'It's been an incredible journey': The story of Nic Dlamini and his first Tour de France

The South African speaks on his upbringing, racism, riding his debut Tour, and why he refused to give up on the climb to Tignes

Nic Dlamini
(Image credit: Getty)

The video of Nic Dlamini crossing the finish line of stage nine one hour and 24 minutes after stage winner Ben O'Connor, 40 minutes outside the time cut and as the publicity caravan began to make its way back down the mountain, gave the South African the story he deserved this Tour de France.

His journey from township to Tour is an incredible one - and we'll hear from Dlamini about it in a bit - but it was great to see the 25-year-old acknowledged solely as one of the other 177 riders in the race.

With the majority of the peloton so pale, male and stale, the habit for the press is to hone in when a black rider, or a rider with native American heritage, makes the start line of the biggest bike race in the world. Of course, it's great and important to highlight instances of diversity in a sport so severely lacking in it at the top level, but often it seems riders who aren't white can be reduced to only talking about the issues that affect them. Kévin Reza was the only black rider at the Tour last year, and became a focal point for talking about racism, which is correct for him to speak on his own experiences, but the lacklustre planned solidarity from the rest of the peloton on the final stage missed the mark.

This year, Dlamini was the sole black rider in the peloton, before finishing outside the time limit on the punishing Tignes stage. Does he get tired of being asked about racism in the mixed zone nearly every time he passes through it?

"It doesn't really bother me," he told Cycling Weekly before the start of stage eight."[Racism is] something that is there and people can see these things. 

"Obviously, we would like to do more, to make sure that there is no such thing as racism. But from a personal perspective, I think I've been lucky enough to have not experienced any of it. I mean, we don't tolerate racism in our team and I can imagine in the races as well, but there's definitely more that can be done." Dlamini adds that he has not personally experienced any racism in the peloton.

Of the Capricorn Park township in Cape Town where Dlamini grew up, he told AFP it was a place where "you'd be more respected for owning a gun or shooting someone. It's a place where doing the wrong things gets you up there."

One out of 15 people in Capricorn Park had a bike, and Dlamini and his friends would take turns, riding for a minute and then coming back for another to jump on. In those days, Dlamini was still predominantly a runner rather than a cyclist, but one of his friends who cycled would return from rides and tell him all that he'd managed to see while going further than you can on your own two feet.

"I was really frustrated [that he couldn't travel as far] and I thought I would try cycling and see what I could discover," he explained.

"I loved cycling because I could explore more than I could when I was running. When I started when I was 14, I could only run 5 or 10km, and with the bicycle, I could do 100km, I could see the whole of Cape Town. I would have never seen it without cycling. It just gives you a lot of mobility and ability to meet new people."

In a well-documented incident, Dlamini had his arm broken in a disgusting assault by two park rangers while he was out on a ride in December 2019. The rangers received widespread condemnation, including from the likes of Chris Froome and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, with Dlamini needing surgery.

 "The arm is okay now, it has recovered just in time, and I am really grateful," Dlamini said. "Even last year, with the season being short due to the pandemic, it really played in my favour and it extended my recovery period and now I am here.

"I don’t know to be honest," when asked of his reaction to the incident. "It was mixed feelings, maybe a bit of shocked and maybe not shocked, because I grew up in a township, so I’ve seen worse." That's his reality, and one not shared by many of his colleagues in the Tour peloton.

Towards the end of the first week, Dlamini couldn't believe how quickly the stages were passing, and the racing hadn't yet taken a big toll on him physically.

Heading into the Alps this weekend just gone, he was prepared to take it day-by-day as the racing got "serious" and was looking ahead to the rest of the race where he hoped to try and get himself up the road in a breakaway, and if he'd made it to Paris it would have coincided with Mandela Day, which is always a special one for the Qhubeka-NextHash squad.

Unfortunately, the first Black South African rider to start the Tour de France won't be the first to finish it, at least this year, after Dlamini crashed on a descent and finished well outside the time cut in Tignes, having started the day one of the only riders with a smile on his face as they set off from Cluses.

"The nature of the stage and the weather didn't really make it easy. When you have a bad day you have a bad day. I was also really unlucky to have a crash and lose contact," Dlamini explained after stage nine, clearly gutted at being out of the race. "After that crash I was on my own and it was really difficult to ride a good pace and get to the guys [ahead] on my own. I would have loved to finish the race, it is sad to finish it this way. 

"For me, the most important thing was not to stop and ride to the finish. Regardless of being out of the time limit. It's a special race and it's always been an aim of mine, the Tour de France. I think just getting off my bike and into a car wasn't an option. I'm glad I finished even though I finished an hour and a half from the winning time. It was a hard, bad day.

"I'd really like to thank everyone for the great support up to this point from when the Tour started. That's also one of the reasons why I wanted to finish the race today. This is a race that I wanted to honour, and honour my dream. It was my first Tour de France and I knew it would be hard, I am disappointed but at this point, there’s not much I can do."

One of the beautiful things about the Tour is the story of the eventual winner is subsidised in equal measure by the multitude of other tales of heroism, passion and humanity that circle within the orbit of the fight for the yellow.

For Dlamini, he says his participation has already brought a lot of hope to the young people back home in Capricorn Park, in addition to the bike donations working with the Qhubeka Charity as well as taking young riders on training rides when he's back home in South Africa.

"It's brought a lot of hope to many youngsters back home and I really hope it continues to bring a lot of hope to the younger kids in the townships to dream even bigger," he said.

"I’ve been fortunate enough to be present in a lot of bike handovers, and they are all special. For the kids, it is a life-changing experience for them. They have never touched a bike or owned a bike, so to actually be given a bike and ride is really special. When you see their smiles. It is not like they get the bicycles for free, they work for the bicycles. 

"I try and do it as often as possible," he says of sharing his training rides. "Normally, when I start training, I'll train with most of the youngsters and some of the time it's up to them to make themselves available to join me in my training rides. And there are quite a lot so I really enjoy training with him, and especially for them to adapt in the longer kilometres. I think it's very crucial if they wanted to become professional."

As Dlamini leaves the Tour peloton, it's likely the next time he's on home roads he'll be accompanied by a peloton of his own.

Also waiting for him back home is his first son, born earlier this year.

"I haven't spent a lot of time with my son, but I would imagine some of my hobbies have changed," Dlamini says of what he does when he's off the bike. "So now maybe it'd be taking him for a walk in a park or something. It's something I'm looking forward to at the end of the season, and spending a lot of time with my wife of course, and sleeping."

Dlamini has made his mark on the Tour de France, and it means much more than finishing outside the time limit.