5 Minutes With... Tegan Phillips

5 Minutes With... Tegan Phillips

4 February, 2022

Tegan Phillips is an adventure cyclist from South Africa currently training for the Cairo to Cape Town record. Her focus is on uplifting women in cycling, with a number of initiatives currently active in her team Wintergreen Barrier Breakers. We reached out to her to talk all things endurance riding, after just coming back from 2nd place at the Sedgefield 500, she's no stranger to ultra-distance. We also learnt more about her entertaining yet provocative comics which give us a peek at Tegan's outlook on riding and life.

1. You have so many long distance adventures in your history but we’ve noticed a certain record is in the works. Could you tell us a little bit more about your Cairo to Cape Town record attempt coming up this year?

Cairo to Cape Town has been a dream of mine since my family cycle-toured through Africa in 2015. That year we watched the men’s record get broken a zillion times (ok, it was, like, four times, which is still a lot) and, when I tried to find a women’s record, I realised that there wasn’t one! Then one day at the end of 2019 I was procrastinating on the Internet and accidentally entered to set the women’s record via the Guinness website. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make it actually happen. The more planning and training and organising that I’ve done for it, the more that I’ve realised how much actually needs to be done (it’s a f*** ton). Originally, I hoped to do it this Feb, but with Covid border issues we’ve pushed the goal date to October—although we still need to get sponsorship finalised.

In the bits of ultra-training that I’ve started doing, I’ve realised how essential it will be to not only be fit but also to be able to prevent injury and minimise general physical wear and tear. Compared to, say, road racing, this will be much more about having good organisation systems, excellent body care plans and being able to find a tempo/riding style that won’t lead to a burnout before I reach the end.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be remotely successful, but I’m determined to at least tell the story about the attempt. And, of course, to get some attention for women’s cycling in Africa.

2. You are a key member of Team Wintergreen Barrier Breakers, who aim to inspire women and support cyclists at every level. Your team hosted SHEveresting in 2020, what is SHEveresting and how was it?

SHEveresting was a product of the pandemic. One day we happened to be a group of women out on a ride and we started chatting about extreme challenges that we were keen to do and we can up with the idea of a mass women’s Everesting—which is hill repeats on a single hill to accumulate 8,848m elevation, the height of Everest.

We planned and researched hills for a couple months and then, one day in September 2020, twelve of us took on a hill called Rotary Drive in Hermanus. After a tough and eventful day (think: crashes, injuries, tears—but also grit and laughing and team spirit), six women finished a full Everest and five finished a half.

It was the most incredible event to watch and be part of because not only was it cyclists completing an insane physical challenge, but because gender was no longer a key defining factor for us as it usually is when you’re a women in mixed events. Many of us were used to being called ‘one of the women’ in the race, but for this event, because everyone was a woman, we got to be called things like ‘the downhill junkie’ and ‘the Zwift pro’ and ‘the ultra one’. It’s so important for women athletes to feel like they’re more than their gender identity, so this was amazing.

We also raised 12 bicycles to donate to local women, and in a post-SHEveresting event we went to hand over the bikes and ride and chat with the women, which was special. Last year there was another SHEveresting in Joburg and the incredible Hill’s Angels also did one in Australia.

3. In your TED Talk, ‘The funny thing about courage’, you talked about following your heart to the Land of Magical Possibilities and fear taking you back to your comfort zone. When you feel fear, what pushes you to face it and take on the next challenge?

Hmm… a weird answer might be ‘thinking about death’.

I try to think about death often, because Western culture’s attitude towards death is that it’s a terrible thing and we should pretend it doesn’t exist. Which is ridiculous. We’ve become so obsessed with preserving the length of our lives that we are often risk averse to the point of not wanting to do things that will grow us and fulfil us. And at the same time this belief that we have such long lives ahead of us causes us to not properly value time or to be aware of whether we’re finding meaning and enjoyment in life right now.

So, thinking about death helps me to realise that even if this scary thing causes me to die, it’s just a timeline adjustment on my life. It’s not like if I don’t die now, I’ll somehow avoid death altogether. And if it doesn’t cause me to die, then whatever bad stuff might happen because of it will only be bad if my mind frames it as bad, so that future problem can be tackled by working on mental things, which is doable.

I also see fear as a thing that can be endured, in the way that endurance athletes endure all kinds of pain. It’s a mental discomfort, like saddle sores, but in your brain. Like every kind of pain, it creates thoughts like ‘this isn’t good, I want to stop’, but—as athletes are able to do with physical pain—it’s possible to hear the thought and not identify with the content of the thought. In the same way that an ultra-cyclist might say ‘I’m feeling nauseous’ but not see that as a reason to stop, it’s also possible to say, ‘I’m feeling scared’ and to take that as another thing to endure on the adventure.

4. You recently picked up mountain biking and within such a short space of time completed some big races including the KAP sani2c, a 3-day MTB race in South Africa. How did you find the transition from road to MTB and how was the race?

Haha, my transition strategy was the same as my strategy for most things: “commit and then figure it out.” This often leads to steeeeep learning curves and plenty of bruises, but it cuts out a lot of unnecessary prep and panic that comes from waiting to ‘feel ready’. Learning by doing it always the fastest way.

Discovering the joy of singletrack was mind-blowing. There’s something fantastically liberating about going downhill over a bunch of obstacles very fast, although my heart rate was through the roof for every technical section. Sani was a great race from that perspective—there was a lot of singletrack that the pros could enjoy, but it wasn’t so technical that beginners like me couldn’t ride it. At the moment, though, I’m trying to focus on long road and gravel things where I have less chance of breaking bones, to prep for Cairo.

Pictured: Tegan at PE Plett

5. Here at DotWatcher we love your comics, especially your series on life lessons in cycling, the most recent being on injuries and riding at night. What would be your number one life lesson for ultra-distance riding?

“For big adventures, it’s more important to focus on not giving up than on going fast.”

Any long project thing will feature failure, getting bored, getting demotivated, questioning everything, making mistakes, feeling pain, seeing other people doing the same thing a lot better and faster - etc. etc. etc. All those things make giving up seem irresistible. So being able to endure these things and keep going, even if you’re going really slowly with regular breaks, is more valuable than going hard and fast for a while and then losing all of that progress by bailing. Remembering: in any ultra effort, to simply finish is to finish well.

You can see Tegan's comics here.

6. Your latest adventure, The Western Cape Dash, travelled 2,800km throughout the Western Cape in 10 days finishing on South African Women’s Day. There looks to be a plan about turning this into an annual women’s tour, what would this look like?

For now—nothing official has been planned. When we first thought of the WC Dash idea, the possibility of turning it into a tour was exciting because it had ten stages and people from all over the province could theoretically join for individual stages. After having done the tour (having to cut a few days short due to Achilles injury), I’m not sure if we’ll still make it an annual thing.

I think a better annual tour would be the Namibian Border Dash which we did earlier in 2021, because it was mentally more rewarding and simpler to ride out to a point and ride back, as opposed to riding a big zig-zagging criss-crossing loop. If we do a Border Dash women’s tour, we’d probably make it self-organised; a 1400km single stage race, leaving it up to the riders to decide on their support, riding strategies etc. There are a lot of strong female endurance riders in SA at the moment so I think it would be a stupidly exciting race for dot-watching. Now that I’m writing this, I’m thinking it should actually be a thing. I should start organising it…

7. Lastly, what’s your top tip for drawing a bike?

Draw whatever you think it looks like! That is my main rule for drawing. Draw what you think, and whatever comes out is your ‘artistic style’. For bicycles, though, it helps to start with the wheels and then the diamond frame and go from there.