Daryl Impey made history this year when he became the first South African to wear the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France. It was a magnificent achievement and although cycling is not yet a nationally celebrated sport, Impey could serve as the catalyst for shining more light on the possibilities of cycling in South Africa. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
As a sport, cycling is growing in South Africa. There has been a peak in interest in the last few years and in the townships, programmes are being run to encourage positive change. The Velokhaya Life Cycling Academy (LCA), for example, runs a road and a BMX cycling programme in Khayelitsha, which combines teaching kids how to ride with life skills.
South African cyclists keep on achieving and, despite the doping-controversies of the past which has seemingly come synonymous with the sport, South Africa’s cyclists have remained relatively clean.
Yet, these men and women are hardly celebrated for their achievements. One cyclist who had an extraordinary impact on cycling in South Africa this year is Daryl Impey. He made history earlier this year when he wore the Yellow Jersey at the Tour De France.
Impey, who rides for the Australian Orica-GreenEdge, acknowledged his South African roots when he clinched the jersey, but yet, there are still a number of people – both locally and internationally – who haven’t got a clue who he is.
“I’m really proud to be the first South African and the first African to wear the yellow jersey,” said Impey.
“Sometimes all the stars line up for you and this is definitely one of those moments. To wear the yellow jersey at the 100th edition of the Tour de France is just a dream come true. History has been made and I’m really excited. I’m sure a lot of people back in South Africa are really happy. To be able to say I wore the yellow jersey for just one day is something I will treasure forever.”
Despite his achievement, though, he has not really been bestowed with plaudits. Cycling competes for headline real estate with cricket, rugby and soccer and that’s a battle it’s never going to win. Impey, though, has made a name for himself this year.
The training and the effort the men and women put in when it comes to preparing for races is gruelling. Impey spends anything from 20 to 25 hours per week on the bike in the off season and spends nine months of the year out of South Africa, living in Spain. His wife takes care of their young baby while he is away doing races, but leaving life in South Africa behind is always a challenge.
“It’s not as glamorous as people think it is, living abroad and trying to make a career of it. There are a lot of sacrifices and I’m very lucky to have a wife who makes sacrifices. ” Impey told The Daily Maverick.
The 29 year old, despite all his achievements, has remained humble and down to earth. During this year’s Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge he rode for charity, representing the Teddy Bear clinic and together with Talk Radio 702’s David O’Sullivan. They raised in excess of R310 00 for the clinic. Impey has managed to strike a balance of family life and preparing for races away from home as well as spending a lot time away from his family. Cycling demands a lot and even though he has been challenged, he has extended his contract with Orica-GreenEdge.
Above and beyond his personal achievements, though, Impey can do so much more for the sport in the country. Next year, he will ride the Tour de France once again as well as Tour Down Under, Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold Race and compete at the Commonwealth Games. If he continues to shine as he seems destined to do, he could also be a catalyst for shifting attention to the sport, something he hopes to do.
“I’d hope that I can encourage others. When Robbie Hunter won the Tour de France stage in 2007, he motivated me to do better. Hopefully some of our results can encourage others to do better too. We’re starting to gain a lot momentum at the moment. But we also need to make sure the younger guys coming through are taken care of. I think that’s a massive part that’s missing out of SA Cycling and if we don’t rectify it soon, the sport could just die out. I hope that this year has been a wakeup call for the riders, but also for the country to see that we can make an impact overseas,” Impey says.
Cycling, like many other sports, has the ability to change lives, inspire the youth and be a real outlet for frustrations. While there are many people doing good work at grassroots level to try and encourage participation, South Africa needs a cycling role model, especially considering all the damage that has been done to the sport’s reputation with the doping scandal flood. Impey admits it does get frustrating, but hopes that the stigma can be broken by continuously getting results.
“Every year I get a result there’s always this question mark and we’re paying a big price for what riders have done in the past. We weren’t part of that era and we have to answer questions of what happened in the past, when we don’t know. All we know is what we’ve read. It’s a little bit unfair and a lot of time I’m told ‘oh, you’re a cyclist, you ride the Tour de France, do you dope?’ and it gets a bit tired.
“It’s part of the territory, though, but I hope that now that people see there’s a new era of cycling and people getting results, we can focus on those instead. I hope that people will see the hard working guys are getting rewarded and not the guys who had the best doctor,” he says.
Impey, who has been putting in top class performances for the past few years, has the potential to be leader of inspiration, even if he rides for an Australian side.
To encourage a shift in perceptions, you need someone truly extraordinary and Impey certainly is that. It takes just one person to change perceptions and what might have seemed like a “small” victory for some, is a giant leap in the greater scheme of things. Time will tell if Impey’s continued achievements will indeed go on to break the mould. DM
Photo: Orica Greenedge team rider Daryl Impey celebrates his leader’s yellow jersey of the 176.5 km fifth stage of the centenary Tour de France cycling race from Aix-En-Provence to Montpellier July 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)
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