At the age of 13 years old, Mokgopo built his first bike inside a shipping container. Three years later, he was hurtling down the dirt roads of Africa in serious mountain bike competitions. In 2020, he hopes to ride for gold in Tokyo.
William Mokgopo started out riding his uncle’s bike on the rugged streets of Diep loot, a township 40 kilometers north of Johannesburg. Everything changed when a 13-year-old Mokgopo came across a shipping container.
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“My uncle had this old road bike, it was so big, extra-large, and I was so little I would get into the frame and try to peddle on the side.”
At 13 years old, he built his first bike inside a shipping container. Three years later, he was hurtling down the dirt roads of Africa in serious mountain bike competitions. In 2020, he hopes to ride for gold in Tokyo.
“MTB is growing massively. In the future, I think it could be a major sport. It’s coming to schools now and the schools’ series this year had about 10,000 riders. Even if you look at the black communities, it’s growing. Yesterday we went for an 11-hour ride around Johannesburg and there were about 30 black riders.”
They call him the Skinny Hulk. The name fits like a glove. Mokgopo, the South African mountain biker, is tall, thin and pumped up with gutsy determination. At the age of 24, he is already the 12th-ranked mountain biker in South Africa; part of a new generation of cyclists from the streets to race for gold at the UCI MTB World Championships, the African Continental MTB Championships, and the UCI MTB World Cup.
“I think it’s a bit premature to think I will qualify for this year’s Olympics. But the qualifiers are due in May. Even if I make third or second, I still might make it.”
On this early summer morning, Mokgopo, in riding gear, greets with a warm smile outside Number 3080, on a bumpy street in Diep loot. It’s not easy for cars in this street, but an ideal challenge for training on a bike.
Mokgopo lives in a Reconstruction and Development Program house that the government started building for its citizens after the 1994 elections.
“Everyone here used to live in extension one; in shacks. When the houses were allocated, they chose a block of shacks and said those living in shacks from here to here are getting RDP houses. We were given a number and told this was our house. We signed a form, and that was it. I was still at primary school at that time. Before it was the six of us living in the house.”
“The first year that I started getting paid, I extended these other two houses and one in the back here. It was actually just to have a bit of space. It was difficult living together; trying to bath here and trying to do a whole lot of stuff,” he says.
“It was just up the road from my house. You will see the fencing on the main road. It started with a project called Earn-A-Bike. You would go and choose a bike, then they would strip it down and then you would teach yourself how to build it. Then, when you graduated, that bike that you built would be your own bike,” he says.
Here, Mokgopo came across Simon Nash, Founder of the Diep loot Mountain Bike Academy, and began to race.
“People didn’t take it seriously. When you are riding a bike in Diep loot, it looks like you are just doing it for leisure. You are a grown-up still riding a bike, for my neighbors it was stupid. Soccer is the main sport here, so when you are on a bike people are like what are you doing?”
For Mokgopo it was uphill all the way. His school friends tied strings across the road to bring down his bike. Outside a corner store, a group of men would sit on crates and laugh at him as he rode by.
“It would be very tough getting out the township in your riding gear. I would have to take shorts and the minute I got out of town then take them off and go ride my bike. There were guys who would stop me and ask me stupid questions, like what is this what? What are these pads on your pants; are they for a woman? But now those people who were laughing at me are actually my friends.”
“The other day, I was sitting on the floor at the corner shop and one of the guys came up and said why is The Celebrity, cause that what they call me now, sitting here? One guy said I think even if William has a million and he will still come and sit here. I always want to show that I still want to be at the level they are.”
One reason for Mokgopo’s smile on this day is a new $4,750 bike, tucked away in his room. Along with competing professionally on the Kargo Pro MTB Team, the first UCI-registered MTB Team in South Africa, Mokgopo is a sports sciences student at the University of Pretoria.
“The tricky thing about MTB is getting the points and staying in front. When you do cross country, you need to look at the course. When you are racing it’s a completely different course. Someone might push you off course or the rock you thought you would be jumping from might have moved. It’s always the thought of what’s coming next,” says Mokgopo.
“From our side, William is a one-of-a-kind athlete, he is so complete on and off the bike and many pro athletes can learn from him. The Olympics is very much a reality for William in 2020 and beyond. He is showing improvement every season and also deals with setbacks very well which is a very important aspect for a pro athlete striving to be the best. Making small adjustments to his training regime over the coming seasons will see William gain that consistency that is needed a week in, week out for Olympic level racing,” says Shaun Peschl, Team Manager of Kargo MTB.
Cycling isn’t cheap. Mokgopo says it can cost around $34,000 a year to race as a professional for travel alone. His team is fortunate to get their bikes and supplements for free. The latest equipment can make all the difference.
“When I started racing, I had a poorly conditioned bike. I remember the academy got me a carbon bike; I could finish second. It just shows from that little change in equipment it can set you moving into that winning stage. It can put you on the podium. The expenses can push people away from the sport. But it depends on the person you are,” Mokgopo says.
“I will sit with my eyes open and listen to music. People think I am listening, but I am seeing the course and riding it all the time. It’s getting the feel of the race before even getting to the starting line. I see everything how I want it to be in the race. This is where I have to jump. This is where I need to speed up,” says Mokgopo.
He once spent three weeks in bed with a broken shoulder, after he clipped a motorbike while training on a dirt track.
“I couldn’t even control my fingers. I rode one-handed to home in Diepsloot. Overnight it got worse and we had to go to the hospital the next day. But when I went back everything had completely changed. I started coming second and third and ended up winning a race and that was it. I went to bigger races and was introduced to cross country. When you get your first victory that is when the love gets that bit bigger,” he says.
“When you fall, the blood looks super cool, My mom was skeptical; with all the bruises and stitches I have when I come home. She didn’t want me to do it. She doesn’t say much, but you can see she’s very proud. My dad always says he’s very proud of me,” says Mokgopo.
Mokgopo’s dream of a spot in Rio was ruined when he injured his knee at the Cape Epic in March. It took two months to get back on the bike again.
The injury forced Mokgopo to build a new dream; his plan is now to be the South African champion in 2017, go to the Commonwealth Games in 2018 and to be an Olympic athlete in Tokyo in 2020.
Bumps, bruises, a bike built in a shipping container and friends who used to laugh at him. Mokgopo comes from humble beginnings and hopes to ride his luck all the way to Japan in 2020.
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