Meet the cyclists of Velokhaya

Velokhaya Cycle Academy: Yoco Merchant #6 887

In cycling the peloton, or the main group of riders, is safety. Riding with the main group and competing together as a pack is the peloton’s purpose. The peloton for the youth of Khayelitsha is Velokhaya Life Cycling Academy, which takes cohorts of promising young people away from the pitfalls of township life and steers them towards education and achievement through sport. This is the story of the cyclists of Velokhaya.

Cyclists from Velokhaya Cycling Academy cycling through Khayelitsha.
A BMX rider on top of a container at Velokhaya Cycling Academy.
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From a distance you might not think this nondescript patch of land is a production ground for South Africa’s best on two wheels. The loose sands that typify Khayelitsha are not where you would normally expect to find the next professional Giro cyclist: names like Luthando Kaka, Nicholas Dlamini and Songezo Jim.

But Sipho Mona, the general manager of the Academy, is careful to point out that cycling is just the carrot: education is the purpose. Mona, himself a graduate of the Academy, is as passionate about producing lawyers, doctors and psychologists as he is about producing professional cyclists. The centre is a busy place on most afternoons: with children doing homework in the learning lab, younger recruits doing fitness exercises to earn a bike seat and the road cyclists (roadies) setting off on their three-hour training ride.

The roadies look not far removed from the professionals you see on television. A steely determination is apparent in the way they prepare and practice – it’s easy to forget that most of them are just teenagers. From this pack, the most promising cyclist is Loyiso Fulu. When Sipho discusses the next generation of stars his name is prominent, but he cautions that above talent, mentality will determine how far he goes. Loyiso came fifth overall riding in Europe against 23-year olds at the age of 19 and has already been attracting attention from professional teams. But its not only road cyclists making tracks in the professional world.

In Khayelitsha we don’t have sports psychologists. One day I want to open a practice here in the township... to assist the young athletes - the pressure and stress at the starting gate can be a lot to handle.

On the dirt track you’ll find Anita – who is one of Velokhaya’s most accomplished BMX riders and a sports psychology student at the University of the Western Cape. She credits her time at the Academy with giving her the discipline and focus that she applies in her studies and in training. Her weekly grind: Five days a week at the gym and on the track and lectures at university every day. Next year she hopes to graduate, take her education further and participate in the Olympics. In summing up her experience at the Academy she says: “Through Velokhaya I have achieved so much… I competed overseas and came sixth in the World Championships. Things I never thought would happen to me.”

Velokhaya shaped me, gave me a lot of opportunities to explore. It opened my mind, not just to cycling but to other areas of my life. I am thankful and proud to call this my home.

You’ll hear a similar sentiment from her coach, Xolisa Makubalo – who graduated from the Academy as a BMX rider, went to university, but ultimately came back to his home to teach the next generation. A decision that was not without sacrifice. Xolisa is a gifted soccer player and recently featured in the Varsity Cup, but his heart told him to come back to where it all started in 2009 and give up his soccer career. He says: “I had dreams as a rider that I could not achieve… but now I am pushing the guys that I train to do better than me – especially Wanga, who I have high hopes for. I want him to achieve his goals. He wants to go to the Olympics, so I am working hard with him. I want him to also win SA champs.”

As the BMX coach he is part of a passionate, dedicated team – including Sipho, Ncumisa Makasi, Shaun Doch, Anele Madlolo, Neo Mbongo and Litha Bandlisa – that keeps the Academy running. It’s not an easy job. Especially when it comes to raising funds and finding support for the entire operation. Despite the generous sponsorship from the likes of Pick n Pay (who have been a sponsor for 15 years) Velokhaya needs support and funding for everything from its core educational program, which every child is a part of, to the professional road cycling program. At the moment Sipho is working hard to secure funding for a professional team. There is always something more that needs to be done, but in his hands the Academy’s future looks bright.

When I see the likes of Nicholas and Songezo on television riding in Italy or Spain and you hear the commentators in those countries talk about where these guys come from and they talk about Velokhaya in a township on the other side of the world - it fills me with pride. But just as important is a Luthando graduating with a Law degree and all the other children who are now in university. Cycling is the carrot, but education is our purpose.