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(MIKE FREIHEIT FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(MIKE FREIHEIT FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

What I learned from a bunch of teenage African bicyclists Add to ...

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Just before 8 on a Sunday morning, I was surrounded by seven teenaged boys clad in hand-me-down spandex. They were speaking languages I didn’t understand, and punctuating their sentences with bursts of laughter.

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I shook with nervousness. Like me, they were awaiting the sound of a gun.

Our beat-up bicycles, straight from the 1970s, failed to compare with those of the competition. Those guys, the serious riders, wore slick sunglasses, sported shoes that snapped directly into their pedals and rode bikes that weighed mere ounces. But if the boys with me had noticed, they didn’t show it. They continued to crack jokes.

As an announcement blared from a loudspeaker and we hurried to line up at a white stripe painted on the ground, I looked around. There were about 150 other riders. I was in over my head, I thought, and had no business bringing these kids here. Then, “Boom.”

In hindsight, the race was one of the best moments of my life. But at the time, it was the culmination of months of stress.

Four months earlier, I had ridden my red Canadian Tire knock-off bike into a worn-out stadium in Namibia. I had found these same seven boys sitting with more than a dozen others in the shade of a brick wall. We were there for a cycling club.

I looked around for Fills, a guy in his 20s with red sneakers who was the official initiator of the club. Not seeing him, I felt panic rise up inside. I had volunteered to help out – assist, fix a flat tire here or there. Fills had sold the idea of the program to the idealist in me: Kids who didn’t own bikes would get a chance to ride as part of a team. It would keep them out of trouble, he said. But I had expected him to be there, not to leave me high and dry.

How could I lead these kids? I had no experience working with youth. I was the least sporty person I knew. I had been picked last for every game in elementary school, and I had put a moratorium on anything athletic after that.

But these teenagers didn’t seem to notice. A kid with shorts three sizes too big pulled a ruler with a key attached from his pocket and opened the door to a storage room. Within minutes, the boys were hauling out dented bikes, some without chains or brake cables, some with missing spokes. The bikes had been donated by a Canadian organization two years before, and were in need of some serious TLC.

Some of the boys had brought tools in their pockets. They began to twist and turn parts onto frames. I watched in amazement, impressed that kids who didn’t own bikes could fix them. Within an hour, 14 bikes were deemed rideable. Kids jumped on them, standing on the pedals, trying to pop wheelies, or racing flat out, then jamming on the brakes and skidding while they cackled.

“Line up!” I called.

“I was in the military once,” I lied. “No joking around.”

They pulled up, forming a semi-circle, and I talked about the importance of being part of a team, of having a daily regimen, and of having fun. As I dove into a speech about being your best, about the Olympic greats who had come from very little through sheer dedication, I noticed the boys starting to fidget.

“We’re going to go on the highway,” I said, quickly changing the subject. “We are going to ride single file. If you need to stop or slow down, put your arm down and wave to the person behind you.”

After that first highway ride, with three popped tires along the way and a few spills, I decided to call it quits.

A day later, I found Fills. I couldn’t do this, I told him. He shrugged. “You can,” he said. “Otherwise there won’t be a cycling team.”

So there I was, the reluctant coach.

In the months that followed, the boys trained, climbing hills, cycling longer distances and outpacing me within a few weeks.

Better bicycle parts were purchased from our own pockets. Old cycling magazines were scoured for tips. Video clips of Lance Armstrong (from long before his doping controversy) were shown for inspiration.

Soon, the most dedicated boys – seven of them – became hungry to race. We signed up for the Bank Windhoek cycling relay, a 160-kilometre race in legs of 40 kilometres.

After the gun blast, we whizzed through the streets of the Namibian capital. For about 20 minutes, we stayed with the lead group, but we lost them by the second hill. By the end of the race, we had fallen to the back.

As I watched the boys at the finish line, I wondered if they would ever do it again. Finishing last would be completely demotivating, I thought.

And yet, as they crossed, their faces wore smiles as wide as a freeway. They cheered for each other – jumping up and down as teammates crossed the line, running to slap them on the back, shouting congratulations.

It was then I realized that you sometimes have to throw yourself in the deep end to learn to swim – just like I had done with coaching. And I learned that an age-old proverb – that in sports it isn’t about winning, it’s about playing the game – is true. And, finally, I learned that sports really do offer people a brighter future.

Five years later, I am back in Canada, but most of the boys have kept riding. Each time I look at their results online, I burst with pride. Today, they win races, wear slick sunglasses and have attracted sponsors who bought them lightweight bikes.

Mark Nonkes lives near Blyth, Ont.

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