On a crisp Johannesburg morning I finally get to meet the Kenyan tandem team Seeing is Believing. Partners Douglas Sidialo and John Kiriko are excited about their maiden-voyage on their Cannondale tandem MTB. We all meet at Linden Cycles for a warm cup of coffee and bike-setup before our ride. Neville and his team from Linden Cycles assembled their new Cannondale Tandem, custom built by Francois from Manic Cycles in Worcester, the day prior to our ride. The duo is clear about their preferences, and it’s evident that they have spent many hours together in the saddle.
Douglas and John have just flown into town from Nairobi to partake in the Old Mutual JoBerg2C – one of South Africa’s premier multi-day stage race. Nine days of riding beginning tomorrow (24th April) and covering large swathes of South Africa’s countryside.
John, the pilot of this team, is the reigning Junior Road Cycling Champion of Kenya and has also represented his country at the Commonwealth Games. He started cycling at the age of 7 and met Douglas 3 years ago through a mutual friend who insisted they would make the perfect tandem team.
Douglas, who lost his eyesight as a result of the devastating US Embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998, is the machine that drives this team. Powerful legs and a charisma to match, he is quick to point out that they are in no way new to the sport. They boast a list of races which most of us would never even attempt.
Gerald de Kock from SuperCycling; Rob Heath, Director of the Standard Bank Africa Cycle Fair and Neil Evans, ex-Dusi winner and keen local MTB’er join us as we set out down onto the Braamfontein Spruit.. All of these gentlemen have a love for cycling , the human compassion and the story of overcoming advertising that is epitomized by John and Douglas. As we cycle they ask questions about their history, check that the bike is comfortably setup, and as we hit the first bits of off-road riding watch in admiration as John and Douglas handle the long tandem with speed and agility that would put most Spruit riders to shame. It’s only when we get to crossroads and or stop to take a photo that are we reminded that Douglas has no sight.
As we navigate our way trough Emmarentia Park, we discover a lot more about these skilled, likeable and impressive riders.
How long have you guys been cycling together?
Douglas: After I completed Tour de Afrique in 2013, I needed a new pilot. A mutual friend introduced me to John, who at that point was a very promising junior rider in Kenya. But we quickly realised that we had a lot to learn about each other, as a minibus hit us on our very first ride together! 2 weeks later we recovered, got back on our bicycle and haven’t looked back since. We have been through a lot together.
Name some of your most memorable races as a team
2013 & 2014 – Standard Chartered Rift Valley Odyssey, a gruelling 5 day race with a 7,500m Ascent
2013 – Laikipia XC Route, a 6 day MTB race covering 500km of Kenyan wilderness in the Laikipia region.
2014 and 2015 – Mount Kenya 10to4 Mountain Bike Challenge. A two-day race consisting of approximatey 160km and 3,000 meters of climbing.
At the 2015 Mount Kenya 10to4, Team Seeing is Believing had a serious accident on the last stage of the race, tell us more.
Yes, it was quite a bad crash. We made our way to the 10,000ft highest point of the race, and were busy with our decent down the mountain. We gained quite a lot of momentum on the tandem like we always do, but at one point, our V-brakes failed. John tried his best to keep us on the path, but we hit a rock and came off. We both lost consciousness, John severely injured his arm and I had a fracture on my cheekbone. We were airlifted off the route and admitted to hospital. We made a quick recovery and returned to watch the riders finish the race as guests of honor. Many cyclists and our families were very worried as there were a lot of rumors surrounding our crash. Luckily we survived with a few injuries and started training again only a few weeks later.
What convinced you to come and race in South Africa?
We met Gerald de Kock during a race in Kenya and he promised to get us an entry to a stage race in South Africa. He managed to secure us an entry to the 2015 Old Mutual JoBerg2C. With the help of some key people, businesses and the general cycling community in Kenya and South Africa, we managed to raise enough funds for our travel, kit, gear and other expenses for the race. Jean du Plessis, a South African based in Kenya, orchestrated a lot of the planning and in Joburg Minette Johnson has opened up her house and heart to us. Since we’ve decided to do this race, we’ve trained with a lot of dedication. We want to finish this race in good condition and we want to return for more. The Absa Cape Epic, is a dream for both of us.
We were all very impressed with the way you guys handled the new bike today. How do you communicate with each other during riding?
We communicate through a series of movements in our pedals, handlebars and through speech. John has to tell me what is on the route. Rocks, bumps, bridges, slopes, flat terrain and uphill’s. All of that information needs to be communicated through to me so I can prepare myself. I can feel in the pedal placement from John whether he is preparing for an uphill or if we are going to remain in an easy position for a flat path. But you cannot do Tandem cycling as a sport if you don’t trust your pilot. Luckily, I have one of the best!
Any tandem team, whether they have a visual impairment or not, have to communicate well. It’s key. Without it there will be no success. We are a team made up of two people with different personalities and ideas. We had to learn how to handle one another. If I feel John is tired, I praise him and motivate him. He, in return, will be very goal driven but also patient with me. The pilot of a tandem team needs to be very skilled. John has proved just this as you saw today. But our main aim is always to finish a race. If the terrain is too difficult, we will get off and walk. We always try to be as careful as we can, but we know our boundaries.
Do other aspiring cyclists in Kenya often approach you for advice and help?
Douglas: I have always been involved with sport as Sports Administrator. I was fortunate to act as President of the Kenyan Paralympic team from 2006 till 2011. I come into contact with some amazing athletes who decided not to dwell in self pity but to see their obstacles as blessings and opportunities. I am now involved with coaching athletes with spinal injuries to hand-cycle, amputee cyclists to become tandem riders and promote the sport of cycling to anyone who might think they have no future in a sport. But we are limited by our lack of funding. We have brilliant cyclists in Kenya but because of high entry fees, access to decent bikes and mechanical support, it is very difficult to break through as a pro cyclist. These however, are problems that are present in every country in Africa.
What does the future look like for Team Seeing is Believing?
We have a lot of amazing adventures planned for the next 2 years. Firstly we would like to compete in a number of MTB Endurance races. We really pray that we can secure an entry for the ABSA Cape Epic 2016. If we do, this will be our main focus in our training a preparation.
We also want to scale the Mbatian Peak of Mount Kenya. This is the highest of the 3 peaks of Mount Kenya. The Mbatian Peak is 5,199m high with very technical climbing. I want to become the first blind African person to do this. I would need John there to lead me every step of the way. There are never obstacles, only goals. We can do anything as a team.
You and John are an inspiration with your gentle nature, positive attitude and determination. What motivates you?
There are four elements in our team motto:
- What is within us is stronger than anything in our way
- We believe in the power of the human spirit
- We can overcome evil with good
- If you inspire one person, you can inspire the world.
Both of us are religious and our faith keeps us on the right path. Our caring families are our support in times when we are tired or injured. Other cyclists and athletes inspire us daily to push ourselves harder and to find new goals. If Team Seeing is Believing can unite people and teach compassion, then we’ve fulfilled our dream in life.
The team from Standard Bank Africa Cycle Fair were privileged to spend the morning in the company of these two phenomenal men. We wish them all the best for their Old Mutual JoBerg2C race. We will keep track of their race and their achievements after and hope to see them racing in South Africa very soon.