As a youngster growing up, sports had always thrilled me. I suppose my early exposure to cricket and football endeared me to play both sports at a fairly high level.
In those days, living a stone’s throw away from the Queen’s Park Oval in St Clair, Port-of-Spain with my family was also a great incentive because, in addition to Test and regional cricket being played at the historic venue, the Oval also played host to international football as the country was not blessed with the number of stadia as we have today.
Major cycling meets were held on the grass track at the Oval which was just outside the boundary fence. The boundary fences would be removed to accommodate both the cyclists’ training and meets. The sheer thrill of a cycling event at the Oval was awesome.
I suppose I was also lucky that I had a bike so it would either be, races on the pavement or on the side street. In those days the likelihood of being run over by a car was very slim as there were not many cars on the road.
I remember my first cycling hero was Roger Gibbon. Every young kid wanted to ride like Roger. I remember a time when there was this big meet where he was coming up against Daniel Morelon, a French Olympic champion, and it was likely to be his biggest challenge.
I had a damaged hand at the time and naturally was told I could not go. I don’t know how I persuaded my mother to take me, but I suppose there is a word called ‘nagging.’ On the day, you couldn’t fit a sardine into the Oval; it was absolutely packed and of course, Gibbon duly beat the Frenchman.
Leslie King and Fitzroy Hoyte were also two wonderful champions at the time competing at the national level. Although I was never deranged enough to try and compete at a cycling event, I always followed the sport intensely.
My father educated me on the first man to compete at cycling representing T&T at the Summer Olympics in 1948: Compton Gonzalves, who was born Guyanese but came here at 14 years old, and together with Ferdi De Gannes formed the T&T Cycling Federation (TTCF) in 1950. We have continued to give the world many international cyclists since the formation of the Federation.
Gene ‘Geronimo’ Samuel is another name from the not too distant past that comes to mind. Gene was a fierce competitor and did his absolute best for the red, white and black on the world stage.
Earlier this month, some of our cyclists were competing at the UCI World Championships in Poland and young Nicholas Paul (trust me T&T, you need to remember this name) pedalled against some of the best cyclists in the world to finish seventh in the men’s sprint. Paul had reached the quarterfinals but lost to a Dutch rider.
I had the pleasure of meeting Paul a few months ago and he is a big, muscular guy at 20 years old and a perfect gentleman. He seemed very humble and gave the impression that he just wants to quietly get on with his life without any major hurdles or complications.
Unfortunately, the more internationally known Njisane Phillip suffered a broken wheel riding in his race in the 1/16 finals to finish 13th. The individual events came after the T&T sprint team was unable to book a place in the second round with an 11th place finish. In the end, T&T left the Championships having placed seventh and 13th in the individual sprints, 11th in the team sprint and 12th with Kwesi Browne in the semifinals of the Keirin event.
I understand there are still five more meets left for T&T in the Olympic qualifying cycle with another set of Championships: the Pan Am Championships and the World Championships to come over the next 12 months. To a layman like yours truly, that seems frightening.
I have never met Erin Hartwell, the TTCF Technical director and coach but his CV is extremely impressive and since he has come on board, our cyclists and our cycling have improved immeasurably, so I have to trust his judgement.
However, my major concern is that these young riders seem to always be on the move. More often than not, every time you pick up your Guardian newspaper, they are somewhere in the world competing. I sincerely hope they are wrapped in cotton wool as they must be physically and mentally drained from this long qualifying phase as it’s more or less the same cyclists that have contested both the track World Cups and the World Championships.
The sport is arguably underrated locally even though our T&T cyclists continue to excel and rise exponentially in the UCI world rankings. We are now ranked as the third best sprinting nation in the world via the recent UCI Men Elite Sprint ranking update. Way to go guys! Keep the T&T flag flying with your achievements. Well done to the cycling fraternity!