James discovers the joys of university cycling – and learns that our sport is serious stuff in the ivory towers of academe. – By James Reid
Last year, on being integrated into the formal tertiary education system, I joined the University of Cape Town (UCT) cycling club; so this month I’ve decided to discuss cycling at university level. Coming from a professional racing background, I’ve found being part of the club has given me a few insights that may be helpful both for parents and for their school-leaving aspirant athletes.
Many people reflect on their university years as some of their best – minimal responsibility, newfound freedom and independence, and a hearty dose of academic effort alongside a lot of fun. But as I’ve come to realise, there’s a small group of dedicated individuals from campuses nationwide who choose to forgo adventurous Saturday evenings in favour of an early Sunday start – to attend either an event or a training ride with like-minded individuals.
These are not big groups; however, they are growing in popularity. At national level, UCT and the University of Stellenbosch enjoy the largest club membership numbers and the top podium positions at national intervarsity events (see ‘The Main Events’, right). Recently I sat down with both club chairpersons, to understand some of the dynamics at play.
At the heart of all university sport is a tension between maintaining academic performance and indulging an interest in sport. Cycling tends to attract a certain type of goal-orientated individual, and there is always the risk that the sport will become all-encompassing, and the quality of academic effort will deteriorate.
But according to both club chairs, their experience suggests that for the vast majority of club members, the opposite is true – club participation leads to improved academic results.
Cycling clubs at university encompass riders of all levels, and those seeking the edge of performance make up only a small minority. There are success stories – UCI World Tour rider Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, for instance, discovered cycling at university while pursuing a chemical engineering degree (which she completed), and hasn’t looked back since. But the vast majority of club members are enthusiastic amateurs; often they’ve discovered cycling through commuting, or through cycling friends.
As a member of UCT Cycling for the past year, I’m very impressed with the structure the club provides for riders of all levels. There’s a social emphasis that brings together students from different courses and age groups – club members range from medical students to art majors to accounting students.
Weekend adventures, coupled with a sense of club pride and camaraderie, lead to lasting friendships that often provide much-needed relief from the daily stresses of academic pressure.
It’s also been interesting to note the increasing corporate interest in university cycling, from events (such as the annual FNB Intervarsity stage race) to direct club sponsorship (for instance, UCT cycling is supported by Private Client Holdings, a financial services firm in Cape Town).
If you’re an aspirant competitive cyclist (or the parent of such) and looking for a university to support your (or your child’s) cycling, there’s a small number of bursaries available for talented individuals, which was unheard of years ago. In South Africa, cricket, rugby and soccer enjoy the lion’s share of public interest and media coverage, and therefore also more support at university level. But it’s encouraging to see signs of change recently, which I think could be thanks to the healthy feeder system at school level that stems from the Spur High School Mountain Bike Series (however, I may be biased, as Spur was my last sponsor!).
In conclusion, I think university clubs and the people behind them get little recognition for the role they play in slowly shaping the cycling landscape of South Africa. While they may not be the most focused environment for developing world-class competitors, clubs serve a vital role in recruiting and developing new talent, alongside providing a safe and fun space for young people to meet and develop.
Just how big are university clubs?
UCT: ±75 club members (2017), 25 core riders (train at least twice weekly)
Stellenbosch: ±130 members (2017), 35 core riders
Tuks: ±50 members (2017), 15 core riders
Other notable cycling-friendly universities: Pukke (North-West), Varsity College, NMU (Port Elizabeth)
The Main Events
This 3- to 5-day tour is held annually around June, at various venues, to decide University National Champions, and it incorporates both road and mountain biking. It’s the biggest national event for competitors who are also pursuing coursework.
Held every two years, this is an international multi-sport event, organised for university athletes by the International University Sports Federation (FISU). The name is a combination of the words ‘University’ and ‘Olympiad’, and the event is the pinnacle of university sports. The most recent edition was held in Taipei, Taiwan. Cycling is not one of the 15 compulsory sporting codes; however, there are three optional sports, which historically have often included cycling.
Varsity MTB Challenge
Although geographically exclusionary, it’s exciting to see corporate sponsors like FNB get behind a big intervarsity feud (that’s UCT & Stellenbosch) in this annual two-day event held in Paarl.
Retired pro James Reid is currently studying at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, and exploring cycling as a non-professional.