You're more likely to find an African cycling a racing bike clad in sponsored lyrca in Richmond park that in Malawi's capital city. When I bumped into one en route to the market whilst in Lilongwe, I'm not sure who was more surprised...
Sindiwe Banda, Malawi's no 1 cyclist...
Sindiwe Banda was returning from a gentle 160km ride when he sped past me. Seeing a mzungu on a multi-coloured tandem caused him to stop and say hi. We admired each others bikes and I enthusiastically enquired about his cycling and plans for the following week, knowing that the ride to Dedza involved over 1000m of vertical ascent. We exchanged numbers and he raced off.
A week later, it was his smiling face that greeting me at 7am at the Mabuya campsite, ready to join me for the ride to Dedza. I was looking forward to having his 56kg frame, with near to 0% body fat, power me up the hills. Sadly, my communication skills on the phone hadn't been clear enough and he wanted to bring his own bike so that he could ride home. 90km of hills & heat wasn't going to be enough for him. He phoned a friend, insisting that he was a strong cyclist and we headed off to pick up Frank from the bus stop.
So Frank wasn't quite in Sindiwe's league. He started off strong as we beat the rush hour traffic out of Malawi's capital. After 20kms or so, I noticed less and less power up the hills. I hadn't been able to get much out of him during the morning. Naturally quiet, his English was also limited, having been forced out of school ("fee problems") a few years back. Now 19 years old, he didn't have a job and was looking to cycling as a way out of poverty. I didn't think he would have much of a chance after another 20 kms of limited power.
"are you tired, Frank?" I asked.
"No, fine Bas".
"OK, but remember I'm not your boss", I replied, short of breath, thinking that he should also be tired!
Frank, starting to look tired
Sindiwe meanwhile was finding the ride rather easy on his lightweight roadbike. I suggested we swap, eager to get him to help me on the tandem and also learn more about the cycling scene in Malawi and where he raced. The difference was noticeable immediately and we were easily able to cruise at 30km/h, am impressive speed with more than 30kgs of weight in the bags.
The rolling countryside was also provided us with some beautiful vistas, in stark contrast to the somewhat monotonous flats we had experienced in Botswana. The 90km to Dedza involved around 3 times as much vertical ascent as the 900km we had done through the whole of Botswana. The traffic thinned quickly once we had left Linlongwe. Combined with the good quality road, it meant for a nice day of cycling.
Sinidwe is 29 years old, had been racing for more than 5 years although had lost sponsorship recently. He told me that he had won a couple of races in South Africa, the only country in the region where cycling was done seriously. He was a bit vague about how he made enough money to live (and service his 3 bikes) and provide for his family but he was upbeat about his prospects nonetheless.
As we waited at the top of a hill for Frank, he informed me that there were 4 serious cyclists in the whole of Malawi and he was no 1. Frank was no 4 and had only recently taken it up. Today would be his longest ride and his first time in clips. It didn't surprise me therefore that he fell off as he stopped, forgetting to unclip - a experience most cyclists can sympathise with!
We cruised into Dedza just as the midday heat was starting to take its toll. I offered to get the guys some lunch. I had some rice that Otis, the chef from Mabuya had kindly cooked me, We ate that and then bought some sugar cane to chew. 100 kWA bought about 6 feet. "You want to take some home?", I enquired, thinking that we wouldn't be eating it all. "No bas, to eat now". 30 minutes later, we had finished the cane, enjoyed with some bananas.
Sugar Cane Lunch Can you tell me the way to Hereford please
We then headed into the village to find the bus station to get Frank a lift home. After posing for a photo taken on his phone (no money but still had a phone with a camera!) so that he could show his family, Sindiwe and I rode back to the main road where I could find my campsite and he cycle home. I wished him well, and that he would be successful in getting sponsorship again for his racing. As he sped off back towards Lilongwe, I cycled contently along the gravel track to the famous Dedza pottery, the main business in town which had a national trust feel to it. I would be staying there for a night before cycling down to the Lake of Stars music festival with Shayne Hull, who had flown over that day from Lusaka.
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