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The First Seventy Years: 103 - Cycling In Malawi

Eric Biddulph tells of organising cycle races in Malawi.

I had packed a bike in my luggage to Malawi. At that time I expected to be doing occasional riding as a means of keeping fit. Little did I appreciate what lay in store for me after I placed advertisements in the Malawi Times and with the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation asking anyone with an interest in cycling to get in touch with me. This turned out to be the catalyst for meeting one of the nicest Malawian's I was to encounter during the three years I spent in the country.

Boutwell Kasito had done some racing during the mid 60s when another expatriate cyclist organised some races. He was initially the only respondent. After a short delay another interested party contacted me; a fifteen years old, the son of an expatriate Englishman employed as a motor engineer by the United Bus Company. By early 1971, six months after my arrival, I had mustered some half-dozen riders to compete in a 10 miles time trial on a course using the Blantyre-Zomba road. Several more events were held on the same course at 8am on successive Sunday mornings. Mary acted as timekeeper. I always ensured that the press and radio had a copy of the results. By this means I hoped to engender a wider response.

One Sunday morning a passing motorist stopped to enquire what was going off. Having explained to him what we were about he identified himself as the general manager of United Transport. He wanted to publicise a new service he had on the starting block; The United Touring Company. Its objective was to provide a tourist service to the main sights in the country. He offered to have some wooden free-standing notice boards made for me reading' Care - Cycle Race in Progress. Sponsored by United Touring Company (Malawi) Limited'. He would provide four Malawian Kwacha, about £17 Sterling in today's money for prizes in every event I promoted.

He also wanted me to put on a short promotional race in the streets of Blantyre to publicise the introduction of cycle racing. I managed to persuade local retailers to donate prizes for the event. The race was a huge success and provided a foretaste of the support I would receive from the police in monitoring traffic during races. There was an influx of interested riders for the race, most of them riding decrepit sit-up-and-beg machines; wearing inadequate footwear, either shoes in their final stages of life or a simple pair of flip flops. Around thirty participants competed and about ten of them turned up for subsequent races.

A circuit of 1.2 kilometres on an industrial estate in Blantyre was brought into use for road races. Possessing a drag this proved to be an ideal stretch of road for the race finish. Now in possession of prize money I made a fundamental decision. Any road race would have to be based on a handicap system. Those riders competing on the heaviest bikes and/or wearing poor footwear would be set off before those with better bikes and footwear.

I was able to 'fine tune' the handicapping as the weeks passed. Eventually, I succeeded in having most competitors finishing within a few minutes of each other. In both time trial events and circuit road races I split the riders into different categories and awarded equal prize money in each; fastest on a lightweight; fastest on a sports bike; fastest on a heavyweight; fastest on a heavyweight with inadequate footwear. The riders accepted these methods of sharing out the prize money as fair. The Coca-Cola Company also proved to be co-operative when it donated a crate of soft drinks for competitors in every event.

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Eric’s book The First Seventy Years can be obtained for £10 by contacting http://mary@bike2.wanadoo.co.uk or telephoning 01484-658175.

All the cash raised by the book goes to a water aid project in Malawi.

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