Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Africans and Cycling

Traditionally, cycling in the African continent has been viewed more as a mode of transport than as a leisure activity. Bicycles are used very much for practical, even commercial reasons - for getting to and from work, or for transporting goods.

Unlike in Europe (or North America or Australasia) where people can own both a bicycle and a car, and use them for different purposes, in many parts of Africa a bicycle substitutes a car and a car replaces a bicycle when you fall on better times.
In fact, in Nigeria, my country of origin, some people are even ashamed to be seen on a bicycle as it is perceived as a sign of failure - not having done well enough in life to be able to afford four wheels. And then that leads to other issues when people believe you're in a lower socio-economic class. Furthermore, the lack of adapted infrastructure and "creative" driving techniques can make cycling a hazardous activity for those who are not properly resourced and kitted out.

A former Nigerian transport minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe tried to promote cycling as an alternative means of transport to motorised vehicles, as a way of reducing the gridlock that's crippling the country's roads, and improving the nation's health. This idea was met with widespread condemnation and ridicule, with people saying that it would take the country back to the stone age!
Deciding to lead by example, Maduekwe cycled to his government meetings. Sadly things didn't work out too well for him. Press pictures of him arriving at meetings with his suit and his papers completely drenched after being caught in torrential rain, and then being hit by a bus and knocked into a ditch didn't inspire confidence. He was not deterred and tried to establish cycle routes between Abuja and Lagos - unfortunately this was not supported.

The good news is that cycle sport is taking off in other African countries. Speaking to a cyclist from Uganda who had taken part in bicycle races there, he was completely amazed when I told him it was possible to race in the London area every day during the summer. He said that in Uganda they had just one road race a year, but it was a really big event for riders from all over the country and this was seen as a big leap in cycling.
The Tour du Faso, a stage race in Burkina Faso organised by the Tour de France's ASO has been on the UCI Africa tour since 2005. Other UCI races in Africa include the Tour of Cameroon, Tour of the Cape (South Africa), and the Tour of the Ivory Coast. The African road race championships were held in Namibia last week.

Yesterday, in Kigali saw the start of the Tour of Rwanda. Twelve 6-man teams lined up to start the stage race that will cover 1,069km through the land of a thousand hills over eight days. Prize money may be modest - 900,000 Rwandan Francs (1300euros) for the winner - compared with 450,000 euros for the winner of the Tour de France. Nevertheless, this race will be as hotly contested as any other, with teams from all over the African continent (Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco) plus a couple from France and Holland.

Rwanda has come a long way since the vile days of the genocide 15 years ago. Cycling has really been embraced in this country, with cycling being encouraged not just as a mode of transport but for leisure as well.

The Rwandan national cycling team is coached by American ex-pro, Jock Boyer. The riders in this team earn 70 euros a month, which is enough not just to support themselves but also to send money back to help their families buy food and pay for medical bills. In a country where infant mortality is 90 deaths/1000, life expectancy is 40 years old and average salary is 12 euros per month, these pro cyclists are living very comfortable lives.

Tom Ritchey, bike frame designer, and one of the pioneers of the mountain bike has set up Project Rwanda to raise funds to buy more bicycles for Rwandans.
Shortly after the Tour of Rwanda stage race there will be the Wooden Bike Classic race - a mountainbike race for amateur cyclists, which is well supported by Rwandans and ex-pats.

In the words of Joseph Habineza, Rwandan Minister for Sport and Culture, "Cycling is the sport that brings our people together. It's part of our history, our work and our leisure. We really want people to enjoy it."
Sounds like they've got the right idea.
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