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Vera Ngosi-Sambrook: Cymru, ultra a chynrychioldeb | Wales, ultra and representation

This is another bilingual post on Y Ddwy Olwyn. The bulk of the post - that being what Vera has written - is in English, and only the introduction is in Welsh, so feel free to scroll down to the English (which is just after the first picture) or use the translation function that Google Chrome offers. To view the full selection of bilingual posts published on the blog, click here.

Un o bynciau llosg seiclo ar hyn o bryd, fel mewn nifer o feysydd yn ein cymdeithas fodern, yw cynnwys a chroesawu a chynyddu cyfranogiad pobl o gefndiroedd sydd wedi eu tan-gynrychioli yn y gorffennol. Un o'r ffenomena mwyaf poblogaidd yn y byd seiclo ar hyn o bryd, fel y gwnaethon ni drafod yr wythnos diwethaf, yw beicbacio ac ultra endurance.

Mae cofnod heddiw'n cyfuno'r ddau beth yna, wrth i ni glywed gan Vera Ngosi. Mi ddois i ar ei thraws hi tra'n gwylio rhaglen ddogfen ar GCN+ fu'n dilyn ei thaith hi (yn ogystal ag ambell un arall) ar hyd ras ultra y PanCeltic; ras aml-ddiwrnod, hunan-gynhaliol drwy Gernyw a Chymru. Mi wnes i gysylltu â hi, yn y gobaith y byddai'n fodlon ysgrifennu am ei phrofiadau a'i dyheadau, ac mi'r o'n i wrth fy modd pan y gwnaeth hi gytuno.

Dydw i heb gyfieithu'r hyn mae hi wedi'i ysgrifennu gan mod i'n teimlo y byddai hynny'n lleihau'r elfen wirioneddol bersonol sydd i'r cofnod hwn. Felly, dyma ni. Yn ei geiriau hi'i hun, dyma'i stori unigryw hi am ymgartrefu yng Nghymru, syrthio mewn cariad â'r ddwy olwyn a cheisio cynyddu cynrychioldeb ymysg pobl o'r un cefndir a hi.


First club ride with Cardiff Ajax CC

First of all, tell us about yourself and about what brought you to Wales.

My name is Vera. I’m originally from Malawi, and I came to the UK in 2012 to study engineering at the University of Bristol. After graduating in 2016, I secured a graduate job which happened to be just across the border in Cardiff. Having never ventured into Wales during the time that I was at uni, I had no idea what to expect when I moved here. Truth be told, I hadn’t appreciated that Wales had a different language until I turned on my radio the day after I moved here and couldn’t make sense of what was being said and thought it was just a really really strong English accent. Oops!

However, I very quickly fell in love with the place. Having grown up in African countries that spoke multiple languages, I felt more at home in Wales because of the bilingual nature of it than I had in England. I quickly settled in, and have been here for over 5 years now.

How did you get into cycling in the first place, and what made you want to continue? What is it about cycling that appeals to you?

I got into cycling within 6 months of moving to Wales through meeting a bunch of cycling nutters at my graduate job. Having not cycled since I was less than 10, I was somehow lured into doing a charity ride of 210miles over 2 days, on a tandem! With less than 3 months to transition from zero road cycling experience to the big challenge, I was motivated by the false promise that as the stoker, I didn’t need to pedal and could just drink prosecco and enjoy the stunning Welsh views. This turned out to be an utter lie (the not pedalling bit), as I had to work very hard, but I caught myself grinning as I was grinding up the relentless hills of Snowdonia, and barrelling down the valleys of mid-Wales. It was physically the toughest thing I had done to date, and it also tested my mental resilience. Averaging a puncture every 20 miles, covered in brake dust and constantly feeling as though my legs were going to fall off, I persevered and survived. This is how I caught the cycling bug! A year later I bought my first road bike and joined my local cycling club (Ajax CC) as a way to build my solo cycling skills and meet new people.

One of the reasons I remain drawn to cycling is that it provides the opportunity to explore new places at a slow enough pace to properly take in the sights , but also fast enough that each hour is different to the next as you ride along. I’ve been able to explore Wales in a way that I never would have been able to if it wasn’t for cycling. I love the mental freedom that it gives me, and of course the fact that it allows me to sustain my addiction to doughnuts and cakes.

Left: The ride that got me into cycling in 2017

Right: Tandem touring from Cardiff to Elan Valley and back

I first came across your story when watching the documentary following your journey on the Pan Celtic Ultra race on GCN+; tell us about the experience; the scholarship, the setbacks, its physically demanding nature and the opportunity to discover new places (including my favourite climb up Bwlch y Groes!).

When the boredom of the first lockdown hit in 2020 and I had grown tired of doing crosswords, baking sourdough and crocheting, I discovered that going out for long rides was the best way for me to remain sane. I started an Instagram page to share my cycling adventures, and very quickly discovered this online community who were really keen on what they called endurance cycling. I started to hear of people doing these big rides such as LEJOG, and the TCR, and I was baffled but fascinated by how people could achieve these feats of endurance. A seed was planted in my head that one day I would like to do a big ride myself. I didn’t set a timeline, and truth be told, it would have probably remained a dream for a very long time, but within a few weeks of thinking about it, I came across an advert for the Ultra Distance Scholarship in November 2020. It was the first of its kind, and the scholarship was targeted at getting more black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people into ultra-distance racing, an area which is very underrepresented much like the rest of cycling. The scholarship offered a custom-built endurance bike, a cycling coach, entry to the PanCeltic Race, bikepacking bags, and various other support needed to get someone like me, a beginner, ready for their first ultra race in the space of 6 months. I applied, mainly drawn by the prospect of a new bike, and was surprised to hear on New Year’s Day 2021 that I had won the scholarship!

I then set off on this crazy journey of training for a 2000km self-supported race, when the most I had ever cycled was 170km during CARTEN (Cardiff to Tenby) two years prior. My appointed coach drew up a gruelling training plan to get me physically ready, but there was plenty I had to prepare for in addition to my physical fitness. In the months leading up to the race, I had to learn how to sleep in a bivvy bag in the middle of nowhere, practice riding through the night, but most of all, mentally prepare myself for a challenge of this scale. The online community stepped in to help; a wonderful sports psychologist based in North Wales, Kelly Colley, got in touch having heard of my story, and offered me some free counselling sessions to help equip me with the psychological tools to take on this challenge.

The months of training were tough, but also rewarding. Fitting training around a full-time job meant my weekends were consumed with long back-to-back rides, and at times this felt too exhausting. However, what kept me going through the tough bits, was the joy I experienced when I discovered new places, conquered new hills, continuously discovered how much I was capable of, and the messages of encouragement from people online sharing that I had inspired them to take on challenges of their own.

In what felt like the blink of an eye, 6 months had gone past and I found myself at the start of the the PanCeltic race in Plymouth, huddled under a gazebo sheltering from the torrential rain, and waiting to start the race with 140 other crazy people who also thought this was a great idea of some ‘time off’ our day-jobs.

CARTEN ride 2019

Riding through torrential rain, endlessly undulating terrain and sleeping in the wild; what did you learn about yourself during the race? Would you do this type of event again?

The start of the race felt like a baptism by flood. Torrential rainfall, and the relentless short and sharp climbs of the south-west made me question my life choices within the first 2 days of the race. Cycling for 14 hours a day, and then having to crawl into a bivvy bag (which let’s be honest is basically a bin bag), really put my resilience to the test. On day 2 of the race, I got close to breaking point. Over a dozen others had already scratched from the race at this point, as the weather conditions were atrocious. I was cycling in my summer kit in July, but the weather felt like February. My hands were terribly cold that I struggled to brake and change gears. In tears, and close to quitting, I decided to stop for the night instead and to take the commonly shared advice of ultra racing which is not to quit at night but instead wait for morning to make the decision. I surprised myself when I woke up the following morning and got back on the saddle to carry on. The physical and mental ups-and-down of this event really brought out an inner strength that I didn’t know I had. I pushed through physical discomfort to a point where I almost didn’t recognise who I was. The longer the race went on, the stronger I felt I had become. Each time something got tough, I reminded myself of what I had overcome in the previous days and urged myself to carry on. “I have not come this far, to only come this far” I constantly reminded myself.

The self-belief that this event built in me has carried through to other areas of my life, and it’s something I am very grateful for.

Would I do this type of event again? Yes. I wouldn’t do the exact same event, mainly because I like to try new challenges, and ones that I’m not 100% sure I’ll get through. So for me, it's about building upon my resilience, skills and strength through taking on new and different challenges. I will definitely continue to participate in endurance cycling.

Bikepacking setup for the PanCelticRace. Photo taken on Anglesey

I understand that you were the only woman of colour on the start line - and that the scholarship ensured at least some representation or diversity. Cycling, from grassroots to professional level, is notorious for its frankly disgraceful record on diversity and inclusion; how has that affected you?

The lack of ethnic diversity in cycling can sometimes feel alienating. Whilst I’ve not consciously stopped myself from participating in cycling activities because of this lack of diversity, it does sometimes feel a little uncomfortable always being the one that sticks out like a sore thumb. There can be a certain pressure associated with being the only person of a particular characteristic, for example the only black woman at cycling events, and that is the feeling that you not only have to perform, but outperform, because others may treat you as a representative of a whole group of people and you become fearful of validating any prejudices they may have.

There was one event I attended last year (GrinDuro Wales), which was the first cycling event where I came across more black people than I could count on one hand, and the effect that this had on me was unexpected. I felt this burden lift, as though I could just be 100% myself and not worry that anyone else will take parts of my character or performance as representative of an entire ethnicity.

More than anything though, this lack of representation is what has fuelled my passion to put myself out there and be more outspoken, in the hopes of encouraging other black and brown people to take up this sport of cycling that I love so much. I just want more people to share in the joy that I derive from cycling. To be clear, this is a multifaceted issue; it’s not just a case of black people coming out to cycle, it’s also about the impression that clubs, events and the whole bike industry gives when they advertise themselves. Are they doing enough to be inclusive? Are they putting in efforts to reach groups beyond their mainstream audience? There has been some positive progress in making cycling more inclusive over the last 18 months but more needs to be done.

Finish line of the pan celtic race

As an ambassador for brands and collectives, what can be done to increase participation in cycling? How do we progress and become a more diverse sport?

This is a big question, and I won’t purport to know the full answer to this, but here are a few things which can be done, and are being done by some brands to increase participation in cycling are:

  1. Broadening representation. There is a famous quote that says “You can’t be what you can’t see”. Brands/clubs/collectives need to diversify the images that they put out for people to see. If all you ever see are slim, white MAMILs on expensive bikes, then it's very hard for those that deviate from this image to feel welcomed into a space. But, there’s also a fine line between representation and tokenism, and organisations need to find the right balance. Personally, as an ambassador for a number of brands, I look carefully at what the brand is doing to increase representation and who else they have as ambassadors before I agree to work with them.

  2. Finding new avenues to reach underrepresented groups when you advertise for events. Most of us live in echo chambers, surrounded by people who look like us and are from similar backgrounds, and so those are the people we share opportunities with, and the people we welcome to the table. Brands and event organisers need to challenge themselves to open up those circles, as they are the gatekeepers, and they need to put this at the forefront of their strategy rather than an afterthought. A great example of what some organisers are now beginning to do is they are ring fencing some tickets for underrepresented groups to whom news of the event often reaches much later than the usual crowds, thereby giving them a chance to be able to get tickets before they sell-out to the default crowd.

  3. Diversify your events, for example, if you are a club who only does club rides with an average speed of 20mph, and all your chat revolves around how many grams you’ve shaved off your new drivetrain, you are going to struggle to draw in a diverse crowd! Offer a range of rides or event categories to match different abilities and interests. Focus on supporting people to be able to enjoy riding with the equipment they already have, as opposed to constantly making people feel as though they have to get the latest gizmo, electronic shifting this, or power pedal that in order to fit in.

At the start of the new year like this, what are your plans and objectives for the year both in cycling and elsewhere?

My main goal for cycling is as it has always been, which is to ‘keep pedalling’.

Cycling is such a diverse sport, and I’m still learning about all the different types of cycling one could do, and I love challenging myself to try new things. After the past year of endurance road cycling, one of my goals for this year is to go off-road more, and I’ve recently gotten into gravel and mountain biking. I got a mountain bike last autumn and I’m enjoying the feeling of being a beginner again and learning new skills, making myself look like an idiot on pump tracks, and screaming my lungs out on every berm. I’m also looking at taking part in some endurance gravel events later this year. Most importantly though, I want to remind myself that cycling doesn’t always have to be about suffering and doing ridiculously long rides and bivvying in bus shelters. I look forward to weekends of bikepacking, at party-pace, some of the lovely routes around the UK put together by Cycling UK, and just going on adventures off the beaten track with friends and family.

I also plan to continue sharing my stories with others to encourage more people to get out on their bikes and to push past their preconceived boundaries, and I plan to continue to use my voice to speak up for diversity and inclusion in cycling.

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