Cape Epic Exxaro special jersey winner William Mokgopo is a changed man after returning from the Bakala Academy in Belgium, but he almost didn’t make it to the start line of his fifth Epic.
After a challenging 2016, he was tempted to leave the sport when his 2012 Epic partner Phillimon Sebona called and told him he was giving up cycling.
Not ones to quit, however, the pair eventually decided to give their careers one more chance and made the New Year’s resolution to take part in the 2017 race.
Jumping in head first they immediately started training for the eight-day event, despite not having the essentials – an entry or bikes.
Their perseverance paid off and they secured an entry a month before the start.
“It was a huge relief to have an entry, but we still needed bikes,” said Mokgopo. “Just four days before we finally had a breakthrough and we were loaned two PYGA bikes.”
Those who’d offered their support were rewarded when the duo went on to win the jersey – a category for U26 riders from disadvantaged backgrounds – and finish 42nd overall.
As part of their prize, Mokgopo and Sebona won R50 000 to put towards studies or other initiatives to improve their personal circumstances, as well as an eight-day stay at the academy in Belgium.
Having recently returned, Mokgopo said the trip to Europe had been career changing.
“For me the whole experience was a huge eye opener. I finally came to understand the specifics of what I need to be doing to improve.
“In just one week I learnt more than I’ve learnt in the past five years,” said the 25-year-old, who grew up in Diepsloot in Gauteng but now lives in Pretoria.
The teammates underwent various tests to illustrate where they were most efficient and to determine their limits.
Mokgopo explained these included VO2 max and biometric testing as well as various other tests in a controlled climate chamber which simulated riding at different altitudes and temperatures.
Besides discovering himself numerically, Mokgopo said the most valuable lesson he learnt was how seriously he should take himself as an athlete.
“You can see a big difference between us and the European athletes – they really live and breathe what they do.
“I saw first-hand how seriously they take their craft and that’s what I’m ready to do,” he said.
“It was a lot of information, but it was also very fun. Knowing all of this I’m really excited for the upcoming season.”
Mokgopo has come a long way since he built his first mountain bike as part of the Earn-a-Bike project in 2006.
“During the three weeks of the project I noticed other kids coming in and out in cycling kit. For me, I only wanted the cycling shirt because it was the first time I’d seen it and I thought the pockets at the back were very cool.”
This curiosity led to his involvement with the Diepsloot MTB Academy.
“I rode with the academy for a few weeks but I kept finishing last so I left because I don’t like losing. Two weeks later I was back and off to my first race and that’s where I fell in love with the sport.”
While the road hasn’t been smooth, his passion for the sport hasn’t dulled and he remains determined to achieve his greatest goal – riding at the Olympics.
“This trip to Belgium has really set me on the right path for that.
“I now realise these things take time and I won’t see results immediately. It’s a gradual growth that I’m really looking forward to.”