It’s been a while since last VeloVeritas spoke to former ‘Man in Black’ and African Road Race Champion, Dan Craven – 2009 to be exact, just after the Drummond Trophy which Dan rode for his Rapha Condor team.
With his recent hook-up with Jean Rene Bernadeau’s Europcar squad we thought it was high time we had another word with the man with the most hair in professional cycling, and we heard all it in Part One of our interview with Dan yesterday.
In Part Two here, the conversation turns to Dan’s home country of Namibia as we find out about the country and it’s cycling, the growth of the sport on the African continent and we learn a little more about his previous teams.
Tell us a little about Namibia, please.
“Fatal error on your behalf! I can talk people to death on this topic…
“Well – Namibia is the second most sparsely habituated country in the world after Mongolia, has the oldest desert in the world (Namib), the second largest Canyon (Fish River), has more than 11 indigenous languages (not dialects) and is more than three times the size of the UK.
“I come from a small town called Omaruru, 200km northwest of the capital across what one can describe as bush land savannah.
“Tar roads are in great condition but few and far between so I spend a lot of time on my MTB when training at home, not only can I do a few loops instead of just two out-and-back roads, but I also get to enjoy the Namibian wildlife which in terms of going on Safari is one of the best on offer in Africa.
“We often see a massive array of animals like dik-dik, baboons, kudu, gemsbok, tortoises, wart hogs, all kinds of birds and if we’re lucky a giraffe – or if we’re really lucky, a pangolin.
“A few years ago a friend of ours was bottle raising a baby elephant who had been lost by his herd.
“I actually showed photos of me feeding baby Ellie to Jean Rene at the time and, well, I think it’s safe to say that was the first time he’d seen a cyclist doing something like that.
“I often describe Namibia in relation to South Africa in the same way as people often think of Canada in relation to America.
“Both countries are vast, laid back, politically stable and friendly – the big difference being that we are hotter and have some Germans instead of being colder and having some French.”
Does the Namibian Federation have decent funding?
“Short answer – no.
“But we’re getting there.
“As of 2013 the national team has a sponsor for the first time ever (thank you Nedbank!) and as we always only have a small handful of elite riders we’re very dependent on every single guy there is.
“Currently we have the biggest and possibly the strongest group we’ve ever had as well and the sport is really growing back home so things are really looking good for the future!
“Sadly the number of tar roads in Namibia and the explosion in size of Windhoek, the capital, means that road cycling isn’t doing all that well but mountain biking is taking off in a massive way!
“Ever since tubeless tyres came out (we probably have as many thorns in all shapes and sizes as the UK has raindrops) MTB’ing has suddenly made sense and the whole ‘cycling is the new golf’ bug has bitten Namibia in a big way!”
Does the Namibian Media give much space to cycling?
“Unfortunately Namibia isn’t too close to the forefront of world sport, but we have a great, strong and independent Media.
“Add to that the fact that besides an oft-times slow political process, things do actually work in Namibia, so they are always looking for stories and it is relatively easy to get something into the papers.
“I often come home to find my mother has a pile of newspaper clippings of my escapades waiting for me.
“That said, the journalists have to cover all sports so often do not know too much about cycling as a sport, this means you have to sometimes feed them with info, rather than them going out and finding it themselves.”
Three seasons with Condor – why leave?
“Because I wasn’t offered a contract – which was a good thing.
“I had an amazing time at the team, grew immensely as a person and learned a lot, even if I didn’t always realize it at the time; but there comes a time for everyone to move on and after three years that time had come for me.
“It also coincided with the fact that the budget shrank and the team changed it’s focus to u23 so only a few of the ‘old guard’ were kept around.
“I was 100% focussed on making things work out with Jean Rene as he wanted me in Europcar then but even though I waited until the last possible minute, things didn’t work out and I was left somewhat stranded.
“I really enjoyed those three years and feel privileged to have been able to work with and meet the people who were involved with the team.
“The fact that I still go to Condor’s and Rapha for visits is actually quite important to me.”
Then Sigma – how did it compare to Condor?
“Sigma was a lot smaller and due to a few things happening it unfortunately became a lot more disorganised.
“The kind of things where you can’t blame anyone though – you simply have to make the most of it and get on with things – which we did; or tried to do at least.
“In hindsight I now know that I had an undiagnosed virus (which caused a handful of other complications) for a few years and it seems that it really knocked me for a six in 2012, making me a bit useless to the team and putting a dampener on things.
“I really loved the team spirit though as it always felt really relaxed and jovial; needless to say I still visit Sigma Sport as often as possible, but being on the wrong side of London that’s sadly not as often as it could be.”
Synergy Baku – tell us about your time there, please.
“I loved this team, although there were always going to be some teething problems in the first year of a team, this was the kind of team I had been wanting to be on all along.
“There was an amazing race program, a really knowledgeable people behind the scenes and a good group of riders.
“It was a really eclectic mix of nationalities (Irish, Malaysian, Danish, Australian, British, Kiwi, German, Ukraine, Russian, obviously Azerbaijani and some more) but I thought everyone got on really well and made for a good group.
“Unfortunately my health was still absolutely terrible and so I wasn’t able to prove myself all year.
“The team gave me as many ‘second chances’ as I could have asked for but in the end I wasn’t able to fulfill my end of the deal.”
And the German team you ride for – how did you make that connection?
“After years of not getting back to my consistent form of 2008 and then having such bad years in 2012 and 2013 I was very close to calling it a day but during 2013 I had found out what was holding me back and the signs were so amazing that I simply couldn’t let myself stop and be left asking ‘what if’ for the rest of my life.
“I wasn’t going all out to find a solution either though – I had my limits.
“I cannot race full time in the UK any more – I love the place and adore the people, but the weather just kills me inside and so I didn’t even speak to any British teams.
“Everything was getting very tight and I thought I had no chance of finding anything else when my coach put me in touch with Matthias from Bike Aid (the German team).
“We had a few Skype conversations and both realized that we really liked each other’s way of approaching cycling and that it would be worth doing something.”
I would have thought MTN Qhubeka would be a perfect fit for you?
“I also used to think so but it was not my call to make.
“I now know that had they taken me for 2013 I would have not found a solution to my health issues and would probably have been kicked out by now so I am very grateful for that!”
You’ve been competing at the highest level in Africa for a decade; tell us about the changes you’ve witnessed, please.
“My first African Champs were in 2006 and the step up in that time has been amazing!
“Africa does not always have something to get excited about and there seems to have been a real ground swell with regards to cycling. A few countries like Morocco and Rwanda have had big cycling programs for years now and their cycling has improved immensely.
“The knock-on this effect has had has also been amazing.
“Their neighbouring countries look at them and think ‘if they can do that then so can we’ and set out to so something themselves.
“In the 2006 African Champs South Africa was head and shoulders above Namibia but alongside Mauritius we were the second best nation by another country mile.
“For the last four years now Eritrea has had two riders on the Elite men’s road race podium every single year, Morocco, Rwanda, Algeria have all stepped up massively.
“Ethiopia has some amazing talent – It’s just exploding.
“Another thing that I have only witnessed at African bike races is the amount of excitement by the crowds. Not all the time or everywhere, but in several places that I have raced, the crowds go absolutely wild. They haven’t been desensitised to excitement by their TV’s and cellphones in the way that Europe has become and you can really notice it!”
The African Champs must be one tough race, these days?
“Every year they get harder and harder.
“I’ve won a medal at every champs that I’ve gone to (five medals from four champs) and so I get more and more nervous about the day that I won’t be winning a medal there.
“Fortunately they have always been at the end of the year and as I said previously, I tend to go well then.
“Unfortunately though, that seems to be about to change and I think the next African Champs will be in February.
“Definitely a good move though!”
Tell us about the hirsute look, please – doesn’t it get a tad hot?
“In the last few years I’ve been going so slow that I don’t think I’ve ever been in danger of overheating.
“Being Namibian I’ve always loved the heat and now I’m so used to it that I can’t say I notice it.
“I often go to bike races and in the hotel dining halls I see all of these emaciated carbon copies of each other walking around and I die a little bit inside.
“Obviously it makes the most sense to cut the hair and shave and I’ll never say anything against the skinny look (if anything I’ll just keep trying to get skinnier myself, currently being thinner than I have been in a very long time) but I’m simply not a fan of that look or the boredom that it induces.
“What’s life without a bit of spice – or beard!?”
What’s still on the DC ‘to do’ list?
“When I first came to Europe I set myself three goals, firstly to simply survive; secondly to sign a Pro Tour or Pro Conti contract within three years; and the end goal was always to have that contract renewed – to prove that I deserved it in the first place.
“I know there are a lot of people scratching their heads about my move to Europcar but fortunately I’m not a journalist, I’m a bike rider and it’s not my job to care about those opinions.
“Top of my ‘to do’ list is to prove JR’s faith in me was well-placed, integrate into the team and receive that contract renewal.
“Beyond that, and a little closer time-wise, the thing dominating my to-do list right now is to use my good health, work harder than I have ever before and regain the kind of consistent form that I had in 2008 and that no one who’s met me since has ever seen.”
Read the first part of Dan’s interview.