The success of KZN Cycling's and Cycling South Africa's development programme was on full display as development racing kicked off the three-day long Pietermaritzburg Mountain Bike Festival at the Cascades Mountain Bike Park on Friday. All districts of KwaZulu-Natal were represented, with 10 riders from each district showing off their skills.
Since the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Sport and Recreation got behind the development initiative, cycling has been making increasingly significant inroads into communities, especially in rural areas.
President of KZN Cycling Greg Stedman said the Department of Sport and Recreation "targeted us to take cycling to every district in KZN, which we have done. This weekend's events is a culmination of that, where we've brought our top riders from each of our districts to Pietermaritzburg. We've hired taxis to bring them here to race against each other, which adds phenomenally to this event."
The development efforts have uncovered some outstanding talent, he added, citing the case of Manqoba Madida, who was on hand to help on the day. Madida emerged from the programme in the Pinetown area, which works out of Giba Gorge.
"He went to World Champs this year and he is a bright young star, currently ranked second in the country," Stedman said. "He has shown incredible talent and is now on the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Sport and Recreation Elite Athlete Development Programme. It is not a light-hearted programme to just introduce the sport. We are definitely finding talent and he is a prime example of that."
BMX world champion in the 30+ category Tyrone Johns heads up the KZN Cycling Development Programme and is hugely enthusiastic about the programme. He said: "It is a very rewarding job. I love what I do. I want to see as many kids as I can on bikes. From that, I want to see our talent pool grow, and I want cycling to grow throughout the entire country. We have started in KZN, but I want this to follow through to all the other provinces in the country and really take cycling to the people.
"The talent waiting to be unearthed is phenomenal. That is one of our assets," he added. One of the things that I feel passionate about is that we've got large numbers of people, how do Australia and New Zealand, with much smaller populations, do so well? We should be doing way better than them because we have got double the pool that they have to choose from. We just have to go and find it. That's what I want to do. I want an athlete that I found, from KZN, born in KZN, trained in KZN, living in KZN, standing on an Olympic podium. It might take 10 years, it might take 20 years, but that is the goal and that is where it is going to go."
Duncan Pool, speaking on behalf of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Sport and Recreation, which has been a huge supporter of the sport in the province, commented: "What has been excellent is that they have been able to get out into the deep rural areas, and they have managed to initiate a programme that has kept kids occupied and off the streets. Every kid loves to ride, so it is giving them an out.
"We just want to see the programme expanding, so that we can get more kids involved, but logistics is a challenge. Part of our major strategies are healthy lifestyles and social cohesion. This programme fits into both of those. They are activities at a grassroots level, with the opportunity to go into the sport continuum, which means going up from grassroots, learning how to compete, competing, and eventually up to elite competition. Who knows, we might have a new Burry Stander among us here."
As for the riders themselves, it was a fun day out, testing themselves against others, with the reward of impressive trophies awaiting those who made it onto the podium.
Skhomboza Mkhize, the Sports Coordinator from Ixopo Primary School brought a group of children to Pietermaritzburg and was thrilled when they excelled.
"Our kids have down really well, especially in the under-10 boys' category, with the first three places, and the under-11 and under-12 boys had two of the top five finishers, which is not bad for a first time out, he enthused.
"Next term they will talk about it to the other kids, so the next time that TJ [Tyrone Johns] and the guys come through we are going to have a whole lot more kids, as many as they can handle."
The winning district was Uthukela (Ladysmith) and their man in charge, Nhlanhla Thabethe, could not keep a wide grin off of his face.
"I cannot even explain how excited we are," he smiled. "After our hard training with old bikes and big sizes, I really appreciate what the children did."
With the support the children have received, he said, they had grown as people. "There has been a big change in the sport and the children since KZN Cycling brought the sport to us. Some years back I thought of leaving the sport because I wasn't seeing any improvement, but after KZN Cycling intervened I am so proud of my guys and of my Federation. That is why we are here and at this level."
"Maybe next time when we come here we will have two or three taxis full of these kids. I really appreciate what CSA and KZN Cycling have done for us, helping to unveil our local talent."
Citing the overall value of the Development Programme, Duncan Pool added: "It is an opportunity to provide the kids with life skills. Where they are starting clubs, it is necessary to have the right, responsible people there, who can mentor the youngsters. Our development programmes have a holistic picture, and we are really thrilled that cycling has taken this big initiative to drive this, and I think Tyrone Johns, with the support of his executive, has done a phenomenal job."
Pietermaritzburg, which is recognised as "Bike City" for Africa, along with Copenhagen for Europe and Melbourne for Australasia, has seen its economy benefit massively from the high profile cycling events the city has hosted in the past and continues to host, Paul reckoned.
"There are so many facilities available. The terrain is so suited to the sport. It's a natural hub, and has a good fit. We're focusing on that and drawing all the economic advantages that that brings," he concluded.
More information on the Pietermaritzburg Mountain Bike Festival and the event's full programme can be found at http://www.cyclingsa.com/2015-pmb-mtb-festival