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South Africa - The State of Cycling In Africa
By Lee Rodgers
Date: 6/24/2010
South Africa - The State of Cycling In Africa

South Africa - The State of Cycling In Africa
Nicholas White pro rider with South Africa's Medscheme pro cycling looks at the past and the future of cycling in his S.A. -  waiting for another international champion after 98 years...

by Nicholas White

Introduction by Lee Rodgers
Road racing in Japan is perceived to be a minor sport and it’s popularity is confined to the racers themselves and a few thousand enthusiasts around the country. Ask almost any person in the street who Yukiya Arashiro is and they will have no idea. Yet there is no doubt that this is changing, little by little - certainly, with every passing year, we can see more and more cyclists on the road.

In the rest of Asia, road racing is becoming more and more popular, with several nations now holding vibrant national tours, the Tour of Langkawi in particular attracting the attention of some European ProTour teams. China, with is recent economic growth and massive population, should see an explosion in the popularity of the sport very soon. In general, the Asian scene is extremely promising.

But what about that other giant continent, Africa? How is cycling perceived there? What is the current state of the sport, and where is road racing heading there?

Team Medscheme pro cyclist and freelance journalist, South African Nicholas White, explains the situation:

The bicycle is often used throughout Africa as a basic mode of transport, but what of bike racing on the continent, and in particular, South Africa? What is the state of cycling in the country, nearly 100 years after the last South African cyclist won an olympic gold medal on the road?

When Rudolf Lewis won the individual time trial for men in Stockholm Sweden in 1912 in a time of 10 hours and 42 minutes, and 39 seconds nearly 10 minutes faster than the second placed rider, a Briton, no-one would have thought that in 2010, we would still be waiting for a second...

Editors note: Rudolf "Okey" Lewis won the gold medal in the inaugural 196.0  miles (315.385 kilometres) - 123 amateur competitors from 16 nations. Brit Frederick Grubb claimed silver and American  Carl Schutte won bronze. The UCI World Championships did not start until 1927.)

Cycling is considered a European sport, but has spread worldwide and is successful in many countries. But what of Africa?

In North Africa, the Arab nations have a solid culture of cycling, certainly from the French influences that they had endured (an inheritance of the French colonial period?) , and they have fashioned many races modeled on the Tour de France. The foremost of these,  the Tour de Maroc, is possibly the most competitive tour in North Africa.

For this reason, Morocco stands second on the UCI Africa tour ranking behind South Africa by a few points (despite having no riders at the Pro Tour level of the sport). Morocco has their Government Olympic Committee funding their National team which takes part in most UCI classified races in Africa. The Moroccans are hoping for places at the next Olympics, and are hungrily gobbling up points that are available in their continent.

In many other countries further south they have existing multi day tours or stage races, which are registered with the UCI. Races such as: Tropicale Amissa Bongo, Tour du Faso, Tour du Mali, Tour du Cameroon, Tour of Rwanda, Tour Eritrea, and Tour of Libya. There were also tours in Algeria, Egypt, Senegal, Ivory Coast, perhaps still taking place, but not registered this year, or having difficulties in staging them.

South Africa is notably absent from the current list. They are the top ranked nation in Africa at present, with a huge number of recreational cyclists and a number of their top riders race at the Pro Tour level.

So why is South Africa missing from the UCI calendar of events? Not one race on the UCI Africa Tour, despite their position as a wealthy African country with an apparent culture for cycling. The reason that the country lies first on the list of rankings in Africa is that they gain most of their points via teams and riders racing in the rest of the world. The only local race of international recognition is the South African Championships.

South Africa is notably absent from the current list, holding no UCI sanctioned races. They are the top ranked nation in Africa at present, with a huge number of recreational cyclists and a number of their top riders racing at the Pro Tour level. The reason that the country lies first on the list of rankings in Africa is that they gain most of their points via teams and riders racing in the rest of the world.

The top South African riders get their exposure and race condition from their national 'fun' rides, or Gran Fondo type races. Cycling has developed in South africa into a mass participation sport, with the top level riders racing at the head of these events. However there are limitations to these races.

They are usually governed to 100 km distances, in order to relate to the largest mass participation event in SA, the Cape Cycle 'Tour' which is 105 km long, and all the other 'big' races in the country serve as qualifying events so that the masses can get good seeding times for the Cape Cycle ‘Tour'. This form of racing is perhaps unique to South Africa, where all sorts of people race - from veteran categories, to juniors, to women, and then the normal seeded groups. Everyone racing for a good time, or position in their bunch. That is the reason that some of the races attract thousands of cyclists. That is all great, but looking at the sport from a professional perspective as an Olympic sport, it just doesn't produce the level required to become world beaters.

South African riders have to race abroad to gain UCI points for the ranking of their country. Fortunately there are a few individuals who have made places and reputations for themselves at the top level. As mentioned, Robert Hunter (Garmin -
Transitions) is a previous stage winner of the Tour de France is the most accomplished SA rider, then Daryl Impey (Team Radioshack), John - Lee Augustyn (SKY), Jay Thompson and Darren Lill (Fly V Australia) make up the top SA pro's riding for international teams.

The thing that keeps the local level of South Africans good are the domestic teams which the riders are fortunate enough to have. Continental team MTN, then the likes of Team Medscheme, House of Paint, DCM and EMG make up most of the teams that race consistently at all of the road races around the country. They also give their riders some opportunities to compete internationally in UCI ranked races, which, in turn helps to earn points for their country's world ranking.

There are though certain initiatives in SA which are helping develop young riders and give them the exposure that they need to grow in cycling. There is a National Academy sponsored by Toyota, which gives the best youngsters, who aren't yet in the bigger teams, the opportunity to race locally, as well as to compete in races in Europe to learn the trade. However, his is still a fledgling operation and has a long way to go to get to the level of what the Australians have managed to do for at least a decade in Europe.

 The National team is also represented by other riders at times, when a possible race invite arrives, for instance the SA National team rode well at the Tour de Langkawi, and will also compete in Spain in June. But there is no set system for these national team excursions, but they occur at random when the opportunities arise.

One major positive for the continent is the UCI's African Continental Cycling Centre which is based in South Africa, and takes riders from all over Africa for training periods of three months, to help them learn to train and race correctly. This is something which is aimed at improving the level of the sport throughout Africa. The program is headed by Jean-Pierre and Theresia Van Zyl.

Also a huge initiative in Africa is Project Rwanda. "Project Rwanda was founded by Tom Ritchey after he visited Rwanda in 2005, out of his passion for cycling, a love of Rwanda ’s natural beauty, and the inspiring stories of hope of the Rwandan  people. Tom’s trip resulted in a realization that the bicycle can be an important tool in rebuilding a country, building national pride and addressing local issues facing Rwanda and other African nations."

Their quest is: "Project Rwanda is committed to furthering the economic development of Rwanda through initiatives based on the bicycle as a tool and symbol of hope."

The cycling Team Rwanda is part of this and headed up by Jock Boyer (the first American to compete in the Tour de France), through his passion and commitment they have developed some fine cyclists and are poised to host the Continental Championships in November along with the Tour of Rwanda, for the second time a UCI classified event.

Further east, ‘Safari Simbaz’ is a Kenyan NGO (Trust) founded by Kenya's number one professional cyclist, David Kinjah. Kinjah spent a year previously with the Index Alexia team in Italy, in 2003, and has since made a good name for himself on his performances at the ABSA Cape-Epic.

The ‘SafariSimbaz' main objectives are to train and coach Kenyan youth to become professional cyclists and to promote cycling in Kenya.

"I want to develop young boys and girls through professional cycling to enable them to have a sustainable future for themselves, either by being professional cyclists, mechanics or professional sport events managers,” said Kinjah. “One of our dreams is to have the first professional cycling team in Kenya”.

David Kinjah, with his one person NGO, is providing Kenyan teenagers with a future. He provides them with a home and trains them to become professional cyclists. He also trains and coaches the kids and teaches them all about bike mechanics. The youngsters gain confidence and learn how to pursue their own dreams. Another aim of the SafariSimbaz is to promote cycling in Kenya.

With some of this going on throughout the African continent, questions should be raised as to why South Africa, as one of the wealthier nations, does not host a national tour, or in fact any UCI classified events. It is fantastic that they can hold races with thousands of riders participating, but should there not be a top standard that is modeled on the sport of racing as the international body requires?

There is potential in Africa, but the potential has to be taken to the bigger stage to reach the top level. Other Africans are making a mark in the sport - Chris Froome previously of Kenya rides forTeam SKY, and Rafaa Chtioui of Tunisia rides with Acqua e Sapone in Italy - but for a continent with the size, population and and energy of Africa, the number of riders that are truly successful at the very highest reaches of the sport are far too few.

Over the fence and on the dirt, however, the mountain biking side of the sport is looking healthier and healthier each year in SA. The benchmark event is the ABSA Cape-Epic which is an eight day tour regarded as the 'Tour de France' of mountain biking, attracting some of the world's top riders, amongst them current world and Olympic champions. South Africa also boasts World Champion mountain bikers in their midst, and the administrators of the sport have undertaken to arrange their local calendar and level of races to suit their athletes in preparing for the highlights of the international season.

Now that is forward thinking and the reason why their sport is going forward.

This needs to be transferred to road racing, but sifting through the politics of the sport, and other issues, it may take some time to be realized. For now road cyclists will rely on their sponsored teams to get them to races of an international quality, with travel necessary to the rest of Africa, Europe, Asia and America.

Maybe that will be the only way for there to be a chance of another Olympic medal, a hundred years after the last...

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