with an average of six hours a week either on my road bike or my track bike, plus another five to six hours in the gym a week.
“But it’s not just about the bike,” he says. “It’s about strength, speed, endurance and technique. In some sports you can get away with maybe being weaker in one of those areas but in BMXing you have to have the whole package.”