Soweto’s young cyclists show their mettle

The Soweto Cycling Academy was started to get children on bikes. Now its young members are beginning to compete in South Africa’s top races, with an eye on a busy 2022 calendar.

The area around Tebogo Kgano’s house in Diepkloof Zone 3, Soweto, is a hive of activity on weekday afternoons. Children in green and black gear with assorted colour helmets and an array of clip-in shoes roam the pavement and street, circling on their bicycles. 

Further down the road, where Kgano’s street intersects with Eben Cuyler Street, there is a paved clearing. It is meant to be a taxi and bus terminus but, unused, serves a different purpose for the children who gather to exercise and run there.  

These children are members of the Soweto Cycling Academy, a self-funded cycling club established in 2018 to introduce the sport to children in Soweto. Kgano is one of the coaches and founding members of the academy. The children, in a tone of respect, refer to him simply as Coach. 

“People scoffed at our vision when we started. They thought we were joking. I think the reason is that cycling is viewed mostly as an elite sport. We persevered and made many sacrifices along the way,” says Kgano. 

24 November 2021: Cycling coach Tebogo Kgano.

The academy started without many resources or much equipment, but its vision has always been clear. Kgano and his friends had begun cycling a short while back and wanted to share what they had learnt from the sport by training and developing children from Diepkloof and other parts of Soweto. During its formative years, some founding members were despondent at the slow progress and left the academy.

Cycling is a sport that requires patience, tactical acumen, endurance, focus and a constant reshuffling of plans. Kgano and his colleagues applied those principles to help the academy survive the trying times and go on to become an institution. 

“Coaches Lebo and Swazi have been there all the way,” says Kgano, referring to Lebogang Matona and Swazi Ncala, who are among the founding members. 

“I remember that I had to sell some of my assets. The coaches also chipped in with what they could, and we clubbed together to buy some equipment. Some of the things we got were not new but they made do. We are trying the best we can because it is all about the development of these kids. Even my family has helped, they have been immense with the support because it is our home that we use as the base of our operations.”  

24 November 2021: Similo Kheswa checks his bike during a training session. 

Teamwork and training 

Today, the Soweto Cycling Academy has basic equipment that caters to about 70 members. There are only two members who are older than 17, and they have been there since the academy started. More than 40 of the children are registered with Cycling South Africa, the national body that governs the sport. Those who remain unregistered are still working on handling the rigorous demands of cycling. 

“Honestly, it has been an amazing and fulfilling journey for the academy. Of course, it has not been without some difficulties. We wish we could have more modern bikes and over time, some equipment would need to be replaced,” says Matona.

The coaches run a tight ship. Wednesday afternoons and some Saturday mornings are set aside for track training at Hector Norris Park, 13km away in Turffontein. Prepping happens seamlessly as the children take bicycles and other cycling paraphernalia from storage and load them on to Kgano’s bakkie. They work in sync, stacking the wheels, handlebars and frames.

24 November 2021: Young members of the Soweto Cycling Academy training at Hector Norris Park. 

The trip to the track takes them through the FNB Stadium precinct in Nasrec and then past Booysens, before going through Rosettenville. It takes about 25 minutes. They proceed in a measured and intuitive way indicative of teamwork, and their conduct shows that the riders have been well-trained. 

At the track, which falls under regional body Central Gauteng Cycling, they train with riders from other clubs and associations. This is where the reality of their situation comes to the fore. There is a stark difference in the equipment they have compared with richer clubs. The Soweto Cycling Academy bicycles show distinct wear and tear, while those of their counterparts look modern and the gear they wear bears the logo of a major bank. 

The children do not appear flustered by any of this. “These kids are amazing. For some reason, I think they see the bigger picture, they understand the vision we have. Do you know that they even help and advise each other on their schoolwork? It extends beyond cycling. We are a family,” says Kgano.

24 November 2021: Young members of the academy watch other riders on the cycling track. 

Hitting the road

On days when they are not pushing for speeds of 55km/h on the track, the academy’s riders focus on road riding and strength conditioning. The weekend road rides have a more leisurely approach, albeit with more kilometres clocked. These long stretches exploring Joburg’s scenic routes are often followed by a sit-down treat at a restaurant. According to Kgano, this has helped the team’s camaraderie and over time he has seen the general confidence of the children increase. 

Twelve members of the team participated for the first time in the 2021 94.7 Ride Joburg event, one of the country’s premier races that attracts up to 30 000 riders. The Soweto Cycling Academy’s riders registered impressive times despite their novice status in the daunting 97km event. Bontle Phepiso took 4:06:03 to finish 13th out of 37 riders in her category. Tshepo Mohajane came in at 56 out of 196 riders in his category, and Atlegang Moagi followed in the same category at 76. Their times were 3:16:48 and 3:32:22, respectively. 

“If this is what they can achieve in their first race, such a big race … now imagine what these children can achieve if they had all the proper and up-to-date equipment. We always stress upon them that in the end, it is about one’s ability. Our preparations were key, too. Yes, having the best … helps and we trust we will get there,” Kgano says.

24 November 2021. Bontle Phepiso, one of the few female cyclists in the academy, during a training session near Soweto. 

The riders who took part in 94.7 Ride Joburg beam when asked how they found the race. They mention all sorts of emotions and it’s evident that the exhilaration and adrenalin of a competitive race had a great impact on them, along with simply being at the race – they all seemed in agreement with that line of thinking.

The Soweto Cycling Academy coaches have big plans for 2022, as the calendar is busier with more competitive races taking place again as Covid restrictions are lifted. They worked on conditioning with the children in December and hosted fundraising fun runs. 

Despite financial limitations and the great personal sacrifices of its coaches, what the Soweto Cycling Academy has achieved to date is laudable. It has had a positive effect on the community and exceeded its objectives, having initially set out simply to introduce cycling to children in the area. According to the coaches, some parents say their children have gone on to fare better academically since joining the academy. Others say their children’s behaviour and attitudes have improved. 

As one neighbour remarked, “These guys are godsent.”

24 November 2021: Tshepo Mohajane, who performed very well in a recent cycling race, during a training session. 
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