The Sufferfest African Dream Team hails from Lesotho and is the only African-registered UCI Mountain Bike Team in 2017.
And although Lesotho can by no means be described as a traditional mountain bike nation, the talented riders from this landlocked nation would appear determined to prove otherwise.
This year, the 10-strong team has been hovering around the 30th place out of 94 teams in the UCI Mountain Bike Ranking, spending several weeks inside the top 30. Two of its members came home from the African Championships in Mauritius in May with medals, and yet another member, Rio 2016 Olympian Phetetso Monese, was named Sportsman of the Year at the Lesotho Annual Sports Awards.
“Cycling in Lesotho is starting to get some of the accolades its deserves,” says Team Manager Mark West. “Phetetso is definitely the team leader who the others look up to. He is an inspiration to the rest of the team and to countless young cyclists in the country.”
Although a mechanical problem in the opening lap in Rio stopped the Lesotho athlete in his tracks, it was a victory just getting there, according to West: “It did a lot for his motivation being at the Olympics and knowing he deserved to be there. He’s come a long way since then. After Rio, he was on a winning streak. It was the spark that ignited the whole team.”
Monese, 33, is the oldest and most experienced member of the team but he is by no means a one-hit wonder. The younger riders are hot on his tail, with youngster Tumelo Makae, 21, pipping his elder for victory at this year’s National Championships.
“And up until the last lap there were still four riders racing together,” says West with just a hint of pride in his voice.
Nine of the 10 riders – eight men and two women – making up the Sufferfest African Dream Team are Lesotho born and bred. One of the women comes from Botswana. Most come from very poor backgrounds.
“What these women and men have to go through on a day-to-day basis would stop most people,” said West. “Despite it all, they ride. They ride to break the devastating poverty cycle, they ride for their families and their future. We appreciate all the help we get, in particular from The Sufferfest, who were one of the first companies to provide sponsorship for our riders.”
West, former Secretary General of the Lesotho Cycling Federation, founded the team in 2013 and describes his role as “facilitator.”
“I try to get them to as many races as possible and get as much equipment as we can. Most of the guys are very poor and don’t have parents. It isn’t easy at all but they are so self-motivated when it comes to training.”
Getting to races means packing athletes and bikes into the car and driving up to 12 hours, depending on where the race takes place: “I don’t have room to take them all so I always have to choose six, maximum seven, riders per race. It’s a lot of juggling and a few are always disappointed.
“We are fortunate to be close to South Africa, where the standard of competition is very high and there are a lot of UCI races. We strategically target the UCI Class races to build up our rankings and we also earn points through National Championships. I always emphasise the importance of fighting hard for every possible point.
“I am so proud of them! I like to look at the teams around us in the rankings and wonder what sort of budget they have at their disposal.”
Most of the team members either have full time jobs or are still in school, but three now receive a living allowance, enabling them to spend more time on the bike. The Lesotho National Federation has just been informed that young Makae has been granted an Olympic Solidarity scholarship
Makae was still only 20 when he won silver in the Men U23 race at this year’s African Championships. His team-mate Likeleli Masitise took bronze in the Elite Women’s race.
But they never rest on their laurels: “As they get better, we challenge ourselves more,” explains West.
His team’s improvement prompted him to attend this month’s Coach Diploma course at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland: “So far I have been more in a position of Team Manager and Facilitator, but as they get better it has become obvious they need more people coaching.”
Former pro cyclist-turned-coach Stephen Gallagher sends through training programmes, and West plans to complement that with a more scientific approach to athlete testing and power training using Wattbikes. There will also be more focus on technique.
“They need more skills training. Most riders learn basic stuff as a kid but my guys didn’t spend their childhoods on bikes.
The newly-qualified coach returns to Lesotho with new ideas and plenty of plans for the next season, not least the opening round of next year’s UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Stellenbosch (South Africa) in March and the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Australia) in April.