A wide-eyed Theo Ngubane first walked through the pit area of an international-level mountain bike race at the 2011 Pietermaritzburg World Cup. He was in awe. The world's mountain bike superstars were tinkering on their bikes and prepping for their races. Ngubane drooled over their impressive machines and eagerly sought out his downhill heroes to sign his T-shirt.
Now, two years later, the 18-year-old from Kayamandi township, outside Stellenbosch, is lining up amongst them, representing his country, South Africa at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships. When Ngubane takes to the intimidating track at the junior men's downhill world championship finals on Friday, he will make history. He becomes the first black South African to race in a world championship in the downhill discipline.
It's been an incredible journey to Pietermaritzburg for the Grade 10 downhill rider, who celebrates his 18th birthday this week. Ngubane attends high school at Helderberg College and is the product of BMX and cross country sports development initiative Songo.info.
Songo.info was set up in 2008 by Christoph Sauser, Swiss multiple-time world champion mountain biker and Cape Epic winner, and Songo Fipaza, community leader and athlete from Kayamandi township, near Stellenbosch, South Africa.
When asked about this historic opportunity, an excited Ngubane said, "Two years ago, I never thought I'd get a bike of my own to do any riding. Nevermind world champs! Even now, when Bobby [Behan, Managing Director of Specialized Bikes in South Africa] told me I was going to world champs, I couldn't believe it. It still hasn't sunk in yet - that someone like me, from where I come from, could do stuff like this and go to world champs. It's quite cool."
What is more remarkable is that Ngubane has excelled in the downhill discipline of mountain biking, a discipline that the Songo.info program doesn’t actively support.
"Theo is a special kid," said Fipaza. "He is a dreamer and a leader. He has always stood out from the other kids. He joined the BMX program in 2008, but he was always dreaming about downhill! It got him into trouble much of the time, as he would take out a cross country bike for a downhill ride and burn through the tyres!"
"Since Susi [Christoph Sauser] helped him to get a downhill bike, he has been unstoppable! I'm very proud of him. He has taken up what I always say to the kids - that you must never stop dreaming and follow your dreams. He is the only black downhill rider in [his province] the Western Cape. And he is the only black rider on the South African team! He has to work extra hard to prove himself that his not just any township kid."
For Sauser, Ngubane's participation at the Pietermaritzburg world championship is the start of a dream come true. "I am so happy for Theo, and I am proud of his participation! A big dream came true. He is now an example for all the songo.info kids, or any township kids, that dreaming big can become reality."
"I am absolutely sure Theo won't be our last kid taking part at world championships. But it is important for Songo.info to show as many kids as possible the beauty of the sport of mountain biking. And to help them with their education too. Only with a healthy foundation can we be successful and reach the top."
"My advice to the young Theo: find the right balance between fun, professionalism, nervousness, training and rest. One of the most important things for such a young ambassador is also to absorb the whole atmosphere. These memories will last forever!"
So how does the young rider feel about the very downhill course at the 2013 world championships?
"I'm feeling nervous, but I think everyone is. That's what I love about the downhill community - we all support each other," Ngubane said. "The track is nice. It’s flowy on top, but as you come down the bottom, there are a lot of jumps, huge jumps. Some of them make you question your skill level!"