Ramin Minovi Advises Nigeria National Squad

March 28, 2007

Ramin Minovi, ABCC Senior Coach and Our Club Coach was requested to advise the Nigerian national squad coaches and team on moden training techniques and tactics so they can compete in the African games. Never one to turn down a challenge, this is Ray’s story as published in the cycling press.

I’m looking out of the window of the team bus at Africa. On the other side of the road a vast plain of parched grass studded with eucalyptus and rock outcrops stretches to the foot of distant hills. Far away a black insect is walking, apparently purposefully, across the immensity.

Just in front of us the Nigerian National Road Squad, 14 men and 11 women, are on a training ride, 80km for the men, 40km for the women, all on 42 x 18 at an average of about 26 kph. There was a delay to repair a puncture; it took five minutes because there are no spare wheels, and the team mechanic put the tyre back on using two screwdrivers, his only tools apart from a hammer and a track pump. We’re on the way back now, heading for the outskirts of Jos, the capital of Plateau State, 4000 feet above sea level, where the riders are in camp, next to the Government House compound, in what was once intended to be a large sports complex. There’s a huge sports hall, 400m running track, athlete accommodation, but it’s another of Nigeria’s white elephants: work ceased in 1984 when the ‘economic downturn’ (i.e. successive military dictatorships plundered the country’s oil wealth) began in earnest. The sports hall is still roofless, grass is growing over the track, and nature is gradually reclaiming the site. It’s a pity, because Jos, at 4000 feet above sea level, has the best climate in Nigeria: clean air, a dry heat, quite unlike Lagos’ humidity, and beautiful surroundings. The distant mountains rise to 1700 metres: under British colonial rule Jos was the Hill Station, the equivalent of British India’s Simla.

The accommodation and facilities at the camp are less than basic, and the riders show great determination and character in putting up with the conditions in which they’re required to live. They’re in bunks in single-storey cement-block buildings which contain plumbing, but no water; there’s wiring but a generator supplies electricity only intermittently. The water supply is contained in a huge blue plastic tank balanced insecurely on old pallets. In the late afternoon women come in and prepare the food on a kerosene stove in a room out back of the main block, Nigerian cuisine, mostly semovita, meat and egusi soup, sometimes rice, high in carbohydrate but low in fibre.

I’m here because of a long-time friendship between the Reverend Moses Iloh, former President of the Nigerian Cycling Federation (CFN) and ABCC Senior Coach George Robinson. My companion, Peter Marsh, is a young man with a degree in sports science and business administration. We thought we were coming out in December to deliver a couple of refurbished turbo-trainers and instruct six Nigerian coaches in their use, but something went wrong in Lagos and the trip was postponed to the beginning of February. In Lagos we learned two fundamental truths about Nigerian cycling: there is no equipment and there is no programme of competitions. Most of the riders in the country will ride only one race in the season. Spares, clothes, replacements will be brought in by friends who travel abroad. There isn’t a single bike shop in the whole of Nigeria. We brought huge quantities of materials on CD and OHP transparencies, but we never got access to a working computer, and in the whole of Nigeria there isn’t a single example of an OHP, this cheap and simple bit of equipment which is found in every classroom of every school in Britain. If there were it would be ruined by the constant power cuts and there would be no replacement bulbs.

Back in Jos the team bus picks us up at the hotel at 3.45 and delivers us to the camp. In a pleasant room, using my OHP transparencies as notes, I deliver a solid two and a half hours on basic nutrition, basic training principles, and anything else I think they ought to know and can absorb in one go. Compared with Lagos, where we had nothing but our own voices, I have one great advantage: there’s a whiteboard and easel, and even better, some proper whiteboard markers and a cleaner. At last I’m able to do some proper teaching, and Peter joins in. We set up the turbo and demonstrate interval training until it falls dark – there’s no electricity. When the session ends we go back in the team bus to the Crest hotel. There’s no warm water throughout our stay, and only seven of the hundred or so items on the menu are actually available, but the rooms, in a single-storey block, are air-conditioned and comfortable. It’s still light and in the guarded hotel compound we find a Cyber café with a server and a dozen work-stations, and a photocopier, on which I make copies of some of the stuff I’ve brought with me.

That evening Garba Zonkwa, the National Technical Director, and National Secretary Francis Gbirri take us out to an unlit place, on the bare earth under the trees and the stars, where we eat barbecued fish and drink Star beer. It’s the best meal we’ve had since we left home.

The next day there’s a race up and down the escarpment that separates the Jos Plateau from the surrounding plain. It’s a hell of a climb, ten kilometres, stepped, with flat bits, and two dead turns in the road. It’s murder. The girls do two laps, 40 km, and the men 80km. The field splits irrevocably on the first descent, all but one of the girls go off, and by the first climb back to the summit they’re spread all over Plateau State. No group bigger than two will finish. We go up and down, marshalling the turns, handing up bananas and sachets of water.

While we wait at the summit four thuggish youths in green tabards marked ‘Mobile Advert Tax Force’ stop out-of-state cars and demand tax. It’s all quite legal, apparently, but it looks like piracy. They’re armed with six-foot wooden beams through which have been hammered nine-inch nails, improvised ‘stingers’ thrown in front of a car. It’s a system obviously open to abuse, like the frequent impromptu ‘checks’ manned by armed police or soldiers who throw tree trunks across the carriageway to form a chicane. What are they checking for? I ask, and always receive the universal sign for graft, the fingers and thumb rubbed together. But we’re never stopped – most victims are out-of-state or foreigners. I wonder how many of them ask for and get receipts?

After yesterday’s race Friday is supposed to be a recovery ride. I’d have recommended a maximum 40 kilometres, 12 to 14 mph, 75 rpm on a medium gear. Instead it’s 80 km at 16 – 17 mph spinning their 42 x 18s again. The girls do half the distance but today go straight home instead of waiting for us to pick them up on the way back.

Most of the afternoon is spent visiting the sad zoo and an equally sad wild-life park. Back at camp I deliver a one-hour talk on drugs in sport in the lecture room by the light of one guttering candle – no point writing anything on the board. I didn’t know I knew so much. Francis clearly feels that I haven’t delivered the health warnings severely enough and has something to add. His sermon is based on the text: ‘If you use drugs you are a shit’. I’m a little surprised at the strength of his feelings and his language, and it’s not until a week later that I realise he was saying ‘cheat’.

Hassan, a civil servant at the Ministry of Sport, takes us out to dinner, barbecued chicken and Star beer. Under its influence we pretty well sort out most of Nigeria’s problems – a pity we don’t run the country. Tomorrow the 160 km road race.

It’s already 35°C when they get the countdown and move off on the Abuja road. It’s a fast tailwind out, and on the first drag all but one of the girls are shelled out. At the turn the men are all together, but a few kilometres back into the wind splits them irrevocably, and the biggest group to reach the finish together is three riders. It’s taken 4.37.20 for the 160 km, 21.3 mph. It sounds less than impressive, but it was out and home, two big climbs, with an 80 km headwind finish, in 35 to 40 degrees, and there were only 15 starters. The lead girls, have done 89.9 km in 3 hr 10 min, which is 28.5 kph; or 55.8 miles in 3.10 at an average of 17.7 mph.

That evening we demonstrate the performance of the heart monitor – only one or two of them have seen one before – in semi-darkness. Later there will be more river fish and Star. The following day, a Sunday, we’re to go by road to Abuja, the national capital, and site of the National Velodrome.

At lunchtime on Sunday the camp wears a desultory air, the coaches and a few of the riders sitting or drifting aimlessly about. No-one has done any training of any kind today. The water tank is still a collapsed heap and may well be so in a year’s, a decade’s time. The whole ‘complex’ is a tragedy of waste, political shenanigans, lack of will, inability to cooperate, incompetence and mismanagement – just another indication of the staggering scale of Nigeria’s failure.

Yet our time here has been an uplifting experience. Rarely have I felt so quickly at home, partly of course because we’re all engaged in a single enterprise. The regard of the riders is touching, the coaches have worked hard and managed despite the many obstacles to keep to their schedules and timetables. On the road the riders have been impressive, especially the girls, showing immense guts and determination, never giving up. Barbara Omieh, their assistant coach under Mohammed Bashir (‘Bash’) is, I think, an outstanding talented, genuinely dedicated, strongly motivated and open-minded. Having their own female coach is obviously a benefit for the girls.

We come into Abuja, the purpose-built capital of Nigeria, through the scurf of cement-block single storeys, shacks, old army tents, and acres of ankle-deep refuse, mostly plastic, that disfigure every settlement, suburb and inner city area. Then we crest a rise and before us is a modern city, high-rise commercial palaces, the monuments of Western-style capitalism, built in every style of modern and imitation classical, not beautiful, but impressive.

The National Velodrome is the only track in Nigeria. From the outside it’s the best-looking velodrome after Hamar that I’ve ever seen. German designed and built, the track is cement, 250m with 43-degree bankings, under a plastic polymer roof supported by cable guys, like a giant big top. It was completed three years ago, and I imagine someone made a lot of money out of it. No-one has ever ridden a bicycle on it. There is not a single track bicycle in the whole of Nigeria.

On Monday morning Garba gives us our programme for the week, starting this afternoon with ‘Rules and Regulations of Track Riding’. We’re here to deliver a course to 18 state coaches and Peter and I share a fine air-conditioned office. It takes five or six hours to decide that no-one can or will clean the thick layer of dirt and dust off the track. In the afternoon I walk the coaches round, pointing out distances, discussing speeds needed to stay high on the banking and suitable gears, naming the lines, reciting all the rules I can remember and making up some new ones of my own. We get a road bike on the track and four of the coaches take it in turns to ride it up to the stayer’s line – best flying lap 25 seconds, 1.40 for a kilometre. Three years after its completion cyclists have ridden on the track for the first time. Back in the seminar room we talk about the track disciplines.

That evening they take us out in the clear, warm night air for more Star and a Nigerian speciality: goat head. In the darkness I can’t actually see the horror that’s placed before us, and I make no attempt to eat it. Musicians come to our table, a drummer, with a pair of bongos under his armpit, and two string players with their home-made instruments made out of a gourd, a two-foot stick, and a length of thin wire. Rita gets up and dances. The musicians bend low and close as they shuffle and jig round the table. The music, the night, the beer, and the smell of goat head are hypnotic, hallucinatory, unexpectedly magical. A voice in my head says, ‘It will never ever be as good as this again.’ Finally the players drift away into the embracing night, Francis announces that it’s time to go, and Peter and I walk back to the hotel.

On Tuesday we get new batteries for the static rig, the HRM and demonstrate how it works on one of the trainers. I teach them the English inches system of gearing, thus providing them with a means of working out a gear’s value relative to other chainwheel and sprocket combinations, and then we have a couple of hours on sport psychology.

One of the coaches constantly badgers Peter for a cap, but we’ve caught him sleeping on a mattress behind the seminar room, so he gets nothing. We christen him the Sleeping Beauty. Another who introduces himself as Prince Someone dozes ostentatiously, stares at the ceiling, wanders out into the entrance hall and makes phone calls. Royalty never does anything that ordinary people would regard as ‘work’. But these are the exceptions: everyone else is strongly motivated, enthusiastic and hard-working. That evening we see a handsome rat running around the reception area of the Chida International Hotel. Presumably it has a passport and visa.

Next day it’s training principles, periodisation, schedules. We meet more officials and receive handsome gifts, and I present certificates to everyone. Then comes the huge news that after months in store somewhere the new bikes have been released to the Federation and have just been unloaded. We rush to see them: eight Klein TT bikes, very light, flat tubes, Shimano full STI levers; five Corima ultra-light disks, around £1200 each at least, with 9-speed close-ratio cassettes; three Cannondale road bikes still in their original cartons; a stack of helmets, some shoes. Thirty more road bikes are on their way. Measured by this alone our visit has been a success.

Then it’s back to Lagos for the last three days of our visit, starting with a day at the sports centre in Rowe Park. Our influence has made itself felt: the Lagos Association have been given a ‘cycling room’, bare, but the blue walls look freshly painted. There’s a toilet, with no lid on the cistern and a wash basin with a tap which produces no water, which we buy from one of the ubiquitous hand barrows loaded with a dozen 25-litre plastic water containers at 8p each. Half of all Lagosians get their water this way.

By now enough people have turned up for us to deliver a course. It’s hot and humid, the sweat’s running off me, and the fan works intermittently. There’s nothing I can use to write on – the blue wall would do but I’ve no marker or chalk anyway. So we all squeeze round the plastic garden table on plastic garden chairs, Joseph Izibili, the most experienced coach in Nigeria, gets me some paper, and I go through what I think are their first priorities – modern training principles, race feeding, interval training. Both Joseph and Oloko are very clued up and we have a discussion about hunger knock. Oloko remembers the national team losing five minutes in the closing stages of the African 100-km team-time-trial through inadequate feeding.

Kamoli is worried because sex twice a week with his girl-friend makes him tired. Will it harm his athletic performance? He’s twenty-eight! I try to reassure him, but I don’t think he believes me.

By 4.30 everyone’s had enough, time to call it a day, and make presentations to the two visiting coaches, of Nigerian. Once again it’s completely unexpected and I’m more touched than I thought possible. Tomorrow, Saturday, our last day here, we have to be up at six to accompany the Lagos riders on an early-morning training ride. The riders knock out 71.5 km (44.5 miles) at an average of 31.2 kph, or 19.4 mph, a very respectable performance indeed, even on the dead flat road. What a team-time-trial course it would make!

The rest of the day is the usual mix of mad rush, insane traffic and sitting about waiting. It proves impossible to change a cheque. Moses lends us another 10,000 naira and his charming daughter Edith, educated in London, takes us to the market where we buy gifts to take home. Meanwhile his PA, Joshua, goes to the airport by taxi to confirm our bookings. We follow three hours later. Two hours to check in and get through security, then our first food since ten this morning, and we take off only five minutes late. We’re still over Nigerian air-space, but already on a different planet.

It seems like a year since I looked out of the bus window and saw that black speck plodding across Africa. Perhaps it’s still there, moving slowly, painfully, but purposefully towards some imagined goal. And perhaps one fine morning …

© Ramin Minovi, ABCC Senior Coach, February 2007