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Cycling proving popular | Cycling market growing | Sport newsLouis Meintjes cyciling for Team MTN-Qhubeka during the Vuelta Spagna 2014. Photo: Ilario Biondi/BettiniPhoto
November 2014

Boom time

for cycling

These days cycling is everyone’s darling. The sport caters for the adrenaline junkie, outdoor enthusiast, family outings, for the young and for the old. CARIN HARDISTY investigates what is the state of cycling in South Africa

Cycling is experiencing a massive boom in this tough economic climate, even though participation requires expensive equipment.

This can be attributed to the versatile market cycling attracts — from health conscious leisure riders, to competitive road and mountain bikers, to commuters using a bicycle as an eco-friendly or affordable means of transport.

Cycling is the new golf is a phrase heard from just about everyone who we spoke to about the growing popularity of cycling. Instead of hosting a corporate golf day, companies will now host a mountain biking event for customers, because they can reach a much wider audience.

“Men between the age of 35-45 are embracing sports cycling, the way previous generations embraced golf as a networking opportunity,” Lars Wiskum, MD of SportVenture, and Johan Diepens, CEO of Mobycon, wrote in the article Cycling trends and urban cycling — future potential for manufacturers, brands and innovators in the World Federation Sporting Goods Industry magazine.

“Cycling is family orientated and it is fun, fast, exciting, healthy and wholesome. For many corporates, that is the values that they want to portray to the market,” says Adriaan Hofmeyr of Dragons Sports, who found that there is also strong growth in the women’s cycling market.

“There has been massive growth in cycling over the past years, specifically in MTB, as this is a sport for the entire family,” agrees Mike Bradley, Cycling SA general manager.

Competitive cycling

In Europe, cycling has always been a major competitive sport, but not in Africa. This is changing. There are currently 25 600 registered Cycling South Africa members — of which 2 600 hold competitive licenses, 550 are track cyclists, 400 are BMX cyclists and 100 are paracyclists.

“The fact that we have world class riders participating in international events, helps the face of cycling in South Africa,” adds Hofmeyr.

Some of these cyclists include three-times UCI Mountain Bike World Cup winner Greg Minnaar, Daryl Impey (the first South African in the history of the Tour de France to wear the yellow jersey) and Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (the first South African road cyclist to finish on the podium at the UCI World Cup in Belguim and winner of the bronze medal in this year’s Commonwealth Games).

South African cyclists Philip Buys, Matthys Beukes and Gert Heyns broke away from the rest of the field on the final stage of the Cape Epic to claim 1st and 2nd place. “The Cape Epic is seen as the Tour de France of MTB, so this is quite an achievement,” says Phillip Erasmus.

Buys, together with team mate Nino Schurter (Switzerland’s Cross Country World Champion), won two stages while Beukes and Heyns won the last stage, “which is seen as the biggest because of all the TV coverage. Beukes and Heyns also won the African jersey,” adds Erasmus.

In addition, 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome started his professional cycling career in South Africa, South Africa’s first elite women’s BMX rider Teagan O’Keeffe has won a World Championship title on home soil and Sifiso Nhlapo made a name for himself in the BMX world — to name but a few.

We even have home-grown cyclists in prominent teams such as Team MTN-Qhubeka — and the team itself is the first African cycling team to participate in a Grand Tour, namely the Vuelta a Espana. Two thirds of the nine-man team that impressed the cycling world with their performance were Africans — and next year they will be joined by some of the top names in the cycling world.

“We must complement our professional cyclists who are doing so well abroad — because of their efforts, we receive good television and media coveradge for our teams,” says Chris Willemse Snr of Chris Willemse Cycles.

It is, however, the major races like the Absa Cape Epic, Nedbank Sani2c, Old Mutual joBerg2c, Cape Town Cycle Tour (previously known as the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour), etc. that enjoy television exposure, Graham Hall of Cape Cycle Systems points out.

Sadly, “cycling is not afforded an effective weekly slot on free-to-view TV in SA,” says Bradley. The fact that cycling is not promoted to the non-cycling public through television is a limiting factor to its growth, he believes.

Cycling events

Hosting a world class cycling event in South Africa has a huge impact on our cycling market, says Hofmeyr. Major brands usually jump at the chance to get involved, the events attract more cyclists to the area who are likely to purchase cycling-related items, the cameras (television, print, online) line the routes and provide exposure, etc.

Events have put South Africa on the world cycling map, adds Bianca Grobbelaar of Specialized SA. “A lot of world class athletes get the opportunity to experience our trails and high class events. We have some of the best organised multi-stage MTB events in the world.”

Pietermaritzburg is gaining prominence as South Africa’s cycling city with the hosting of events like the UCI MTB World Cup and the African Continental Road Cycling Championships and the African Continental Track Cycling Championships next year. This year in October KwaZulu-Natal also hosted the first BMX African Continental Championships on a purpose-built Supercross track at Giba Gorge.

Road cycling has benefitted from well organised cycle races and tours. People can’t jump fast enough to register for popular cycling events such as the Cape Town Cycle Tour before the maximum entries have been received, and there is a noticable increase in cyclists on the road during the months leading up to big road cycling events.

However, only the high end of the market receives a positive direct response from these events, a retailer wishing to remain anonymous, points out. “The middle and low end don’t even know about these events most of the time, unless it takes place in their town.”

While road cycling has its fair share of events, “most people will only train for that one big race per year. In the Western Cape we are spoilt with a lot of good MTB trails,” says Grobbelaar. Therefore, more people are riding MTB and competing in events compared to a few years ago.

MTB events are so popular that “3-6 day stage races are fully booked and prepaid a year in advance,” says Wayne Pheiffer of Wayne Pheiffer Cycles.

There are even MTB inter-school events. “More and more schools are starting to participate in these events — hopefully cycling will become an official school sport,” says Willemse.

Growth in MTB

The MTB market is growing much faster than road cycling, adds Willemse. The many MTB events across the country that cater for everyone are playing a major role in growing this segment of the sport. The farmers who open their lands for these events to take place on as well as allowing cyclists access for training are also supporting the growth, he says.

“Every weekend there is more than one race somewhere in the country,” Hofmeyr points out.

There is a trend of road cyclists moving over to MTB due to the perceived dangers of road cycling, says Phillip Erasmus of Scott Sports SA. This is reflected in their retail cycle sales, which are roughly 70% MTB and 30% road compared to a few years ago when it was the opposite. There is also a growing number of people who are looking for a change in lifestyle, he explains. They want to get out in nature with their family in a safer environment (compared to the roads).

MTB also gets people away from the noise and air pollution on the roads.

As more and more people become health-conscious, more people tend to invest in bicycles — and they don’t just buy for themselves, they buy for the entire family. MTB tends to benefit the most from this trend, because it is a nicer option to cycle with the family away from the hustle-and-bustle of the tar roads.

Due to the fact that a MTB cyclist doesn’t have to share the road with motor vehicles, MTB is also seen as a safer option. “I think a lot of people packed their road bikes away after Burry Stander’s death,” says Grobbelaar.

“There is of a public perception that cyclists are a nuisance on roads and do not contribute to them,” says Bradley, who points out that most cyclists are motorists too. “This very aggressive motoring is unique to South Africa.“

Growth in road cycling

But, road cycling participation is also experiencing an upwards trend. The Pedal Power Association’s Cyclists Stay Alive at 1.5m campaign has played a big role in the growth of cycling, says Willemse, because it makes road cycling safer.

Local municipalities are starting to learn from their overseas counterparts and adopting some of the elements that work well there, for example, building cycling areas or off-road lanes.

The growth in cycling lane networks that make it easier and safer for cyclists to commute in the larger municipalities has also contributed to a growth in commuter cycling. People are becoming more aware of the environment and cycling is more eco-friendly than motor vehicles.

The popularity of cycling as a means of transport is dependent on the area, says Erasmus. “For example, it would be much safer to commute in Cape Town compared to Johannesburg CBD.“

We are, however, still a long way from some European cities where commuting by cycle and public transport is as common as motor vehicles.

“Around the globe, the sheer numbers that purchase commuting bikes make the racing world pale in comparison,” says Bradley. “South Africa has a weird phenomenon in terms of cycling spend. We have, reportedly, the highest per capita spend on bicycles, compared to the rest of the world. But, we have a very small commuter base and a massive participation base of riders who spend in excess of R7 500.”

Commuting by bicycle seems to be mostly popular among (and affordable to) the mid- to upper income groups. “There should be a major push to get the lower income part of the population to start using bicycles to commute,” says Hofmeyr.

The biggest obstacle preventing more people from starting cycling is the cost of the equipment needed to participate, says Bradley. There is, however, a growing second hand market of fairly decent bicycles, he adds.

“We are also starting to see a greater increase in the number of purely leisure or recreational cycling — non formal event cycling,” says Bradley. “This is due to the development of bike parks around the country as well as places where cities have improved facilities, for example the complete revamp of the Durban promenade that enables safe cycling from uShaka all the way through to Blue Lagoon. The legacy of the major events in Pietermaritzburg has left a free-to-ride and well-maintained bike park at Cascades.“

Bike parks will become even more common in the near future, predicts Grobbelaar. They offer a safe and convenient place to cycle without worries.

Promoting to underprivileged

Cycling is an expensive sport, with expensive products. It can therefore at times be a challenge to get more people involved — especially when their income is already stretched for everyday survival. Much as soccer has been used to get children involved in sport and to gain positive re-enforcement, there are various organisations using cycling in a similar manner.

“We are directly involved with an advocacy programme to help see the lives of underprivileged kids changed and we have also sponsored local trail builders with bikes to promote cycling and sustainable trail building. The gap between the rich and the poor is very big, so we still have a lot to do,” says Grobbelaar.

Qhubeka, Team MTN-Qhubeka’s beneficiary charity, uses bicycles to reward people for work done to improve their communities, environment or their academic results. “Having a bicycle changes lives by increasing the distance people can travel, what they can carry, where they can go and how fast they can get there,” explains the organisation. Since 2005, Qhubeka has distributed more than 50 000 bicycles.

The Velokhaya Life Cycling Academy in Khayelitsha, Cape Town was registered in 2004 as the Life Development Cycling Academy. “We use cycling to involve children living in marginalised communities in a positive after-school activity, one which builds their self-esteem and keeps them off the streets and away from the social ills prevalent in their communities, such as gangsterism, crime and substance abuse.”

Some of their success stories include Luthando Kaka, the first black South African cyclist to compete internationally as a permanent member of a European pro-team and the first black cyclist to captain a national pro-cycling team (Team Bonitas) and Songezo Jim is the first black South African to reach the second division of world cycling, the first black South African cyclist to finish among the top 5 in a UCI-registered 2.1 category, and member of the MTN-Qhubeka team that won the Milan-Sanremo (298km) race in Italy. Velokhaya Academy member Luthando Gqamana is an academic success story, having completed his LLB law degree in four years.

The Velokhaya academy also established South Africa’s first all-black professional cycling team in 2006. Both Kaka and Jim used to cycle for the Velokhaya team.

BMX down

The only cycling discipline that is not enjoying a positive growth trend is BMX, which has experienced a decline over recent years. “In relation to MTB, which has surged ahead, BMX has virtually stood still and the lack of competitive facilities is one of these reasons,” says Graham Hall of Cape Cycle Systems.

Nhlapo riding in South African colours at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics helped to raise more awereness for BMX racing. But, there is now a lack of overseas exposure and sponsorships for the discipline. BMX has also lost the cool factor that it used to have, says Hall.

Many of our BMX racing tracks were built during the time when Nhlapo was in the spotlight, but several are now rundown, as maintenance of these areas are very expensive. There used to be a huge push to get youngsters involved in BMX, but that has also petered out.

There are now not enough BMX racing tracks or clubs to organise events. “BMX tracks should be built at MTB parks for the younger riders,” suggests Pheiffer.

“We need a good promoter and government supporting BMX,” says Willemse. “Locally, BMX does not have any major events that attract television and international racing, although I believe that should government get involved and start building more BMX tracks, then we will see less children on the streets,” says Willemse. “This discipline is also not as expensive as MTB and road racing.”

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