Christoph Sauser is a legend in mountain biking for his many achievements over the years, including five Absa Cape Epic wins.
But in the dusty streets of the impoverished Stellenbosch township of Khayamandi, he is revered for something entirely different: the time and effort he has taken to develop the songo.info academy with local community leader, Songo Fipaza, a fellow cyclist with a passion for improving the lives of children in the township.
The academy was essentially designed to provide a channel for children to improve themselves and create opportunities for life advancement.
Khayamandi is a place where alcohol and drug abuse is widespread, crime is rampant, and teenage pregnancy a major problem.
Besides helping with education and job-seeking, songo.info naturally has a significant emphasis on cycling: some top riders have been nurtured from the township.
Last week three of the four songo.info riders who will take on the Cape Epic were introduced to the local media at the clubhouse built by songo.info.
One of them, Theophillus Ngubane, told journalists that songo.info had “changed my life dramatically”.
Pointing to the nearby dwellings, Ngubane says: “Nobody tells these kids how to make something of their lives how to live. But if you live your life surrounded by positive people like Christoph, Sipho (Madolo, a Khayamandi youngster who went on to represent South Africa in the marathon world championships) and Songo, your life just changes.”
Sauser recounted how the charity had been started in 2008 after he met Fipaza, and how its scope now included helping youngsters find careers and work opportunities.
Ngubane will be riding the Untamed African MTB Race with Lwazi Ntshakaza as team Songo-Investec 2.
Lorenzo Leroux and Thando Klaas will be team Songo-Investec 1.
Klaas has competed the Epic before – in 2011 – but the others are novices.
They will be there courtesy of a decision by the Absa Cape Epic to give free entries for the Exxaro special jersey race – for riders under 26-years-old from disadvantaged backgrounds – to extra teams.
“The Absa Cape Epic is the only race that has a category dedicated to development teams and with this initiative we want to celebrate our next generation of star riders,” said Absa Cape Epic chief executive officer, Lynn Naudé.
“We hope this will also accelerate the introduction of mountain biking into new communities,” she said.
Besides the R50 000 given to Exxaro special jersey race winners to further their studies, the first-placed 2017 team will get to spend eight days at the elite Bakala sports performance academy in Belgium.
In 2012 the first Exxaro MTB Academy riders joined the race and became a catalyst for introducing historically disadvantaged South African’s to the sport of mountain biking.
The jersey is awarded to the top historically disadvantaged South African team where both riders are under the age of 26 and each year since its launch the contest for the jersey has become more fierce.
In August last year, the Absa Cape Epic announced that in addition to the teams fielded by the Exxaro MTB Academy, the category would include participants from academies in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape.
Ms Naudé announced that the race had formalised an arrangement with the Diepsloot MTB Academy in Gauteng, the Change A Life Academy in KwaZulu-Natal and songo.info, and each would receive two free team entries to the 2017, 2018 and 2019 races.
Another 10 entries were also made available to sponsors, charities or others who might want to enter a team in this category.
The 2017 Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race takes place from Sunday March 19 to Sunday March 26, and the route changes every year, leading professional and amateur mountain bikers from around the world through 700km of unspoilt scenery and 15 000m of accumulated climbing, over magnificent mountain passes in the Western Cape.
It is the most televised mountain bike stage race in the world and the only eight-day mountain bike stage race classed as hors catégorie by the Union Cycliste Interacionale (UCI).