I have been working in African cycling since 2009. I started in Rwanda, forming the National Cycling Team of Rwanda with my partner. Jock Boyer had been on the ground since 2007. I clearly remember asking him early on why Rwanda had no female cyclists. Why were there no camps for women, no races? It was a simple question that came down to money and bandwidth – both equally problematic. I took on the challenge with all the energy of a naïve outsider. I was clueless about cultural barriers, the power of entrenched patriarchy related to culture, and the insurmountable need for everything – clothes, shoes, bikes, money for travel, races, and on and on it went.
I watched the UCI Road Championship Women’s Elite/U23 Road Race yesterday. It was exciting to see Ashleigh Moolman Pasio continuing one of the best years of her career. She stayed in the leading group until near the end, when it completely splintered. She went on to a 15th-place finish, a fabulous result. There were rumors of Ashleigh retiring at the end of last season. Yet, she came back stronger than ever with no hint of being in the twilight of a remarkable career.
It was a brutal race with only 86 finishers in a field of 207 with four DNS, which included one South African rider, Zanri Roussouw. Of those 86 finishers, only four of the women currently do not ride for a professional team (Continental or World Tour) – one from China, Hong Kong, Colombia (rides for a club team), and the 2023 Cape Epic winner from Mauritius, Kimberley Lecourt. 28 African women were on the start list. One did not start. 27 African women raced. Two finished. 25 were DNF (did not finish). Those are heartbreaking numbers. As I watched the race and ruminated on the results, I kept asking myself, how do we change the trajectory?
Is African Women’s Cycling Improving?
In 2015, at the UCI World Championships in Richmond, Team Rwanda Cycling, which we ran then, fielded its first female cyclist, Jeanne D’arc Girubuntu, 20 years old. She was not a professional as she had just started her career the prior year, spending time with us and at the UCI World Cycling Center in South Africa. She finished 87th, second to last in a field of 135. We were elated – hopeful. There were also three South Africans in that race, one of whom was Ashleigh Moolman, who finished 14th. In 2015, 3% of the female cyclists in the Women’s Elite/U23 Road Race were from the African continent, and three finished. Only Rwanda and South Africa were represented, but it was a start.
Sunday, 27 African women were racing from 14 nations making up 13.5% of the field. Progress. Or was it? Only two women finished with a less than 1% finishing rate. Rwanda sent three women this year, with none finishing, including one racing professionally with one of the top development teams in the industry. Do I think the Glasgow course was more difficult? Yes, I do. However, the level of women’s cycling has increased significantly since 2015 as well. This is where women’s cycling is today, and that’s exciting. However, the gap seems even greater for African women.
I am constantly thinking about bringing equity to the cycling world for African riders. Looking at yesterday’s results, I was discouraged, yet I continued to find opportunity in that discouragement. The talent is there. We all need to do a better job bringing that talent to the level where these women can be truly competitive. What is the answer? As a licensed coach, promoter, encourager, visa queen, and 14-year veteran of working in cycling on the continent, I have some ideas.
The UCI/ANOCA/WCC Collaboration
This year the World Cycling Center Africa embarked on an ambitious multiyear program in collaboration with ANOCA (African National Olympic Committees of Africa) to provide African cyclists the training needed to do well at the African 2025 World Championships. This is a two-year program with approximately 30 cyclists (men and women) to give them the experience they need to do well at the first World Championships hosted on their continent.
Cyclists were selected via recommendations from groups like Team Africa Rising, the Federations, and high-ranking cyclists at the recent African Continental Championships. These cyclists, which included new athletes from Benin, Uganda, and other countries, attended multi-month camps in South Africa. Some of that group raced at a training camp in Europe this summer, with some attending the World Championships. Jean Pierre Van Zyl, Director of the WCC Africa, has a plan for the next two years and a broader vision post-2025. The only way to ensure these African cyclists succeed and have in-country support (mechanics and coaches) is to start young, with a four-year time horizon to enter the professional peloton.
TAR wholeheartedly agrees there needs to be a long-term vision for success. The repeated “high intensity” training camps hosted by Federations or other outside entities two to four weeks before international events must stop. As coaches, we know you are not doing “high intensity” the weeks before. You are tapering. An athlete needs to have a year-long training and racing schedule to peak at the events they have targeted for their best performance. High-intensity training camps the weeks before are not talent development.
An African Center in Europe
In addition to long-range planning and starting with cyclists who are 13-16, there needs to be a permanent training facility near the racing action in Europe. The UCI WCC in Aigle is essential. However, after seeing the World Championships in Glasgow, the experience African cyclists would gain racing Kermesse races in Belgium and Holland would significantly improve their bike handling skills and race tactics. USA Cycling base out of Holland to prepare their American cyclists. The racing in the US is not frequent enough or at the European level.
A presence in Europe would also introduce European businesses and potential sponsors to the needs of African cyclists, developing a relationship base for the future. During our years in Rwanda, we spent considerable time with sponsors throughout Europe. We traveled twice yearly to meet with sponsors and update them on the project’s progress. This is not the case with African Federation staff outside of the work being done by the Benin Federation.
TAR has been banging this drum for over a decade. More races on the African continent are needed. However, where young cyclists learn to race is local racing, week after week, on technical courses. The weekly racing on the Asmara circuit is why the Eritreans, with less access to technology and expert coaching, fare better in races like the Glasgow Worlds.
These races do not need to be big-budget with Federation fanfare. They can be put on by local clubs throughout the various countries with bragging rights as the prize money (or a nominal amount). Federations could use some of the money spent on extravagant (primarily for Federation staff) races and triple or quadruple the number of races available to developing cyclists. The cadets develop locally at 12 – 15 and are better prepared for European races at 16 and older.
Finally, leadership. Let’s not complicate this.
- Cyclists needs first
- Hire former professional riders as coaches
- Add former professional cyclists to the Federations
- Lead by example – Transparency and an aversion to corruption (see first bullet point)
- When the UCI asks for riders for the UCI WCC Africa or WCC Switzerland, send them – NOW! Have a sense of urgency in getting riders to their most significant opportunities
- Stop gaming the system for your personal gain (see first bullet point)
- Develop relationships with businesses and sponsors and do right by them
Many of us have been on the ground for well over a decade developing African cyclists. Although few of us are thrilled with the results this year in Glasgow, we believe in these cyclists and the talent on the continent. This work is a labor of love. We do this work because we know the talent is there. There are many Tour de France winners in Africa. Still, we need to bring them along strategically, methodically, and with a long-term vision with the participation of each other, professional teams, the Federations, and the UCI. We owe it to all these talented young people.