It’s Sunday morning, the temperature outside is surprisingly mild and the sun is shining, which is quite a novelty for the UK in early December. I’m trying to pencil an article about my new life chapter but I’m getting distracted by the incredible scenery outside. The sun’s reflecting off the blanket of early morning dew covering the fields as the train I’m on zips through the British countryside.
Today is the day that I start writing this new chapter. It’s equally scary and daunting as it is exciting. It can be pretty intimidating when you make the decision to leave your comfort zone and leap into the unknown to pursue a dream. It’s amazing how often in life the only thing holding us back from achieving our dreams, or chasing what we really want, is simply just having the courage to believe in ourselves and taking that leap.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here so let’s wind it back a little. Most of you reading this won’t know what my story is leading up to this point. You may however have seen pics of me over the past 2 years on the Knolly Bikes social media streams, so let me fill you in.
My name is Martin Zietsman, I’m a proudly South African, 34 year old guy currently living in the UK and was working as a design engineer for Bilstein’s special projects division (yup, the vehicle suspension company). I design dampers (or shock absorbers, as most people know them) for a variety of pretty incredible vehicles, ranging from armoured military vehicles, to rally 4x4’s and right through to the 2-seater Ariel Atom (I’m pretty proud of that one). I have no doubt there’s countless engineers all around the world that would give anything to have this job… but this is not the dream I’m chasing. Mountain biking is where my true passion lies.
Visiting the Ariel factory to do a fitting of some prototype dampers to the Atom 4 (Atom 3 pictured).
I started riding DH around ’99 when I got introduced to it by a school friend shortly after moving to the UK. The ‘bug’ bit instantly and it bit hard! Like most other people that discover this incredible sport and pastime, MTB’ing didn’t just become a part of my life, it engulfed my life. I rode whatever and whenever I could… DH, 4X, dirt jumping, skate parks, street, you name it, I just wanted to be on a bike. I had piles of Dirt & MBUK magazines in my bedroom and my walls were covered in posters of the greats from the time (Greg Minnaar, Eric Carter & Brian Lopes were some of my favourites).
Snapped in 2015, taking part in a dirt jumping demo at a local fayre with Simon Newton.
Cycling brought something unique to my life that nothing else has ever really come close to. I know every cyclist reading this can relate to it, that sense of freedom when out in nature, the adrenalin pumping through your veins as you nail that section of trail, the constant push for progression and that warm fuzzy feeling inside when you see it happening! I can’t count the number of evenings I lay in bed dreaming of riding and racing professionally on the WC DH Circuit and travelling the world with my bike.
It was only a dream though. An average kid living on a council estate in Yorkshire could never be a professional athlete on the international stage. I mean, come on, those kinds of lives are reserved for the elite, the wealthy, people with incredible natural talent and ability, the lucky few. I think many people’s lives are conditioned and controlled by this same lie, that ‘we’re not good enough’. I have learnt to hate this notion, and it’s something I will address shortly.
Life doesn’t always go the way you thought it would and is known for throwing curveballs, a fare few of which I’ve faced myself. Fast forward 13 years to 2012, a close succession of serious injuries, growing up and facing the ‘real world’ with work, responsibilities, and all those things that come with no longer being a kid, means it’s now 8 years since I last even touched a bike. My riding days now a long distant memory. I’ve just moved to Stellenbosch in Cape Town to study engineering and unbeknownst to me at the time, this is the MTB capital of South Africa. It’s not long before I get invited out for a social MTB ride and **BAM**, that cycling bug has bitten once more.
Totally cringe-worthy! The first bike I owned in about 8 years. Way too small for me, baggies & hydration pack for a 15km ride!
It didn’t take long at all before I was venturing out to the mountains on a daily basis, social rides turned into training rides and the magazine purchases started again. One or two races in and that fierce competitive nature of mine is on fire once more. Then it happens, I finally make the decision: if I’m going to start riding again, I’m going to do it properly, I’m going to chase my dreams with everything I’ve got. I never again want to taste the regret of giving up riding and not chasing the dream when I was younger.
Started my racing career again in XC. 1.5 years after that first ride, I signed my first ever deal with Silverback Bicycles. Rode for them for 3 years. The goal was originally World Cup XC. (Pics by Ewald Sadie & Koos Zietsman)
Wasn’t long until I re-discovered gravity riding though. Here racing a local enduro on a full-suspension marathon bike. (Pic by Ewald Sadie)
Now getting back to my previous point about that lie. I can now confidently commit to racing full time because I absolutely believe it is possible. Not that it will be easy, but if I want it badly enough, I can make it happen. You see, about 3 years earlier I’d made another very important decision, one that profoundly changed my life. I was fed up of struggling financially, of feeling unfulfilled at work, like I could do more, like I was meant for more (I’m sure a number of you know this feeling). I decided to make a change. I wanted to go to university to study engineering, which in itself doesn’t seem like anything special, except that I had failed high-school. I knew what I wanted to achieve, set my goals and worked out a plan to get there… it took me 7.5 years from making that initial decision to achieving my degree (longer than it should have taken, but there were a few stumbling blocks along the way. That’s a story for another day though.).
A very proud dad and I @ graduation (November 2016)
So now I need to re-define that lie. Greatness and success is not reserved for the privileged or lucky few, it’s not just for the elite, the wealthy or the super talented. No, it is for those who believe they can achieve it, for those who are willing to put it all out there and chase it. Oh, but what if I fail? I believe that the only true failure in life is giving up, or having never tried.
True success, as so beautifully defined by Winston Churchill is: ‘Going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.
Okay, so there’s my motivational pep-talk done, back to the story. I moved back to the UK at the start of 2017 to work at Bilstein and to continue pursuing the dream of racing/riding professionally. I figured I’d learn to ride mud, roots and steep trails (not something Africa is well known for) whilst being better based to race the EWS and inevitably up my game. I hoped to achieve the results required to land a pro deal and achieve my dream/goals. Again, life throws curveballs and I’ve now sat out both the 2017 & 2018 race seasons with 2 separate injuries (a broken wrist in 2017 & broken elbow in 2018). I managed to come back at the end of this year just in time to claim the SA National champs title in my age group.
On the attack. Notice the wrist brace. (Pic by Neil Kleb)
My uncle always says “make sure you have a plan in place, but always be prepared to make a plan”. So now I’m making a plan. I spent 2 years trying to execute my initial plan and things didn’t go to plan.
So back to the present, here I sit on this train with a 5hr journey ahead of me. I’m on my way to collect a campervan/racevan that will be my new home in 2019. It’s crazy how scary this is, but also incredibly exciting. There’s still a lot of uncertainty ahead of me but I’ve resigned from my job at Bilstein (with 3 months’ notice) and as of the 1st of March 2019, I’ll officially be a full-time racer. I’d love to say I’ll be a professional racer, but until I land a deal that covers all my costs and I pull a salary, I’ll just be a full-time rider.
Race van for 2019 – The Storm Trooper. A lot of mods to do but she’ll be kickass when I’ve had my way with her.
Yes, I’m a hell of a lot older than your average rider with pro racer ambitions. I’ve barely stood on a podium in the past 2 years and I’m actually still recovering from my injuries. You know what though, you can spend your life looking at all the reasons why you shouldn’t act, or you can choose to focus on what could happen if you do and just take the leap. In life, if you wait for your perfect moment, your perfect situation, you’ll spend your life waiting and opportunity will pass you by.
Sometimes, you have to just take the leap. Learn to fly while you’re falling.
Taking the Fugitive on an African Adventure. Snapped by Mick Kirkman in Lesotho, Africa.
Check out Martin's video below on living his dream.
"While there will always be someone more talented or capable than me, There is no reason for them working harder than me"