‘Lesotho Sky Race will get bigger’

‘Lesotho Sky Race will get bigger’

Maseru – The seventh edition of the Lesotho Sky Race is done and dusted.

The annual six-day mountain bike (MTB) race, which successfully ran from last Monday until Saturday, has become one of the foremost events in Lesotho’s sports calendar attracting top riders from around the world.

A race that started off with only 22 riders in 2011 has grown into a major event with about 90 riders having competed this year and, because of its progress, the Lesotho Sky is now categorised as a ‘Class One’ competition by the International Cycling Union (UCI).

The Lesotho Sky, which runs from Ha Ramabanta to Semonkong, has also become a driver of tourism in the country attracting riders from as far as Switzerland.

This week thepost caught up with the founder and brains behind the ever-growing race, Christian Schmidt.

He discussed the successes of the race, the challenges of putting together such a big event and its future.

When you started the Lesotho Sky Race in 2011, did you anticipate it would grow into such a big event in Lesotho’s sports calendar?

When we started the Lesotho Sky I knew very little about Lesotho’s sport industry and about the tourism industry. But, as a typical entrepreneur, you want to do something even if you do not have much of an idea because you have passion for it or because you believe it’s going to work. That is what guided us in the first year.

I knew Lesotho because I went to primary school here but I hadn’t done business in Lesotho. I didn’t know the work environment. So, certainly, no; we did not anticipate the event growing to what it is now. Now after the seventh edition we are very excited and we are always looking for new partners – for example, Black Mix Media – and how can we grow this further.

What has been the experience so far and what are the challenges of organising and putting together such a big event?

Every year the event has grown a little bit. Being able to accommodate more people is quite a challenge in terms of finding accommodation for 130 people. So because of that we already have some participants sleeping in tents, others stay in the lodge. The lodge entries usually sell out quickly because people prefer to sleep in a bed as opposed to a tent. But, realistically, the event can only grow with people staying in tents because the bigger accommodation facilities are based in Maseru. The more rural you go, the fewer accommodation facilities there are.

What would you say has been the biggest lesson when organising this race for the past few years?

Expect the unexpected; something can always happen. This year, for example, one challenge was the political situation in Lesotho before the start of the event. Unfortunately, this was not the first time. In 2014 there was also political instability and a lot of riders emailed us asking ‘hey, is it safe to travel to Lesotho?’ because they were not sure of the situation. We were put in a position of having to explain that it is actually safe for ordinary people and what is happening is happening within the military. But it is certainly a challenge with regards to the reputation of Lesotho. Some people do get scared by negative headlines.

Where does the Lesotho Sky rank among other mountain bike (MTB) events in the continent now?

There are about ten UCI MTB events in Africa (every year). Lesotho Sky is the only one in Lesotho, there are three in South Africa and the rest are in other parts of Africa. There are three types of UCI MTB events, as in, three classes. We started as a Class Two event and now we have become a Class One event.

Despite attracting top riders, there still few women participating in the Lesotho Sky, why is that?

I think if we look at cycling as a sport in the world, there is a lot of women who ride and race but there are definitely more men. I think if I have to take a guess about 10 percent of professional athletes in cycling in the world are female. This year we had seven women (at the Lesotho Sky) and six of them completed the race, unlike for men where we had about 90 entrants of which only 70 finished (the race). Last year we had about 10 ladies and they all finished, so it is up and down. Last year we also had the first Mosotho lady (Likeleli Masitise) racing. She completed the race but unfortunately she was not able to race this year because she was attending another event in South Africa.

What are the important things that you consider when finding the appropriate course routes and how do you manage the course?

I think the most important part when it comes to the routes is the community work. So in order for the routes to be safe and to be accessible, we go to every single village and meet the chiefs and we inform them about the event. We tell them ‘on this day we will have cyclists passing through, do we have your permission?’ And then again during the race we have community marshals with Vodacom (Lesotho) cell-phones so in the event that something happens, they can call our chief marshal and we can coordinate a rescue. So community work is very important and then of course the hospitality; where can we stay, where can we accommodate the riders and the crew. This year there was about 130 people – riders and crew together – so we need to be able to cater for them. They need to have enough beds and tents.

What is one thing that people would be surprised to know about Lesotho Sky?

Lesotho Sky is a platform for athletes from around the world and Lesotho to meet, so a lot of international riders are surprised because some of them wouldn’t have heard of Lesotho and they are surprised to find such beautiful mountains and such challenging terrain. At the same time they are also surprised to meet such good riders from Lesotho. As we have seen, Team Vodacom Lesotho came in second place so this is something we are proud of – bringing good athletes together and also showing that we as Lesotho we can compete on the world level.

What are you most proud of accomplishing so far?

I am proud of having been able to host this event for seven years despite many challenges. This year I think the main challenge was the weather. We had snow, we had rain, we had lots of mud and there was lightning so one of the stages – the Roma loop – had to be cancelled. Every year I think the challenges have been different. We have learnt from past mistakes and we have fixed them but every year there is a new challenge. Despite the challenges we are very proud that this event has happened for seven years in a row and we hope it happens for another 70.

No Mosotho has won the Lesotho Sky before, why is that? What is it that we are not doing right?

I think second place says a lot. Basotho riders won one stage of the event this year, the final stage was won by Team Vodacom. Last year the Malea-lea loop was won by Team Vodacom. I think Basotho cyclists are strong; they have the potential to train and to ride on a world level like some of the cyclists that attended this year. It is tough, it requires resources, it requires a strict training regime, it requires equipment and those are the areas where we are trying to get sponsors involved. We work together with the ACE The Sufferfest Lesotho MTB team. They have their own sponsors for equipment because cycling is not a cheap sport. The equipment costs a lot of money; so, yes, this is certainly an area where we need to optimise.

If you could go back to 2011 and give yourself one piece of advice when organising your first event, what would it be and why?

Expect the unexpected, and don’t worry about the things you cannot change and try ignore the things you cannot.

Where do you see Lesotho Sky in the next 10 years?

I see Lesotho Sky being an event and brand that promotes Lesotho and that promotes the best parts of Lesotho. The event is limited in size, it is already sold out. So what we want to do is to bring the riders for tourism purposes throughout the year which we already do but I think we can do a lot more. My opinion of Lesotho tourism in general is we are doing well. Lesotho is known all over the world for motorbikes with the Roof of Africa race and for hiking. But we can do a lot better and I hope that Lesotho Sky will be a brand and an event that promotes Lesotho beyond the race and brings thousands of riders, even beginners, to come explore and get to know Lesotho.

Luciah Phahla

 

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