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Closer than we know

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Closer than we know

In our lives, we experience occasions of disconnectedness. In these times, it’s easy to feel as if we are on our own—isolated from everyone and the world around us. But even in these moments, we are so much more connected than we know.

Earlier this year, Bud Reeder and Lentine Alexis set out to find the connection they had been missing. They wanted, as Lentine put it, “to breathe meaning into our lives in a time when we felt powerless.” They turned, naturally, to the bicycle—not just because cycling was the territory upon which they had built their lives, but also because they believed in the bicycle’s power to connect. They set their sights on a challenge of epic proportions—an eight-day stage race across some of the world’s most gruelling mountain bike terrain.

By taking on the challenge of ABSA Cape Epic, Bud and Lentine sought to inspire women around the world to ride more. But even more than inspiration, they wanted to actually put more women on bicycles. “When you love something,” said Bud, “you want to share it.” And so that’s what they did.

They partnered with Qhubeka and World Bicycle Relief, to help more women use the bicycle as a tool to carve their own paths in life, setting a lofty goal of raising enough funds to provide 50 bicycles to members of the township of Kayamandi, on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa.

Qhubeka—a Nguni word that means “to carry on”, “to progress” or “to move forward”—is a non-profit that provides bicycles in return for work done to improve communities by planting trees, taking on leadership roles or earning spectacular academic marks.

The day Bud and Lentine delivered the bicycles to Kayamandi is one they will never forget. “The sounds and sights and smells of the village were overwhelming,” said Lentine. On a dusty, unpaved road that cut a winding swath through the centre of the township, they were met with crowds of enthusiastic children, who darted barefoot from alleys to greet them. There was a flurry of tiny hands, excited hugs and a chorus of ringing as those tiny hands reached up to sound the handlebar-mounted bells.

In places like Kayamandi, access to a bicycle changes lives. Among the residents who had earned a bicycle through Qhubeka was a young woman named Olwethu. Kind-hearted and deeply intelligent, Olwethu is a 16-year-old student who lives in a tin-roofed, two-room home in Kayamandi, which she shares with her mother and niece. She dreams of becoming a doctor or engineer, and her new bicycle will help her get there. It will cut down on travel time to school and prohibitive transportation costs.

Still, there are challenges.

It is not typical for a woman to ride a bicycle in Kayamandi, so Olwethu will exhibit a special kind of bravery as she rides to class. And in this way, she will carry forward the core of Bud and Lentine’s mission. Other young women in her community will witness Olwethu’s courage, and they too may be inspired to earn a bicycle through community leadership the way Olwethu did.

Before departing Kayamandi, Bud and Lentine accompanied Olwethu to her home, where her new bicycle now sits perched against a wall, taking up a majority of the living space. Here, Olwethu promised that she would enjoy her new bicycle, and in this moment Bud and Lentine felt the full weight of their connectedness through this simple machine. Though they ride in different ways, the bicycle, in its purest form, is a vehicle for empowerment.

From Kayamandi, Bud and Lentine travelled back to Cape Town for the start of the race that had sparked this mission. “Knowing that Olwethu is waking up this morning,” said Lentine, “able to move freely in the world and that her freedom of movement and humble determination are rolling about the streets of Kayamandi even more quickly and powerfully than before has planted a seed in me. One that makes the insurmountable task of completing the ABSA Cape Epic seem, almost, easy.”

From the starting line, they carried with them a deep sense of their connection to Olwethu, the women of Kayamandi and riders the whole world over. And, in the end, their trip to South Africa became about something else too: courage.

Late in the third day of the eight-stage, 800-kilometre race, Bud went down hard on her knee, in a “not a brush-it-off-and-keep-going crash”. The injury prevented her from putting significant pressure on her pedal stroke. But she kept going. Operating at half-strength, Bud soldiered on against the pain, the wind, the sand and the heat of another stage.

On the fourth gruelling day, they held each other up on climbs and rattling descents, battling the exposure to the hot sun for hours, until the finish line was at last in sight. For a moment they shared in the relief of making it home once again before discovering they’d missed the cut-off time by a mere two-minutes.

At the finish line, their bikes were wheeled away. Officials clipped their race numbers from the handlebars. Done. Defeated. They would not be permitted to start the fifth stage.

For women who have made a life of overcoming challenges on bicycles, being forced to abandon something they’d spent so long preparing for was devastating. “No amount of training,” said Lentine, “can prepare you for the moment when you realise that the finish line will never come.”

But racing is as much about coping with unpredictability as it is about dealing with the challenges you expect. And, in a way, all of life’s big challenges are like that: it’s not what you’re prepared for that knocks you off kilter, it’s the surprises.

Though the story of their journey to South Africa was, in some way, about the race, in a much deeper sense it was about witnessing the powerful ways the bicycle connects us. It was a project, as Lentine put it, “about action: doing a big mountain bike race, yes, but about doing something larger, more emotional and powerful than that.”

“The power of bicycles is tangible,” she says. “We came to Africa to help this young woman and others like her. We wanted to give her something, an object that represented freedom and empowerment, that she might not have been able to achieve on her own. We did that, I think. And she gave us something too, something filled with power and love and connectedness. It was something we couldn’t achieve without her.”

The images of our most meaningful journeys stay with us forever. For Bud and Lentine, it’s the expressive eyes of the children who ran excitedly behind their bikes as they pedalled across the township on the uneven dirt road. It’s the young girls carrying water back to their homes. It’s sunset over the Kayamandi hills, casting a long orange light on the community below. And perhaps most indelibly etched into their memory: Olwethu on her new bike, the joy in her wide smile and the wind in her hair as she pedals her way to an entirely new place.

Olwethu’s new bicycle cuts down on travel time between classes and prohibitive transportation costs, so she can achieve her dream of becoming a doctor or engineer. In their campaign to race ABSA Cape Epic, Bud and Lentine contributed 50 bicycles in support of World Bicycle Relief and Qhubeka. To learn how you can help empower people like Olwethu, visit www.qhubeka.org.

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