Not many athletes get the chance to excel in two completely different sports, but NavWorld Ambassador Gordon Gilbert has managed to do just that. Starting out as a professional football player, then successfully crossing over to competitive mountain biking – this powerhouse of a man is renowned for his ability to crank up the heat when it counts and never-say-die attitude. Gilbert talks to us about his transition from football to MTB and how he gives back to his fans to support his main passion; promoting the conservation of wildlife.

Like many young boys the world over, Gordon Gilbert, 34, spent his childhood dreaming of football stardom. Unlike most young boys, however, he made it happen. Born in Witbank to Scottish parents, Gilbert’s family moved back to Scotland when he was still a child. “Football is treated more like a religion than a sport over there,” he elaborates. “All the boys, myself included, fantasised about turning pro and living the high life.” By 2002 his dedication to the beautiful game had paid off; he was now playing for St Johnstone in the Scottish Premier League. Gilbert soon moved on to East Fife, where he was a first-team regular and helped the team earn promotion to the Second Division.

In fact, it was Gilbert’s consistent performance at East Fife that caught the eyes of Tuks FC back here at home in 2005. For the next three years he played with Tuks FC, then Mpumalanga Black Aces in the SA First Division. Following a strong season with the Black Aces, and representing the country (South African B squad) against Botswana, he signed for Kaiser Chiefs in 2008. While there, he played in the squad which won both the Mpumalanga International Cup and MTN Supa 8 competitions.

He then spent time on loan to Moroka Swallows, before signing with promotion-chasing Thanda Royal Zulu FC in 2013. As far as this “Jock who’d become a Bok” (as one newspaper headline once described him) was concerned, the future was looking bright.

Trading soccer boots for two wheels
Gilbert’s introduction to mountain biking came quite unexpectedly, you could say right out the left field. It was 2014 and he was recovering from a bad hamstring injury – with every intention of still making it back into the squad. At the time he’d just taken up spinning as part of his cross training and, to his surprise, found he enjoyed it.

“I was really getting into the spinning. Then, one day, I was approached by the Jaguar Foundation, a charity that specialises in anti-bullying campaigns at schools and the prevention of child suicides. They asked if I would be interested in riding the Cape Epic for them to highlight their cause,” recounts Gilbert. “I thought, yeah, three months time to train, that’s plenty,” he adds, laughing.

As a high-profile sportsman, Gilbert has always taken his social responsibilities seriously and was keen to get involved. He promptly got hold of his brother, Kenneth (a competitive off-road motorcyclist and SA’s motocross champ for three years running) and asked him if he’d like to team up with him for the event. Kenneth’s answer: “Yeah, sure. What is it?”. Gilbert’s reply: “Some mountain bike race in Cape Town.”

Looking back, Gilbert can’t help but chuckle about how naively they both approached the notorious eight-day event. Billed “the toughest MTB stage race in the world” for good reason – it covers around 700 km of brutal terrain and involves about 15 000 meters of accumulated climbing. “Ignorance was bliss, would sum it up best,” says Gilbert. “That said, I definitely found my hidden talent. Although it was extremely tough, all the required skills just came naturally to me and I was hooked.”

That year, the Gilbert brothers notched up a 107th place finish. Not bad considering they were raw novices with no real clue what they were doing. In 2015 he came in 29th and last year he finished in 24th position – now that’s progress. He’s also gone on to notch-up a number of impressive wins in other high-profile MTB events around the country.

Sadly for Gilbert, he didn’t compete in this year’s Epic as his old hamstring injury flared up again – so none of his cycling fans got a chance to see if he could better his performance over previous years. “Fortunately, it’s nothing serious. But it has knocked my training back a bit,” he adds.

Riding hard, like he played on the field
The way Gilbert sees it, his 13 years as a professional football player proved to be the ideal platform from which to launch his new MTB career. “It’s no secret that football is one of the most physically demanding sports out there and requires a lot of strength,” he explains. “Being a defender, it never mattered how tired I got on the field, I was conditioned to just keep on going. Cycling’s very much like that; when it gets tough you just have to dig deep and keep pedalling. My philosophy is the harder you train, the harder it is to surrender – I live my life by that. I’ll never give up, ever. Because of my physical strength I took to mountain biking surprisingly easily. All I really needed to do was spend time in the saddle and get used to a new training regime.”

That said, apart from spending between 1 – 3 hours in the saddle each day, Gilbert’s training regime hasn’t changed that much from his football-playing days. He fits in at least two gym sessions per week, where he concentrates on general strength work and a lot of core. He’s also a strong proponent of plyometrics. Also known as “jump training”, it involves explosive movements designed to activate the quick response and elastic properties of the major muscles in the body. Examples include jumping on and off boxes, or doing fast star jumps.

However, being a large man, Gilbert goes easy on the weights as he doesn’t want to bulk up. “Body mass has a huge influence on one’s strength and, being bigger than the average cyclist, I’m naturally stronger than they are. However, being 15 kg heavier also means I have to put in more effort than they do to get up the same hill – so things tend to balance themselves out,” he elaborates. “Training’s all about knowing your weaknesses and working with them.”

While on his bike, Gilbert likes to mix things up “to keep things interesting”. For example, one session might be dedicated solely to hill sprints. The next to long, sustainable power rides over flat terrain. Then again, he might just be focused on technical stuff. Says Gilbert, “I like to break my training down into manageable segments and replicate the conditions I expect to encounter on race day – bearing in mind I want to peak at exactly the right time for the event. Other than that, I just ride and enjoy myself.”

Warrior with a new cause
Gilbert may no longer be part of a tight-knit “band of brothers”, pitting his ball skills against opposing teams, but, thanks to his new interests, his “fight” is far from over. He elaborates, “Soccer has been, and still is good to me. So many amazing, positive spin-offs have presented themselves thanks to my football career.”

One good example is the prison football documentary Gilbert starred in a few years back. Broadcast globally on Sky Sports, it’s erm, goal was to demonstrate there was such a thing as an international football language – one that allows lovers of the game to communicate amongst themselves, regardless of where they live on the planet or their levels in society. Says Gilbert, “There I was, sitting with hardcore criminals – guys who had committed 20 murders, hitmen and rapists – in this high-security prison in Witbank. I was astonished! None of the guys I was talking to would ever get out of prison, but they all knew about football. Plus, as prisoners are taught not to be in denial about their crimes, the conversations we ended up having were startlingly honest and frank.”

In total, he spent four days in Witbank prison, running football workshops for the inmates and, finally, holding a mini tournament. Needless to say, the experience had a profound effect on him. Gilbert explains, “I have a lot of experience adding my name to good causes, but this one was different. For the first time I truly understood how much influence football had given me to help change people’s mindsets. This was a real step in the right direction for me. I vowed from then on to make my influence count. I wanted to talk to people about things that mattered strongly to me.”

Being a dedicated wildlife lover, getting involved in nature conservation and anti-poaching efforts was a no-brainer for Gilbert. He became an ambassador for Children of the Wilderness, Beyond and SAN Parks (mainly in the Kruger area) – and has been running soccer clinics in communities bordering game reserves ever since. Says Gilbert, “We use football as the platform, but the message is pure conservation. Wildlife is my passion, but I can make a difference with football.”

Gilbert is just as enthusiastic about his newfound sport, mountain biking, as he is for the beautiful game. So much so that he would like to see more ex-footballers follow his example and pick up MTB the same way he has. “I understand only too well how the majority of soccer players suffer when injuries cut their careers short. My advice to them is to keep their eyes and ears open for opportunities elsewhere. After all, I’m living proof than an injury in one sport doesn’t have to mean your career is over.”

Ever moving forward, Gilbert is currently focused on his preparations for the Sani2C MTB Race taking place in May. Feeling confident about his upcoming ride, he expects to put up a strong performance, saying “Last year I rode with Paul Theron and we finished in 7th place. Considering I’m a fitter athlete than I was then, I’m hoping for things to go even better.” – (c) 2017 NavWorld

You can follow Gordon Gilbert via his Facebook profile:

About The Author

Sean Woods

Originally a photographer for the Star newspaper in the bad old days, Sean Woods turned to writing after the first democratic elections in '94. The career shift paid serious dividends, culminating in him becoming associate editor for Popular Mechanics magazine with a number of technology writing awards under his belt. His interests include anything to do with boats, motorcycles and all those fancy tech gadgets that help the modern world go around.

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