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Dimension Data’s Jay Robert Thomson has had a front row seat for African cycling’s rapid ascent. Thomson, who hails from Krugersdorp, South Africa, cut his teeth on Africa’s Continental Circuits with Continental teams Konica Minolta – Bizhub and MTN (the precursor to Dimension Data) before making the jump to the European peloton. Thomson has raced in three grand tours, but he’s also participated in some of Africa’s most famed events, such as Gabon’s La Tropicale Amissa Bongo Ondimba and the Tour du Cameroon. Along the way, Thomson has seen up-and-coming African athletes such as Eritrea’s Daniel Teklehaimanot and Natnael Berhane and Rwanda’s Adrien Niyonshuti rise to the WorldTour.
VeloNews caught up with Thomson to discuss African cycling’s progression, its unique flavor, and what hurdles still exist for African riders.
VeloNews: How would you describe the level of racers in Africa these days?
Jay Thomson: It’s very high, and it’s always been high. But it’s like marathon running. It’s not like Europe, where tactics are deciding who wins. In Africa, it’s always the strongest guy who is winning. You have these big wide roads, and not too many corners, and the races aren’t 200km long. You don’t really have tactics other than to go full gas. You look at the results and some guys are winning by 10 minutes because everybody raced each other completely dead and the fastest guys were the last ones standing. I’ve been in so many races like that in Africa. All day it’s just completely crazy, and by the end, there are only 10 guys left.
VN: South Africa has historically produced strong cyclists. When did you see that other countries were beginning to catch up?
JT: In 2006 I remember [South Africa] at the continental championships had Robbie Hunter and Daryl Impey and they were all going so good. If you were able to ride with them you were guaranteed to finish in the top six. It was pretty easy to ride away.
Then I remember racing the Tour du Cameroon in 2007 or 2008, and in the past the South Africans would have easily gone 1-2-3, but that year the Eritreans had us on the back foot the entire time. They were superior climbers and very aggressive. Eventually endurance came into play, because we train further and had the efforts in our legs. But they were going full gas from the beginning. They had really good riders. You knew it was changing.
VN: What was your first impression of racing against Daniel Teklehaimanot?
JT: I first raced against him in 2008 or 2009. You knew right away he was a super talent. I could really time trial and won [the African continental time trial championships] in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 I was going good, putting out 400 watts, and he beat me by one second. That was the first time South Africa had been put into second place in that race. Then in 2012 I did the road race and I got second and was beaten by [Natnael] Berhane. By then that race had changed for [South African racers]. It’s not like you can show up and just win. You had to be the strongest guy.
VN: There has been a major growth in the number of UCI races across Africa, from Algeria and Morocco to places like Rwanda. How has that impacted the racing?
JT: The exposure is now 1,000 times more than it was, but the total amount of racing days hasn’t really changed. Morocco has maybe the most UCI races this year, but in South Africa we have zero. There are still challenges. You do the Tour of Burkina Faso and there are only 75 starters. Tour d’Egypt and it’s like 70 starters. We don’t have the money in Africa to make some of these races grow. If you don’t have the cash you can’t pay for the teams to race. In the past we’ve gotten a few teams out of Belgium or Switzerland to come down, but not everybody wants to go race in Africa. There’s a perspective that it’s not so great. Or guys just don’t want to come down in the middle of the season to race the Tour of Burkina Faso.
VN: Have you encountered any horror stories of racing in rural parts of Africa? We heard stories of mystery meat and bad hotels.
JT: I’ve done [Tour du Maroc] twice and the hotels aren’t so bad. The food is OK and the racing is hard. I did the Tour of Rwanda in 2013 and won a stage and took the yellow jersey but then had to stop because it was coming out of both ends. We were staying in a hotel at [the Tour of Cameroon] and they said don’t sleep on the first two levels because there were mites. Maybe I got fed roadkill and never knew it, but the food in Rwanda was really good and I got sick. I was just unlucky. The thing about Africa is that it’s a different world.
VN: So what are the hurdles that African cycling still needs to overcome?
JT: Financial is the big one. You race against some guys in the [African championships] from the Ivory Coast or Cameroon and they are on equipment from the 1990s. You feel guilty because you’re on the best equipment and these guys have steel frames and downtube shifters. These guys cannot afford to go to the bike shop, or maybe there is no bike shop where they can buy a proper bike. Then some guys who have talent they are doing farm work or nomad jobs, and cycling doesn’t put food on the table. The more the cycling world gets to see Africa, that can help put these guys forward. We can help out, like with The Africa Kit Appeal to donate gear. It can help them moving forward.