The annual Tour de France, unarguably the biggest cycling tournament in the world since its inception in 1903, has been dominated by Europeans, but with a few winners from the United States and Australia. Generally, France has the highest number of wins (36), Belgium (18), Spain (12) and Italy (10).
But this year, history was made, with Egan Bernal becoming the first Colombian to win the Tour de France. Interestingly, the signs in the change were becoming more evident for enthusiasts globally, a development from which Nigeria cycling – investors, cyclists, partners, etc. can truly learn.
Colombia has a strong cycling tradition, where children dream of becoming professional racers. It is home to the ‘Vuelta a Colombia,’ Latin America’s oldest stage race, a gruelling competition founded in 1951 that features mountain passes far higher than those in the Tour de France.
Just like Nigeria, Colombia has a bit of everything – the Andes region, home to some of the best cycling, provides riders with impossibly steep ascents and incredible downhills (much of what can be found in South-West or South-East Nigeria). The tropical rainforest, which also covers about 35 percent of the entire country, is also more difficult to cycle but the challenges can prove quite interesting for drillings.
With such vast experience, Luis “Lucho” Herrera became a cycling icon when he won a mountain stage of the 1985 Tour de France, crossing the finish line with blood streaming down his face after a crash. A compatriot, Santiago Botero followed that with a triumph at the 2002 world time-trial championships.
In 2003, Victor Hugo Peña became the first Colombian to hold the overall lead in the Tour de France. The best young riders in Colombia have also plugged into a network of local teams and cycling clubs.
Professional cycling dates back to the 19th century after it emerged in different European countries and the United States. Though initially considered a dangerous sport and densely populated by men, it soon became accommodating to women after new bicycle designs were developed for them, considering that they wore skirts and dresses which could get caught on the wheels.
In South Africa, bicycle races were held some years before 1888 and the first cycling club in Southern Africa, the Port Elizabeth Bicycle Club was founded in October 1881, while the South African Amateur Cycling Union was founded in 1892. Cycling as an organized sporting activity in Nigeria dates back to the early ‘70s, and has grown over the years to a popular promotional and award-winning sport.
Founded in 1972, the Cycling Federation of Nigeria is the body empowered by the federal government to govern and promote the sport nationally. It is a member of the African Cycling Confederation (CAC), and affiliated to International Cycling Union (UCI).
Despite being in existence for decades, cycling today is experiencing a massive boom across the continent, and this can be attributed to the versatile market it attracts — from health conscious leisure riders, competitive road and mountain bikers, to commuters using a bicycle as an eco-friendly or affordable means of transport.
Cycling is an expensive sport due to cost of equipment and parts which are imported from developed and industrialized countries in Europe, United States and Asia. However, organisations such as the Sustainable Cycling Foundation have made this easier for Nigerians and indeed Africans by investing in people and sporting equipment, thereby making the sport more accessible.
Recently, the foundation started the “Kit and Kin Initiative,” which was conceived to significantly empower young African cyclists, prepare them for participation in global cycling opportunities and also develop a cycling ecosystem in Africa. The Kit and Kin initiative involves donating kits and equipment to grassroots cycling communities across West Africa, including customized kits, training bikes, track and race suits, amongst others.
In recognition of cycling’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals, concerted effort is being made globally to promote its social, economic and environmental benefits. Hence, the cycling culture is now seen universally as a highway to a greener, eco-friendly and sustainable future.
Fortunately, there are immense opportunities for Africa in building on the current global interest and investment, especially for youth engagement, job creation and nation-branding.
Apart from its economic benefits, several studies have revealed the health benefits of cycling to families and communities. A research by Betterhealth in 2016 revealed that cycling can help to prevent serious diseases such as stroke, heart attack, some cancers, depression, diabetes, obesity and arthritis.
Other health benefits of regular cycling include increased cardiovascular fitness, increased muscle strength and flexibility, improved joint mobility and decreased stress levels, improved posture and coordination, strengthened bones, decreased body fat levels and reduced anxiety and depression.
Believing that the future of every African country lies in its young population, the Sustainable Cycling Foundation has consistently invested in the youth, connecting young riders across the continent through cycling, thereby providing opportunity for development, competition and healthy living.In partnership with governments and private stakeholders, young Africans can now access platforms and competitions through which they can reach their highest potential through sports.
The increasing popularity of cycling among Africans has increased the number of clubs springing up from different countries, with thousands of registered cyclers in various cities, some of whom hold competitive licenses. For the first time, Nigeria’s cycling team participated in the African Continental Championship held in Sharm-El-Sheik in Egypt in 2013 and won a silver medal in the Elite Women Team Time Trial.
Partnerships have also been facilitated with Specialized UK, Kingston Wheelers and Sigma sports to aid the provision of the items to cycling communities over the next few months. The intent of the exercise is to build and grow the local cycling communities by attracting new members. But apart from the achievements of the Sustainable Cycling Foundation, the success of the sports nationally will depend largely on intensive public-private partnerships.
In Nigeria today, there are several opportunities for athletes and youths looking to build careers in cycling. And just like Colombia, if the right systems are put in place, the cycling sport will only grow stronger, more profitable and more stable. This invariably will generate more income for the country and more professional athletes to aid the nation’s international status.