The iron lady of enduroA near-death experience taught tough-as-nails enduro biker Kirsten Landman that enjoying life is more valuable than any victory in the saddle – and this important realisation made her a better rider than ever before
Kirsten Landman is entirely at ease – not to say almost gaga with excitement – around the 2016 KTM 1290 Super Duke R superbike we’re using for our photoshoot. As one of very few female riders on the global enduro racing scene, the South African is hoping that her achievements will encourage more women and girls to take up the sport.
Even more so than most sports, enduro racing is a boys’ club. Landman is not at all intimidated by this male-dominated world; she gets extremely fired up, she says, the moment someone tells her there’s something she can’t do. Yet seeing women racing on motorbikes in South Africa and elsewhere remains a rarity, or as the 25-year-old rider puts it, “Girls riding motorbikes out in the mountains, it’s unheard of.”
While she finds it cool being at the forefront of the movement for gender equality in biking, Landman wishes more females would compete. “Of course I want to race against other women,” she says. “I’m always having to measure myself against the guys, which makes me more of a brand ambassador, because I can’t tell a sponsor I can go out and win them a world championship; I can’t, not competing against the best guys out there.”
Yet it all could have been so different. At the Kalahari Botswana 1000 Desert Race in 2013, Landman was involved in a life-threatening accident. “The bike washed because I was in a rut,” she explains, “and I fell into a tree stump that was at the wrong place.” The impact severed her pancreas from her small intestine, which was also burst, leaking waste into her abdomen and over her vital organs.
It took more than an hour for emergency help to get to her. “I was severely winded, and I went into the foetal position,” she says. “There was a guy who had kept me awake, but I soon started shaking as I’d gone into shock.”
All the damage, however, had happened internally and there were no external marks on Landman’s body. The race paramedics, therefore, were largely unconcerned, believing her injuries to be less serious than those of other riders injured that day; there had been four crashes, one of which had resulted in a serious head injury.
By the time Landman got to a hospital in Gaborone, four hours had passed since the accident. X-rays, ultrasound tests and scans were conducted, but they detected no problems, which was fortunate as it later came to light that the hospital didn’t have any spare blood, so an operation would have proved fatal. Thankfully for Landman, Franziska Brandl, the managing director of KTM South Africa, was in contact with a doctor in Pretoria. After being told of the rider’s predicament and seeing some of her blood test results, the doctor escalated the situation, demanding that she be returned to South Africa as soon as possible. But first Landman’s medical aid providers had to fly someone up to Gaborone to ensure that her case was severe enough to warrant a helicopter flight to Lanseria.
The accident had happened at 9:30am on Friday morning, but she didn’t arrive back in South Africa until after 3pm the next day, by which time doctors were in a panic over the delay. The human waste that travels through the small intestine had leaked into Landman’s abdomen, meaning every organ had gone septic. Her kidneys were failing and she had to be completely opened up and all her organs cleaned. “They cut me open and left me like that for 24 hours,” she says. “Then, every eight hours, they would take out all my organs, clean them up and put them back again.”
Landman’s infection rate was stratospheric, and she was in so much pain that the medics had to administer extreme levels of morphine – to the point where her heart stopped and she had to be put on life support. “I was in an induced coma for four, five days, because I fought so much, constantly pulling pipes from my mouth,” she recounts.
She ended up on life support in the intensive care unit for 11 days, tied to the bed because the morphine was making her aggressive. “I don’t remember much from my time in ICU,” Landman says. “But once I moved out of there and into the general ward, my recovery was quick, because I was so fit.”
That wasn’t the end of her ordeal, however: there were complications from the surgery, caused by scar tissue around the small intestine, so Landman was taken back to hospital in severe pain. The surgeons didn’t want to operate again so soon as her wounds were so fresh and severe. Unfortunately, her small intestine burst again, resulting in another two weeks in hospital. These days, Landman has to keep an eye on what she eats, but thankfully there have been no more complications. She proudly shows off an impressive scar on her belly from the surgeon’s knife.
THE RED BULLETIN: Where does an experience like that leave you?
KIRSTEN LANDMAN: It changed my life completely. I was a very serious person before, too serious. I took my friends and family for granted and thought that they would always be there. I didn’t spend enough time with my friends, just having fun. Now, I realise that enjoying life is more important than being a professional motorbike rider. So if one of my cousins has a birthday party and I’m supposed to be going for a training ride at the same time, I now choose to spend the time with my family. Because you know what? It could be gone in a flash: one minute it’s all there, the next it’s gone. I used to think that I was invincible; I was fit and strong and young and healthy, and probably a bit cocky. It [the accident and her experiences in hospital] brought me back down to earth big time. I enjoy the small things in life as well, and I don’t get worked up about stupid stuff. Ever since, I’ve had more fun and not taken myself too seriously.
What has that meant for your riding?
Since I started enjoying myself more, I’ve become a much better rider.
Was there ever a time after the accident when you thought you wouldn’t ride again?
Never. The accident happened in June 2013, and my goal at the beginning of that year had been to ride Roof Of Africa, so when I came out of my coma, I was like, ‘Mom, I’m going to ride Roof this year.’ And honestly, if I hadn’t had those complications, I would have been there. Getting back on the bike was the first thing I spoke about when I came to. I know biking is not the be all and end all, but it has definitely changed my life.
Would you change anything that happened?
Not a thing. It’s made me who I am.
And the challenge is to show females that they can confidently take to off-road biking…
A lot of the women say they can’t do it, the bikes are too heavy, it’s too hard, too technical. But in a lot of the races I’m competing in, like Megawatt or Sea To Sky, I’m one of only 25 riders who are finishing. And at Roof Of Africa there were only 36 finishers, so, you know, it’s possible.
The first mistake women make is to think that because they’re female they can’t do it. Being told I can’t do something is all the motivation I need. I don’t think of myself as a girl. I want to be beating the next guy in front of me; it’s cool and it’s different. But I wish that there were more women competing. There are riders out there; they’re just not taking part in the competitions.
Can you see yourself taking part in the Dakar Rally one day?
I’ve been thinking about it. But not now – I definitely need more experience. It’s a hard race, and it’s life or death at certain stages. And it costs a lot of money. Also, the Dakar is a high-speed race, and since my accident I’ve been a little scared of going too fast.
I like a challenge, and that is certainly the ultimate motorbike race, but maybe in two or three years’ time. Look at Laia [Sanz, 13-time Women’s Trial World Champion, who is a multiple winner of the women’s section of the Dakar and has finished as high as ninth overall] – she’s already into her 30s and she’s killing it! There’s no age limit in the Dakar.
If it’s so difficult for women to make it in biking, how did it happen for you?
When I was eight, we lived next door to my cousins and they were into motorbiking, so I asked my dad, who had grown up around bikes, whether I could get one. He said I could if I made the provincial swimming team. I made the team, so I got a Peewee 80 [Yamaha PW80], and from that moment I was bike gaga.
And when did you take things off-road?
I bought a big [Suzuki] RM85 and started riding on the scramble track close to our house. I was always racing the guys, because there weren’t many girls who were into it, and when I started to do well, that led me to motocross.
How did you end up in enduro?
There are a lot of tracks in Joburg, so I started riding 125cc. Then I got a 250F and just rode and rode and rode until I was about 14, maybe 15. And then I started crashing – a lot! I broke a wrist, also my collarbone, and I did my knee, and my folks said to me that I wasn’t allowed to ride motocross any more; I had to ride enduro, which is much more injury-free. I was fine with that, so I started doing enduros.
At what stage did you decide to do it full time?
I took a gap year after school and rode as much as I could, and I did well. Then, in 2011, I got a sponsor who would pay for everything. But the following year at the Roof Of Africa, my bike broke down 20K from the end, meaning I got a bronze finish, but
not an official one, so my sponsorship broke down. Soon afterwards, though, I met Franziska from KTM. We had a chat, and I signed a contract the next day.