This article was produced in association with Zwift
Uganda has never had a professional cyclist. Surrounded by Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan and a smattering of other countries, almost 80% of the 45 million people are aged under 35, making it the second youngest population in the world. It’s a populace full of hope, dreams and aspirations. The reality, however, is that most will be plunged into poverty. As one of Africa’s poorest nations, the average person earns around $2,650 a year.
When Ross Burrage, an Australian finance and infrastructure manager, visited the country in 2019, he came across an informal small cycling club, and quickly realised that “there was some extraordinary raw talent there.” An idea sparked a fundraising campaign, that in turn led to the development of a specific clubhouse, and more than five years later Masaka CC counts around 50 riders, with a few dozen athletes racing around the world on Zwift, supported by coach Owen Fidler in Beijing.
The potential is massive. “We have a few kids pushing 5.5w/kg, and they can be competitive with anyone in Africa,” Burrage says. “In just a few years, thanks to the club’s hundreds of backers, we have provided a chance for these kids to show their talent.”
Indeed, the results are staggering. At the time of writing, Masaka CC sits in the top-20 in the Zwift Power worldwide table of best performing teams; Kamya Richard, 18, competed in the UCI Cycling World Championships in Glasgow in August; and Florence Nakaggwa is the club’s most successful alumnus so far, telling Rouleur that she is just about to head back down to South Africa’s UCI World Cycling Centre for three months.
She dreams of racing the Tour de France Femmes. “My ambition is to reach the best level of cycling,” she says. “Finances are prohibitive for most people, but my cycling club’s donors help us financially, provide us with equipment, bikes for racing, Zwift accounts, and without the club it would be very, very hard.”
Every week, coach Owen gives individual athletes their own training program, requiring them to be on Zwift twice a week, where they partake in structured training and racing. “It’s the Zwift Racing League that we mostly target,” Burrage says.
“Owen builds the training programs around the racing league, and also other events they do, such as the Great Nairobi Bike Race. He builds workouts on Zwift that replicate course profiles, and the athletes push out these amazing results all of the time.
“Zwift brings the club recognition and it’s important that we protect our e-racing ranking because Zwift has become such a powerful marketing tool for our riders. Anyone in the world can access their results, profile and see their talent. More and more people are aware of the club, and that has brought in a few more donors, and more gravitas towards us.”
Above all, cycling, and Zwift racing, is offering an escape for these impoverished children. “They have a shelter over their head, but the kids are vulnerable,” Burrage says. “They might get one solid meal a day, always corn and beans. Home life is a challenge.” They come to the clubhouse and there’s fresh water, food, and an opportunity to race the world.
“Without Zwift they absolutely would not get this chance,” Burrage insists. “The program we have would be just another African setup, a well-meaning one with good intentions, but one hidden away in the background of an African nation.
“We started just before Covid and then Zwift went wild. The hope before would have been a far-fetched one: find some way to get the kids down to South Africa or Europe for a racing season, and hope like hell that throwing a half-literate person in against Europeans in Belgian would work, grow them and expose their talents to someone maybe interested in them. But it was an audacious goal.
“Zwift came along, half a dozen riders on the platform started racing against the world, pushing out 5.5w/kg or more for 20 minutes and it changed everything. It led to extraordinary results, in the next few months we’ll have three members of the club at the UCI’s base in South Africa.”
The next African superstars are being raised and developed via indoor racing. Is the next Biniam Girmay from Masaka, Uganda?