Inside Sierra Leone’s richest race: A startling look at West African cycling
The break is going to stay away. This much is certain with more than half the race to go. The two riders who escaped are Osman T. Kalokoh (Lunsar Cycling Team) and Ali Tholley (C2C Freetown) and they have been away since the race took the road for Port Loko.
In West African amateur bike racing the break nearly always stays away, like an inverted version of the professional sport. The only question now is whether Kalokoh or Tholley will take the win in the Tour de Lunsar presented by Speak Media, Sierra Leone’s biggest bike race.
You have never heard of these riders. They have no results on ProCyclingStats. The teams they ride for have no UCI status and the race is organised privately outside the remit of even the national governing body. Most of their annual budget could be found down the back of the seats on a WorldTour team bus.
But the painful ecstasy of bike racing is immutable.
Kalokoh is heartbroken at the finish. He was outfoxed, his desire to keep the move away overriding his better tactical judgment. He did 80, maybe 90% of the work on the way back into Lunsar. Hammering the pedals and barely asking for help. As the bigger, stronger rider, he always needed to put the pressure on Tholley, sandbag him a bit, but the savvier 16-year-old just hovered there on the back. A tale as old as time.
We saw them pass the finish line five times together, Kalokoh trying each time to shake loose his slighter companion with a powerful surge on the circuit’s steepest incline. Tholley was more than a match for each one. On the sixth go around, Tholley crossed the line alone.
The rest of the top ten is filled out by riders from Lunsar, Makeni and the various teams from Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. Lunsar has the largest number of riders on its books of any club in the country. From a town of just 30,000 people (more than a million live in Freetown) this is quite a feat.
For the last three years, cycling in Sierra Leone has been mired in constitutional bickering. The national federation itself has been split in two, or perhaps it’s easier to say there were two rival federations, neither recognising the other’s authority.
Winston Crowther’s presidency was backed by the majority of the riders in the country and, crucially, he was the candidate recognised by the UCI. However, until a few hours before the Tour de Lunsar rolled over the start line, there was a second directly opposing organisation with the backing of the Sierra Leone Ministry of Sport. This second federation took out an injunction on the one helmed by Crowther, so that it could not legally put on bike races.
The resulting impasse effectively prevented any overseas competition by Sierra Leone athletes. You can’t represent a country within the UCI structure unless your country has a functioning federation. That brought to an end Sierra Leone’s participation in events like the Tours of Ivory Coast and Benin. The nation did send two riders each to the 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games, and three athletes rode in the African Games road race in 2015 in Brazzaville, but ‘Salone’ hasn’t competed in any other races since before the Ebola outbreak of 2014-16.
This infighting has cast a pall of hopelessness over the domestic scene, with selection to those rare international squads made more on the basis of who already owns a valid passport than actual athletic ability. Why should a young Sierra Leonean man or woman flog themselves in training, if there’s no next step and only rare occasions to compete, even at domestic level? In a country where most people live hand-to-mouth, eating only what they can earn that day, how can cyclists justify going on a four-hour training ride?
And yet they do, because they love racing bikes.
On Friday night, the day before race day, Crowther convened a congress of his supporters in Lunsar. The meeting took place outside a house in one of the quieter neighbourhoods in the town. There was a cluster of mismatched chairs, with almost all the attendees – riders from clubs in Bo, Kono, Freetown and Makeni – standing up in a close-knit huddle. Above them, the stars twinkled in the sky, undimmed by the glow of street lamps or any other light pollution from the ground. There is only an intermittent supply of electricity in Lunsar and no street lighting whatsoever.
The scene was redolent of a cadre of revolutionaries, fervent (mostly) young men led by a few more experienced heads. Everyone with a sense of purpose, but also agitation. The chosen representatives of each of the teams made a speech. They talked about the race, mainly, desperate for it to go ahead after many recent events had been cancelled at short notice. They also talked about the future of the sport in Sierra Leone, a desire for the end of the infighting.
Crowther raced back to Freetown after the meeting. On Saturday morning, he met with a representative from the UCI and the members of the Ministry of Sport. By the end of that meeting, the rival federation had been ordered to disband, making the 2019 edition of the Tour de Lunsar the first bike race under the newly unified presidency. In two months, a Sierra Leonean team will return to the African Games, hosted in Rabat, Morocco, to compete on the world stage again.
To say the scene is nascent is like saying Floyd and Lance don’t get along.
The Tour de Lunsar begins with five laps of the criterium circuit through the centre of the town’s busy central market. Then comes an out-and-back along the undulating, sun-blasted tarmac road to Port Loko. As the riders thunder back into Lunsar, they complete six more finishing laps.
Throughout the day the temperature hovers around 30°C (86°F). About 5,000 people watch the race, mainly on the criterium circuit in the centre of town.
Marshals on motorbikes double as neutral service, with the pillion rider carrying up to four spare wheels on straps slung over his shoulders. The marshals hand out water too – although there are only about six spare bidons, so mainly this entails ripping open packets of filtered water and spraying it over the riders. In a country where every cent is precious, these people have given their time for free, galvanised by a love of the sport. It is astonishing.
Only two of the six teams involved have follow support during the race and only one of those has a car, Tholley’s C2C team. The commissaire’s car breaks down on the way out of Lunsar and has to return to town and wait for the riders to get back from Port Loko. Mohammed ‘Super Med’ Tholley, older brother of Ali and one-time Commonwealth Games athlete, suffers a mechanical on the last of the five initial laps and he is paced back by the team’s car. When Chernor Sesay (Lunsar Cycling Team) is detached from the lead group, there is no equivalent opportunity.
There are no spare bikes, either. Ibrahim Jalloh, looking the strongest of the Lunsar riders, suffers a mechanical at Port Loko and is forced to climb onto the back of the broom motorbike.
There are three winners’ jerseys. White is awarded to Tholley, the winner of the men’s race. Blue is for the women’s winner, a bike mechanic from Makeni called Isata Sama Mondeh – also the national champion. Green goes to the junior winner, Moses L. Kamara. No other race in Sierra Leone has this.
The top prize is LE850,000 (equivalent to about £77 / AU$140 / US$98 — a month’s salary in Sierra Leone), making it the richest race in one of the world’s poorest nations.
The entire race cost £600 (AU$1,093 / US$760) to put on, a sum provided by sponsor Speak Media, a British marketing agency. The winner’s jerseys were donated free of charge by UK apparel brand, Le Col, which also offers a black version for sale with a proportion of the sales donated to the costs of the Lunsar Cycling Team race programme.
So how does this all happen? How does a mining town with no cycling heritage beyond the last 10 years come to have the biggest club and richest race in the country, and a strong shot of sending riders to an international competition in a couple of months?
It’s the work of one man, Abdul Karim Kamara, a mechanic who decided to build something that didn’t exist. Inspired by the world beyond Sierra Leone’s borders, Kamara has turned his bicycle shop into a hub of a community.
Most of Lunsar’s racers work there to earn a few quid and people only tangentially involved with the team come by all week – before and after the race – to speak with him about this and that. He has built relationships with local journalists, so the race always makes the paper – no small feat in a country that is so rampantly obsessed with soccer that barely any other sports get a look-in.
He also feeds the riders on his team after training sessions. Otherwise they would train on empty stomachs and recover on the same. After the Tour de Lunsar, he feeds everyone – riders, supporters, marshals and journalists. It all comes out of a race budget determinedly scraped together by Kamara and his contacts in Sierra Leone and further afield.
Beyond the cycling team, Kamara’s other job is delivering bicycles to in-need communities around Sierra Leone as the country manager for Village Bicycle Project. He gives bikes to kids to help them get to school.
He showed me a spreadsheet he keeps of every class. The children who get bikes get better grades, spending more time in class and less time walking to and from. He also delivers special Learn To Ride classes, focused on teaching girls and young women to ride bikes. There are some nonsense ideas about young girls losing their virginity if they ride a bicycle, a cultural mountain he is slowly overturning. As it was when it was first devised in Europe, the bicycle is an emancipation machine again.
To witness Kamara in action is to ask serious questions about your own achievements. He is 26.
Bike racing in Sierra Leone looks nothing like a UCI race. Even compared with Rwanda, the African country held up as the trailblazer for the development of the sport on the continent, Sierra Leone has so far to go.
There are no timing mats, not even lap boards to convey to the riders how many circuits are remaining. At the finish, pandemonium breaks out. Every rider from first to 15th disputes his placing. Teammates turn on teammates, claiming that they didn’t complete the right number of laps – many accuse C2C of using their car to pace ‘Super Med’ back into the race. With the commissaires marooned by the breakdown, there’s no arbiter, no way of knowing for sure.
Mohammed Sahnoon is president of the Ghanaian Cycling Federation and the UCI representative sent to Sierra Leone to settle the leadership squabbles once and for all. “This is the rawest form of the bike race,” he tells me with some wry detachment, speaking amid the hullabaloo. “The passion for cycling is the driving force, but there is a need for technical support for race organisation.”
Sahnoon is also the president of the African Cycling Confederation legal council, and knows the state of bicycle racing in West Africa better than most.
A member of the support team from C2C puts it more succinctly, as the arguments rage all around us.
“Welcome to Africa.”
And then he laughed, a lot.