Lesotho. Ever heard of it? Many people across the globe very well may not know what this word is. It’s not a company. It’s not a type of food. No, Lesotho is in fact a country. Even more, Lesotho is a very proud African country. Landlocked within the confines of South Africa, Lesotho is home to roughly two million plus people. It measures just over 11,500 square miles, has it’s own independent government and form of currency (the Maloti).
And while Lesotho is a very proud nation, as previously mentioned, unfortunately it is one of the most underdeveloped countries as well. As a result, the Lesotho National Cycling Team was unable to secure the funds necessary to make the short trek to Pietermaritzburg in the northeast of South Africa for the 2013 Mountain Bike World Championships.
With a wealth of talent budding from this tiny African nation, it seemed a shame for them to be unable to participate in the biggest worldwide event the sport of mountain biking has to offer. So, when Oakley caught wind of the team’s unfortunate struggles, they decided to step in and provide Lesotho with the necessary help it would take to travel to World Champs.
The team, all ten of them, along with their coach and manager made it to Cascades Mountain Bike Park in Pietermaritzburg and came walking into the Oakley tent on Tuesday smiling from ear to ear, delighted to be able to attend the event. Outfitted with new eyewear, the boys graciously stayed for a visit before they prepared for the big event they’ve all be dreaming of.
During the visit, we sat down with Mark West, the active Secretary General of Lesotho Cycling and current Team Manager to discuss in detail the difficulties the team faced making it to the event, their hopes for the trip and their thoughts on Oakley stepping in to help.
There’s no doubt this is a compelling story and a feel good situation. To hear more about the series of events, read further for Mr. West’s comments:
Oakley: For those people who may not know anything about Lesotho, can you tell them a little bit about your country?
Mark West: Lesotho is a tiny independent country, completely surrounded by South Africa. It has it’s own government, it’s own king. It separated from South Africa in the early years of Queen Victoria. So it’s always been an independent state. And it’s proud of it’s independence. Being next to South Africa has it’s advantages of being close to technology, but also disadvantages because it’s a very poor country in comparison and it’s very difficult to compare ourselves to our neighbors in South Africa. And it’s ranked very low on the United Nations Development Index, as being a developing country.
Oakley: Can you talk to us about the difficult situation of trying to get to the Mountain Bike World Championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa?
Mark West: The situation was very difficult because we had applied for funding from the Lesotho Olympic Committee and we were quite confident we would get it. So we were preparing for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games next year. But then at the last moment, we were told that the funding would not cover the whole team. And so that was devastating because the team had been gelling, preparing, doing everything together and ready to come for the World Champs. And we just didn’t know how to break the news. In fact, we were due to have a meeting last Friday to work out who we were going to drop from the team. And that’s when we got the call from Oakley to say that they’d love to help. And we’re so grateful for that.
Oakley: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the team?
Mark West: The three elite riders on the team are the backbone of cycling in Lesotho. They’ve been cycling for many years at different levels. They are very accomplished road riders, but a few years ago, they turned to mountain biking and they’ve really flourished. For two of them, this will be their first time in any international competition outside of Lesotho. The other one, who was our former National Champion, Phetetso Monese has ridden in the World Cup and in the African Championships. He actually came in seventh in the African Championships and he has a UCI ranking, I think around 150th in the world. So, they’re quite competitive riders but this is a whole new level for them, the World Championships. One thing which is quite unique about one of our riders, Tumisang Taabe; he’s the National Cross-Country Champion and he’s also the National Federation President at the same time.
Oakley: What do you hope comes from the Lesotho team being able to ride here at the 2013 World Championships in South Africa?
Mark West: What we’re really working on is positioning ourselves for the future and we have an eye on the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. We are currently ranked third in Africa. Last year for the London Olympic Games we just missed out on a space. And we are positioning ourselves to get into second place and qualify for Rio 2016. Some of these riders, they’ll be too old by then but we’re just laying a platform. It’s like we’re taking a step on the first rung on the ladder.
We have some very exciting juniors. We have three juniors here and an Under 23 who are really the future of cycling. Our Under 23 rider will be attending the World Cycling Center and African Camp next month. It’s a road camp, but it will help him with his all-around cycling.
So, we really see this as a stepping-stone towards the bright future of Lesotho Cycling.
Oakley: Finally, What did it mean to you and the team to have Oakley step in and help you get here to Pietermaritzburg for the World Championships?
Mark West: I don’t even know how to put into words, what it means. The news was just so devastating; we didn’t know what to do. There was a little bit of animosity amongst the team because they were already thinking there were other riders who were going to miss out, so it became very tense.
But now we are all united. We are all backing each other up. We are a team. And that is what’s most important. And without Oakley, that wouldn’t be possible.