America's Cup hero learns to sail

The cyclist who turned Team New Zealand sailors into cyclors is fighting his way back into the crew - which means learning how to sail. Suzanne McFadden reports.

He’s hailed as an America’s Cup champion. The man who led Team New Zealand’s cyclor pack to victory. But Simon “The Rhino” van Velthooven doesn’t really know how to sail.

“I’ll happily admit I still have no idea what’s going on,” he says. Nevertheless, he’s determined to learn the ropes, to get back on board Emirates Team New Zealand to defend the Auld Mug in three years’ time.

The Olympic cycling bronze medallist quietly slipped into the Team NZ fold back in 2016, given a clandestine mission to teach the sailing crew to become cyclors - those radical pedallers who powered up the AC50 foiling catamaran.

But now that pedal-power has been ruled out of the 2021 Cup, van Velthooven finds himself on the outside again - but desperate to fight his way back in. With the tables turned, the cyclist is now being taught to be a sailor.

“You get addicted to trying to defy the odds,” he says, after finishing another demanding session in the gym, and looking for breakfast. “It was an awesome experience in Bermuda, and it’s pretty cool to see how the team operates and what they achieved. It’s a cool opportunity to be able to train up to get on the next boat.”

Although the exact design of the new AC75 foiling monohull, drawn up by Team NZ and Italian challenger Luna Rossa, won’t be revealed until the end of this month, it’s almost guaranteed its power will come from conventional grinding pedestals.

So van Velthooven is building up to become a burly grinder. He’s taking every opportunity to catch a ride on a keelboat and get to grips with turning the handles.

Where the strength has always been in van Velthooven’s famously herculean legs - earning the nickname Rhino for his power and aggression on a sprint bike - he’s now having to pump up the muscles in his upper body. “Yeah, my body shape’s changing. I’m 15kg heavier than when I was a cyclist, but I’ll probably turn into a cube more than a pyramid,” he laughs.

Team NZ have not forgotten him. They’ve opened their doors to him – and other former cyclors – to use the grinding pedestal at their Beaumont St base. And he’s even got himself a job in the marine industry to discover more about the workings of a high-performance boat.

Van Velthooven isn’t alone in his quest to return to the crew of the America’s Cup defenders. Joe Sullivan, the Olympic rowing champion who also switched codes for the 2017 Cup, is also sharpening his sailing skills to become a grinder.

Sullivan has a head-start on van Velthooven – he learned to sail as a kid at the Waimakariri Sailing & Powerboat Club in the 1990s. Van Velthooven’s previous yachting experience can be narrowed down to a stint on Outward Bound and a few outings on an uncle’s boat.

The pair are also training with Josh Junior and Andy Maloney, experienced sailors who are both campaigning for the Finn dinghy at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Although they are working together, only one of them can get the Finn spot. So they also have one eyed fixed on the America’s Cup.

“We’re just doing the miles, and the shitty training, so to speak,” van Velthooven says. “It’s slow and steady; nothing out of this world yet. But we’re progressing, which is the main thing.”

Three times a week, the sailors meet at Team NZ’s base - comparatively ghostly to this time 12 months ago – and take turns using a pedestal winch to fine-tune their grinding skills. They go to the gym three times a week to build fitness. “We’re pretty lucky Team New Zealand have kept up the gym memberships, and the supplements,” van Velthooven says.

“It’s nice training new muscles, doing new gym movements, learning new things. My bench press has gone up quite a bit since we finished in Bermuda. There are no amazing numbers being achieved or anything, it’s pretty basic stuff. But you’ve got to get the basics right before there’s any action.”

And that applies on the water as well. As van Velthooven puts it: “Getting on boats and learning everything from the bow backwards. I know much of the basics now, but there’s a lot of stuff going on, on the bigger boats.

“There’s nothing crazy and fast and exciting, but it’s still a good time, and there’s good people doing the sport, who are allowing me to get on their boats and learn from scratch.”

He’s been sailing on TP52s – high-performance monohulls that are around the same length as the new America’s Cup boat. He crewed on Kia Kaha - skippered by Chris Hornell, Team NZ’s on-the-water operations manager – in the Coastal Classic and Bay of Islands Race Week. “They’re fun because they’ve got the handles, and there’s a lot of action.”

Does he miss being at the front of the cyclor peleton, pushing his heart rate up to 195 beats per minute, to power the foiling multihull?

“I dunno. It was a pretty cool system, a very efficient system, and we pretty much had unlimited power. But every Cup is a clean slate."

After a hugely successful cycling career – collecting multiple medals across Olympics, Commonwealth Games and world championships - bikes still play a part in van Velthooven’s daily routine. “I ride to the gym, and all of us enjoy mountain-biking so we get out once or twice a week and bike around the hills. I’m trying to keep up some kind of fitness, but it’s mostly about building some size at the moment.”

It’s still uncertain when Team NZ will call on sailing crew. It’s likely the AC75 will need 10-12 crew (virtually double the people-power needed for the catamaran), and the defender will almost certainly build two boats, to test and trial against each other in the lead-up to the Cup defence. They will be casting their net wide - Glenn Ashby says he is looking for fresh young talent as well.

“They won’t employ people until the boat’s ready to sail, so until then we’re waiting to see what the crew weights will be and what the boat actually needs,” van Velthooven says.

In the meantime, van Velthooven has got another job. He finally finished his studies this summer after a marathon effort; interwoven with an international cycling career, it took him 10 years to complete his Bachelor of Applied Science, majoring in Rural Valuation and Management, at Massey University.

But rather than follow his family into business (his parents, Paul and Heather, own a property valuation business in Palmerston North) he’s found a place in the marine industry – starting work at Southern Spars, who built almost every facet of the victorious Team NZ catamaran. “I’ll be an office jockey for a while, but I’ll get to learn all the details of how boats, rigs and masts are made,” he says.

The sailing bug has its firmly embedded its teeth.

“So far it’s been good fun, with good people. I just want to hang around and do my best to get involved in the defence and defend the Cup. Until then I’ll just keep giving it a crack.”