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Jaco van Gass interview

Chris Saunders
14 Sep 2016

The extraordinary story of Jaco van Gass: war veteran, Arctic adventurer and champion cyclist.

Next time you pull out of that planned ride because it’s raining, you have a niggling injury, or you just don’t fancy it, spare a thought for Jaco van Gass. While serving with the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan in 2009, this avid cyclist was blown up by a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG), suffering life-changing injuries as a result. A cycling nut since childhood, this horrific experience literally forced him out of the saddle. At least for a while. When he did get back on his bike again, though, he found that cycling helped his bashed-about soul rediscover its inner peace. 

Talking to Jaco van Gass is a revelation. At 29 years old he is a man who has been to war, walked to the North Pole, run marathons, attempted to climb Everest, and despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, become a champion cyclist. To pinch a modern-day marketing phrase, impossible is nothing – at least where this inspiring guy is concerned.

So who is Jaco van Gass and what’s with the  exotic-sounding name? As you may have guessed, Jaco isn’t from around these parts. He’s African. South African to be exact, hailing from Middelburg, a farming and industrial town in the province of  Mpumalanga – a name which means ‘the place where the sun rises’ in the local Zulu dialect. Which, when you get to know Jaco and the optimism that radiates from him, is kind of fitting. Perhaps even perfect. ‘They were interesting times,’ he says of his childhood. ‘When I was growing up, the country was going through a lot of change and just beginning to become more tolerant and politically stable. As a kid, I had a lot of freedom. I loved the outdoor life, and was always very active. My day usually consisted of school, followed by football, rugby or some other sport. If not that, then I’d just go off riding. Cycling gave me freedom, and was my way of escaping. I always had a mountain bike, and loved going out exploring the trails around my house. I’d go wherever the trail took me. If I had a bad day at school or if I was being a grumpy teen, my mum would tell me to go out on my bike and not come back until I felt better!’

Circumstances also played a role in Jaco’s early obsession with cycling. ‘Our telly blew up when I was about 10 and my dad never bothered to replace it, so I was always out exploring!’ he laughs. ‘But another factor was the infrastructure. In Middelburg at the time, most people were either reliant on public transport to get from place to place, or the walking trails. Cycling was a better option, so when I got a bit older and started getting heavily into it, I put road wheels on my mountain bike and started entering sportives. That provided a new challenge.’

Challenging himself and testing his limits is a recurring theme in Jaco’s story. And it was exactly that desire which brought him to the UK. Aged just 20, he sold all of his possessions and jumped on a plane, with the sole intention of joining the British Army and pursuing a life of adventure. ‘The lifestyle appealed to me,’ Jaco admits. ‘I come from a military background. Both my dad and my grandfather served in the forces. Being part of the Commonwealth meant that I could come over and join the British Army, so that’s what I did. When I arrived, I went straight to the recruitment office near Trafalgar Square and enlisted in the Parachute Regiment. Joining any regiment is a challenge, but to get in the paras, I was told, you have to one of the elite. The best of the best. And I was up for that. Plus, jumping out of planes sounded pretty cool!’

World torn apart

Jaco’s route into one of the most elite regiments in the British Army meant surviving ‘P Company’ – one of the world’s most exacting military selection processes – to see if he had what it took. To pass it requires a strength of both body and mind that few possess. ‘It was hell,’ Jaco admits. ‘I asked myself numerous times what on earth I was doing there. But the training has its purpose. Everything you do is for a reason. They aim to break you as a civilian and build you back up as a soldier. There’s no respite, you’re pushed to your absolute limit and spend a lot of time cold, wet, and aching. On the first day of training there were 120 lads. By the end there were 28 of us left.’ Jaco’s positive mindset had been crucial to him passing P Company, but it was to play an even more vital role when he was nearly killed in Afghanistan.

‘I was posted to the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment,’ says Jaco. ‘I did my first tour of Afghanistan as a young Tom (private) in 2008. I was excited more than anything. Nobody signs up to sit around doing nothing. The following year I went back again, this time as a sniper. I was loving every minute of it.’ With just two weeks of his second tour to go, however, disaster struck. Jaco and his platoon were attacked by Taliban fighters. In the ensuing firefight, he was hit by an RPG and blown five metres across the ground. His injures were horrific, he lost his left arm at the elbow, suffered a collapsed lung, punctured internal organs, blast wounds to his upper thigh, a broken tibia, a fractured knee and shrapnel wounds to his skin. He was flown back to England, his military career over, he now faced the trauma of extended rehabilitation, eventually undergoing a mind-boggling 11 operations just to get him to state most of us would find unbearable. He was 23 years old. 

‘There was a time after I was wounded when I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with myself,’ he admits. ‘I had to do a lot of adjusting and reassessing. When life is good and nothing is wrong with you, so many things tend to get pushed to the side. I learned pretty fast that life is short and everything can change in the blink of an eye. You have to make the most of what you have, and take nothing for granted.

‘I didn’t mope around feeling sorry for myself. What would that achieve? The bottom line was that I wanted a better life for myself and my family, and I knew that I needed to be strong for that to happen. My inspiration for that was when I saw a disabled lady on TV. She said 10 per cent of life is what happens to you, and the other 90 is what you make of it. That stuck in my mind. It helped me accept the fact that yes, my life had changed, but now I was going to find out what I was really made of.’

Jaco’s injuries may have been debilitating, but his spirit was clearly unbroken. ‘I’ve always looked for new challenges,’ he tells us. ‘Things to push me and take me out of my comfort zone. I began seeing my injuries as an opportunity for me to do just that and started looking around for new ways to test myself.’

Less than two years after the incident that nearly cost him his life, Jaco van Gass, along with some equally remarkable other disabled veterans trekked unsupported to the North Pole as part of Walking With the Wounded’s charity expedition. Their attempt was backed by Prince Harry and made global headlines, becoming a record-breaking venture in the process. ‘There was a lot of negativity around that expedition,’ Jaco tells us. ‘People thought it couldn’t be done. We wanted to prove everyone wrong.’

In his search for adventure, Jaco then went on to tackle an ascent of Everest, represent the British Army’s Combined Services Disabled Ski Team in downhill skiing and run in marathons all over the world to raise money for various charities. But there was still something missing. An itch which only cycling, ultimately, would scratch. 

In 2012, Jaco was selected to be a torchbearer for the London Olympics and it was while watching the cycling that his passion for the sport was rekindled. It would spark a powerful new ambition in him – that he would cycle at the highest level possible.

As a man who’d suffered life-changing injuries, that meant joining the Paralympic class of athletes. As such Jaco was classified as C4 – a cyclist with upper or lower limb impairments and low-level neurological impairment. ‘Not only did I lose my left arm when I was blown up,’ Jaco reveals, ‘but I also lost a lot of muscle and tissue in my left leg. That means that leg isn’t as strong as my right. Balance wasn’t much of an issue, but when I first started riding again, I had trouble getting up hills and I had to work on my handling skills.’ With a stump for a left arm, this meant obvious modifications to his bike including both brakes and the gears shifted to the right-hand side of the bike frame. Something which had its own knock-on effects, particularly when it came to bike handling. ‘My approach to cornering is different now,’ explains Jaco, ‘mainly because I have one lever that controls both brakes, so I have less control. I’ve had to learn to compensate in a lot of ways.’

The challenges Jaco has endured may be beyond the comprehension of most of us, but he has been sustained by something any cyclist can relate to – the sense of escape riding a bike gives you. Jaco may have gone though hell, but when he got to the other side he’d rediscovered that same all-empowering feeling of freedom he’d enjoyed as a kid. With his buzz for riding well and truly back, he enrolled on the Team GB development programme, worked his way up through the ranks, and in 2014 won two gold medals at the Invictus Games. Though narrowly missing out on selection for Rio 2016, he has been selected to represent his adopted country at the highest level, something he describes as a ‘great honour’. 

Specialising in the 4km Individual Pursuit, Jaco is now in the elite programme, which means he receives National Lottery funding. He’s also a brand ambassador for Roseville, the building and decorating group, who provide additional support.

So how intense is his training schedule and what does it involve? ‘It’s half a general programme that all the riders do, and half customised to my individual requirements. I train most days, only having one day off a week for recovery. During the season, I have Mondays off, then it switches to Sunday in the off-season which enables me to have a bit more of a normal life. During the season, the training is very race-specific and tailored toward whichever event, but in the off-season, the emphasis switches more to identifying weak spots in your game and working to improve those deficiencies so you become a more rounded cyclist and a better competitor.’

The nature of his injuries also means Jaco has to adapt to various conditions, both indoors and outdoors. For track work and outdoor time trials, he has a short prosthetic arm that’s locked into position, so he has had to train himself to deliver climbing power from a seated position. Despite this, he points out that he remains more aerodynamic and balanced than those who get out of the saddle. For longer road races, he has a longer arm that allows him to rise out the saddle to generate torque. And has, in fact, become so adept that during the road season he frequently trains with and competes against able-bodied athletes. 

No ordinary athlete

The life of Jaco van Gass can hardly be described as ordinary, but what does an average day look like for the sniper-turned-champion cyclist? ‘I get up between 6.30 and 7am and put away a high-protein breakfast. I find I’m more focused in the mornings, so that’s when I answer my emails and do any outstanding admin, then I’m on the bike by 10. The specifics of what I do each day depend on my training programme. When I get home I have a protein shake, take a shower, then take on some solids. Later in the day I will either go back out on the bike, or maybe do some stretching or strength and conditioning work. At the moment it’s mainly about keeping in shape and prepping for next season.’ 

His experiences of war and the injuries it forced upon him have taken Jaco around the world, across frozen wastes and up mountains in search of some kind of meaning, so what is it about cycling that he finds so fulfilling? ‘It keeps me fit and active, but it also clears my mind. It takes me to a good place. It challenges me. When I first started riding again I’d avoid hills because my disabilities made them so difficult. But as I grew in confidence, I actively started to seek hills out. Now I love to take them on! 

‘But what I really love about the sport is there are so many different types of cycling, there’s something for everybody. Not everyone wants to get in the saddle and ride for a hundred miles. The main thing, whatever you do, is to enjoy it. When the sun shines, get out there and ride. And if it rains, get out there anyway! For me personally, nothing tops time trials. I love fast wheels, the suit, the helmet. It’s all about speed. I just bought a new Open U.P. frame. It’s incredibly light, and versatile, too. I love the fact, too, that just by changing your tyres or a component you can have a road bike or mountain bike. One of the best pieces of kit I use is an InfoCrank power meter which provides accurate left and right leg balance data. Because I lost so much tissue in my left leg, it’s an invaluable training aid. All things considered, the training is quite intense but I love it!’ 

OK, last question, so what does Jaco van Gass, Afghan War survivor, conqueror of the North Pole and elite cyclist do in his down time? ‘Aw, you know, I like watching sports, I love watching films, I’m also a big Game Of Thrones fan. “Winter is coming!”’ he roars. ‘Ha! I love that stuff!’

And with that our chat comes to an end. It’s fitting that Jaco should choose to close our conversation with this famous quote from the show. According to George RR Martin, author of the Game Of Thrones books, the phrase expresses the sentiment that even the most blessed individual needs to prepare for life’s inevitable darker periods. Jaco van Gass has been through darker days than many of us dare imagine, but he’s survived them all. And he did that by seeing each set-back not as something negative, but as an opportunity to push himself onwards to ever-greater heights – whether that be on and off the bike. What a truly inspiring way to view the world.  

Jaco van Gass is a brand ambassador for Roseville (see roseville.co.uk). See jacovangass.com for more about Jaco’s latest activities. 

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