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A season of firsts: Catching up with Nicholas Dlamini

The first black South African to ride the Tour or Olympic road race has had a busy year. Photos: Jean Smyth/Qhubeka-NextHash

Maria David
27 Jul 2021

Nicholas Dlamini grabbed headlines at the Tour de France when he rode courageously to finish Stage 9 in Tignes despite knowing he was well outside the time cut. And he won more hearts of spectators around the world in the men’s Olympic road race at Tokyo 2020.

Racing as part of a three-man South African team with Ryan Gibbons and Stefan de Bod, the Qhubeka-NextHash rider featured prominently in the 130km breakaway during the 234km course to the Fuji International Speedway circuit.

Although he didn’t finish the race, Dlamini, the first black South African to race in the Olympic road race, was commended for his spirited ride – on what he described as a 'hot, demanding day' – by his fellow riders, including compatriot Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.

Cyclist spoke to the 25-year-old at his base in Girona, a home away from home that he has fallen in love with, as he reflects on his journey to the Tour de France and the Olympic Games.

Cyclist: What was it like growing up in Capricorn Park township?

Nicholas Dlamini: It was and still is known for gangsters and drugs. It wasn’t easy for me and my twin sister, Nikita, living there. My mum would have to leave us really early in the mornings to do her job as a cleaner.

Fortunately, we got to realise the talent we had for sport at an early age at school. The teachers saw our talent and they took us under their wings. One teacher played a big role in keeping us off the streets and helping us realise our dreams.

We were disciplined enough to keep pursuing our interests, even though our friends were already getting into gangs and drugs.

Cyc: What were your childhood dreams?

ND: As a teenager I had a bike donated to me from the local workshop and I used it to get around the township. When I started cycling, the sport was quite big in South Africa with races almost every week, and big events like the Cape Argus Giro del Capo. Barloworld competed in the race and had guys like Robbie Hunter winning races.

I would read cycling magazines and tear out the pages with pictures of local professional cyclists and paste them in my room. Waking up and seeing the posters of Robbie Hunter or Chris Froome on my wall really inspired me.

As I was good at many sports when I was young – cross country running, athletics, trail running, triathlons, duathlons, cycling – I had a plan B and a plan C in case cycling didn’t work out.

Cyc: How was your time at the UCI World Cycling Centre Africa?

ND: When I went to the UCI World Cycling Centre Africa in Potchefstroom I felt like I had been chucked in at the deep end where I had to learn to do things for myself, when at home I'd had my mum cooking and doing everything for me. I had to learn how to cook healthy food, I spent a lot of time reading books and trying to learn different languages alongside my training.

I was with white and black South Africans, Eritreans, Rwandans, Zimbabweans and Tanzanians and we had to learn about each other and share the same space.

You really find yourself during that process and it was a big learning chapter for us, especially as preparation for life on the Qhubeka team.

The change in lifestyle from my home to the World Cycling Centre was the biggest jump for me, compared with my later moves to Lucca in Italy and Girona. The routine, living in a house with so many people of other cultures and not treading on people’s toes was a good learning curve and a necessary step before joining a WorldTour team.

Riders like Merhawi Kudus and Natnael Berhane came through the same system, but unfortunately not all of the people I was with in the World Cycling Centre ever made it to WorldTour level.

Cyc: What are your thoughts on the development of African pro cycling?

ND: There are definitely more Africans coming through. We can see that from what Team Qhubeka-NextHash has achieved by signing African riders. It speaks to what the team is about – giving kids in Africa opportunities to come to Europe and race at the highest level in cycling.

The team has just signed Henok Mulubrhan from Eritrea who is super-talented and has done really well in under-23 races this year. A lot of other people are also doing great things to bring more African riders into cycling, but I think the gap is a bit too big to close it quickly, so we have to allow a bit of time before we'll see a significant number of African pro riders.

Considering where I’ve come from, becoming the first black South African to race on a WorldTour team has really changed a lot of people’s lives and inspired people in South Africa. I want to carry on encouraging youngsters back home to not hold back on their dreams.

Personally, I haven’t experienced any racism in cycling, though I have heard of it happening to some riders. It is something that is not tolerated and never will be. Things have been getting better in terms of diversity in cycling.

Cyc: Why did you continue to ride the 25km up to Tignes when you knew you would miss the time cut?

ND: It was so freezing in the Alps that I couldn’t reach my hands into my pockets to get something to eat or hold my bottle. I saw some guys getting into a car and I was the last guy on the road. But I thought to myself 'I’m just going to keep going'.

It would have been much better doing the last 25km in a car with the heater on. But, you know I always wanted to respect the sport, respect my team and honour my dream to try and finish the race at least even though I was outside the time limit. I think that is something I will forever be happy about.

I was riding on empty, but if you ride your bike for a greater purpose you somehow find motivation in what you are doing. And that was one of the things that kept me going and got me to the finish.

Our directeur sportive was really motivating me to keep going, and I really appreciated them staying with me until I finished at 7 o’clock.

Cyc: How have you dealt with your new-found fame?

ND: When they announced I was on the team for Tokyo things started getting busy, with lot of interview requests. Then when they announced the Tour team it got even busier. It was something I had to come to terms with.

I get recognised around Cape Town now too. Before I could just walk into a coffee shop, order a coffee and go out. Now, people recognise me, and they come up and say hello to me. Even when I am out training, I see a lot of people shouting my name. So, yeah, it’s an incredible feeling.

Sometimes it’s draining but I think it’s all for a good cause though. I really hope I can inspire the kids in the townships to have a go at racing. There is quite a lot of potential there, and it would be nice to see the kids coming out of the townships and doing better for themselves.

They will have seen what it’s like to work hard for what you want. I think this could be a reference of hope for them, and they will be able to see that with hard work, anything is possible.

My family were super-excited about me going to the Olympics. Normally they watch the games but with me being there it was different, seeing someone they know on TV.

Cyc: So what’s next?

ND: Well, after the Olympics and the Tour de France I am having a short rest. I got a good taste of the Tour de France over the nine days I was there, and I look forward to going back and finishing the job.

In the meantime I will complete my season, with the next race being the Arctic Race of Norway. I also look forward to returning to South Africa and seeing my family, who I haven’t seen for almost three months.

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