ccs-62657-0-63474600-1424609415.jpg

In late 2014, Virgin Active’s Business As a Force for Good team selected five students from a group of avid cyclists from Lavender Hill Secondary School. The students, who range in age from 16 to 18, were selected for their passion for the sport, their commitment to training and potential leadership skills.

The move was to mark the beginning of a life-changing opportunity for these five pupils; Michael-Owen Dyson, Bevan Solomons, Faiez Basardien, Ashley Jacobs and Schalk Damons, to compete in the Cape Town Cycle Tour in 2015 and other top sports events.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZs5P7h2pYA

Once they had been selected they were introduced to Sir Richard Branson who signed their helmets, gave them words of encouragement for their future path. “I was overjoyed,” said Michael-Owen, 16. “I need the touch of people who can encourage me, leaders in the world. I would like to be part of this. I want to find a way to be successful and now my dream has come true.”

Ashley too was inspired by the encounter with Branson. He says, his mother uses the picture of him with Branson as her Whatsapp profile picture.

The team is led by Wesley Noble who heads up Business as a Force for Good at Virgin Active. He is their mentor and trains a full day every weekend with the team. Initially, the students only ambition was to find any set of wheels to achieve their goal of a five-hour cycle tour.

But Virgin Active and Noble had other plans.

On January 15, the team were handed fully equipped Scott Speedster professional road bikes for the Cycle Tour along with cycling gear. But the news was even better for them. They were ecstatic to discover that the bikes belonged to them. It meant transport from home to school, a way to get to their friends without using buses and taxis and cycling to part time jobs. In short: Wheels meant freedom.

They were also given Premier memberships for the year which allows access to any Virgin Active club in the Western Cape.

ccs-62657-0-05640900-1424609413.jpg

Right now, the team is training at Virgin Active Steenberg, an easy six kilometre ride from Lavender Hill. They are fit but like all young men of their age, they burn calories at a high rate. Juice Bar Kauai fuels the riders every weekend with nutritious wraps and fruit smoothies, essential for the energy and nutrition needed for optimum training. Despite extremely tough home circumstances and living in an area notorious for gangsterism and drugs, the team began to gel from the moment their training programme began. Every Saturday morning, they gather at a Virgin Active club to train hard – and bond.

Team spirit binds the team as they prepare for the gruelling race. They all say even though they started off as relative strangers, they are ‘like brothers now, family, they care and look out for each other’, the team spirit is great as is their pride at being selected.

“It is also an outing for the team as they get to experience parts of Cape Town they would not have ordinarily left their communities to see,” says Wesley.

“Despite living locally it was the first time that most of them had even been around Chapman’s Peak. Now Suikerbossie rolls off their tongues.”

He has become a role model and a friend to each one of the team members. The out rides have become more than practice sessions for the big race. It is here on the road and with access to someone who listens with empathy, that their real stories emerge.

There has also been positive spin off in their lives.

“For some of the cyclists, school was not a priority,” says Wesley. “I immediately noticed what impact their regular training had on more than physical fitness. I have seen a shift in their values where they now realise that if they would like to ultimately work for a business such as Virgin Active, they need to focus on their studies.”

All the boys spoke of their hardships at home and how this opportunity has given them the chance to prove themselves. They also spoke of cycling as a way of “getting away from their circumstances and just being able to focus only on the road ahead.” .

ccs-62657-0-60347000-1424609418.jpg

With the donation of the bikes has come responsibility to safeguard them but with that, some risk. Michael-Owen lives in one of the worst sectors of Lavender Hill for gang activity. A few weeks into the training sessions, he was stabbed with a screw driver in his arm. The thieves got away with his cell phone and his new Adidas trainers. He has chosen to leave his bike in Wesley’s care as he is afraid of losing it to crime.

Through the training programme slowly their personalities and strengths have emerged.

“Ashley is beginning to show a natural talent for cycling,” observes Wesley. “He has a dream to one day cycle the Tour de France. It’s not impossible. He is extremely fast and I believe has the potential to become a professional cyclist one day. We’ll definitely be doing everything we can to foster his natural talent.”

But there are opportunities beyond cycling for all of the team members including the impact their raised profiles and sports training is having on the wider community and fellow pupils at the school. “The purpose of the programme goes way beyond sporting events and competitions,” says Wesley. “The real goal is to provide alternatives for vulnerable youths from impoverished communities to explore and experience the world outside of their difficult lives. We really hope to inspire these young men through the development cycling programme to achieve great things.”