It’s a typical hot Friday afternoon in February, as Paul Ingpen and I sit down at the BMT cycle store in Stellenbosch to meet two Epic riders. Over the last few weeks Stellenbosch has been filling up with international superstar athletes – but we are not here to meet them, we are meeting two of Stellenbosch’s own superstars, Zola Ngxakeni (21) and Siyabulela Tutu (27) of neighbouring informal settlement, Kayamandi. They are both part of the 11 man strong, BMT Fairtree bicycle academy and will be racing as Team BMT DiData1 in this year’s Absa Cape Epic, thanks to the financial backing of Fairtree and Dimension Data.
Siya works at BMT as a bicycle washer and Zola just came back from his cycling guide training at Boschendal (sponsored by the Western Cape government). This year will be Zola’s second and Siya’s third Epic, and they are raring to go. The team placed an impressive 159th in last year’s GC. Not a bad showing by any stretch of the imagination.
However their story runs so much deeper. For starters, Zola was only doing mountainbiking for four months prior to lining up for the Epic last year! He only did BMX and downhill prior to that. The first stage of the Epic being the longest he had ever ridden on a mountain bike! Chris Norton though spotted his talent and dedication and drafted him in for Epic.
Their childhood stories however, unfortunately, echoes that of so many kids in Kayamandi (and the rest of South Africa). Zola grew up with a single mom and his half sister in Kayamandi. When Zola was still very young, his mom separated from his dad (an alcoholic) and his dad moved to the Transkei. Siya, similarly, was also raised by a single mom along with his sisters as his dad unfortunately died in a car accident in the Eastern Cape when Siya was only 8. Sadly Siya’s mother also passed away after illness last year.
Their stories didn’t end there however, and cycling has played a massive part in helping these guys navigate through life and its challenges. From a young age, they were drafted into the Songo.Info cycling academy and on the back this foundational work, the guys are now under the great mentorship of Chris Norton, owner of BMT and the BMT Fairtree Academy. This has really become a magical journey, which is an inspiration to so many kids in Kayamandi and around South Africa going through similar battles.
Their passion is real and their inspirational attitude infectious.
Take us back, how do you know each other:
ST: We actually grew up together in Kayamandi, and were both part of the Songo academy.
How did you get into cycling?
ZN: I had some friends with who I rode around with in the community, but I didn’t have a bike at the time. We would share bikes and ride in the same street up and down. Sometimes the guys would go all the way around to other places, but I would stay at home as I didn’t have a bike. On one of their excursions they saw the bmx pump track .They told me “Zola, you need to come see this building a track and some kids are getting bikes for free, you should come and maybe you can also get a turn”. I went there, I was 12 at the time. I started riding there and Songo saw me riding and jumping and doing things, that I didn’t even know, I just saw it on TV…lifting up wheels. Songo went to people and ask who I was and to go to my house to ask my mother to bring me to his place. That’s how it started.[Editor: A couple years later Christoph Sauser spotted Zola on a BMX at G-spot in Coetznberg trails doing rad things and encouraged him to get into downhill mountainbiking]
Zola what does the people in Kayamandi think of you:Even the people in Kayamandi, if they see me, you know, coming out of the same place as they are coming from… its just amazing for me to represent them. When I’m training, small kids that I don’t even know will say “hi Zola”, its such a good thing and so surprising to me, to see that there are kids that look up to me as a person.
Zola what currently keeps you busy? Are you working?
On Monday to Thursday there is currently nothing that I’m doing so I am free to ride my bike. I used to study tourism. I started in 2017 but I didn’t get a bursary again. This year, now I’m try to work, to get money to get back to school. In the morning I just go for fun rides and in the afternoon I train with the team [Editor: Zola is also training to become a bicycle guide at Boschendal trails as a result of funding by the Western Cape Government. The plan is also for Siya to become a bicycle guide this year. Go and support them].
Where is your favourite place to ride:
ST: Coetzenburg – G-spot, I love G-spot. I’ve cycled in Columbia, it was nice, but too much climbing. Longer longer, too much long.
ZN: I just love to spend as much time on the bike as possible. I love to ride everywhere, favourite Jonkershoek, going up to Never ending and Greenhouse
What are your cycling goals & dreams:
ST: I want to be a pro. I want to be there. Get sponsors and ride pro.
ZN: My dream is to definitely work hard and get recognised by a pro team. That is what I want at this point of my life. I would love to ride at a professional level and tour the world. I love to challenge myself a lot and would love to be supported by those big teams.
Any words of encouragement for this year’s Epic riders and cyclists in general:
ZN:Try to work hard and respect others. Respect, that is the most important thing, to respect those around you, that really helps a lot. Help those around you. Be patient with what you are doing, put the time in. Put the things that are important first. I will not lie, I’ve done some things wrong that I regret myself, but I moved on from that and excelling now. It is really amazing, here I am now. When you are doing the wrong thing, that doesn’t determine who you are. Even if you fail, it doesn’t mean that you are failure. Even the word fail it just means First attempt at life – its ok, you are not done, its giving you another time to come back. I’ve done a mistake, now try and focus and fix the mistake.
What do you look forward to the most at the Epic?
ZN:For me it is to get to see my icon that I love so much, Henrique Avancini. It is really amazing, to walk around on the Epic next the guys you see on tv. I am really looking forward to see him and [Manuel] Fumic. I really like their riding style, their sprint finish it is really amazing. To see his [Henrique’s] rainbow colours face to face….I can’t wait to see the rainbow colours on his chest. I watched the World Cup last year, where he got his colours and now to see the rainbow stripes face to face would just be amazing.
As we left BMT, we decided to pop around at Kayamandi. Cycling in their pearl white DiData kit through the dusty streets, being ambassadors of hope. Kids looking up and clapping hands, people staring and waving. These guys have shown incredible dedication and commitment and nothing can take that away from them as individuals, however they couldn’t have done it without the on-going support and mentorship of BMT Stellenbosch, Fairtree Capital and supported on the Epic by DiData. It truly takes a village to raise a pro cyclist! Good luck guys – make Kayamandi and Stellenbosch proud!