Nic Dlamini: Capricorn Star — Growing up and riding bikes in South Africa

Pro racer recalls his introduction to cycling and his experiences of training in Cape Town as a teenager.

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Nic Dlamini is a 25-year-old South African racer set to start his fifth WorldTour season in 2021.

Dlamini first rode into the world’s spotlight when he claimed the polka dot climbing jersey at the 2018 Santos Tour Down Under. The Qhubeka-Assos rider’s next appearance in the headlines was far less positive, however. Late 2019, reports emerged detailing Dlamini’s assault by officials from the Table Mountain National Park while on a training ride at home in South Africa, an incident that left him with a broken arm.

In this extract from his essay featured in The Road Book, Dlamini recalls his introduction to the world of cycling and his experiences training to become a racer while living in Cape Town.


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Capricorn Star – Nic Dlamini

My twin sister and I were very sporty. The primary school and high school we went to were very reliant on us when it came to sport. The school always counted on us when it came to athletics and getting maximum points. We were very valuable. My mum didn’t have to go and find a high school for us. There were already a lot of schools that had spotted us and decided that when we went to high school they wanted to take us.

We were good at everything. My sister was more talented than me. She’s loud and very active. I was more laid-back. She would win races without even training at all. I was a good middle-distance runner, from 800m to 5,000m. We’d race at the weekends and win back to back. For us, it was a really good feeling. We got along really well, too. Sometimes we’d train together. We both knew we were both good, but she started to focus more on her academics, whereas I just focused on sport and my studies took a dip when I started to get into cycling. It took up a lot of my time.

I knew nothing about the Tour de France, Paris–Roubaix, or the Giro. I’d never heard of them. We loved riding bikes. Every kid in the township wanted to ride a bike, but not everybody could afford one. So, if one friend had a bike there’d be 10 guys taking turns to ride it — riding down the road, coming back, and then giving it to someone else to take their turn. A friend of mine used to cycle. We’d share stories. He’d tell me how far he’d gone on it and what he’d seen. He told me he’d seen baboons at Chapman’s Peak. And I thought that sounded nice. It’d be nice to see that.

Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto

Then there was Geoff who had a small workshop in Capricorn fixing bikes, called Ben Bicycles. He’d been a good cyclist back then but maybe didn’t have the opportunities. When he was younger, cycling was still considered a white sport. We’d pay him 100RD fee [£8] for a year and he’d provide a bike and kit. That’s when I started cycling. I was 12 then. He gave me a steel bike with downtube shifter gears. That was my first bike.

At the weekends we’d ride as a group. We’d ride the famous route to Simonstown. It’s only an hour long, and then we’d come back. We’d see all the white guys with their carbon-fiber bikes and deep section rims.

I didn’t know much about changing gears. The bikes we had were like fixed-gear mountain bikes that you’d buy cheap at a Chinese shop. So the first day I had my bike and we started riding, everyone started going past me, and I was wondering why everyone was going fast. I was just stuck in this one gear. I got sent back. I’d only done about 30 minutes with them before I had to turn back. It was quite disappointing. But then I learned about gears. “Ah, OK! You have to shift gear and it gets harder!”

Geoff had an aluminum Scott bike. It was the nicest bike I’d ever seen because I’d never been outside of Capricorn to see other bikes, better bikes, carbon bikes. I hadn’t seen that. So I thought Geoff had the nicest bike in the whole world. He did a great job for me, giving me a bike and giving me a start. Without him, I wouldn’t have been a cyclist.

There were some days I’d have to start training at five o’clock in the morning, or perhaps leave very early to get to a race. I’d always have to ride to the races in the dark. That’s the most dangerous time: 4 or 5 a.m.

Mum earned very little as a domestic worker. She earned enough to feed the family, but that was about it. Food and nothing else. Sometimes we didn’t even have food. You’d wake up so hungry in the morning, and then my mum would go to work. We wouldn’t be able to wait until she came back from work. Sometimes she’d come back with leftover food from whoever she was working for. We’d know that it was almost four o’clock and that she might be on her way back. You could see the taxis coming into Capricorn Park from where we lived. We stood there and watched them coming in. We couldn’t wait for her to get back. When we could see her getting off, we’d start running to her, looking to see if she had some plastic bags with her that meant she had food. We’d take the bags home, check out what was inside and start eating. But some days there’d be nothing. Some days we’d not have eaten the night before either.

Luckily, at school they had a feeding scheme. So we’d leave home a little early to get to the feeding scheme and eat some porridge before school. But in the school holidays, there was no food. I always went training though. I’d ride and of course I’d start to get the hunger knock. So I’d stop and eat these red num-num fruits from the bush just to have something in my stomach. Or figs. I would start eating figs, and then I could ride back.

We’d have to walk 5km get to school. We got used to it. The walk to school was long enough for me to imagine things while I walked. As I walked, I started to imagine being a professional. I’d wake up in the morning, have tea, breakfast, and then get ready to go and ride at eight o’clock in the morning. It felt like I was painting my own life because a few years later that’s basically what happened.

I started training hard, especially during school holidays. We’d go out with the team in the mornings and then come back. But then I’d get bored and I’d think, “Maybe I can go out again?”

There were some days I’d have to start training at five o’clock in the morning, or perhaps leave very early to get to a race. I’d always have to ride to the races in the dark. That’s the most dangerous time: 4 or 5 a.m. That’s when the guys do all the robbing and breaking into houses, in the early hours of the morning. I’d go out of the house and think to myself, “This is very dangerous. If anything’s going to happen, it’ll be now.”

Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

If you went to my house back then, you’d see posters all over the wall — pictures of local riders and some of Chris Froome. I didn’t know much about any of the international riders back then, but every time I saw a picture of a cyclist in a magazine, I’d cut it out and take it home.

One day Paris–Roubaix was on and my friend had a TV that was showing it. I rode over to his house and we watched the race. Cancellara and Tom Boonen were still racing at that time. It was so good to watch them. I looked at all the kit and the equipment and saw that it was really top level and thought I’d love to be a professional one day.

If the coach saw good progress, you got a better bike. So I started getting aluminum bikes and I was very happy. At 14 I started racing competitively. I won the summer league. When I was 17 I started thinking about what I really wanted to do — and I thought of cycling. I started doing a lot of racing. And when I was 18 I started winning races.

No one in my family had ever owned a car. Sometimes we’d take a taxi or go in a friend’s car. So one of my wishes was that one day I could have a car so that we could go to the beach with the whole family and just have fun. That was also painting a picture because we’ve done all those things as well.

For me, it was just dreaming. Dreaming a life.