This past week the first World Tour race of the year started, the Tour Down Under. Yes, actual guys on actual bikes living and riding in the present time!
Given all the noisy news we’ve had to digest (and are still digesting, unfortunately) in the normally quiet off-season, I had almost forgotten what bike racing is all about.
But thankfully, something came along to remind me. Earlier this week I saw a trailer about a new movie by South African film company Sinamatella. The title is Baisikeli, which is Swahili for ‘bicycle.’
In Kenya, a country more renowned for producing world-class middle and long-distance runners and buckets of medals to boot, there is a group of people trying to form a national Kenyan cycling team.
It’s a story about passion for the bike, a story of how to succeed in a sport which is not culturally embedded in the local culture, unlike, say, the Netherlands, France, or even Australia.
The movie’s producers are now looking for funds for post-production. Hopefully it will be out soon because I can’t wait to see it.
Cycling in Africa is booming. Last year we saw the first black African rider in a World Tour team, and this year MTN-Qhubeka stepped up and joined the ProContinental ranks. The stories coming from that team are nothing more than inspirational. Passion, yet again, is the key word.
The story of Songezo Jim is a perfect example. The now 22-year old South African only learnt how to ride a bike when he was 14. He was an orphan at that age and had to live with his aunt, where he was enlisted to help around the house.
Riding a bike, something that enchanted him after seeing a race pass by, was not something that would bring in money so it was off the menu. But he kept trying, sneaking out to put in training hours.
Eight years later he is a pro cyclist with MTN-Qhubeka, and his family are immensely proud of him.
The backgrounds of the guys in the first African ProContinental team are diverse. They brought in European experience courtesy of Gerald Ciolek, Sergio Pardilla, Ignatas Konovalovas, Martin Reimer and Andreas Stauff, but most of all they’ve given African riders a chance to shine on the world stage.
The team’s line-up is a mixture of nine nationalities including Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Africa and Rwanda.
Adrien Niyonshuti is the national champion of Rwanda, a country we know because of the fierce civil war between Hutus and Tutsis. Six of his brothers died in that war when Adrien was only seven years old. His mother and sister are all that’s left of the family.
Despite the circumstances, he learnt to ride on an old steel bike his uncle gave him. He rode to escape the realities of his gruesome past. Without top-of-the-range equipment or high-profile races, Niyonshuti still managed to show his talent and make it to a pro cycling team.
In 2012 he rode for Rwanda in the Olympic mountain bike race because his country didn’t have a start place for the road race. He proudly carried the national flag in the opening ceremony.
This year he’ll represent the colours of his country in the pro peloton.
These are the guys that we should be watching. These are the guys that have that joyful love for the sport and not only for the money that comes with it. For that, though, we needn’t only look to Africa.
I work as a webmaster on the websites of several young Dutch pros. I see how they train, how much they do and most of all what they don’t do to get where they want to be.
However successful they were in junior or under 23-ranks, they’ll have to start all over again once they are a pro cyclist.
Each and every one of these guys is thrilled to be part of the peloton. They ride with passion. But they are saddened by what has and continues to happen to the sport they love so much.
So let’s dream with Jim, with Adrien, with Wesley, Raymond, Boy, Moreno and so many others. Let’s dream of guys and girls on bikes, and nothing more or less than that.
What’s required to move forward is a collective responsibility and a nurturing of hope, to be sure that the passion of these young people is not led astray.
We owe that to these young riders.