Team Dimension Data rider Nic Dlamini looks set to clinch the King of the Mountains jersey when the Tour of Britain concludes on Sunday. His rise has been steady. His story is remarkable.
Breezing in the wind on a washing line in Capricorn Park hangs two Dimension Data cycling jerseys. The line is attached to a ramshackle wooden cottage. Next to the cottage is a sink structure. If you don’t pay much attention to cycling, you wouldn’t give the jerseys a second glance. If you’re familiar with Team DD’s green stripes, you might wonder what the jerseys are doing there. You might even wonder if they were part of a donation drive.
But the jerseys aren’t out of place at all. They are at home. They belong to Nic Dlamini, Team Dimension Data’s newest recruit for 2018. The 23-year old looks set to the claim the King of the Mountains jersey when the Tour of Britain concludes on Sunday. His rise has been steady and his story, like so many of South Africa’s athletes, is remarkable.
Capricorn Park, like many of South Africa’s poorer areas, isn’t the kind of place you want to grow up in. Nestled between some of Cape Town’s plushest suburbs about 25km from the City Centre, prospects for a bright future here are grim.
The rate of crime and violence rate is high, with many gangs active, and widespread drug and alcohol abuse affecting all parts of society. It’s not unusual to see drugs being used openly on street corners. And the township is a stone’s throw from some of the country’s most notorious gang heartlands. The unemployment rate is high and making it out takes something exceptional.
And Dlamini is exceptional.
In his first week as professional rider in 2018, the 22-year old won the King of the Mountains jersey on the first World Tour race of his career. At the Tour Down Under, Dlamini also made history. It was the first time a black South African had won a major category jersey in a World Tour.
“That took balls,” Doug Ryder, Team Principal of Dimension Data for Qhubeka, beams when he talks about Dlamini.
It was always the plan for Dlamini to be aggressive on his first pro-cycle race. But not even Ryder had expected him to be quite that aggressive.
“It was part of the plan for him to go and try wear a jersey for a day. But to go out there every single day and do what he did took such guts and such self-belief. Many guys in their first race might get intimidated and just sit in the bunch on their first race. To do what he did was ballsy and we love him for that,” Ryder adds.
It was another box ticked in what has already been a monumental journey of dedication and sacrifice from Dlamini and a support network which stretches almost as far as the kilometres he has pedalled in his career to date.
While happiness is now cycling, it could have been so different. Dlamini’s first love affair with sport was running. He and his twin sister, Nikita, spent their early years training alongside each other.
It all started in 2009 when Dlamini joined the JAG Runners Programme. Through is running, he earned a bursary to attend Steenberg High and in the years that followed, cycling and trail running competed for his interest.
In 2011, he was introduced to cycling by a friend. Both got their bikes and some kit for free and linked up with a community club called BEN (Bicycle Empowerment Network). He continued to pursue both interests and through is running, he met elite endurance athlete Ryan Sandes and Vanessa Haywood through their involvement at the JAG foundation.
Sandes and Haywood were both taken by Dlamini’s dedication to sport. Sandes took him under his wing through training camps and tricky conversations as the then 16-year old had to start making some serious choices about his future.
Dlamini had moved on from the local community club and joined Velokhaya in Khayelitsha. When Sandes asked him what he wanted from the future, the answer was simple: I want to ride the Tour de France.
Two years later, Dlamini was cycling competitively and, still under the guidance of Haywood and Sandes, he would go on to compete in the 2013 Cape Rouleur, a stage race organised by the team from Hot Chillee. It features some professionals, hobbyists and the weekend lycraists you spot all around Cape Town.
Dlamini raced with a 15kg bike – practically the weight of an elephant by the modern standards of cycling gear. It is also there that he met Sven Thiele, Founder of Team Bäckstedt-HotChillee.
“Within a short space of time he had established himself in the peloton with riders like Stephen Roche, Maurizio Fondriest, Karl Platt identifying him as an incredibly gifted rider. Their consensus – this young man showed all the natural talent and physiology to win a Tour de France stage. There is no bigger endorsement. He was invited to join the Bäckstedt-HotChillee development rider programme,” Thiele wrote in an article.
But there were challenges. First, Dlamini needed to complete his schooling. And he needed a proper bike.
“I called on several people, to ask if they could loan him bike for a few months before he joined the Qhubeka feeder team. The responses were the same – negative. Prejudice was alive and well and staring him in the face. He did not blink. I was disappointed that perhaps the Rainbow Nation still had unpublished black and white pantones. There were times I wondered how bullet-proof a young man could be?” Thiele recalls.
“There are many challenges that could have been an excuse to give up. What I did learned is that during this time his dream never wavered. The route to success changed many times, his sense of humour, integrity, humility and respect for others was always there despite what he was facing at the time. Mentors’ advice was always heeded. He never forgot and always thanked those who had played a part in moving things forward sharing his emerging new-found knowledge with younger riders, asking for nothing in return.”
Dlamini eventually moved to Potchefstroom and finished his matric year (final year of schooling in South Africa) while being part of the World Cycling Centre and Team Dimension Data feeder team. And that was probably a good thing. Even if he still regards Capricorn Park as home, it’s not exactly conducive to high performance.
“Gangsters often shoot people early in the morning. If they got to me… it’s you or the bike,” Dlamini said in an interview in 2013.
Not bad for a guy who was sent home from his first day at a community cycling club as a youngster because he was too slow.
In June last year, Dlamini triumphed at the U23 Giro d’Italia, earning himself the King of the Mountains (KOM) title. Last February, he placed second behind Stefan de Bod in the U23 category at the South African National Road Championships in Wellington.
Dlamini’s tender voice belies his aggression when he rides. Like most cyclists, there’s not an ounce of fat on him even if, by his own admission, he’d rather eat salmon and avocado than veggies.
A friend who started running and racing with him did not have the same support from his parents and dropped out. Some of his neighbours turned to drugs and violence.
But not him. While he has had setbacks, including getting injured during the 2018 Commonwealth Games – one of the stepping stones to his of representing South Africa at the Olympics, Dlamini doesn’t get bogged down. Instead, he is dreaming about how he can change the lives of those who are growing up in the same circumstances as him.
One day, he wants to have a community centre in Capricorn where kids from the area can have a safe place to do homework, get a bite to eat and practice sport.
On the cycling front, it’s simple: ride the Tour de France and represent South Africa at the 2020 Olympic Games.
Both those goals feature in Team Dimension Data’s plans for Dlamini and Ryder believes that it’s only a matter of time before he makes history by becoming the first South African of colour to ride the world’s most famous cycle race.
“I think that’s why he’s on a fast track to cycling. Experience is something that you earn, it’s not something that you buy.
“He’s got guys who will support him and guide him. He says he’s like a sponge. He just listens and learns and does what the guys advise him today,” Ryder says.
For both Dlamini and Team DD, it’s much bigger than just making history, though. Beyond the precision of the high-performance is an added layer. The team riders for Qhubeka, a charity that aims to change the lives of people through bikes. Dlamini’s life has been changed considerably by a bicycle and Ryder hopes that he can inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
Because even if results are critical, it is not the begin all and end all for Team Dimension Data even if, as Ryder says, athletes don’t go to “races for a haircut”.
“We’re a team that realise the dreams of individuals. We want to realise Mark Cavendish’s dream of winning the most stages in the Tour de France. We want to win the Tour de France with an African rider. We brought Louis Meintjes back to win the Tour de France by 2020. We want Nic to be that guy that is the aspiration of South Africa and Africa of what is possible.
“It ties into the Qhubeka strategy of why we do this. In the same way Africa has transformed endurance running, why can we not as a team transform endurance cycling. And we need a guy like Nic to be that guy, that African hero. I’m super excited about it,” Ryder beams.
Hero is a responsibility often unfairly lumped on to young, unsuspecting shoulders. Dlamini, though, has plenty of room on his shoulders and his saddle to carry the weight. DM