Is the European Peloton Ready for African Cycling?

by Tim Lewis for VeloNews

When I tell people I’ve written a book on the Rwandan cycling team, I’m often asked a question along the lines of: “Wow, is that a Cool Runnings thing?” I explain a little and they might say, “So, it’s a Kenyan runners thing then?” There are certainly elements of both in the story – incongruity, slapstick comedy, though none of the Rwandans ever adopted an egg as a good-luck charm – but my instinct has always leaned more to the latter: the Kenyan runners. After all, the Rwandan cycling team was not set up as a goodwill project; it came about after Jock Boyer, the first American to ride the Tour de France, conducted intensive physiological tests on young Rwandans and found their results were similar to professionals in the peloton. A pioneer once himself – in a country also not known for road cycling at the time – Boyer saw the potential to do something even more applecart-toppling in Africa.

The work of Boyer, which started in 2006, and others – notably another ex-pro called Douglas Ryder, the South African who founded the MTN-Qhubeka team in 2007 – is starting to produce eye-catching returns. MTN-Qhubeka, which had a roster made up of 60 percent African riders, competed in the 2015 Tour de France. MTN-Qhubeka’s squad included riders from Rwanda, Eritrea and a few other countries that do not usually make headlines in this very white, European-dominated sport. In fact, a pair of Eritreans were selected for MTN’s Tour team, which is a landmark moment in cycling history: never before has a black, Sub-Saharan rider even competed in the world’s greatest cycling event. And it could be a turning point, too; both Boyer and Ryder are adamant that the future winners of Le Tour will come from Africa, perhaps even as soon as the next ten years.

Future winners of Le Tour will come from Africa, perhaps in the next 10 years.

But getting to this point has not been easy. Boyer readily concedes his work in Rwanda has been the most maddeningly difficult task he’s ever set himself– and he has won the Race Across America endurance event twice. “I cannot think of anything, within my capabilities, that would have been harder than what we were trying to do here,” Boyer told me. “There might have been something – like teaching pool to pygmies, but I’m not a pool person. It was an impossibility.”

Some of these barriers were expected, such as the terrible roads that exist across the continent or the problems for riders getting access to bicycles, spare parts and anything approaching a nutritional meal. Many of the problems that surfaced in the creation of Team Rwanda, though, could never have been predicted. Boyer revealed that it took more than a year for him to teach his Rwandan riders to drink from a water bottle without slowing down. Team members are regularly laid low with malaria for a few weeks or afflicted by freak injuries: one of the best young riders was blinded by a shard of rock walking home after a training ride. But perhaps the greatest hurdle to overcome for many African riders has been a mental one, and this is addressed in the following extract from Land of Second Chances.

Before I wrote Land of Second Chances, I thought that cycling was essentially a simple sport: you got onto a bike and pedaled; you trained hard and the strongest rider usually won. Having spent time in Africa, I don’t believe that anymore. There are all manner of complexities that relate both to tactics on the road and to the psychology of the rider. Physically, African competitors are possibly ready now to win the Tour de France; we will find out in the next few years if they are able to make the psychological leap to being the best in the world.

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The goals for MTN-Qhubeka at the 2015 Tour de France were not outlandish: the team did not expect to compete for a top-10 overall finish, but its riders were targeting stage wins and especially the green jersey worn by the best sprinter in the race. Importantly, however, Douglas Ryder hopes they will create role models for younger Africans to aspire to. Part of the issue for Gasore Hategeka must have been that there was no precedent in Rwanda for what success in Europe could bring him. Through cycling, he had already achieved beyond his wildest dreams: he had a home, he’d saved enough to buy a cow for his dowry; these are a huge deal in Rwanda, which was rated the poorest country on earth when Gasore was born in the ’90s.

The Tour de France was not a great pull for Gasore, but why would it be? No Rwandan had ever come within a million miles of competing in it. But that doesn’t mean the situation can’t change. Some day kids in Africa might dream of being the first rider to cross the line on the Alpe d’Huez.

The importance of role models is seen in the Kenyan running system. Visit the tiny town of Iten (population: 4,000) in the highlands of the Great Rift Valley and you will find the landscape dotted with mansions. These belong to the athletes who have trained hard and gone away to seek their fortunes. Prize money for a major city marathon is typically around $100,000, while even $10,000 for a lower placing is a life-changing amount. These status symbols send a powerful message to the young children wanting to be the next Wilson Kipsang or Mary Keitany.

And it’s worth remembering that really not so long ago, Africans were not known for distance running. The discipline was dominated by Brits, Scandinavians, New Zealanders. Then in 1968, Jim Ryun and Kipchoge “Kip” Keino lined up in the 1,500m at the Olympics in Mexico City. Ryun was the corn-fed, all-American superstar from Wichita, Kansas, who had started running as a kid on his 4.30am newspaper round and broke the four-minute mile shortly after his seventeenth birthday. He entered the final in Mexico as the world-record holder, unbeaten at the distance for more than three years. More than the numbers, he just looked like an athletics champion. Sprinters could get by on raw explosive power, but longer distances called on cerebral qualities such as focus and discipline. The determination and stamina required, it was said, made it the domain of the Anglo-Saxon.

Keino was a policeman from Kenya who escaped a cheetah at the age of 12 by shinning up a tree and tying himself to a branch overnight. He had never beaten Ryun and his tactics in the final appeared either naïve or desperate. He sprinted from the gun, soon establishing a lead of 12 metres. Keino was running suicidally fast, but instead of Ryun reeling his rival back with his famed finishing kick, the lead edged out to 15 and finally 20 metres, the widest margin of victory in that event in Olympic history. Afterwards, Ryun was attacked in the press: his defeat inexplicable and somehow inexcusable. He briefly retired, though he was only 21. “Some even said I had let down the whole world,” he recalled. “I didn’t get any credit for running my best and no one seemed to realise that Keino had performed brilliantly.”

The question is now: is cycling ready for its Kip Keino moment?

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