My earliest memory of Tafi Machingaidze is from an OGs BMX Club display in 1995, where he was the star of the show. Nearly 20 years later he is still inspiring kids, and adults, on bikes.
Machingaidze started riding in 1989, aged 10, during the sport’s boom period. He left Zimbabwe in 2000 to study in the US, the birthplace of BMX, and started racing in the national series. After a year he turned pro and managed a 3rd in the north-east states and 2nd in Massachussettes, beating some of his heroes. But it fell apart when he broke his leg in 2003 and doctors said he would never ride again.
Machingaidze returned to Zimbabwe on holiday in 2005. When he reconnected with the local BMX club, he found a small group of young riders desperately in need of guidance. He jumped at the chance to be involved. “I was riding vicariously through the guys I was coaching. When one of my riders conquered a new jump, or won a race, it almost felt like I was doing it. I still got the same thrills.”
Eight years later he is still here.
Since 2003, Zimbabwe has sent a team to the UCI BMX World Championships every year (plus some as far back as 1986). The event gives Machingaidze and his team plenty to work towards. He runs training sessions every weekday, and there’s a race meeting every second Saturday during school terms. The club launched the Africa Challenge in 2008, and it now follows the South African Grand Nationals as a series to crown the African champion. This year’s event is on 26 October and it promises to be a thrilling showdown, so get to the track to show your support.
But Machingaidze faces many challenges off the track too. “In Zimbabwe there’s this conception that you get your kid a BMX bike. When they get to Form 1 they have to get a mountain bike or a road bike. Then when they turn 16 they get their car. And for a lot of kids that’s sport out the window. Where the sport really gets serious is where we’re losing our riders.” He says that BMX needs to be ‘cool’ again if we want to compete at an elite level.
Machingaidze has a plan: a squad for development riders. When some kids from Mabvuku discovered the BMX track in 1999 they saw a much more attainable alternative to the motor racing next door at Donnybrook. “They are hungry,” says Machingaidze. “To a kid who is from a low-income family, to see another kid on a $1,000 bicycle, that’s the world. Or to hear that they’re on a plane to England − to them that’s unthinkable. BMX sells itself in Mabvuku. If I had the support to bring in 100 bikes, I would have 100 riders for those bikes tomorrow.”
Although the club has received huge support from Sanvik, Faithwear, Absolute Paints and others over the years, funding for bikes and equipment remains a big challenge. Machingaidze, however, believes “that Zimbabwe is going to produce something truly phenomenal − a world beater − out of this development programme.” It already has some success stories. Gordon Martin is riding professionally in Belgium, and junior Pineas Tendani has been funded by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) to spend a few months at its training center in Switzerland.
Considering the small talent pool, Zimbabwe’s BMX successes are remarkable. Since 2005, the country has earned close to 30 World Championship plates, more than South Africa. (A plate, or number-board, shows that a rider progressed to the final round of eight.) But Machingaidze has something even bigger in his sights: “My dream is to see…the whole of Zimbabwe glued to their screens because we have a BMX rider in an Olympic final. I think it’s so possible with all the ground work we’ve done. We have world champions. We are four years away from them doing it at pro level.”
The introduction of BMX at the 2008 Beijing Olympics is helping the sport’s revival. Colombian and Latvian medal winners are national heroes in their countries, and Machingaidze wants the same for Zimbabwe. He mentions 12-year-old Matthew Denslow who has earned an almost-unheard-of six world plates in a row, but if the development programme takes off then Zimbabwe’s Olympic BMX champion could be anyone.
Having defied doctors’ predictions, Machingaidze recovered from his broken leg and raced to top eight finishes in the 2009 and 2010 World Champs. He broke both wrists a week before the 2011 race, but is back and looking ahead to 2014 when he will enter the 35−39 age category. He’ll have to balance his time between preparing himself, training his riders, and his day job.
But Machingaidze isn’t only focusing on future champions, or youngsters, and is keen to emphasise the fun aspect of the sport. New riders of any age are always welcome. “Come with your $50 bike. Come in your overalls and gumboots,” says Machingaidze. “Give it a try and have a laugh.”
The Harare BMX track is next to the Old Georgians Sports Club in Mount Pleasant. Riding for a day costs $5, or monthly club membership is available.