Five year's ago, Nicholas Dlamini made the decision to pursue cycling as a professional career. On his WorldTour debut at the Tour Down Under on stage 1, the 22-year-old collected the king of the mountains jersey as reward for his efforts in the breakaway.
The Dimension Data rider was also active in Sunday night's People's Choice Classic criterium but had better luck when the stakes were higher and the prize of a classification jersey was on the line.
"It was the plan actually to try and go out and get the KOM jersey. As there was only one king of the mountain for the day we thought we might as well give it a go. It worked out well," Dlamini tells Cyclingnews in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide.
Up against serial breakaway artist Will Clarke (EF Education-Drapac) and Olympian Scott Bowden (UniSA-Australia), Dlamini was arguably the least known of the trio who formed the stage 1 breakaway. The Baby Giro king of the mountains winner last year, Dlamini can climb and also packs a fast sprint finish. Two qualities suited to the Humbug Scrub KOM point on the stage.
While the spectators on the sole KOM of the day, and later at the finish line in Lyndoch, were getting their first glimpse of Dlamini, he has steadily built his reputation as a rider to watch since impressing the likes of Stephen Roche and Maurizio Fondriest at the 2013 Cape Rouleur event organized by HotChillee.
At the time, Dlamini didn't know of Roche and his palmares - no surprise considering Roche had been retired for two years when Dlamini was born in 1995. At the Cape Rouleur, he was simply riding his bike without expectations across the five-day 600-kilometre event.
"I started cycling when I was 12. It was really difficult. Obviously, we didn't have all the basic equipment but I just kept going. When I was 17, I had to really decide what I wanted to do with my life. I was doing multiple sports so I chose cycling and luckily I met a guy called Sven Thiele," he recounts. "He runs HotChillee events so he gave me a ride to do the Cape Rouleur, and I met guys like Stephen Roche. I raced with him and they were quite impressed with the way I rode and it all started there actually."
In 2010, South Africa held the first African World Cup. Rather than get swept up in a game he has never played, Dlamini was closing in making his decision to pursue cycling as his career, finalising his dalliance with athletics and triathlons and researching the achievements of Roche.
"I never really knew who he was. I did a bit of research about him and saw he's won world champs, the Tour de France... He is known for the 'Triple Crown' so I have so much respect for that. It is really nice to have guys like him recognising the talent in South Africa."
At the time of Dlamini's decision in 2013, the Tour de France was celebrating its first African maillot jaune. Closer to home, 2013 was MTN-Qhubeka's first season as a Pro Continental team. At the Tour Down Under, Dlamini is riding for Dimension Data in the same peloton as Daryl Impey, Africa's first Tour de France yellow jersey holder and role model for Dlamini.
"I have always looked up to Daryl Impey. I remember when I won the king of the mountain [at the Baby Giro] he was one of the guys who sent a tweet out. He was one of the guys I have always wanted to meet and to be able to race with him is phenomenal," he said, adding of his pride to be riding for Africa's first WorldTour team.
"I have always wanted to be a professional cyclist. Obviously with smaller races in Cape Town and we have MTN-Qhubeka, now Dimension Data, and I have always wanted to join the team. It is really nice to see down the line I am part of the team and now it is WorldTour, I am part of that as well."
Like the majority of the peloton, the Tour de France is the race that captures Dlamini's imagination. Along with riding the French Grand Tour with Dimension Data, Dlamini is eyeing off the Tokyo Olympic Games road race in 2020. In the immediate future though, the Belgian classics occupy Dlamini's race programme.
Dispite the high praise of Roche, Fondriest, Ben Swift and Bernie Eisel, among many others, Dlamini's feet remain on the ground, with the memories and lessons of the hard work and sacrifice that led to his WorldTour contract still fresh.
"It all goes down to hard work and commitment. I remember back then I would go out on a ride when I first got my bike and five Ks into the ride the chain would break or something and there was a lot of stuff that would happen on the bike and I would have to walk back home then try and get it fixed and maybe go out depending on what time it was. There was a lot of challenges back then but obviously, I never gave up. I just keep going.
"I always know that I have to put down a lot of work. Not often one gets in touch and gets to see their role models. I think I am quite fortunate to be in contact with all my role models and hearing from them.”
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