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Development Programme getting South African children onto bikes

KZN development race
KZN development race

Six years ago, South African Tyrone Johns happened upon some kids playing around on bikes down at his local Giba Gorge mountain bike park in the KwaZulu-Natal.

“They weren’t getting coached but a few were naturally good. I had some time, and I felt I could help them get better quicker,” says the KwaZulu-Natal Development Officer, himself a former BMX athlete.

TJ (as he is known to most) took them under his wing, and the rapid progress made by this random group of children made him realise that there must be some untapped potential in his local townships. He found a translator (he does not speak Zulu) armed himself with some bikes and helmets and organised a flat course BMX trials race.

“We had 250 kids turn up. I was blown away by how these kids were so happy to ride a bike.”

TJ began working with schools in the township of Tshelimnyama, and the results did not go unnoticed. Funding from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Sports and Recreation was soon forthcoming, and meant a BMX Supercross track could be built at the Giba Gorge. There was also enough money to purchase 10 bikes and 10 helmets: TJ had what he needed to establish his first 10-strong development team.

Manqoba Madida: shaping Olympic material

Manqoba Madida (290) at the 2017 UCI BMX World Championships

One of the youngsters to make the team was Manqoba Madida.

“Within three months he was beating kids who had been on my programme for three years,” marvels TJ. “The rest is history.”

That history includes Madida’s selection to train at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland, and his subsequent qualification for the 2017 UCI BMX World Championships where the budding athlete reached the quarter-finals of the Junior’s race. The big picture is to make the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“Manqoba is currently finishing school, then his total focus will be on Tokyo 2020,” says TJ. “But he will keep studying. It is very important that we help him achieve as much as he can through BMX but also that we use BMX to give him the time to study so he can find a good job after he retires from sport.”

While Manqoba Madida is a huge success story, TJ remains committed to the original purpose of the programme: “Taking a kid who had never raced a BMX bike to the quarterfinals of the UCI BMX World Championships in three years is something I will never forget.

"But I think what I am most proud of is the number of lives the programme changes.”

“This sport is a tool that can make such a difference. It can save children time getting to school, give them a chance to travel and see other parts of the country and even help them learn English. It benefits so many people and that is incredibly rewarding.

Such is the success of the government-funded programme, there are now 11 “cycling hubs” spread across the province, with six full-time Development Officers helping get children onto bikes.

TJ and some of his athletes at the Pietermaritzburg MTB Festival

Races are organised at district and regional level, and it is TJ’s fervent ambition to “keep adding hubs until there are hubs everywhere in the province and thousands of kids are getting the enjoyment of riding a bicycle.

 “Our biggest challenge is financial. If I could have 10 times the budget I could employ 10 more people and do 10 times the amount of work. But everyone has challenges and it’s how you deal with them that makes the difference. We have one goal and vision: to get kids on bikes and make a difference in their lives. Whether we manage to do that for 5 or 5000 children, it is still a win in my eyes.”

And he is still always on the lookout for someone to follow in Madida’s footsteps. TJ is currently monitoring the progress of a 15-year-old in Giba who is showing similar characteristics and a similar temperament to those of Madida at the same age.

Time will tell, and in the meantime, the KZN Development Programme is touching more and more lives.

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