Future uncertain, but giving back: How Songezo Jim is helping African cycling
With the end of the year approaching and the new season looming on the horizon, there are many professional riders still hoping to land a last-minute contract for 2017. The demise of the IAM Cycling and Tinkoff WorldTour teams has affected the market and tightened up on slots.
Even if those two places look set to be taken up by the Bahrain-Merida and TJ Sport teams, there are two squads less than there might have been.
One of the riders currently without a deal is Songezo Jim. Recently turned 26, he made history in 2015 when he became the first Black South African to ride the Vuelta a España. This year he also had the same distinction in the Giro d’Italia.
His career aim of riding the Tour de France is however on hold after Team Dimension Data told him it would not extend his contract.
Determined to remain in the sport, he is continuing to look for something else; if needs be, he will race at Continental level for a period. However even with that uncertainty hanging over him, he is thinking of others. Last month he set up the eponymous Songezo Cycling Academy in South Africa, buying 15 bikes himself.
His aim is to help children come into the sport, both to put them on the right path in life and also to help develop South African cycling for the future. It’s a noble goal and one Jim spoke about in recent days, as well his search for a new team.
“At this stage I am in Cape Town, where I live,” he told CyclingTips. “I am still working really hard to find a team. I am training really hard as well. I will just keep going and then see what happens.
“There have been some talks with teams. Nothing has been working out so far, but we will see. I am still hoping to get something. I know I still want to ride. I am not done with cycling. I still have a lot in me. My dream is still to ride the Tour de France. That is what I’m aiming for.”
Jim had a difficult childhood, losing his mother at 12 and his father two years later. He moved to Cape Town to live with his aunt and discovered cycling after that. He took up the sport, made good progress and placed third in the under 23 African Road Race Championships in 2012.
This helped land a contract with MTN-Qhubeka, now Team Dimension Data, and he has remained there until now.
However that relationship is coming to an end, leaving him unsure as to the next step. He said that the crisis was unexpected.
“I was very surprised. I had a talk with the team during the Giro and they told me that they were going to extend my contract,” he says. “And in June also, just before the Tour, they told me they were still going to renew it, that I must just wait as they were sorting out some big names. But then later this year they told me they were not going to extend it after all. So that was a very shocking thing for me, I must say.”
[Note: Team Dimension Data declined to comment on the matter].
“The team shouldn’t have said that during the Giro,” Jim continues. “I remember I had a meeting with them the day of the time trial in Chianti. I don’t think it is the right thing to tell someone this [that he will be retained – ed.] and then do the other thing. So that is the whole thing that made me a bit…[pauses]…I don’t know.”
Jim then pauses again, looking for any small pluses he can take from the situation.
“I think it is learning curve… It is a learning curve for me. It is something I will definitely use in the future,” he says.
Trying to find the best in adverse circumstances is something he has learned. After becoming an orphan as a young teenager, he got his life back on track and reinvented himself as a bike rider.
He has previously spoken about the need to approach challenges in the right way, and that same outlook is one that keeps him pushing forward now.
“Always be positive,” he said in the past. “Things happen that you have no influence over and you have to accept that you cannot change the situation. It’s no use feeling sorry for yourself; instead you have to realise that no matter what circumstances, we all have potential and we have to use the talents God gave us.”
Jim is drawing on that same approach now. The grains of sand are running out on this year, but he is keeping his fingers crossed that he will get the chance he needs to remain in the sport.
Taking kids away from the streets
It’s easy to imagine a rider in such a situation sitting at home licking his wounds. Jim has kept moving, though, training so he will be ready if he gets a new deal, but also looking outside his own situation to help others.
Last month the Songezo Cycling Academy was officially launched. This form of giving back is something he is doing to help the youth in the Masiphumelele township in Fish Hoek. Although he knows that over time it will boost cycling in South Africa, there is a more immediate aim.
“It is basically to get kids on bicycles,” he explains. “To introduce the sport to them. To try to take them away from the streets as it is very bad out there for them.
“Some kids have problems. Probably their parents are alcoholics…stuff like that. So they have to deal with that at home, all that kind of stuff.
“There are so many things that are happening that we need to take care of the kids in the academy. Some are not getting the good guidance back home, so for us to be able to give them the right guidance is good.”
The dangers, he says, are varied. One is being drawn into a life of crime. Another is that young girls could have unplanned pregnancies. “We try to avoid all that stuff,” he says.
In order to help as many people as possible, membership to the academy is not exclusive. Instead, it is open to all those who wish to take part. There is one criteria: to be interested in cycling. After that, it’s a question of showing up and turning the pedals.
Because the number of bikes is relatively low at 15, there are three programmes a day. One group uses the bikes and, when finished, hands them over to the next. It ensures that the total number of approximately 40 riders are catered for.
“Hopefully as time goes on we will be able to get more bikes and things will get better,” he says.
In terms of funding, Jim purchased the current machines himself. He says that the academy doesn’t have any funds at this point, but that they are working hard to try to change this. The hope is to be able to take riders to races next year, allow them to see what progress they have made and also raise the profile of the academy in order to land sponsors.
Longer-term, Jim wants to bring the children to Europe and enable them to race there. The academy has established a link with a Dutch club which should make this easier, but he believes it will be three to five years before the riders are ready to take that step. He emphasises that things are very much at an early stage now.
At this point in time, it’s about teaching skills and gradually raising fitness levels. With the youngest riders 11 years of age, protecting the group is also important.
“We have a closed up space in the township that is safe. It is comfortable for riding bikes. We get them to ride around there so they are not near cars,” he says.
“There are a lot of shacks around there. It is actually a very small place, but there are a lot of people living there. It is mostly always crowded and a lot of people are interested in this Academy thing now. They get to see the riders on the bikes and because of that, other kids want to join as well.”
‘Being a role model is important’
Asked as to what were the highlights of his time with MTN-Qhubeka/Dimension Data, Jim points to the three-week races.
“I think the best moments for me with the team actually were during the Grand Tours. I managed to do two Grand Tours, and Milan-San Remo. I had some…well, not great results, but okay results, I would say. There was third in the under 23 African championship and fourth in the Tour of Gabon. But I still have a lot in me that I want to achieve.”
Asked what he would bring a team, he said that his role would likely depend on the level of the squad.
“If it came to it, I would definitely take a place on a Continental team,” he said. “The idea would be to do a year and then step back up to a higher level.
“If I was riding for one of those squads, I think I would be one of the experienced riders coming to the team. Having been in the top level of racing…I have done two Grand Tours, I have done a lot of big races. So I have learned so much during my career.
“I am a really hard working guy. I think I can definitely bring something to a team.”
What’s important for him now is to keep racing, whatever the level of the squad he is with. He says that being a year out of the sport would make a return to the WorldTour level very difficult, and so continuing to compete is vital.
He’s motivated by the thoughts of riding the Tour at some point, but also of being an example to the young riders in his academy.
“Being a role model is important. I think you always have to lead by example for the younger kids, so they can have somebody they can look up to,” he explains. “That is also one of the goals.
“There are people who can run the academy when I’m racing abroad. I’ve got to focus now on getting a team. I am training really hard so I am really if I find something. I’ll keep working away on it and see what happens.”