breaking the cycle

AS YOU read this a group 31 cyclists are busy eating up the kilometres on the long, dusty, desolate roads of the Free State.

AS YOU read this a group 31 cyclists are busy eating up the kilometres on the long, dusty, desolate roads of the Free State.

From South Africa's northern-most border town of Beit Bridge - where they left last Tuesday - to Africa's southern-most city of Cape Town - they are covering the 2400km distance in only 10 days. Ten days of blood, sweat and a few tears.

Anyone involved in cycling will know it is not a cheap sport to get involved in.

Bikes can cost anything up to R100000 and the equipment that goes with it - from special shoes to the compulsory wrap-around dark shades - will set you back a fair whack.

Which probably explains why most of those taking part in this event are people with professional backgrounds.

From lawyers to accountants to medics they are lucky enough to be able to take time off from work and take part in Africa's longest race for charity.

One rider who stands out from the rest - not because he is one of only three black riders in the group - is Meshack Zimunya.

"I'm afraid to say I'm a gardener," he says in a hushed tone, when quizzed his occupation.

Now into its eighth year, the race, whose major sponsor is Sun International, is by invitation only and attracts riders for various reasons.

Some see the distance as a challenge; for others it's a chance to catch up and rekindle friendships built up over the years.

For many, though, it's a way of giving back to the community because all the money raised through sponsorships are ploughed back into needy communities along the route.

And that's why Zimunya has decided to take up the challenge.

Fleeing Zimbabwe in 2006, Zimunya lives with his girlfriend Hazel and three-year-old son Meruin in an informal settlement just outside Fourways, northern Johannesburg. He got into cycling through necessity.

"To get to my job I would take two taxis and then the same in the evening. It was becoming too expensive and using a bike was a cheaper option," he explains.

But he had always had a longing for cycling.

"When I was at primary school the Grade 5 teacher had a bike. He also taught soccer, so when he was teaching the other boys soccer I would steal his bike and practice riding."

Zimunya's time at school wasn't an altogether happy one. After his parents divorced when aged nine, he went to live with his father and stepmother. On completing primary school he was awarded a bursary to study further but his stepmother refused to sign the forms and he was forced to leave school.

"At the age of 14 I had to find a job and ended up as a goatherd."

With the Zimbabwe economy in tatters, he decided his future lay in South Africa.

Things were going reasonably well for Zimunya and his family when suddenly in 2008, South Africans showed their uglier side.

"The xenophobic attacks are still fresh in my mind. It saddened me when they happened. I just wanted people to understand that not everyone who comes from Zimbabwe is a criminal. At the time you were made to feel that you were trespassing."

After leaving Johannesburg for a short period he returned and once again became a regular feature cycling on the road. It was then that he was spotted by other cyclists and invited to join them on weekend jaunts, which would eventually lead to the current race.

His training schedule is hectic - 21 hours a week consisting of 60km rides during the week and 120km distances on weekends.

When on those long rides Zimunya takes time out to reflect on his life. "When I have a challenge, I think back to those days in Zim ... when I used to run without shoes ... on an empty stomach. This is nothing compared to that," I say to myself.

Though he still has dreams of one day writing his matric, he is making the most of what he has. The resentment he harboured for many years towards his stepmother has also disappeared.

"I've moved on completely. If I had had the opportunity to finish my schooling I wouldn't be a gardener today. By doing this race I can give something back to people. That's why I do it. That's what makes me feel good."