Ten years ago, having an African cycling team was just a dream. Now, they’ve reached their first ever Tour de France. Dateline follows the trials and triumphs on their remarkable journey.
Tour de France is not an event you hear much about in the daily life of Africa. The sport is expensive, bikes few and far between. It is a challenge to fix an inner tube, let alone buy cycling lycra.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI, AFRICAN CYCLIST (Translation): I’m the last born in the family of nine kids, I grew like any other kid.
Cyclist Adrien Niyonshuti grew up in Rwanda, a country scarred by one of the greatest human atrocities in living memory. Adrien is Tutsi and he is a genocide survivor.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): I am determined and hope one day to compete in the Tour de France.
Adrien lost six brothers in the 1994 genocide killed by Hutu neighbours in their village. A million people died. 7-year-old Adrien escaped death by hiding between two mattresses. Sport is not only in his future dreams it is also a huge part of his past.
ATHANASIA MUKARUGWIZA, ADRIEN’S MOTHER (Translation): Some of his other brothers used to hand down bicycles to each other……However, sport is something ingrained in the family.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): With God’s help we survived the genocide and I have risen to become a professional cyclist in Rwanda.
At a Wooden Bike Classic, Adrien won the mountain bike race at 19, his first big break into cycling.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): That’s a day in my life I'll never forget. I won the mountain bike category in 2006 and won my first brand new mountain bike.
Winning that race in 2006 led to the London Olympics.
ANNOUNCER: Rwanda seven competitors, three athletes, one cyclist a mountain biker.
Not only was Adrien the first Rwandan mountain bike rider in history, he also carried the flag and the hopes of the nation.
ATHANASIA MUKARUGWIZA (Translation): I saw him that time when he was in England he was wearing traditional attire and holding the Rwanda flag. It makes me very happy to see a small boy like this one attracting the world.
Cycling as a sport has grown in Africa. Adrien joined Team Rwanda in 2007, their first national cycling team. It is incredible to see, more than two decades after the genocide, a cycling team with both Tutsi and Hutu riders together.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): Cycling is a very interesting and tough sport, a sport that requires a lot of self-sacrifice. There is no need to keep separating ourselves by tribe, we are one as Rwandans.
Though the Tour de France started as a cycling race to sell a magazine in 1903, the event has become an unlikely way to help rebuild a destroyed nation.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): Now we need to be united and focus more on the future instead of dwelling on what happened in the past, we need to learn from the past to see what tomorrow’s future will bring.
Adrien caught the attention of Doug Ryder, a former South African cycling champion. He founded the first African team eight years ago MTN-Qhuebeka - the Zulu world for moving forward or progress. His dream was to take the first African cycling team to the Tour de France.
DOUG RYDER, TEAM FOUNDER: If Africa can develop the best endurance runners in the world, why not cyclists? So if we could put a cycling team together to take on the biggest teams in the world, how far could we go with African riders?
SONGEZO JIM, AFRICAN CYCLIST: I lost my mum when I was eight years old and my father when I was thirteen years old, my aunt she took me from the second my mum passed away, she took care of me, she was always there for me.
In South Africa Songezo Jim is rarely seen without his cycling lycra. He was 14 years old when he saw a cycling tour stream past his township.
SONGEZO JIM: I was watching the race. You know some things they happen but you don't know what the reason it happens for, but for me to be, at the moment, I told my friends….. “I'm going to do cycling” but at that time I didn't even know how to ride a bicycle.
It only took Songezo a couple of weeks to learn how to pedal and a year later he was riding in that same race.
SONGEZO JIM: It's like I came to a place where I belong. For me, there is nothing else that I want to do than just riding my bike.
DOUG RYDER: Songezo started cycling at 14 and at 23 was racing in the World Tour. A rider who only saw cycling at the age of 14, for most sports, that is really way too late to get into it to become a professional because it takes years and years and years to find your body to be able to do a sport. For him, he is racing at the highest level.
Songezo joined Doug Ryder's African team MTN-Qhuebeka in 2012.
SONGEZO JIM: You get to travel all over the world, you meet different people, you learn more about other people’s cultures. It’s like the ‘university of life’.
Songezo was always very clear about his cycling dreams, though his chosen sport was an unusual decision to friends and family.
SONGEZO JIM: The most popular sport in South Africa, it's football, in my neighbourhood and when I started people thought I was going crazy you know, 'ah you're wearing tights, you know all this, I got stuff from my aunt also, she was like 'Ah stuff this cycling thing'...
NOMFUNDO NONJOJO, AUNT (Translation): At that time it was very difficult because he’d have to attend to his household chores. He had to cook whilst I was at work and look after another child because I have a child. To be quite honest it was really hard for him.
SONGEZO JIM: Now people, they can see now who am I today and they can see what I was doing all along now. ……now they don’t think I’m going mad
NOMFUNDO NONJOJO (Translation): So now he is trying to make sure that there is a cycling program. A lot of children in the community now cherish this desire to be like him.
SONGEZO JIM: Wow, this helmet has hash tags! What does that mean?
BOY: Its horns.
SONGEZO JIM: Horns? Are you an ox?
BOY: It’s number one.
SONGEZO JIM: Are you racing for number one? Yes there’s only one position for you. Put on your horns.
Tour de France is dominated by European countries like France, Spain and Belgium.
MIKE TOMARALIS, SBS SPORTS REPORTER: It is very difficult for an African to take on cycling because, unlike athletics, unlike running, it is an expensive sport to get into. The Ethiopians, the Kenyans, the Tanzanians, the black runners from Africa, they have enjoyed a lot of success down the years and I think the simple reason is because running is very cheap. All you need is a pair of shorts and some running shoes.
Two years ago the African team went professional and moved their training base from South Africa to Europe. Just before they were due to leave, Adrien was diagnosed with a dangerous blood clot and left behind. He was forced off the road and could only train indoors.
DOUG RYDER: The dedication and the commitment - I would have cracked.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): Because I respect and love my job I felt unable to give up hope, I could not do that.
DOUG RYDER: He missed a year in his progression in this team when we went to Europe for the first time and it was a big learning curve and a big opportunity that Adrien missed.
Meanwhile, the move to Europe started paying off. The unknown African team started getting noticed in the spring of 2013. For South African Songezo, this was going to be a significant class in his university of life.
DOUG RYDER: There was never a South African rider of colour who had ever been in the Tour de France before. It was massive for him and massive for South Africa and a big door-opener.
It was spring, but winter unseasonably showed up. Songezo's big opportunity looked like it may be seriously jeopardised.
SONGEZO JIM: That day was raining snowing, it was really really, like that is the coldest day I have ever had in my life.
MIKE TOMARALIS: Cycling is like no other sport. You have to face the elements.
SONGEZO JIM: When things get really tough you know, you think about where you come from. I've came such a long way so many people that are looking up at you, so now, if you're going to give up that means you're failing everybody.
The temperatures in Songezo's hometown rarely drop below 7 degrees Celsius in winter. This race has even the most seasoned riders pulling out with hypothermia.
MAN: So the riders struggling a bit with muscle.
Up against snow, sleet and the strongest teams in the continental tour, the African team surprises everyone.
COMMENTATOR: He kicks off in a big way and here comes Gerald Ciolek from the MTN-Qhubeka team, who is going to get it and it looks as though Gerald Ciolek is just about has it as they go to the line. No doubt about who got the win - that was Gerald Ciolek of the Qhubeka already making a wonderful, wonderful impression on World Tour racing.
Against the odds, a Team Africa rider wins the race.
SONGEZO JIM: That day was really crazy. I mean like for us the goal was to come in top 10 and to win, was just unbelievable.
MIKE TOMARALIS: That is when I and many others who follow the world of cycling realised, hey, we have got an African team in our midst and there to enjoy success.
For Team Africa, cycling isn't just about success in sport. In Songezo's home nation of South Africa, 8 million children have no choice but to walk to school every day.
DOUG RYDER: Bicycles are to be mobile and it makes you entrepreneurial and gives you access to things that you didn't even know existed – access to healthcare, access to education, access to a job, to economic opportunity.
As well as trying to get Africa to the Tour de France, Doug Ryder established a charity side of the team. Together with World Bicycle Relieve, they give bikes away in exchange for growing trees and picking up rubbish in their communities.
DOUG RYDER: We wanted to show what was possible from the African continent, so by leveraging the success of our professional team to generate funds to buy bicycles for communities across Africa, for them to realise their dream, to get to school or become the next Tour de France champion.
SONGEZO JIM: A bicycle can change somebody's life. It has changed my life. Kids are waiting get bikes also so it can change their life.
Cycling is growing in Africa, countries like Rwanda even have their often tour, after ten months on a stationary bicycle, Adrien can finally compete again. Tour de Rwanda would be his first race since his blood clot recovery.
SONGEZO JIM: We here having a picture taken with Adrien’s mum.
LOUIS MEINTJES: Seeing him come back the way he does, I didn't think he was capable of coming back at such a high level so quickly after the problems that he's had.
Adrien's story as a survivor has left a mark on his African team.
XYLON VAN EYCK, TEAM PRESS OFFICER: Sometimes when you travel with sports, it is a little far removed from reality because you are in a different city every day, but ultimately we are in Rwanda and Rwanda has a very significant history.
LOUIS MEINTJES: Adrien is a big part of our lives. He's touched all of us on the team.
JAMES LOUTER, DIRECTOR SPORTIF QHUBEKA DONOR RELATIONS: Very privileged for me to come with Adrien and hear his story and relate to what he went through with his family and how the country has grown from there.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI: You have to fight and remember yourself and your family, it’s hard to sleep and survive your life.
Adrien doesn't win, but the race creates a huge buzz on the roads of Rwanda.
DANIEL TAKLEHAIMANOT, AFRICAN CYCLIST (Translation): I had dreamed of being a cyclist since I was a child, that one day I would to be part of the Tour de France.
COMMENTATOR: A very talented bike rider, indeed.
Daniel's dream couldn't have been more impossible.
DOUG RYDER: Daniel Taklehaimanot from Eritrean was probably the pioneer of African cycling when there were no African riders in Europe at all, he started to race in France and Switzerland as an amateur.
The flow of Eritrean refugees has meant that governments around Europe were not prepared to issue Daniel a visa. In one year, he missed 26 races, all because of visa complications.
MIKE TOMARALIS: It is a shame that he couldn't continue his career at Orica. The team wanted him to stay, but because of visa issues, they couldn't commit to his services long term.
Fortunately, Italy was prepared to let Daniel train there. So he moved to the town of Luca.
DOUG RYDER: That was part of our plan to get a rider in the early breakaway. Daniel has integrated incredibly well into the team and other riders, understanding the struggles that he has had to be a professional cyclist. They never had the challenge of leaving his family for seven months and staying in someone's basement in Europe to try to make it happen.
DANIEL TAKLEHAIMANOT: Cycling is really suffering. If you want to ride you must know it is suffering.
MTN-Qhuebeka is 70% African. Doug Ryder brought in a range of international talent to help mentor the African cyclists and qualify for the big races.
COACH: And if we want to win then today is the only chance, yeah.
TYLER FARRAR, AFRICAN TEAM MEMBER: I really like that mentality of a team of guys who are out with something to prove. They want to take on the world and I really like that. I think that brings the best out of everyone.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): The reason Europeans are ahead of us, the reason they defeat us is not because they are stronger than us, but it’s because they have better skills.
After two years on the professional circuit, the mentoring program has finally paid off. They're invited as a wildcard entry to compete in the race of their dreams - the Tour de France.
DOUG RYDER: I'll never forget that day. I was actually speechless. In fact, I wasn't even breathing. "Oh, my goodness, this is just unbelievable!"
With 23 riders in the team, only a handful will make the cut.
DOUG RYDER: The selection for the Tour de France wasn't easy. We have 23 riders that have all incredible abilities in their own rights in every way.
Unfortunately Rwandan Adrien Niyonshuti didn't make it. The blood clot put him too far behind the others in his team.
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): Even if I am not in the team they are representing me.
ATHANASIA MUKARUGWIZA (Translation): Have the Eritreans defeated you?
ADRIEN NIYONSHUTI (Translation): Yes they are very tough. To be honest it was difficult for me to get back to cycling after 11 months without competing.
South African Songezo Jim also wasn't selected.
SONGEZO JIM: This year I was close to achieving my dream, but I didn't. But I was close. So now I have to work really hard, but next year I can achieve my dream.
But for Eritrean Daniel Taklehaimanot the dream did come true.
ANNOUNCER: For South Africa, the first South African team in the Tour de France, MTN Qhubeka.
Not only was this his first entry into the Tour de France, he made the impossible a reality.
COMMENTATOR: There’s history being made with Daniel Taklehaimanot, the first Eritrean to roll down the ramp, riding for MTN-Qhuebeka.
COMMENTATOR: Daniel Taklehaimanot brakes and there is no reaction. They realise what is happening. It is one point as we have our first African king of the mountains of the Tour de
A huge achievement, despite his visa problems and the year of racing he missed.
COMMENTATOR: Well, sometimes you see dreams do come true in the Tour de France. What a beautiful moment that is. Daniel Taklehaimanot from Eritrean, first African to wear a jersey at
the Tour de France.
DANIEL TAKLEHAIMANOT: When I was younger I was really excited to wear this jersey. It’s unreal, I can’t believe it I think today I was really make some history I think.
A history that is just beginning, the African team have dreams that are even more bold and ambitious.
DOUG RYDER: If we can develop that hero, that African hero on the bicycle, that started on a Qhubeka buffalo bicycle to the Tour de France that will be the cradle to the Holy Grail for this team and for cycling across Africa.
21st July 2015