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Mountain Bike

Lesotho on the trail to mountain bike success

The ACE-the Sufferfest-Lesotho MTB Team
The ACE-the Sufferfest-Lesotho MTB Team

All eight riders making up the ACE-the Sufferfest-Lesotho MTB Team are Lesotho born and bred. Most come from very poor backgrounds and three were orphaned at a young age. Finding basic necessities to live is difficult and, as the team budget (€10,000 a year) is too small to pay them, they must work to earn money and find time to train after hours.

So how have they managed to position themselves in the top half of the teams (43rd out of 87) in the UCI XCO Team Ranking published last week?

“We are very fortunate to be close to South Africa, where the standard of competition is very high and there are a lot of UCI races,” explains the team’s founder Mark West. “We strategically target the UCI Class races to build up our rankings and we also earn points through National Championships. I always emphasise the importance of fighting hard for every possible point.

“I am so proud of them! I like to look at the teams around us in the rankings and wonder what sort of budget they have at their disposal.”

From Wales to Lesotho

The name gives it away; Mark West is not from Lesotho. He is a Welshman who visited the African country as a teacher during a gap year. That was 25 years ago, and he is still there. Lesotho is his country of adoption and he would have it no other way. His involvement in cycling began during that gap year when he saw one of his students racing in neighbouring South Africa:

“He was from a poor community, racing against much richer kids but this moment lifted him up above the poverty and gave him an immense sense of self worth.”

For the record, that very athlete went on to become National Champion, compete in the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games and train at the UCI World Cycling Centre satellite in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Fast forward to 2013 and Mark West, who had spent eight years as Secretary General of the Lesotho Cycling Federation, started up the ACE-the Sufferfest-Lesotho MTB Team. ACE stands for Academy of Cycling Excellence but, more importantly, it means that the team is always among the first in any alphabetical list of MTB teams.

Top international experience

The year after the team’s foundation, three riders competed in the Pietermaritzburg (South Africa) round of the 2014 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.

“We knew our riders would be lapped, but we set them goals of how many laps to complete before being pulled out. The greatest experience is to be able to mingle with the top pro riders and learn from them. Although only three riders competed, the whole team was there to experience the atmosphere.”

Phetetso Monese competing in Pietermaritzburg

One of the Lesotho riders in Pietermaritzburg was Phetestso Monese. At 31, he is the oldest member of ACE-the Sufferfest-Lesotho MTB Team and continues to relish the opportunities the team has given him: “At first I was not a very good rider, but now I can see I am much better. When we go to international races we get an allowance and sometimes win cash prizes. This helps my family a lot because before we had nothing." He continues:

"Before joining the team my life was not so good. I could not even afford to put bread on the table.”

Katleho Manasi is 18 years old and the youngest member of the team: “The team helps me to focus and that has kept me away from bad things such as drugs. I have learned a lot from being a member,” he says.

So what are the team’s objectives for 2016?

To race in 15 international events, win at least three national titles, prepare a competitive team for the 2018 and 2022 Commonwealth Games and qualify for Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Outside chance of Rio 2016 qualification

This last goal would appear to be slipping from their grasp: funding problems meant the riders were unable to compete at the 2015 African Championships in Rwanda, a key qualification step for African athletes.

“To miss out without even competing was devastating.”

However West remains optimistic. “But I would not like to completely rule out the possibility (of qualification) as we are well positioned in our international rankings, and 2nd in Africa in the UCI Olympic qualification Rankings.”

His optimism is catching and, even if Rio 2016 doesn’t pan out, there is still plenty to look forward to, not least the African Continental Championships which take place from March 30 to April 3… in Lesotho.

Organised by the Lesotho Cycling Federation in the Afriski ski resort, the Continental Championships are expected to attract some 200 competitors from more than 10 countries. Lesotho has a history of hosting mountain bike events, including the UCI Class 1 stage race, The Lesotho Sky, but this is the first time it will organise a Continental Championships. Mark West is part of the organising team as Technical Director, and predicts tough competition for his riders, whose best result at continental level is Phetetso Monese’s 7th place in 2013.

“Since then the standard of African cycling has improved a lot, so it will be difficult to match it again this year. South Africa will send all their best riders, who are competing for a place in their Rio 2016 team. I will be extremely happy with a top 10 finish for any of our riders. We are also excited to have our first women riders competing at continental level this year.”

Young riders and talent identification

Another goal for 2016 is to initiate a grass-roots development programme for children.

“We do our talent identification at local races,” explains West.

“Some young riders come to races with bikes that are not fit for racing so we don’t always look for the fastest rider, but also those who are making the most of bad equipment."

"We don’t just look at performance on bikes, but also character, behaviour, determination and family background.”

It is challenging to nurture a team on a limited budget but West recognises they have a lot to be grateful for, not least a solid support structure of partners and sponsors, which are referred to as #DreamMakers.

Their support means that everyone in the team is now well-equipped for racing, although this also meant cutting back on travel in 2015.

Malefetsane Lesofe racing in Maseru, Lesotho

 “As our focus was on improving our team equipment, we were not able to make it to UCI World Cups last year,” explains West. “But at least now everyone has a racing bike. In Pietermaritzburg 2014 two of the riders – an Elite and our Under-23 rider – had to share the same bike.”

West finds it difficult to nail any particular highlights since the team’s creation but eventually cites Teboho Khantsi’s podium performance at the Ficksburg Cherry Festival MTB race in South Africa in November last year: “It was not a big race but some of South Africa’s top pros were racing.”

Another memorable moment was receiving an e-mail from American bike frame builder Tom Ritchey congratulating them on their achievements.

Mark West concludes: “And every time I see the team competing in an event is a highlight.”

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