Nicholas Dlamini hits the highspots of world cycling

The pro cyclist has big ambitions, including being the first black South African to pull on the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

A blanket of fog regularly makes its way over Table Mountain and evaporates at its foothills, revealing the splendour and beauty of one of the most captivating wonders of the world.

It’s a glorious sight from all corners of the Cape Peninsula, but more so for those able to gaze up close at the beauty of its oddly carved crevices as it towers over a city with a huge disparity between rich and poor.

While many white South Africans enjoyed the exclusive privilege of having Table Mountain on their front stoep and summiting its peak with ease during apartheid, many of Cape Town’s black residents were left wondering from a distance what lay atop the mountain. Table Mountain was only reachable to them by sight, from afar, during their daily commute to the city and surrounding suburbs. The intimidating mountain stood over its black people in the same way the slave masters of the past and bosses of the present stand over their workers.

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But since democracy in 1994, Table Mountain has become reachable for all of Cape Town’s and South Africa’s people. In recent times, Table Mountain resembles the painful and happy contrast of the past and present for Nicholas Dlamini, whose ambition to reach the top of the mountain whenever he got on his bicycle has placed the cycling world at his feet.

Dlamini dreamt of scaling Table Mountain from the age of 12, when he joined the JAG Foundation running clinic hosted by Ryan Sandes. Later he joined the Velokhaya Academy while caught in the unrelenting chains of poverty at Capricorn Park near Muizenberg. But he had an even greater desire to reach the peak of world cycling and count himself among the country’s and the world’s sporting greats.

‘Table Mountain is one of my weaknesses’

Having made the daily pilgrimage up Table Mountain and Signal Hill part of his preseason training, Dlamini is now living his dream to carve his name in the history books by becoming South Africa’s first black professional cyclist to win anything of substance in the highly competitive World Tour. He won King of the Mountain in last year’s Tour Down Under and the Tour of Britain in the colours of Team Dimension Data.

“I go there on a daily basis. That is one of my routes. Table Mountain is more like a bump when I’m in good shape. It’s good to go up Table Mountain and make it feel like a climb. Table Mountain is one of my weaknesses, it is one of the most beautiful climbs to do and obviously Signal Hill as well. We have the best scenery for cycling in South Africa and more probably in Cape Town,” says 23-year-old Dlamini.

In 2017, Dlamini won the Under-23 King of the Mountain at the Giro d’Italia and finished fifth in the general classification at the Tour of Hungary.

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Having managed to escape a life of poverty, gangs, drugs and violence, Dlamini has his sights firmly set on scaling more peaks in world cycling this year. He wants to challenge for that far and distant dream of riding in the Grand Tours and even wearing the sought-after maillot jaune (yellow jersey) in the Tour de France.

“Yes, yes of course. The Tour de France is really a big race and to participate in it is a big achievement and winning it is even better,” Dlamini says. “I would really love to win a stage first of all, and as things go I would love to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. I want to win a stage and be the first black South African to wear the yellow jersey. Even though Daryl Impey has worn it and became the first South African to wear the yellow jersey, I would like to make history as well.”

But before Dlamini casts his eyes and pedals on the Tour de France, this week he was rekindling memories of his finest hour so far as a professional cyclist by lining up as a member of the Dimension Data team in Adelaide at the Tour Down Under.

Dlamini is loath to place his personal ambitions ahead of the team. As the main cog in the support structure, his role is to look after the leaders while buying time for his moment.

And his moment will come, just like it did when wandering the dusty alleys of Capricorn Park while admiring the foothills and peaks of Table Mountain as that fog unveiled the splendour of the mountaintop those many years ago.

Dream come true

“I’m still pinching myself, to be honest. You know when your dreams come too quickly? Basically, I feel that everything is happening too quickly. It was just five years ago that I was riding and racing in South Africa and now I’m racing at the highest level of cycling. I’m now teammates with some of the top riders in the world. When you are teammates with the greatest guys in the sport, then you know that you are also great. There are a lot of expectations from my side and I’m getting as much experience as possible,” Dlamini said.

“As a new pro, I still have a lot to learn. Last year was my first year as a professional in Europe. For me, now, it is still about learning and getting as much experience as possible, then maybe in the next five years or something like that, then I can be a leader. It is completely different from where I actually come from because I was in the feeder team two years ago, where I was the senior and I was the leader there. Now it is a step up to the big team and I get the role of supporting the other guys. I guess my time will come in the next couple of years.”

He continues: “I haven’t set specific goals yet. I have a nice programme for this year. The only goal I have set for myself is becoming the best rider I can be. If I can become the best rider I can be, then the good results will come automatically. It’s all about focusing on that and getting as much experience as possible and supporting my leaders. My time will come in the next couple of years, so now it is about learning.”

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Dlamini’s meteoric rise in the cycling world has already cemented him in South African sporting folklore. But it is only the beginning of what will be a long and arduous journey to the top, more so if he is to be a dominant force in the hills in a sport where the pretenders and greats are often separated by the mountains of Europe.

As much as the team will rely on Dlamini’s support this year and probably the next for its success, it is that very same team that will need to provide a solid footing for Dlamini to attain his dreams of success in the future.

“Those mountains are very intimidating and they are very long and it’s quite cold out there. The sport is getting fast and people are getting faster and faster, and it seems like the limits are getting higher and higher on these mountains. There is a bit of pressure but it is all about the support you have around you. If you have all the positive, structured people around you training wise and a good coach like we have in our team, it is possible to climb away from the guys.”

Thriving but missing home food

Dlamini, though, is not averse to the hard graft needed to scale the same heights as world cycling star Chris Froome. From his days as a clueless 12-year-old taking to the pedals for the first time to having to get used to life away from home in Italy, Dlamini seems to thrive under adversity and in making the impossible possible.

And while he has to grapple with the contrasting reality of the comforts of the better life he seeks for himself and his family in the discomfort of foreign lands, it is often the small comforts of home that remind Dlamini of where he comes from and where he needs to be to achieve his dream.

“I started cycling when I was 12. We had a small club where I grew up and that’s where I started cycling between 2008 and 2009. That’s where all the greatness started,” says Dlamini.

“It has been a system of trying to keep up and catch up at the same time. Moving to Europe a bit late — we as South Africans always go to Europe later — where the guys there start racing at a young age, we are always on the back foot … Spending a few months in Italy has made a big difference. Training on those mountains and getting used to the culture in Italy has basically contributed to the success I’ve gotten behind my name. Hopefully going forward in the future I can keep learning and the more I learn, I can become better as a rider.”

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Dlamini moved to Dimension Data’s team base in Lucca, Tuscany, in 2016.

“[The toughest part about being in Europe] is definitely having to get used to the culture and language. You go there and you find that not a lot of people speak English and they don’t like speaking English, so you always have to find your own way around. So the first year I got there, I had to take Italian lessons and that has helped me get myself around Italy, and since then I have been making friends and the Italian has become better as well. Ja, the food as well, being used to the food in the townships, has been a big adjustment and I’ve been eating a lot of pasta and carbs, that has been the toughest part. Umngqusho, [samp and beans], nomvubo [pap and sour milk], I really miss, and that is one of the first things I always have when I come home. I always make a special request to have that.”

And those special requests for umngqusho and umvubo are made to his biggest fans, his mother Gloria and twin sister Nikita. That support has proven to be not only good for his cycling but also in Dlamini being the grounded human being he is, with a soft but confident voice.

Black African role model

“My mom is super proud and one of my biggest supporters. She always had my back growing up when I was still a junior and trying to figure out my way in the cycling thing. She is really happy and the happiest person on this earth.”

With a burning desire to win and a character that seeks to triumph no matter what the circumstance, it is easy to see why Dlamini has been a perfect fit for the ambitious South African outfit in Team Dimension Data.

While the team continues to make strides in the cycling world and their ambition to have a Tour de France winner next year, Dlamini’s exploits on the bike are already a monumental win for the team, feeding into their charity Qhubeka, which seeks to change people’s lives through bikes.

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Dlamini is not oblivious to the critical role he plays as a role model for aspiring cyclists in South Africa, as well as the millions of black African children in townships and rural areas across the country who are looking for hope and inspiration.

“Having a person coming from the township, competing at the highest level of whatever sport they are doing, is an inspiration to the up-and-coming kids. We all come from the background so if one can make it, there is no excuse for the other black kids to make it into whatever sport they can do. We’ve always wanted role models from the townships instead of guys from America and all those other places we only see in magazines. It is really nice that they have the opportunities to have role models coming from townships, people they’ve basically seen growing up. That gives them hope that it actually is possible to get to that level if they work hard.”

In the same way that Proteas fast bowler Kagiso Rabada and Springbok winger Aphiwe Dyantyi have been important in dispelling myths about black African people in cricket and rugby, Dlamini says his involvement and success at the highest level of cycling is a blessing that he hopes will unearth more black cyclists to dominate the sport.

“For me it is a blessing. I’m all in for development in South Africa and helping wherever I can to help development riders get to where I am. For me it doesn’t put pressure on me, the more black people we have on the international circuit, the better.”

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