Roxanne Hargreaves is Head of Development for Sierra Leonean Cycling. She shared her impressions from a recent training camp in Benin, to which two Sierra Leonean talents were invited.
The sun beats down on the road outside Porto Novo. Five young women hover around an upturned bike with a snapped derailleur hanger. I’m secretly relieved for the major mechanical. I have spent the past hour or so desperately trying to hang on the back of the group. The three fastest Benin U17s and the top two Sierra Leonean U17s don’t show much mercy when setting the pace. We swapped out my hanger for the snapped one so Melvina could continue. I gladly leaped onto the back of the support motorbike.
Blessing & Yainkain in Benin
Team Africa Rising (TAR) invited Sierra Leone’s best female junior riders Yainkain Sawyer and Blessing Jabbie, to join the Benin national team training camp for two weeks. Placing the highest in their age group in Sierra Leone’s biggest stage race, the Science in Sport Tour de Lunsar, they are fast but have never raced outside of their country. They were unsure what they were in for and this is the first time they’ve travelled. I can already see that they are better riders than when we arrived in Benin in early October. TAR is a whirlwind of expertise, experience, and perseverance. With support, care and attention, West African cycling has an opportunity to leapfrog into the lead. There is an abundance of talent but just very few opportunities. This invitation, however, is a massive chance.
We hit the Zwift sessions hard, flexing between racing, group rides and preparing for Zwift Academy. The cadence sessions are initially painful (in more ways than one). But create an understanding and the improvement starts to show. Trusting and understanding how the Wahoo KICKR works, the computer screen telling you your stats – and even the airport escalator – is a huge learning curve. The sessions on the road are organised and purposeful, and the Benin women’s team are fast. Friendly, and fast.
Making New Friends & Experiences
Not only are Yainkain and Blessing gaining skills, fitness, and exposure. This is the first time they’ve experienced riding with anyone outside of Sierra Leone. Representation is a beautiful thing. Over the course of two weeks and despite a large language barrier, Yainkain and Blessing make best friends with Georgette. Georgette is their age group peer on the Benin side. Her happy smile, speedy cadence and impressive riding power reflect none other than Road Runner. After a road ride, fighting to keep the view of the Benin women’s TT training session as a spot on the horizon, Blessing pops the questions “do you think we can be that fast?” – “Yes! In a few years when you’re older, I expect even faster!” I reply. Quietly in the back of my head I think “…if we can find you the best opportunities and support to make that happen”.
Sierra Leone Cycling
For Sierra Leonean cycling, the next steps are challenging but in sight. Support from national sporting bodies, institutions, and federations is limited in terms of finance. The broader context and environment of Sierra Leone means access to simple resources such as access to power and fuel are often a daily obstacle. A handful of loyal supporters and partners fuels sparks of opportunity. Dedicated volunteers give enormous amounts of time and energy on everything from scraping together money for basic race days, bikes, and replacement parts to trying to figure out how Sierra Leone can send a few of the best riders to the African Continental Championships or Commonwealth Youth Games. It’s an uphill battle, but the leapfrog dream is real.
The dream starts with programs like those being run in Sierra Leone and Benin. Blessing Jabbie, 16, was one of the young women who attended the women’s training camp in Benin in October. Blessing shared her thoughts about the training camp and the experience.
“The training was so hard, but I understand we do it so we can be the best in all cycling competitions. I am now much better than before. I want to say Thank You for the opportunity, it was the first time I travel, and I never thought I would travel that distance at my age by an aeroplane – no one thought it was possible here in Kono.”
“The Benin people work so hard. They take care of us and I have so many friends in Benin now. We have different language but they make us feel welcome.”
Support from FEBECY
FEBECY, the Benin Cycling Federation, welcomed the team from Sierra Leone, opening up the team house and integrating them into the training plans already in action. The Benin Cycling Federation president, Romuald Hazoumé, expressed his thoughts, “The Benin Cycling Federation was honored by the presence of two young women accompanied by their director from the women’s cycling team from Sierra Leone for a training stay at our team house in Porto Novo.”
“The presence of this team shows the confidence our sister Federation in Sierra Leone gave us. This experience enabled us to learn two things. Benin Cycling is seen as a model to follow in Africa, and our efforts are evident in all sports, particularly cycling. We are at this point in the top 10 in the UCI Africa Tour thanks to the contribution of the gov’t of Benin, Sobebra, and Team Africa Rising, in addition to our other partners, whom we would like to thank for their support.”