Bikienga Salfo, 28, sat on his bicycle at the Fort Francais park, Ouidah, Togo, waiting for the flag off of the 2nd round of the Second Ecowas International cycling tour to begin, Thursday. He had won the first leg the previous day, going from Lagos to Cotonou in 2:59:12 seconds. His colleague, Bamogo Seydou, also from Burkina Faso, came 3rd, immediately making the Burkinabe team the most awesome force in this West African tour.
There was an easy confidence about Salfo – and indeed all members of his team – that was almost spiritual, as if they believed the race was their’s to lose.
Shortly before the flag off at 11 am, I asked Salfo if he thought he would again win the day’s race which would this time be from Benin to Togo. ”I am not worried,” he said in his native tongue which his colleague, Ouedraogo Rasmane eagerly translated into French for us. ”Yes, I am thinking I will win this race too. Perhaps, even take the championship,” he said. His voice held no emotions.
To understand how strong this Burkinabe team is, some facts will suffice. Like most participating nations, the Burkina Faso team came with six cyclists. After the first race, five of them were named among the first ten fastest finishers.
A Burkinabe was 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th in a race with 66 circlists from 14 West African nations. It is monster performance of this kind that has made Burkina Faso a powerhouse in West African circling.
I asked Yameogo Hamidou, a Burkinabe, and in fact the winner of the maiden edition of this competition two year’s ago but who had just placed 9th after that Wednesday’s race, what happened to him? Afterall, he had boasted to me in Lagos before the flag off that he intended to win again this year.
Only now, he seemed to consider the question unnecessary, even simplistic. ”What does it matter,” he said looking at me through silver-tinted goggles. ”My colleagues were the ones in my front. And we were winning the race anyhow.”
Salfo himself was not in the race last time when Hamidou took the cup. But the group seemed to be rooting for him now after his sterling performance that day. There is a team spirit among the cyclists that is quite charming to see and further proof that cycling is, moreover, a team sport.
Indeed, the natural camaraderie among the Burkinabe cyclists suggested they were ready to root for any member in their team who happened to be strongest on any given day.
Nigeria’s leading cyclist in the competition, Ajibade Qodiri, who came 12th in the Lagos-Cotonou race knew how powerful this herd spirit could be.
”I was the lone Nigerian in their midst at the front and they had this tactical way of blocking you off to allow Salfo or any of their members to keep his lead. It is legal but it is frustrating. I wish I had such helpers.”
Mr Qodiri, a student of University of Ibadan, and an accomplished individual cyclist himself, however said there was an even better reason for the success of the Burkinabes.”They train,” he said, panting after posting some very impressive times in a race that earned him a red jersey for ‘agressiveness’ in Cotonou, after the first stage. ”They have opportunities to participate in competitions in their country. We don’t. Can you believe that after the last Ecowas cycling tour which I also participated in, there had not been any competition in Nigeria?”
Hamidou told me he won the last championship simply by preparing very hard. ”I trained a lot and entered into as many races as I could. Because of that kind of preparation, you are never afraid. It just gives you the confidence for this type of race,” he said.
From the moment the second leg of the four horse race began at Ouidah, Thursday, the Burkina Faso team consistently dictated the pace. Always, a couple of the Burkinabe cyclists could be seen among the top five and it was no surprise when two members of the Burkinabe team pulled ahead and breasted the tape in Togo, thus coming 1st and 2nd, in the second round. So, after just two rounds have been ran and a Burkinabe has won them both, it was clear that Burkina Faso would win the tour.
”There are few motobikes in my country,” said Rasmane who was eventually crowned the Tour’s champion at the end of the race on Sunday, ”so everyone rides bicycles.”
The Burkinabe cyclist who had acted as our interpreter earlier, had appeared humble, even complacent when we first talked with Bikienga. He acted as if he was merely there to urge Bikienga on. ”I came second during the maiden edition of this competition you know,” he said. ”And my friend Hamidou took the cup. Now, Bikienga might take it.”
”Why not you?” asked a perplexed reporter. He laughed.”No, let Bikienga enjoy it this time,” he said.
But it was not to be. At the end of the 450kms race from Lagos to Abidjan, it was Rasmane, inspite of his intentions, who was crowned king of the second West African circling tour.
But again am not sure it mattered to this team who won – as long as he belonged in their team.
Indeed, the Director, Ecowas Youth and Sports Development Centre, the amiable Francis Njoaguani told me a personal experience.
”In Lome, when BTCI, a local sponsor in Togo, mistakenly handed its gift items to Bikienga, the winner of Stage 1, who was still wearing his yellow jersey from the previous day.We tried to point out the error but Rasmane Ouedraogo, who actually won the race) and was standing beside his now second position colleague, replied “it doesn’t matter. It is the same team”