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This Is Africa
Posted on 3/13/2011 12:18:50 PM

A new season brings new experiences

After climbing a great hill, one only finds there are many more hills to climb ~ Nelson Mandela

Cycling is a sport for the people. It isn’t a pastime that is dependent on class or wealth; top level bikes might be expensive, but where there’s a will there’s a way. The key ingredients to success in cycling are desire and determination. If you’ve got those things you can go a long way, wherever in the world you come from.

While the traditional heartland of the sport is Europe, the UCI are attempting to take it to new audiences in North America, Asia and Australia. One place that is still waiting for its chance to stage a top level race is Africa. Times are changing, though, and there’s a number of riders emerging onto the world stage.

At the start of February, I was given the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in Namibia along with fellow Rapha Condor - Sharp rider, Jon Tiernan-Locke and Graeme Raeburn, a designer from Rapha. Graeme, it turns out, is a bit of a rock star, being a member of the UK’s premier and possibly only Kazoo based novelty act, the Masters of the Kazooniverse.

Their CV includes playing Glastonbury festival and appearing alongside the legendary Basil Brush for Red Nose Day. If you want to see a group of people playing something vaguely resembling a recognisable tune on Kazoos, look them up on Youtube.

We stayed with my team-mate Dan Craven and his family. I first met Dan when we were both racing in Italy in 2006, and I eventually persuaded him to come and race for my team in the UK a couple of years ago. He’s back again in the UK this year preparing for the 2012 London Olympics, which he qualified for at the end of last season.

For those of you who don’t know much about Namibia, it’s north of South Africa. It is the second least densely populated country in the world after Mongolia, and is where the sprinter Frankie Fredericks is from. Apart from that, there’s not much else to say. If you like a hectic lifestyle Namibia isn’t for you. If you like wildlife, stunning scenery and peace and quiet, it’s perfect.

Aside from training, eating lots of meat off the Braai (BBQ), and spotting wild animals such as zebra, baboons, and kudu, Namibia also provided myself and Jon with some new experiences. Training on the road in Omaruru, Dan’s home town, offers a number of choices, north or south… And when you get bored you turn round in the road and ride home again.

Mountain biking was more interesting, riding round what we called ‘monkey mountain’ due to the huge number of baboons that were sat watching us from the top. We quickly learnt that nearly every bush in Namibia has huge thorns on it, as every 30 seconds or so one of us would scream as we got ripped to bits as nature got its own back. Jon borrowed some Hi-Tec walking boots that were a couple of sizes too small, and thought socks were an item of clothing surplus to requirements. He ended up in quite a lot of pain, but as he stuffed huge clumps of grass into the boots to stop them rubbing - looking like Tom Hanks in the film Castaway - we were too busy laughing at him to have any sympathy.

Another eye-opener for us in Namibia was that the differences between the rich and the poor are massive, and as nearly all the rich are white, skin colour plays a huge part in deciding how you live and what opportunities in life you will have. There are certainly a few people with money as some of the houses in the capital were amazing, but I’m afraid that living behind huge gates and fences and hiding away from the world is not something I aspire to. But as everyone kept telling us, T.I.A. (this is Africa), so you can’t look at things from a Western point of view.

It’s not all bad though, and we were able to show different skin colours can get on in Africa by sharing a common passion, cycling. PAY Namibia (www.payNamibia.com) is a project based in Katatura, the black township of Namibia’s capital Windhoek. It aims to encourage school children to work hard at school and take part in sports to learn about teamwork, leadership and life skills.

Visiting the children was certainly humbling. They hardly had any bikes so had to take turns riding them, and the bikes they did have were all extremely old and in need of repair. One thing that was clear was their passion. They may have limited resources, but there’s no lack of desire. There’s some fantastic potential bike riders in Africa, it’s just a shame most of them never get the chance to find their talent.

Another important charity in Namibia is the Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN), which apart from having a great name, also attempts to give disadvantaged Namibians a chance to use bikes as transport or to generate income through bicycle related opportunities. http://www.benbikes.org.za/namibia/

After nearly 2 weeks training, it was time to get serious and start the season off with the Tour of South Africa. The race started in Johannesburg - if you ever get a chance to visit, my advice is…don’t. There are not many good things you can say about it, and given the traffic problems on stage 2, I doubt the organisers will be in a rush to try and host a race there in the near future. The good thing to come out of our stay there was that Kristian won the opening stage by over two minutes, taking the yellow jersey.

After a short flight we touched down in Port Elizabeth. We were grateful to get away from a completely sterile and soulless place into much more beautiful surroundings. If Jo’burg scored 1 out of 10, P.E. was certainly a 9. Looking out of the hotel window at the beach and the breaking waves made us realise we’re lucky to be bike riders. The stage also provided an opportunity to spot giraffes and elephants…you don’t get that in the British Premier Calendar races!

After a shaky start organisation-wise, the race got better and better and took us through some fantastic scenery and beautiful landscapes. The race headed along the coast towards Cape Town, which was an awesome place to spend the last few days on the tour, and we even got to enjoy a few beers to celebrate winning the tour overall. It turned out to be a near perfect team performance. It’s one of the few times in my career where I’ve been genuinely able to say that. Contrary to what 99% of professional team press releases might say, things don’t normally go according to plan.

The level of the race was really high with a number of Pro Continental teams present, but it was the level of the African riders that really came through. The South Africans have always been strong, but it’s great to see riders from emerging nations like Eritrea and Morocco emerging. It’s only a matter of time before some of these riders make it to the ProTeam level.

And here’s a final bit of advice for readers in the UK who are wondering if they should go out training in the rain:

The rain does not recognise anyone as a friend, it drenches all equally ~ Nigerian Proverb

Thanks for reading.

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