The Dlamini family live in Capricorn township, 20km from the centre of Cape Town.
Ramshackle shacks constructed from corrugated iron, wood, and anything else that comes to hand, stretch into the distance. Under the apartheid government, before Nelson Mandela and the ANC swept away the racist regime, residents were forcibly evicted, their makeshift homes demolished, only to return later. Now thousands live in the most basic conditions in a community afflicted by drugs, crime, HIV infection and alcoholism.
Nicholas Dlamini, a 21-year-old rider on Dimension Data’s continental feeder team based in Lucca, shows us round his room, daylight clearly visible between the gaps of the rusting corrugated iron roof and whatever building materials are holding it in place. Pages torn from magazine features adorn the walls, mostly running-related – the sport where he first shone before discovering cycling at the age of 12.
Strings of medals hang at various points around the room, a source of great pride. Three dogs sniff around our ankles, one young pup rather too boisterous for my liking. Security from burglars, Gloria Dlamini explains, as I sit in the kitchen with the proud matriarch and Nicolas’ two sisters, trying not to be distracted by the sizable cockroach climbing the wall behind them. Bearing in mind there’s a valuable Cervélo training bike on the premises, the feisty hound is sound insurance, even if it makes me nervous.
As we drive away from Capricorn in a car loaned to Nicholas by a benefactor, the 21-year-old tells us about life in the township in a matter-of-fact way, without a hint of self-pity. It would not be wise for us to visit after dark, he warns, as armed gangs roam the streets. A cyclist had been mugged for his machine only the day before, on the dual carriageway passing Capricorn.
I wondered how Nicholas and his Cervélo survived unmolested, but he tells me that, having grown up in the neighbourhood, the gangs knew who he was and kept a respectful distance from the budding athlete.
A friend introduced the pre-teen Dlamini to cycling. Following an inauspicious debut training ride – “I wasn’t good enough and got sent back home” – he approached the matter in hand in his typically determined fashion. “In the December holidays, I put in a lot of work and soon I could keep up with them. And eventually, I was one of the best in the club.”
Meeting Sven Thiele at the age of 17 provided another step up the cycling ladder. Thiele’s HotChillee company organise the Cape Rouleur, a five-day 600km event covering the stunning roads and climbs of the Western Cape. It is not a race in the traditional sense, but features timed racing sections. “I didn’t know what to expect but I gave it all I could and got a jersey. Stephen Roche was there too and saw the potential I had.”
Related: Tour de France Preview – route, contenders and predictions
The World Cycling Centre Africa in Potchefstroom, whose graduates include the likes of Eritreans Merhawi Kudus and Daniel Teklehaimanot, and Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti, provided the next part of Dlamini’s cycling education. Results followed, but the standard of racing in South Africa is insufficient preparation for life in the European peloton. Race distances are shorter, the competition few and far between at under-23 level.
Back at the Dimension Data team hotel in Cape Town, Shameeg Salie joins us. He is Dlamini’s team-mate on the continental feeder team based in Lucca and shares an uncannily similar life story to Nicolas: born within weeks of other in August 1995; both twins with sisters; growing up just a couple of miles down the road from Capricorn. “People look on us as team-mates,” Dlamini says, “but it is more than that. We are good friends too.”
The Cape Town Cycle Tour – formerly and better known as the Cape Argus – provided the inspiration for the young Salie, much as former MTN-Qhubeka rider Songezo Jim had described his route into bike racing to me in Johannesburg three years earlier. The sight of 35,000 cyclists tearing past his front door was irresistible. Once he had conquered the Cycle Tour, then taken the yellow jersey at Thiele’s Cape Rouleur, Salie proved to be a handy sprinter in his home races.
HotChillee and Sven Thiele took the pair of teenagers to Europe for their London-Paris event – like the Cape Rouleur not a traditional race, but a good taster of the European experience for two young lads far from home for the first time in their lives. “From there I was so motivated, I carried on. I could see, coming back here after seeing Europe, that there was a structure, a path,” Salie says.
Now joining us at the table in the warm South African sun is Ben Swift, another important contributor to these aspiring pro cyclists’ development. The former Team Sky man, now with UAE Abu Dhabi, has been coming to Cape Town every winter for five years now. “South Africa has really caught my imagination: good weather, good roads, super-friendly people, and I have got a lot of friends here now. And I am also able to help the young cycling community,” Swift says of his mentoring role with the two men alongside us.
“Having a good relationship helps. I see them more as mates, really. I try and get my – I wouldn’t say wisdom – but experience across: what to look for in a race, training ideas, nutrition ideas. It can also be about being careful what supplements you take. They are going to a level now where if they get that wrong… We got taught these things with the British Cycling Academy, these guys don’t have that.”
Swift’s experience with the Olympic Academy squad in Tuscany prior to his professional career with Sky closely mirrors the lives Dlamini and Salie have chosen to pursue since the Dimension Data feeder team relocated there in 2016. “They have gone to Italy, which is a very similar path to what we did with British Cycling. But for us, Italy is a two-hour flight away. For two young guys coming from South Africa, it’s a massive culture change and a massive step. So I am trying to help them with that.
“It’s their dream. They really want to make it. They are eager to learn and take everything on board. I have done a lot of the races they are doing now. In Italy, 80 per cent of the peloton may well turn professional – you are racing with the best. It is pretty daunting, but they have both taken it in their stride.”
“It is really hard, a big step up from racing in Africa,” Dlamini confirms. “We are used to being among the best riders here. Going there, discovering that when you are in the peloton, you are one of the weakest guys, that was something we had to adapt to.
“Obviously, we also have to adapt to the culture. It is not easy being away from family. But as the year went on, we started getting better and finding our feet. And our teamwork was improving too – we had been lagging there too – and we got a couple of top-tens at the end of the season. You could see the progression. Now we work on converting those top-tens to wins.”
First published in issue 17.1 of Rouleur magazine