A cyclist in Africa is not just a poor appropriation of a famous Monty Python sketch, it is an emerging reality on the continent.
Road Cycling is a fledgling sport in South Africa, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and a relatively new arrival to countries such as Kenya.
Africa’s most famous cyclist is undoubtedly Chris Froome. The multiple Tour de France winner was born in Kenya and developed his skills in South Africa before committing himself to Great Britain. Froome even channelled his Kenyan heritage when he ran up Mont Ventoux during the 2016 Tour de France after his bike was damaged in a crash.
South Africa leads the development of the sport at a recreational and competitive level on the continent and is home to its most successful professional team, Qhubeka, which is currently riding under the name Dimension Data-Qhubeka. The UCI World Tour team boasts genuine world class riders including Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings, Louis Meintjes and Edvald Boasson Hagen and is the former team of Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot, the most awarded black African cyclist in history. Teklehaimanot wore the polka-dot King of the Mountain jersey in the 2015 Tour de France and won this title at the 2015 and 2016 Criterium de Dauphine. He became the first African to complete a Grand Tour when he crossed the finish line of the final stage of the 2012 Vuelta a Espana and has won multiple African championships.
The biggest and most prestigious professional road race on the continent is the Tour du Rwanda. Most of Africa’s best cyclists do battle with international teams during the multi-day stage race around Rwanda, which has benefitted enormously from the ambition and vision of Jonathan ‘Jock’ Boyer, who was the first American to participate in the Tour de France, in 1981.
Dimension Data funds the elite arm of an organisation known as Qhubeka. Qhubeka means ‘to progress, carry on, move forward’ in the Nguni language and the charity raises money to provide bicycles to local people throughout South Africa in an effort to help people access education, healthcare and employment. A similar philosophy underlines organisations such as World Bicycle Relief, Bicycles for Change, Australian Goodwill Bicycles Abroad and German Cycling club Bike Aid.
Bike Aid is a club comprised of members of the public throughout Germany, as well as UCI Pro-Continental riders from Germany, other European countries and Africa. Currently riding in the elite team are Amanuel Mengis and Meron Teshome from Eritrea, alongside Ugandan Charles Kagimu as well as Salim Kipkemboi, Geoffrey Langat and Suleiman Kangangi, from Kenya.
Bike Aid contracted Kipkemboi, Langat, Kangangi and Kagimu following their success with Kenyan Riders and in line with its desire to create opportunities for Africans through the sport of Cycling. Kangangi recently justified the decision with 3rd place overall in the 2017 Tour du Rwanda, where he finished behind Rwanda’s Joseph Areruya and Eritrean Eyob Mektel, both representing Dimension Data for Qhubeka.
Kenyan Riders is a truly international organisation driven by staff from Singapore, France, Australia, Ireland and Kenya. The professional riders are all black Africans and all Kenyan, except for Kagimu, who is the current national road champion of Uganda.
“Cycling won’t work for those who come from a comfortable life.”
This is the belief of Eritrean cyclist Yemeane Negasi, who rode at the 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games under the flag of Ethiopia.
Negasi told the crew from Sinamatella Productions in their cycling documentary “King of The Mountains” that the daily struggle to survive in Africa affords Africans a toughness and resilience that is not present in people, and cyclist, from other parts of the world.
Negasi is adamant that Cycling has the potential to grow in Africa, despite the challenges. Individuals and organisations with ambition, talent, dedication and ingenuity will continue to search for young ambitious athletes with a fierce desire to win and to create for themselves a comfortable life through success in sport.
This belief is echoed by Teklehaimanot himself and his first coach, fellow Eritrean Yonas Zekeris, who both feature in “King of the Mountains”. Teklehaimanot said,
“In Eritrea there is a lot of talent. If they are given a chance, there are many great riders here,” while Zekeris made a call to the cycling fraternity to turn their attention to Africa and his homeland,
“People who love the sport should come and recruit the young riders.”
Levels of participation in recreational Cycling across the continent may rise towards those in South Africa, as the growing urban middle class seeks new avenues for healthy leisure pursuits and as regional governments recognise the promotional benefits of multi-day stage races, such as the Tour de Machakos, held in Machakos County, central Kenya, which began in 2014.
The staff behind Kenyan Riders recognised the enormous distance running talent in Kenya, which is also beginning to surface in other countries throughout East Africa. This endurance sporting talent could be transformed into elite Cyclists with the right management and opportunities.
The future also holds the possibility of opportunities for female cyclists, who may benefit from any international success of their trailblazing countrymen.
Images: Moses Kamwere