Willie Smit of the RoadCover Cycling team continued his successful run of Tour wins at the recent Tour Meles Zenawi for Green Development in Ethiopia. Cycling South Africa selected a team that competed in the Tour last week. In a last minute selection, Smit was joined by Brendon Davids, Clint Hendricks (all RoadCover Cycling team) and Rohan Du Plooy (Team Giant).
The four man team raced the 5 stage tour with a small contingent of back up staff and against over 90 riders from all over Africa in the highlands of the East African country. Smit, the current UCI Africa Tour leader, perhaps earmarked for his earlier success in the year rode strongly to take the lead after the second stage, and hold a narrow advantage until the end to win the tour outright!
In the words of the riders who put their efforts into making this national team race a success, read about their experiences of the tour, without a budget as the national team, against the odds but banding together and using their collective experience and will to make it a success.
“We arrived at the Airport of Ethiopia packed with a survival kit for Africa (diarrhoea meds, some of our own food!) but no information on how to get to the race hotel or what the hotels name is... unfortunatley. We paid for our visas, found chairs in the airport and prepared ourselves to stay there for a very long time, as we did not have contact with an organiser of the tour.” says Rohan Du Plooy. “We landed just at 20:00 and after almost 2hours of wating, miraculously a staff member from the tour came looking for us and we arrived at the hotel just before midnight!”
The experience of the culture and unknown factors that surround the ‘racing’ part of the tour are what are not normally seen, and Rohan Du Plooy breaks down some of the interesting moments that are the norm in a foreign country without a full management team: “On the first morning we received a wake-up call at 05:45, were told to have breakfast and be ready to leave by bus at 07:30. On the stationary bus for 1hr30min waiting... before the 6 hour journey. A bumpy and leg cramping bus drive, before we went to 'lunch' at 17:00!” It may be funny to read this now, but not great at the time. “To late to go for a ride, we all went for a 15min sauna to get the body sweating and a short spin on the gym bikes! Not the ideal warm up day for the tour!”
“Ready for the 1st stage, we thought… We went to bed later than normal because of the start being moved later. That was certainly NOT the case, another wakeup call before 06:00!” Communication is not always what you expect it to be, as you will find out.
“There was some confusion with the locals and our manager/mechanic as to the ‘real’ Ethiopian time. They have a religious time (which is the ‘real’ Ethiopian time) and the ‘world’s’ Ethiopian time. Real Ethiopian time is 6 hours ahead of normal world Ethiopian time. So we were told at 22:00 the night before the tour, to only be ready to leave at 11:00 and the stage starts at 14:00, not the case, that is correct in Ethiopian time but not ‘world’ Ethiopian time.” very funny to read now, not so funny then, and who knew?
“It was a struggle to get space on the bus, bikes on top of one another and squeezing into seats and Willie and Clint had to ride 20km to the start, because there was not enough space on the bus for everyone.” says Rohan.
The first stage set the tone of the tour as Clint commits fully to the potential success for Willie: “On stage one, everyone just made sure they stayed out of trouble by riding towards the front of the bunch and hoping for a good result without using too much energy.” says Clint. “ The team was struck with bad luck when Willie punctured and with out the following vehicle nearby, I had to swop bikes with him, luckily we had more or less the same bike set up! Willie went on to finish the stage in 3rd place!” This can happen in professional cycling, but Clint gave up his potential result for the result of a team mate. Honourable but also logical, as Willie had the best chance of a tour win between the two of them.
On the second stage, Willie, Clint and Brendon made the front split with 20km remaining, Smit managing to finish 3rd again, picking up a time bonus and taking the overall lead. Brendon Davids was also close to him on the classification in 10th spot.
“The third and fourth day were mental days of pacing and controlling - Clint and Rohan rode their hearts out to control the bunch and ensure that the pace was high enough to discourage any attacks. True team riders.” says Brendon Davids, “On Stage four I set my own personal GC ambitions aside as only Willie and I were left 3/4 of the way up the final climb. An opportunity arose to put everyone under pressure in a short gutter/crosswind section into the base of the final 3km slog to the line. This dropped me out of the top 10 on GC, but most importantly Willie kept yellow with just one day to go.” says Brendon as they got closer to the final success.
Clint explained their tactics and the circumstances: “Stage 3 was a easy day, when we let the break go up the road as they were far down on the classification. The same thing was done for the remaining 2 Stages - Only sending Willie with the main GC contenders. We had many transfers between stages, spending most of our time on busses. Internet was very limited, and we were not able to update our followers about our progress. It was rained everyday during a section of every stage!”
Smit held the lead until the final stage and it unfolded in their favour as Davids explains: “The 5th and final stage was a circuit race through the streets of Addis Ababa, in some of the worst conditions I've ever experienced. Pelting rain, wind and freezing temperatures. It was mental. The 10km lap was fairly rolling, lots of corners with a really difficult 500m climb towards the final 3km of the city centre lap. This was thought to be the deciding factor of the race, but the conditions would be the decider!”
“We noticed that we had the upper hand going into the corners in the wet condition and made sure we took advantage of this. Chipping away the energy from the field on every passing lap. With 2km to go, Willie put in a big attack and rode away solo to win the stage! Brendon not far behind him in second place attacking at 1km to go. It was a hard race to win, because the Ethiopians wanted to win it in their own city. It was a tight and hard race with the top 5 finishing within 20 seconds of each other. But ultimately we succeeded in finishing off the tour with success for the team!” says Clint of their final stage!
Against the odds, in a foreign country, not knowing their system, or having a group of back up staff to smooth the experience, the small team banded together well to ensure they succeeded. It took a big effort, precaution, prevention, cure against getting sick / diarrhoea etc. As that is one of the easiest things to stall the progress of a cyclist, and so easy to pick up on a tour when racing at your maximum. Eating a limited selection of food, making sure their hands always sanitised etc. got the team through the tour.
The team: Clint Hendricks, Rohan Du Plooy, Willie Smit and Brendon Davids supported by More Groenewald & Mulu.
Thanks to the support of mechanic Morne Groenewald and Ethiopian manager Mulu Hailemariam while on tour. Also to the teams in SA, RoadCover & Team Giant which keep the riders on the road, capable of doing what they can in their chosen sport, riding a program of races to get them to the level that they are able to achieve these successes!
The final results of the Tour
1. Willie Smit (South Africa) 13:54:21
2. Kbrom Haylay (Ethiopia) @ 16s
3. Fiseha Gebremariam (Ethiopia) @ 19s
Willie Smit extends his lead in the 2017 UCI Africa tour after this event.
1. Willie Smit (South Africa) 393 points
2. Meron Abraham (Eritrea) 321 points
3. Ahmed Amine Galdoune (Morocco) 279 points
Article and images: Nic White