For the whole month of August, the World Cycling Centre is welcoming its younger sibling. Six young trainee riders from the African satellite have been invited to discover European racing through a programme of training and competition on the roads of Switzerland and France. The first initiative of this kind represents the project coming full circle: the World Cycling Centre Africa, founded in 2005, is an offshoot of the World Cycling Centre based in Aigle.
Established in Potchefstroom, South Africa, this innovative centre promotes the crucial introductory stage in the training of young cyclists, (recognised in May by SportAccordâ€™s prestigious "Spirit of Sport" award). The role of the centre is to identify the best athletes on the continent and teach them the basics of cycling. Among the former trainees is Natnael Berhane, now a professional with Team Europcar and winner of the queen stage of the Tour of Turkey. Following a now well-trodden path, the best riders from WCC Africa come to Switzerland to hone their skills at the WCC for periods lasting between six months and three years. This has been the case for the prodigious Merhawi Kudus who has impressed the Spanish, French and Italian pelotons since he came to Aigle.
For the first time, the whole African group has come to the European headquarters, together with three staff members to oversee logistics. The visitors recognise that this is an ideal opportunity to show the "parent company" all the talent and determination of the African satellite. It is also, obviously, an excellent way to encourage each athleteâ€™s individual development.
WCC Africa Director, Jean-Pierre Van Zyl, predicts that the six trainees will experience a revelation: "When they return to their countries, they will tell everyone that cycling can change your life. They will say: 'If you are a good rider, one day you can go to WCC Africa. And if you are a very good rider, you can get to WCC Switzerland.' This visit to Aigle is a source of extraordinary inspiration and motivation for all of us."
A springboard to the professional peloton
"This is my first time in Europe and I'm very happy to be here," confirms Richard Laizer, one of the trainees. "We'll discover a new style of racing and new equipment to help us train. After this training course, I think I will be much stronger when it comes to my target events in November." This is when the Tanzanian will ride the African Continental Championships. He will then take a well-deserved holiday and complete the construction of his house on a small plot of land in Arusha, next to his parents and grandfather.
His colleagues Alem Grmay (Eritrea), Raul Costa (Namibia), Calvin Beneke, Nicholas Dougal and JC Nel (South Africa), all aged between 20 and 24, also want to cut their teeth in Europe. Their ambition and desire to do well are even more acute as this initial training visit will last just one month.
In addition to learning about cycling at the highest levels, they will also be immersed in a new culture. "Without forgetting who they are and where they're from, they will have to adopt a new form of behaviour," sums up their soigneur, Alister Petersen. This experience will be particularly useful given that all the major professional teams are run on European lines, including Team MTN-Qhubeka p/b Samsung, the first African team to compete in UCI WorldTour events and also a valued partner of WCC Africa.
"We will help our riders become more professional," explains Van Zyl. "Of course they can't all become pros, but that is not the ultimate objective. I simply want them to do their best, open their eyes to the world and make as much progress as they can. That is our mission: it is both very simple and very ambitious."
One big family at the WCC
In addition to the nine amateur races in which the African cyclists will compete in Switzerland and France, they can also expect a little surprise: a baptism in track cycling in Aigle. An experience that could perhaps lead to a vocation in another discipline.
The accommodation and catering arrangements for the group are the same as for the WCC's regular trainees in Aigle. And as the World Cycling Centre is one big melting pot, it doesn't make any distinction between its trainees. Mario Nell, the group's mechanic, was invited to share a drink with Alex Roussel, head mechanic at the WCC. "It felt like we were just one big family," says Nell.
The mechanic was also impressed by the huge range of tools available in the WCC workshop. "When I get back to the Centre in Africa, I'm going to make a few changes," he smiles.
Raul Costa, the Namibian trainee, also had plenty to take in. "There are so many good athletes from different countries at the WCC. I want to find out how they live and how they work." The former mountain bike rider rediscovered a compatriot in Aigle with whom he had crossed swords every winter at the National Championships: Till Drobisch, a trainee at Aigle since 2012. "When I see how much he has progressed in two years, it is clear to me that the WCC offers fantastic opportunities. The longest climbs in Namibia are two or three kilometres, but there are real mountain cols here in Switzerland. If I could stay longer in Aigle, I'm sure I would become a good climber!", enthused Costa.
Meanwhile, the talented young rider from Windhoek moves around the World Cycling Centre as if it is a very expensive china shop. He makes do with an old helmet in training and refuses to wear a brand new pair of sunglasses â€“ for fear of scratching them.