Can we develop cycling in Africa?
So, it all started on Twitter today and I think it’s time to put it down clearly because on a social network with 240 chars limit it’s not easy to write down all and the “sensible twitter” living in their social justice bubble is always there to call out you if you don’t align with their thoughts. Twitter is anybody a funny place in which people that call themselves open and tolerant but at the same time they doesn’t accept any opinion different from their bubble (suprisingly from the same two countries)
First of all – I am not for representation in sports. If you get offended by that, you can close the post here, Not my problem. Sport is not about having equal outcomes, it’s about prizing who has the best skills. It’s about hard work and merit. Representation is giving a shortcut to some people based on their gender or origins penalizing other in an utopistic equality. Top sports doesn’t work like that: NBA is not a representation of the american people, Swimming olympic top races are quite different in comparison to track and field finalists and both of them not represent the proportion of the world population. I like sport to be in that way otherwise is something else and this is why I’ll never approve “watered down” cycling routes to give more riders a chance to win. If you aren’t good enough, you shouldn’t win.
Like with women’s cycling there are multiple solutions and like in women’s cycling you’ll get the bubble of people unhappy if everyting isn’t perfect first time. Can’t do anything for their utopian world, for the rest here there are some realistic solutions.
First of all: cycling situation. Cycling is an european based sport that is founded on nine major races and these are the three grand tours, the five monuments and the world championships. Everything else is less important and has minor impact on sponsor satisfaction and budget. At professional level (so excluding .2 races) cycling is raced in Europe and no big rider is going out of it for a minor race.
Cycling season without covid (or better, without government restrictions – covid itself doesn’t cancel races and not all restrictions are always justified) normally starts in Australia, then rider moves into South America or Spain/France with the addition of UAE and Saudi Arabia in the last years replacing Oman and Qatar. This part of the season it’s like preseason friendlies in football: you are there to build up your form and legs – but results doesn’t really matter and usually these races are used also to promote the sport on different territories like when football teams goes to play in the US.
From the opening weekend teams stays in Europe and they’ll stay in Europe until the end of the proper season (Il Lombardia). In the last years a World Tour race in Asia was added near the Japan Cup and this is the only other moment (except when Worlds are out of Europe) in which big names leaves Europe. This is the context in which you have to insert your race and your riders and it’s a context that will stay like this probably until cycling is going to exist. There are two (now one) exception to this: Tour of California and Canadian races. They are at World Tour level, the top of cycling, so the one that gives you more exposure after the big nine races.
The attempts to develop cycling in Africa in the last years have been Qhubeka being a WT team and Tour of Rwanda promoted to .1 level in the attempt to get some WT team (that went, but not with ‘big riders’). The crazy thing about Africa is that some of you are probably imagining their races like Oman, Qatar or UAE – there were criticism about that when worlds were assigned to Rwanda – but they are crowded like European ones. The featured picture of this post, for example, is from an edition of Tour of Rwanda, for example, on Mur de Kigali.
So, despite not having big names and big teams, in Africa there are crowds and there is a market for cycling. What is totally missing is the chance for some riders to practice it, because material are expensive. Froome is the best example to it considering that he started practicing on a Mountain Bike that took with himself from his federation after a youth world championship.
The problem is indeed accessibility of the sport and it’s not someting a World Tour team today can address. You can’t just sign someone at 20 and hope he has good legs – you need a development structure that start to take the athlete at five and brings him until the men Junior level. To do this, you’ll need money and athletes willing to take on cycling rather than another sport (i.e. athletics). In other words, it’s not like we have currently the new Pogacar racing at .2 level and ignored by teams in this moment – teams need to have it ready.
What are the possible options? There is only one: every local federation shall set up the pyramid above. There are indeed some booster that can speed the process – and there is only one way to do it: bringing fans to the sport. One is a big win from an African athlete – we could’ve it with Froome but suddenly it turned british so it’s now up to Ghirmay. The second is a World Tour race in Africa (Rwanda, Morocco or South Africa) that can bring the top riders there – cycling is a sport that lives on visibility and actually no African race is also on live TV broadcast. A World Tour race will surely be.
The path is the one of South America – Carapaz, Bernal, Quintana proved that is possible to develop cycling in other countries and have top level cyclist. South America has some races for local crowd with big riders in the first part of the season, national/continental teams of good levels and structures of scouting (mainly started with Androni work). Of course emerging there as a top rider requires more than in europe, but Carapaz proves you can do it even in a non cycling country.
The wrong way to see it remains a seeing it as a problem of racism: World Tour teams doesn’t select the riders from the color of their skin but from their results, their wage and their potential – or at least they should because we have some of them having some local riders not at World Tour level that are taking away spots from who deserves. One possible solution would be scrap the Under 23 category and bringing back instead the Men Amateur category in which you need to score a certain amount of points to be eligible for an Elite contract. Considering that a lot of U23 races are ridden by nationality, there wouldn’t even be a possible discrimination that you can get from a trade team.
It surely will be a process that will need time and will make unhappy the people wanting it now and ready at first time but it’s a process that it’s worth trying for both Africa and Asia – the more markets cycling will reach, the more it will develop increasing wealth of who is working in it. The problem should of course just be addressed properly without playing the racism card (is there racism towards Asian too? Is Carapaz now suddenly white or not enough black?), putting it on the political plan to making noise and get easy engagements and of course be addressed without changing the nature of the sport or the nature of cycling itself.
Co-Founder of LFR account. Cycling lover since early 2000s. Say no to short stages.
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