By Wendell Roelf
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Struggling up the Alps and crossing the finish line at the Arc de Triomphe is any professional rider's dream.
For the young black cyclists from impoverished Khayelitsha township outside Cape Town, that possibility seems a bit closer as homegrown talent, Songezo Jim, trains to compete as part of the first African team in June’s Tour de France.
South African Mthetheleli Boya, who has been riding for eight years, said he too dreamed of taking part in the world's top cycling race.
“I want to up my game and train harder so that I can see myself succeeding one day and also be in the Tour de France,” said the 22-year-old.
“I can make it also and ride there so that my family, one day, can watch me on TV and say that is my child, for sure,” he told Reuters at Velokhaya Life Cycling Academy, where three brightly-colored shipping containers overlook the country’s first BMX oval built in a township.
South African cycling, which like other sports suffered as a result of international sanctions during apartheid, is slowly being transformed as a new wave of black professional riders make their presence felt two decades after white-minority rule ended.
The best riders, it seems, are coming off Velokhaya’s production line.
The academy uses cycling to help keep youngsters off the streets and away from the crime and gang culture rife in South Africa’s shanty towns.
Those with talent are identified and nurtured onto its professional team, where riders earn a monthly stipend paid for with corporate sponsorship and private donations.
“A lot of my childhood friends are in prison now, in gangs,” said professional cyclist Thando Zothe, 24. “I can say I am the lucky one. Cycling for me saved my life."
Officially formed in 2004, Velokhaya has produced three of South Africa’s top modern-era black riders - Jim, Nicholas Dlamini and Luthando Kaka, who became the first black team captain at Johannesburg-based Bonitas.
Expensive bicycles, which can range anywhere from 25,000 to 250,000 rand ($21,144), and costly accessories such as special shoes and goggles, prevent millions of South Africa’s majority who survive on less than $1 a day from participating seriously in the sport.
Away from the placid surrounds of suburban training, cyclists at Velokhaya have to be extra vigilant, dodging chaotic taxis in pot-holed roads, where there are no dividing white lines and hardly anybody heeds Stop signs.
It costs the academy around 250,000 rand to groom a novice cyclist into a professionally able rider over a five-year period of intense training, with all equipment and medical check-ups covered, said general manager Sipho Mona.
“What we want to do with the next riders coming up is to make sure we actually draft a contractual agreement that will state that should any rider leave to another team, we get a sort of rebate,” said Mona.
Funding remains one of the key challenges as Cycling South Africa focuses on growing the sport’s popularity in untapped poorer communities, with the 2022 Commonwealth Games Durban bid a likely target to encourage greater participation, its president said.
“We must transform the sport and give opportunities to the youth who haven’t been given opportunities in the past, for them to represent South Africa at the highest level,” said CSA president William Newman.
(Reporting by Wendell Roelf, Editing by Peter Rutherford)