For Nic Dlamini, getting off wasn’t an option

Dlamini missed the time cut by more than 40 minutes, but had to finish the stage.

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Nic Dlamini, pelted by rain and backlit by the headlights of his Qhubeka-NextHash team car, crossed the final finish line of his first Tour de France. He rolled across the wide yellow strips where, 90 minutes before, Ben O’Connor had raised his hands, and on toward a waiting soigneur. He came to a stop. The finish line gantry was coming down. His head dropped.

He would have known for hours. Time-cut math is blunt and unforgiving. It sends riders into team cars, bodies trampled by futility, happy to simply end the suffering, crank the heat, slip out of wet lycra and into the tracksuit they’ll wear to fly home. Dlamini did none of those things. 

“This is a race that I wanted to honor, and honor my dream,” he said after the stage. “It was my first Tour de France and I knew it would be hard, but I’ve honored that dream.”

Dlamini, 25, is in his third year as a WorldTour pro. He’s raced two Vueltas and will represent South Africa at the Tokyo Olympics in a month’s time. Eight days ago he became the first Black South African to race the world’s biggest race. He didn’t get here as most of his competitors did. 

Dlamini grew up in the Capricorn Park township outside Cape Town, South Africa. He rides, he said, to shift the definition of success in his neighborhood. ”In the township itself, you’d be well known for owning a gun,” he told AFP ahead of the Tour. “You’d be more respected for owning a gun or shooting someone. It’s a place where doing the wrong things gets you up there.”

When he was selected for the Tokyo Olympics, “It started changing things,” he told AFP. “Teenagers wanting to turn their lives around. It gave them hope that anything is possible. And when they announced the Tour it was even stronger.” That’s who he rides for, he said.

Dlamini was first identified as a strong runner and was later invited to the UCI’s World Cycling Center in Potchefstroom, South Africa. That experience led to a ride on the Continental team, Team Qhubeka, associated with his current WorldTour squad. He moved to Lucca, Italy in 2015 and in 2017 rode as a stagiare for the WorldTour team. A slot on that team awaited him in 2018. 

He raced his first Vuelta a year later. In early 2020, his arm was broken in a confrontation with park rangers, who accused him of not paying the 90 Rand (US$6.30 / AU$8.40) entry fee to the park. A ranger grabbed his arm and twisted until there was an audible crack. That setback hurt Dlamini’s early season but he returned to race the Vuelta once again.

The Tour de France was his next challenge. He got the call-up in the weeks ahead of the race, brought for his ability to help Fabio Aru and then, when Aru pulled himself off the Tour team, as part of a team of stage hunters. 

There are races within the race on a Tour de France mountain stage. On Sunday, with the rest day tantalizingly close, a crash on the day’s first major descent sent Dlamini off the back of the gruppetto, alone in a near-impossible chase. His race-within-the-race was against an invisible line on the road. In front of it, he would continue racing on Tuesday. Behind it and his Tour was over.

It was a day that sent 11 others home and another handful of riders made the time cut by mere seconds. He finished behind that invisible, brutal line by nearly 45 minutes. 

The time limit ticked over when he was near the bottom of the final climb to Tignes. He was still nearly 20 kilometers away, riding in the rain with only the headlights of his team car for company. To honor the dream, getting off simply wasn’t an option.

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