Used bikes and city traffic: the joy and courage of an African cycle race | Global Development

Jhe half-finished two-storey roundabout in the center of Lunsar is not much to see – a circular concrete shell that one day, perhaps, will be finished and become a clock tower similar to those of Makeni and Port Loko nearby.

Until then, however, it becomes the once-a-year main viewing platform for the Science In Sport Tour of Lunsar, Sierra Leone’s largest cycle race.

Under awnings at the foot of the roundabout sit invited dignitaries – civic leaders, mining company executives and government officials – but the hundreds of children who gather each day to watch the start and finish of the race know where to get the best views. Sponsor-branded banners are pushed aside and faces peer through gaps in the bare cinderblock walls on the first floor.

The peloton flies over the spectators in Lunsar.

When, on day two of the men’s race, local hero Ibrahim S Jalloh enters the city alone to cross the line 26 seconds ahead of the chasing pack and grab the race lead, it’s the children who are the first to spot it. .

Ibrahim Jalloh takes the lead in the second stage race.
The motorcycles support the riders with water and spare wheels.
Ibrahim Jalloh of Lunsar Cycling Team A cools down in scorching temperatures.

The roar starts at the roundabout but quickly spreads. The crowd lining the finish straight begins to jump and shout. The police try in vain to contain the flood of excited bodies. As Jalloh crosses the line, arms raised like any competitive cyclist in the world has dreamed of doing, the din reached its climax. The local boy, bicycle mechanic and former member of the national cycling team, is mobbed, shoved and praised. Thousands of people gathered to see him win this stage and will return the next day to see him seal the overall victory.

Ibrahim Kamara celebrates the defense of his junior title.

It wasn’t always like this. The tour is the brainchild of local bike shop owner Abdul Karim Kamara, who started the Lunsar cycling team, and the race, in 2013. There was no plan for him to follow, and certainly no cycling culture in his adopted hometown in northwestern Sierra Leone. But from humble beginnings, it has become one of West Africa’s most well-known breeds.

“The Tour de Lunsar’s mission statement is to give Sierra Leoneans that opportunity to race, and also how I can get neighboring African countries who don’t have the opportunity to race in their country to come and race in Sierra Leone. I know we have a lot of talent here and all over Africa, but the platform is not here, like in Europe. I hope the Tour de Lunsar will open doors for young athletes from Sierra Leone .

The children take a look at the podium during the presentation of the trophies.

In 2013, a dozen riders competed on bicycles donated by the United States, shipped to West Africa in containers by the NGO Village Bicycle Project. With no viable way to import and sell new bikes in the country, most of the machines used by the 100 or so entrants in the 2022 race came from similar sources. The exception is the Lunsar Cycling Team’s fleet of eight carbon fiber frames, purchased second-hand from USA Cycling.

In general, however, the level of equipment is poor. Each of the approximately 10 clubs in the country has one or two “good” bikes, allocated to its best riders. Other racers will compete on the best machines they can tinker with. The bicycle may be a simple thing in essence, but each of its components is desperately rare in Sierra Leone. On the first day of the men’s race, the road in Freetown is littered with runners and their broken bikes.

Elizabeth Mansaray cools down after more than three hours of cycling in the heat
Moses Kamara and his bike are carried aloft after his stage victory on the third stage of the Tour de Lunsar.
Fans cheer on the runners at the climax of the women's race.
  • Above: Elizabeth Mansaray, who finished second in the women’s race, cools down after more than three hours of riding. Bottom: Moses Kamara is carried by fans after his Team B win, and fans cheer on the runners in the women’s race

VScycling is still on the fringes of Sierra Leone’s sporting landscape – but awareness is growing, with the presence of Government Minister Alpha Kanu at this year’s race, and the number of cycling clubs founded or revitalized by the opportunity to compete in the event.

Runners pass a burnt-out car on the road from Freetown to Lunsar.

And the race is a boon for local people. Several rooms at the Bai-Suba Resort hotel were occupied by foreign spectators, expatriate participants and members of the race organization team. “I am delighted to see this event here, the people of the city are so happy. This will put Lunsar on the map,” says hotel manager Bockarie Dauda.

At 334 km, split into three stages – Freetown to Lunsar, Lunsar to Makeni and back, Lunsar to Port Loko and back – the race is not very long by international standards. The route is almost entirely flat, limited to the small number of paved roads that connect the main towns of the country, but the heat can make the smallest slopes difficult.

Fatima Deborah Conteh of the Lunsar cycling team, who won the women's race.

The roads are not closed to traffic during the race, and long traffic jams can occur with riders cutting their way through buses, mining trucks and taxis as they seek to rejoin the peloton after a mechanical break or comfort.

There is a consensus among young cyclists in Sierra Leone that cycling is their ticket to see the world. If they can turn pro, they’ll visit the heart of bike racing Europe – France, Belgium, Italy – and earn a fortune in the process.

But having the opportunity to travel is not easy. In early 2022, Tour de Lunsar women’s champion Fatima Deborah Conteh received a dream contract offer from a European development team. But she was denied a visa, a stark reminder of the obstacles faced by West African athletes. If Conteh finds her way to Europe and starts racing, she will become Sierra Leone’s first professional cyclist. For now, she remains in limbo, unable to improve at home given the limited number of events and the quality of the competition, but prevented from taking the next step by a heavily stacked visa system. against West Africans.

However, not everyone sees Sierra Leone as a place to get away from it all. Race organizer Kamara has an invitation for cyclists and fans of the sport around the world.

“There is a negative perception of our country, attached to the legacy of Ebola and the civil war, but this is not the real Sierra Leone,” he says. “It is a beautiful, peaceful country. There are great roads to ride, incredible scenery and passionate cyclists and fans. You can have an experience here that will stay with you forever and you will be warmly welcomed wherever you go.”

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