We got our son his first bike when he was two. It was a Strider balance bike, a tiny little thing with two wheels and no pedals. It let him get a running start, lift up his feet, and start coasting, fully balanced by momentum, no training wheels needed. I remember taking him out on the Strider on the boardwalk in Long Beach, Long Island. It was winter and all you could see of him as he whizzed past was his big blue coat and flame-streaked helmet. “Is that baby riding a two-wheeler?” Power-walkers scooting by turned their heads.
I have never liked riding bikes myself. I didn’t have the necessary freedom to roam in my neighborhood as a kid; a block or two in every direction there was a major road, Sunrise Highway or Long Beach Road, so I could only ride round and round the block, on the sidewalk, as my grandmother watched nervously from the window. Maybe it was because of these limits I still find the action of cycling difficult; how do you just let go, let momentum keep you upright on two skinny wheels? How do you find the faith to travel at high speeds without touching the ground?
Nevertheless, I have come to love professional cycling over the years. At first, I found TV broadcasts of the Tour de France soothing, watching the bright colors of the peloton, brazen, jostling, and blazing past staggering mountain slopes, small towns, ancient cobbles, all the way to the Champs Elysees. But the more I watched to see the scenery, the more I got to understand, and enjoy, the sport. Because cyclists have to have complete confidence in themselves, and in their teammates, to get up on two wheels and just go, holding absolutely nothing back.
There is too much to admire in cycling to dismiss it because of its demons, whom I will let lie. For instance: have you ever heard of the professional team MTN-Qhubeka? You should. If you’ve read this far into a post about cycling, you probably have.
MTN-Qhubeka is the first African team to compete at the highest level of cycling, and on Saint Patrick’s Day, they were on the start line of Milan-Sanremo, one of the monument races of the sport, along with all of the European powerhouse teams. Just being at the race was a triumph. And then, they won. Their sprinter and captain, Gerald Ciolek, beat out the world’s best in a thrilling sprint finish. Behind him was a team that was a mix of European veterans and African newcomers, like Songezo Jim (read his blog about racing Milan-Sanremo here).
Cycling is not much of a priority on American sports networks, like fishing and cheerleading are. So I found a way to watch Milan-Sanremo online, standing at my computer on the kitchen counter while my kids ran around and my husband, who actually does ride a bike, finished a well-deserved shamrock shake.
Milan-Sanremo is called “La Primavera,” the spring race, and careens over mountains and valleys from Milan to Sanremo on the Italian Riviera, and usually finishes with a blistering dash to the finish, with the sport’s top sprinters playing a game of cat and mouse until that final burst of speed makes one of them the winner. It is a dramatic enough race even on the brightest, green-and-pinkest Italian early spring day.
But while Boston was relatively spring-like that Sunday, the Italian Riviera was being pelted with snow and ice, prompting officials to cancel a mountain climb in the middle of the route and send the ice-covered racers further along the course by bus, like that lady who ran the New York Marathon years ago by subway.
It was pretty nuts, to put it plainly. Dozens of racers, including veterans and stars of the sport, dropped out midway, unable to or not willing to tolerate the intensely harsh conditions. Those who stayed in could barely grip their handlebars, or see through the frozen air that came at them along the way, and struggled to keep upright on the whitening, slickening roads.
But in a way, and I can say this because I watched, hot coffee in hand, from thousands of miles away, as problematic as it was, it was a race represented to me what’s pure about cycling: it’s you, and the elements, come as they may. It’s toughness above all. Any winner would have been deserving of heaps of praise and admiration. But it was extra sweet that the win went to a team that is trying to make it on the world stage, representing a corner of the world where cycling is not quite so in the blood, as it is in the chilly north of Europe.
The Qhubeka in MTN-Qhubeka is a foundation, that provides children across Africa with bicycles in return for service to their communities. According to their website, they have handed over more than 40,000 bikes since they started in 2004. And I know I usually write about whiny toddlers, temper tantrums, and the everyday guff of motherhood in the USA, but I just had to write, that I think this is an amazing thing. These bicycles mean freedom, they mean education, they mean independence. And by winning, and racing, and moving forward, their team, MTN-Qhubeka, is only calling more attention to their important mission, not only by their jersey colors but by the way they race.
In our home here, we are lucky enough to get our kids on bikes, walk them down the road to school, ready with everything they need. We take it for granted. Qhubeka knows that no one should. And school and mobility should not be a luxury, but a right. From their website:
Most of Africa’s rural population have no access to transport and people have to walk long distances to access opportunity, education, healthcare, shops and community services. Rural schoolchildren are particularly badly affected by lack of mobility. In South Africa, of the 16 million school going children, 12 million walk to school. Of these, 500,000 walk more than two hours each way, spending four hours getting to and back from school each day. Bicycles are the most effective and economical method of quickly addressing this problem.
Cycling is a great sport because no matter the context, competitive or not, alone, or in teams, in rural Africa or Western cities, it moves people forward [Qhubeka: an Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa) word that means “to carry on”, “to progress”, “to move forward”]. So I want to congratulate MTN-Qhubeka on their success in Milan-Sanremo, and all the other races they enter on the world stage, on moving the sport forward in Africa, on getting young people onto bikes.
They can do it, and my son can do it, and maybe so can I: this spring, now that the snow is receding, I will also get my own bike out of the basement, brush off the cobwebs, and trust myself to find my balance, and lift my feet off the ground.
- MTN-Qhubeka poised for WorldTour debut (cyclingnews.com)
- After important Ciolek victory, MTN Qhubeka set to make history in Tirreno-Adriatico (velonation.com)
- Milano-Sanremo: Gerald Ciolek edges out Peter Sagan in breakaway sprint (velonation.com)
- Songezo Jim on making Milan-Sanremo history, battling epic conditions and Ciolek’s win (velonation.com)
- Milan-San Remo – An underdog win (roadcycling.com)