Monday, 15 April 2013

Africans and Cycling - 2

In light of Gerald Ciolek's recent victory at the Milan-Sanremo bike race while riding for the African Team, MTN Qhubeka I thought I would revisit a subject which I previously wrote about - Africans and cycling.
Not only was Ciolek's first victory for an African professional cycling team (which only got into the Sanremo race on a wildcard), but the team actually included a black African racer, Songezo Jim. We have seen African racers like Chris Froome and Dan Craven participate in high profile professional events, but for once we saw the first ever participation of a black African guy in the Milan-Sanremo. He has documented his experience of participating in this year's epic edition of the event, which makes for quite interesting reading.
There have been black guys participate in other elite races on the UCI African Tour, and other races like the Tour of Rwanda and the Tour of Burkina Faso. At the London 2012 Olympics a number of racers from Eritrea, Morocco, Algeria and Rwanda also competed in cycle races.

It seems that cycling is no longer being seen as a form of transportation for the poor, as was traditionally the case. More Africans are choosing to ride a bicycle for pleasure rather than cycling out of necessity.

Cycling can be a way of overcoming adversity, as is the case for Rwandan cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti. After losing most of his family at the age of seven in an attack on his village during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Adrien found comfort in cycling. As a novice cyclist riding on an old steel bicycle through the Rwandan hills this gave Adrien a sense of freedom and a new focus.

Thanks to events organised in Rwanda by mountain bike pioneers Jock Boyer and Tom Ritchey, Adrien Niyonshuti took up off-road cycling more seriously and joined Team Rwanda which was set up and coached by the two Americans. The full story can now be seen in a new film, Rising From the Ashes, which shows the story behind team Rwanda and how cycling has given hope to the Rwandan genocide victims, including Adrien, who competed in the London 2012 Olympics.

There have been different schemes to encourage cycling in Africa such as the Bikes 4 Africa scheme. Indeed, Team MTN Qhubeka race to raise the profile of children in African communities and donate bicycles to disadvantaged young people in South Africa who would like to take up cycling.

Where cycling was previously seen as something only done by certain classes in society, nowadays different types of people in Africa embracing this two-wheeled pleasure.

As with many countries across the developed world, cycling is a great leveller. Two South African photographers and cycling aficionados Stan Engelbrecht and Nic Grobler, recently published a book entitled Bicycle Portraits, containing various photos that can be viewed on line. The book features ordinary people of all shapes, sizes and races who are bonded by the fact that they travel around by bicycle. (More on their project in this article.)

I for one, was very pleased to see the participation of Songezo Jim at the Milan-San Remo race this year. I hope that in time we will get to see more black Africans in World Tour professional races. Who knows, this could then lead to an African equivalent of the "Wiggo" effect (like what we saw in the UK after Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France).
It seems cycling could be about to have a new image in Africa. I look forward to the time when cycling will firmly be seen as a "like to do" activity rather than a "will have to do" activity.

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