Not so long ago, Sierra Leone in West Africa was synonymous with sinister words like civil war, child soldiers, mass rape, diamond trafficking.
The country even “made it big” in Hollywood, serving as a backdrop for the film “Blood Diamond”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and showing the civil war that lasted 11 years, killed hundreds of thousands of people and resulted in more than 2 millions of refugees and internally displaced persons (when someone needs to flee home, but does not cross the borders of their nation).
Over the years, Sierra Leone remains miserable, but it already has an incredibly sensational cycling tour to call its own – and that is one of the signs that the country is gradually recovering emotionally from the traumas of one of Africa’s bloodiest wars.
The Tour de Lunsar started this week, with competitions for women and junior athletes. This Friday (April 16) the men’s race began, which continues to raise national self-esteem and excite the cycling world until the 18th.
This is not a professional tour, with expensive bikes and famous cyclists, much less international media coverage. We are talking about a humble road cycling tour, in which competitors wear donated clothes and ride bikes that have seen better days. And whose audience often barely has anything to eat.
But that is where the immense beauty of these African events resides, such as the Tour du Faso (in Burkina Faso, which I have already written about here), the Rwanda Tour (read more here) and the Cameroon Tour.
These are competitions made thanks to the colossal national effort of those who love biking and racing, such as the Lunsar Cycling Team (which was the subject of this blog), led by local cyclists who do not have the money to buy equipment, but that does not matter: love for cycling overcomes any difficulty.
The Tour de Lunsar, which is Sierra Leone’s biggest biking event, takes place far from the capital, Freetown. Lunsar has about 36,000 inhabitants and lives on mining.
If you search for “Lunsar” on Google Images, you’ll get an idea of how significant it is to make a whole city vibrate to the sound of bikes, in an environment that has already suffered from Ebola outbreaks to armies of children carrying weapons and killing people.
With 7.8 million inhabitants, Sierra Leone has so far accounted for only 4,000 cases of covid-19 and 79 deaths from the disease. The low numbers are largely due to the isolation of the country, whose fame is still linked to violence and social chaos.
Without official recognition from the International Cycling Union (the UCI, the body that coordinates world cycling), due to a series of internal political confusions, Sierra Leone barely has a national federation to represent its athletes. As a result, UCI ignores one of the most divine Tours on the African continent – already so badly contemplated by events and bike companies.
But the Tour de Lunsar has been attracting supporters around the world, like Le Col, a sophisticated London-based cycling clothing brand. To support the competition, Le Col has made beautiful caps (caps for cycling) and jerseys (shirts for cyclists) celebrating the race, with income reverted to organizers in Sierra Leone.
In addition, the renowned sports supplement brand SIS (Science in Sport) is a major sponsor.
Obviously the Tour de Lunsar will not be shown on a lifetime ESPN. But you can follow him via Instagram of the Lunsar Cycling Team, who will present you with fascinating videos and stories (don’t just look at the athletes, so as not to lose banana sellers with bowls on their heads passing by the side of the corridors with curious looks).
Seeing this Tour, even if only by cell phone, will put a smile on your face, lighting a beautiful tip of hope in your heart. Yes, cycling and the love of biking still live, almost always in the most unlikely corners of the world. There are no millionaire bikes and designer clothes, but passion remains, which is what really matters.