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16 Mar, 2016

Diepsloot Academy Go For Green

1310

Five years ago, the Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy faced an uncertain future. All their bikes had been stolen, dreams were crushed, and riders were left without the chance they so desperately wanted. It seemed all was lost, but fast forward five years and the Academy boasts a different story, one of hope and determination, with this year’s Absa Cape Epic the battleground, and William, Clement, Luke and Sean the soldiers.

The journey began with a boy in the township of Diepsloot, taking part in a project called ‘Earn a bike.’ William Mokgopo’s aim was just to build himself a bike – little did he know that it would be the start of his journey to becoming a pro mountain biker. The project saw containers filled with scrap bikes coming into Diepsloot, and the kids who took part could build up a bike from scrap parts, doing everything themselves while being taught the basics of bike mechanics.

“When you graduate, you get the bike that you built, and this is how I ended up owning my first mountain bike,” explains William. With his new bike, a whole new future awaited – it didn’t matter that it wasn’t a state of the art bike, William just needed a place to ride it.

And as fate would have it, the project was held at the same place that the Diepsloot Mountain Bike Academy met to ride through to Northern Farms.

“I was really intrigued with their cycling kit – the only thing I wanted was to get their cycling shirt,” says William, so he made some enquiries about joining the academy, and after a year, luck turned his way when a spot opened and he was invited to join.

 

TALENT SPOTTED

After just a few rides at the academy, Simon Nash picked him from the bunch with these words: “You, I want you to start racing.” Naturally William was happy at being chosen, but soon had a hard knock back to reality. “We used to race each other here at the farm, and I used to finish last every time.” Coming last three times in a row proved too much for William, and he quit the academy for two months, but once his bruised ego had healed, he decided it was time for another chance.

“Every sport I played, I was really good, but here I finished last – it just didn’t work for me, it was very painful.” With some training and perseverance, William’s riding became better, and soon he was getting podiums at all the races. It was here that he decided to see how far he could go in the sport, but after breaking his collar bone in a fall during training, William faced a different challenge, six months of no riding.

But it also made him realise that “mountain biking was the sport I really, really loved.” Back on the bike, William went from strength to strength, and was soon competing at Nationals in 2008 in Maritzburg, lining up with some of the greats of South African mountain biking. He says that race was quite an experience: “Burry Stander lapped me four times,” and with rain on race day and technical sections completely different to anything he had ever ridden, he saw how good the top guys were, and how much work he still had to do to join them.

“Those guys were like super-human people, and I asked myself will I ever be that good?”

However, he pushed harder, and by 2011 William was ready for his first Absa Cape Epic, but when his bike was stolen, he did not know how his riding would continue. Then Exarro Academy called and offered him the lifeline he needed, a coveted entry into the Epic, and he found himself on the start line, riding with Philimon Sebona from the academy.

The first day saw them finish almost last, but they persevered to eventually finish 50th overall. During this race, William met Andre Roos and Diteboho Khumalo, and used the opportunity to give Diepsloot the lift it needed. “They were intrigued, good people to talk to.” With their investment, it meant that the academy got the help it needed, and William decided it was time to go home.

 

FRIENDS AND FAMILY

They say that growing up in a place like Diepsloot means your neighbours aren’t just people who live next door, they are more like family, and it was this bond that brought Luke Mashiane to the academy. Having grown up next door to William, the two were ‘chommies’ and could often be found riding the dirt streets on their beat up BMX’s. After breaking his arm playing soccer, Luke decided that soccer wasn’t working for him anymore, while cycling seemed a better option, and it was an easy decision to follow William into riding in 2007.

As Luke explains, “I decided I am changing my sport, I am going to start cycling, and this is where everything started.” His big break came in 2011 when he was selected for the SA squad for the African Continental Championships in Stellenbosch, where he finished 15th overall in a line-up that included Burry Stander and James Reid, and he says, “It was the best feeling ever!”

During the week he was at the Champs, he attended a training camp where he was mentored by Burry and James, and the experience was invaluable, with the pro’s taking him out on rides, teaching him how to do intervals, and pushing him hard. He speaks of how James said to him, “Just hang in there. Imagine it’s your last interval, just hang in there.” It was an experience that blew him away, “I was from Diepsloot, but the guys were so humble, so kind to me, and encouraging me. I learnt respect, that you must be humble and respect each other.”

Two years later Luke and William lined up at the 2013 Epic together, a dream partnership of two chommies from back in the day, at the race to beat all races. “My first Epic was the best ever – we were 49th overall,” says Luke proudly. Having been there as a spectator the previous year, it had inspired him to train harder, put in more mileage and make sure he could finish well.

In 2014, Luke was back for his second Epic, this time riding with Khupi Komape from the Exxarro Academy, but this wasn’t as successful as his first ride as they finished in the top 100 only. Luke explains, “I was not fit enough, my mental fitness was not there, I was not sure if I could do as well as my first one.” Also, partnering someone with a different riding style made for a very tough race. “Mentally it was challenging,” says Luke. This year he will be riding with Sean Baloyi, and he is confident that they will do well, with the goal to come in the top 50.

“Sean is a very strong guy, we will be there to support William and Clement,” says Luke.

 

STAYING POWER

Sean’s introduction to the academy was similar to Luke’s. His best friend, who he used to ride BMX’s with, told him he should come ride at the academy in 2007. His first weeks were similar to William’s, with his first week seeing him suffering at the back end, battling to hold on, and his big goal back then was “I wanted to ride with them, I wanted to stay with them.” Sean’s training began to pay off, though: “I got stronger each day I came here,” and with the encouragement of his family, who could see his growing love for the sport, it wasn’t long before he was getting stronger and faster. Eight years later, he found himself lining up on the start of his first Epic, alongside partner Clement Mabula.

On stage 1, at the 50km mark, Sean says he realised just how hard the race is, and what was waiting for him in the coming days. “I felt like I wanted to quit the race, it was so tough,” but adds that the encouragement from Clement got him through that tough day, constantly reassuring him that he could do this. “I got better closer to the finish,” and they finished, a little more broken than expected, but with Sean seriously worried about what lay ahead. “I told myself I’m not going to make it, but thinking about the sacrifices everyone had made to get me there, and that the team was depending on me, is what drove me for the next six days.”

Not only did the team finish, they came fourth in the race to the Exarro Jersey. “I am expecting an even better position this year, I want a podium in the Exarro jersey,” says Sean.

The journey comes full circle with Clement and William joining forces this year to race for the coveted Exarro Jersey. “Riding with William makes me very excited, especially because it will be more challenging,” says Clement, adding that he looks forward to learning from William and seeing how this will benefit his own career as a cyclist.

It’s a strong combination that has many pundits excited to see the outcome of what these two riders can bring to the Exarro competition, and when asked what it will feel like to win the Exarro jersey, Clement’s answer shows his pure riding spirit: “Winning will show me that I was brave enough to ride through the pain. It will give me confidence in myself.”