When we photographed the National Champion of Lesotho, Phetetso Monese in action at last year’s Commonwealth Games MTB race in Glasgow little did we know that key to his – and the nation’s – burgeoning success was in fact a Welshman, Mark West.
Mark got in touch with us recently to ask if we’d be interested in hearing more about Monese’s country and the background to his appearance on the Cathkin Braes and we jumped at the chance.
Mark has been key to Lesotho’s cycling growth and development since arriving on a temporary work visa over two decades ago, meeting his future wife and adopting – and being adopted by – the country.
As is so often the case in the early period when starting a new team or cycling venture, things didn’t go particularly smoothly with the oft-heard financial and political issues – but these, together with the country’s particularly acute health challenges, make Mark’s story one worth telling.
How did you end up in Lesotho, Mark?
“My affair with Africa all started with a gap year as a teacher in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
“I fell in love with the country (and a young woman who became my wife) and 25 years later I’m still here.
“Lesotho is an intriguing country – completely land-locked by South Africa, but with a completely different (truly African) mindset and culture to their neighbours.
“The people are tough but humble, believing that hard work is more beneficial than waiting for handouts and also looking for opportunities to give a helping hand to those who need it.”
That part of the world has had huge problems with HIV/AIDS…
“Yes, the country was torn apart by the HIV/AIDS epidemic where the average life expectancy dropped to 37 years and many households were left in the hands of children.
“Even today, Lesotho has the 2nd highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world at an estimated 23% of the population.”
How did you begin your involvement with the local riders?
“Whilst still a teacher I had the good fortune to witness one of my learners take part in a cycle race across the border in South Africa.
“He was the only black boy in the race; his bike was old – but well-maintained, nonetheless he won the race.
“I could see from his expression how much it meant to him.
“He was from a poor community, racing against much richer kids but this moment lifted him up above the poverty and gave him an immense sense of self-worth.
“Together with my wife, we went out and bought him a brand new bike and in the following years we watched this poor kid from Maseru grow into a national champion, then compete in the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games and become part of the World Cycling Centre African programme.”
And you became involved in the national federation from there?
“From 2006 – 2014 I served as the Secretary General of the Lesotho Cycling Federation and during that period we affiliated to the UCI.
“We also made a conscious decision to focus more on Mountain Bike than road as the Lesotho terrain was better suited to it and the experience of racing MTB was much more pleasant (let’s just say the South African pro peleton was not very welcoming).”
Cycling isn’t the cheapest of sports, how did you finance things?
“The biggest obstacle to progress was always funding.
“The national federation existed on an annual allocation of R50000 (£4000 in those days) for all racing and administration costs and in many cases even that allocation was not available when we needed it.
“This situation came to a head in 2013 when the UCI World MTB Championships were being held in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa – just around the corner from us.
“We selected a team, trained very hard and saved money, but when we came to claim our funding from our mother bodies – the full amount was not available.
“I was not ready for some of our riders to miss out so I sent out a few emails and managed to get an article on the US cyclingnews.com website.
To cut a long story short, people from Oakley read the story, made contact and made everything possible.”
Did this experience change you and your approach with the team?
“Yes, the pain of being in this predicament and of not being in control of our own finances was an important lesson to me.
“I decided things have to change – and so Africa’s first UCI MTB Team, The Sufferfest – ACE Lesotho MTB Team powered by Unitrans was born, with the following mission:
- To give sponsors something worth investing in.
- To be in control of our own programme and budget.
- To give riders a structured race and training programme throughout the year.
- To be able to invest in proper equipment.
“Right from the start, we received great support from the cycling world – especially from The Sufferfest and Dig Deep Coaching (we actually don’t refer to ‘sponsors’ as such, we call them #DreamMakers).
“The Sufferfest invested much needed cash into the team and Dig Deep Coaching provided coaching advice and important connections – such as Pactimo, who are our custom clothing suppliers.
“We also received support from a local transport company called Unitrans.”
So what’s the “ACE” part of the team name?
“That stands for “Academy of Cycling Excellence“, but it was actually chosen so that our team would be near the top of the list of the UCI MTB Teams when listed alphabetically!”
Tell us about the team roster.
“We have seven riders in the team.
“We actually started with two Elite riders, two Under 23’s, two Juniors and one Woman but we have stayed with the same team members for two seasons now and so some of them have moved into new categories.
“Out of these seven riders, only two have both parents still alive. The others have all lost one or both parents.
“In Lesotho, with such a high HIV/AIDS problem, this is not unusual, but it has proved such a hardship for these riders during their upbringing. Some of them were forced to leave school early to provide for families.”
Cycling must mean a lot to them…
“Sure life has been very hard, but I like to think that through cycling and through our team they have found a chance to believe in themselves and begin to dream and to realise great opportunities.”
There was some polemic at the beginning though?
“Indeed, our first season last year got off to a very rocky start – but ended very well.
“The Lesotho Cycling Federation president at the time did not agree with what we wanted to do and began a series of events that saw all our riders suspended. I was also forced to step down from the committee.
“However, there was a silver lining to the problems as a new committee which was elected later gave us their full support and from that moment on the team excelled.
“In our first year as a UCI MTB Team, we ranked 42nd in the rankings, keeping company with some much bigger teams.”
And we saw your riders in action in Glasgow last year.
“Yes, we had two of our riders representing Lesotho at the Commonwealth Games – and another young rider travel to Nanjing for the Youth Olympic Games.
“After a great start in 2014, this year has been a year for consolidating and establishing a firm base for future growth.
“There are so many other great brands, but I don’t want this to become a long list.”
What next for the ACE-The Sufferfest Lesotho MTB Team?
“Looking to the future we want to grow bigger and stronger, but also keep our focus on our goals.
“Some other big name African teams have a different approach, but for us it will always be about developing the African talent and giving them an opportunity to shine.
“We would love to have a more active World Cup programme and get to some more world-class races around the globe and to do so we need more investors.”
Like The Sufferfest, Dig Deep, Oakley and the others, we reckon the team are a good investment – especially now with the favourable GBP to ZAR exchange rate – which other UCI-registered team can deliver so much on a budget of under £10,000?
With thanks to Mark for his time with this story (and the photos), and best wishes to the Lesotho riders for next season – we’ll be following their progress keenly.