By Nic Lamond, in Stellenbosch, South Africa
The kids racing around the BMX track on an otherwise lazy Stellenbosch afternoon earlier this week looked like they were born on bikes; their legs spinning, their arms pumping the jumps and their bodies laying their bikes over in the corners. But the truth is their skills are all newly-acquired – thanks to a charity led by mountain bike World Champion Christoph Sauser.
On the eve of the Cape Epic - the eight-day mountain bike stage race held on the southern tip of the African continent - friends, donors, microphones and cameras gathered in the shanty township of Kayamandi on the outskirts of Sauser's "summer" training home, Stellenbosch. Those on hand wanted to see what had happened since Sauser, nicknamed "Susi" and Specialized teammate Burry Stander rode together in last year's race to raise funds to establish a BMX track in the impoverished community.
"Less than a year ago, we were pushing these kids around the car park here. We had to teach them to pedal forward. They were pedalling the bikes backwards because it was easier!" Stander said as kids whizzed around the track.
The idea to create a charity came to Sauser in the build-up to last year's Cape Epic when no-one in Specialized's cross country team was ready to take on the demanding stage race. By chance, Sauser ended up at a dinner sitting next to a passionate sportsman and agent for change in his community, Songo Fipazo (who will be riding his first Cape Epic in 2009). With these humble beginnings the Songo.info charity was born, and donations streamed in to build the BMX track that now surrounded us.
With the kids flocking to the complex after school and the BMX track a reality, Sauser and the South African U23 Champion Stander are eyeing a much bigger prize. They want an entire cycling club to rise from the dusty township streets, and they're well on the way to making it happen.
After Stander pulled out of the race last year due to injury, the Cape Epic will see the Specialized duo in Team Songo.info again. This time they'll be riding to raise funds to establish the cycling club (with bikes and a van to transport the team to races). The new initiative is called Cycling4Kayamandi and Specialized has already come on board by donating a fleet of bikes - over 50 so far.
As the kids tire and the BMX track clears out, a group of older riders gear up for an outride with Sauser and Stander each on one of 25 brand-new mountain bikes. Their energy is contagious. Who wouldn't want to ride with the two stars?
"In the era of professional cycling, it's not often a World Champ puts his hand up and says he wants to ride for a charity," said Specialized Sports Marketing Manager Bobby Behan, who was on hand to support the day's activities.
For more information about the charity, visit www.songo.info.