AFRICA’S CLIMB TO THE WORLD STAGE

Imagine you are a young African cyclist with an aspiration to eventually move up to the World Stage. When and how do you start that climb?

 In 2019, at the age of 21 Egan Bernal, racing for Team Sky placed 2nd BEST Young Rider in the Tour de France, Tour de Romandie and Tour of California. Ivan Sosa won the Youth jersey at the Tour of Sibiu, Vuelta a Burgos and La Route d’Occitanie – La Dépêche du Midi also at the age of 21 following Bernal’s doorsteps.

They now race for INEOS Grenadiers alongside a young 21-year old British rider, Tom Pidcock, who recently won the UCI 1.Pro event De Brabantse Pijl. Amongst his palmares is winning the junior time trial at the 2017 UCI Road World Championships in 2017 and many Cyclo Cross titles. Both Bernal and Sosa were picked up and riding for the Pro Conti team Androni Giocattoli after being seen by Gianni Savio on a trip to Columbia long before they were 20. Pidcock’s rise to the top level was even quicker going from the Continental Team Wiggins in 2019 direct to INEOs.

But what do these riders have to do with a young African’s aspirations to go to the top?  It shows that sitting on the bottom of Africa or winning some of the one-day classics will probably not get your dreams realised. 

In Africa, we have four UCI-registered Continental Teams. One from South Africa, two from Rwanda and one from Morocco. These teams are working hard to provide young African talent the opportunities to race internationally in order to get the desperately needed experience. The UCI rules and regulations provides that these teams can register trainees in August of each year, until the 31 December of that year. ProTouch Continental in addition to its three own U23 riders, took on two trainees from Ethiopia in 2019 and has plans to enable more trainees later this year. Rwandan Benediction Team has four U23 riders this season, including two riders from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, SKOL Adrien Cycling Academy has seven riders in the U23 Category and the Sidi Al-Kinetik Team, out of Morocco has four U23 riders.

Additionally, Africa has one World Tour set up, but realistically there are only spaces for 40 Continental riders. There are 120 African riders currently registered with the UCI. There are currently 39 UCI-ranked U23 riders.  One is on a World Tour team, two are Pro Tour level and seven are at Continental level.  The others are riding for their National Team or in local Club teams.

The Challenge

Will a six-week trip to Europe get the exposure needed to be get noticed and picked up? Probably not, the only thing you get from that is some european experience and the harsh lesson that African cycling is way behind the rest of the World, not just Europe, but all of the World. On any Tuesday evening during the Belgium summer, you have hundreds of hungry young riders chasing their dreams in local races, you need to be able to compete with them!  The likes of Gianni Savio go to Columbia, they don’t come to Africa except to the very top races, Tour du Rwanda as a possible example.

The UCI is also doing its bit to uplift African cycling. Over the last 15 years, the UCI WCC and its African Satellite Centre have welcomed nearly 1,000 trainees from the continent. A number of these riders have risen to the highest level. Among them are the Eritrean trio of Daniel Teklehaimanot, Natnael Berhane and Tsgabu Grmay, Ethiopia’s Merhawi Kudus, Rwanda’s Valens Ndayisenga, and Youcef Reguigui of Algeria.  

Currently because of COVID no riders are currently at the WCC satellite centres in South Africa and Egypt but the staff are working very hard to keep the trainees up to speed remotely. Riders from all over the continent are being assisted and trained as much as possible under these restrictions. Director of the World Cycling Centre Africa, JP van Zyl noted that the WCC has big plans leading up to 2025 when hopefully the UCI Road World Championships will take place in Africa. Called Agenda2025 it is a holistic reach out and education program not just to Federations but to riders, mechanics, team managers and race organizers to prepare for the upcoming championships and give African riders the best platform to succeed.

The other great opportunity for developing young talent is the UCI Under 23 Nations’ Cup. An annual, season-long competition for under-23 road cyclists. It was created in 2007 and is the most important competition for under-23 riders. The final event of the Nations Cup is the Tour de l’Avenir which justifies its reputation as the Tour de France for young people. Bernal and Pogacar are two of the recent winners who did not take a long time to reach a triumph in the Tour de France.

In 2016 South Africa sent a team of six to the Tour which included Ryan Gibbons, Nicholas Dlamini and Stefan de Bod, all three now riding in Europe for World Tour Teams.  But that was the last time South Africa competed in such events.

The Nations Cup event, Tour de l’Espoir, in Cameroon, 2019, was won by Yakob Debesay who now rides for the Pro Continental Euro team Delko. Eritrea currently lead the UCI U23 Africa tour with four young riders at continental or Pro continental level. This shows that Nations Cup exposure can be a major factor in young riders stepping up.  

Sadly, the two Nations Cup events held in May and June have had no African teams competing? Perhaps the route is for African nations to host more Nations Cup events or perhaps send a Pan-African team to the European events jointly funded by several federations…

Reverting back to the 2021 Tour du Rwanda that has just finished. Another two great young talents were on display, one 18-year-old Columbian, Santiago Umba, already picked up by Gianni Savio and his Androni Giocattoli talent producing setup, five top 20 places, 15th on GC and 4th in the young rider.  We will be seeing a lot more of him. Conversely, we have another 18-year-old Eritrean, riding for the Eritrean National Team, Nahom Zerai, six top 10 places, 9th in GC, 20th in Mountains, and 2nd in Best Young Rider Competitions. His path to success is far tougher unless has can be seen a lot more and soon!

But does this mean it is an impossible dream? No, but it is not easy.

If you look at the ages of riders being picked by 23 you are possibly too old.  You need to be racing at a level where you can be winning in your late teens, earlier if possible. You need to be good enough to perform at a high standard in Junior National Championships and local races.  You need to have learn good race craft so you are in the right place during a race and be seen there! Prepare early and get the best exposure money can buy! 

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PROTOUCH SPORTS is a South African Sports Tech business, focussed on providing new ways for sports teams, clubs and federations in Africa to activate, engage and monetise their fan community. Its PROTOUCH AFRICA Fan Engagement Platform is designed to recognise African Cycling Talent and aggregate African Cycling news, rankings and build a fan community that will support getting more African Riders onto the World Stage, through a partnership with The Phil Liggett Foundation. DOWNLOAD NOW and be part of this incredible African Cycling Story, from the beginning!

FOR MORE INFORMATION contact Rebecca Eliot on rebecca@protouch.africa or +27 83 656 4632. Visit our website at https://protouch.africa