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Songezo's goal: From townships to the Tour de France

By Chris Murphy, CNN
April 17, 2013 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
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African cycling pioneer
African cycling pioneer
African cycling pioneer
African cycling pioneer
African cycling pioneer
African cycling pioneer
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Songezo Jim is the first black South African to compete in a World Tour cycling event
  • The 22-year-old took up sport aged 14 after his parents died but didn't know how to ride
  • As part of MTN-Qhubeka team, Jim participated in last month's Milan-San Remo race
  • He wants to improve so that he can take part in the Tour de France in 2015

CNN's Human to Hero series screens every week on World Sport. Click here for show times, videos and features.

(CNN) -- As driving snow enveloped him and the temperature sank towards zero, Songezo Jim must have wondered if all that hard graft to realize his dream was worth it.

But not even the extreme weather conditions that blighted the Milan-San Remo cycle race could tarnish the pride the 22-year-old felt at becoming a pioneer for his sport in South Africa.

Eight years previously, a wall of color and noise had transfixed him as Cape Town's biggest bike race snaked through the Khayelitsha township where he lived.

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It was the first time he'd seen or heard of competitive cycling, and it started a journey that would end with him becoming the first black South African to participate at the sport's elite division, on the International Cycling Union's World Tour.

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And all the wind, rain, snow and ice thrown at him during Italy's famous 298-kilometer race couldn't wash away the elation Jim felt at etching his name in the history books forever.

"I've never been that cold in my whole life," Jim told CNN's Human to Hero series. "It was snowing, it was wet and the rain kept coming down.

"I was riding with my eyes closed at some points because there was no visibility with sunglasses, but when you took them off the snow went into your eyes.

"While the racing and weather was so hard I was thinking, 'Why am I doing this, this is horrible.' But then I thought, 'This is what I've dreamed about. I would not want to be anywhere else in the world.'

"It was unbelievable but I told myself I'm just going to keep on going."

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Tragedy took Jim from his home in Mthatha near the east coast of South Africa to the Western Cape as a teenager, but it would prove to be the place his sporting dream crystallized.

After losing both his mother and father in the space of two years he moved 1,200 km to Khayelitsha, the country's largest township, to live with his aunt.

I first started when I was 14 -- that was the first time I had ridden on a bike
Songezo Jim

Soon after the sight of those 35,000 riders sweeping past his home had ignited in him a desire to discover cycling, he was introduced to the Velokhaya project, which aims to help disadvantaged kids become champions on and off the bike.

Jim was desperate to throw himself into competition right away. There was just one problem -- he had no idea how to cycle.

"When I actually saw people riding, to me it was like 'Why are these people riding bikes? What's going on here?' and then I actually joined them," he explained.

"But when I did it was weird because I didn't even know how to ride a bike because I never knew anything about bikes."

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It is no surprise that despite the treacherous conditions in his first World Tour race, Jim's dedication to the cause was absolute.

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After some promising junior results, and finishing third in the African Championships in 2012, he swapped his home in South Africa for the Italian town of Lucca, near Pisa, in order to train harder and smarter.

By the end of his Milan-San Remo appearance the cold had taken such a grip on him that he had to be helped out of his cycling threads by the director of his MTN-Qhubeka team, Africa's first pro-continental outfit.

He was not able to finish the race, which was shortened due to the weather, but he had played his part in helping teammate Gerald Ciolek to claim victory.

"It was just an unbelievable feeling, especially for me to be part of the team," Jim said.

His passion for the sport has helped in his battle to overcome the traumatic events that visited him at such a tender age.

"For me to lose my parents at a young age, it was one the biggest challenges I've had to face in my life," he said.

"To grow up without the support of a parent, it was very difficult, but then I actually got to know the sport of cycling, that's when I decided, 'OK I just have to do this.'

"No-one is able to ride the bike apart from you -- even if my parents were there they wouldn't ride the bike for me -- so at the end of the day it just depends what you want in life.

"There's no point feeling sorry for yourself and people are not going to feel sorry for you. I decided I just have to do what I have to do because I love the sport."

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Jim's feats have not gone unnoticed back in South Africa, and press interest in him has been extensive. It'll go through the roof if he fulfills his ultimate ambition to make it to the Tour de France.

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With his profile rising like his career, he hopes he can now prove an inspiration for other kids with similarly challenging lives in the townships of South Africa and encourage a wave of interest in the sport.

"There are very few black cyclists that are in the sport," he said. "The first reason is this sport is really expensive.

"In order to become a cyclist, it requires you to be dedicated and your family to be behind you because you have to buy bikes, helmets and shoes.

"Second of all, if I could go back to me, at the age of 13 you don't even know what cycling is and you don't even know there's a sport that exists that's called cycling.

"At least now there are more people recognizing me so when I go back to Eastern Cape they ask me questions and I start to tell them everything.

"It's improving but there's still a lot that needs to be done. It would be great for me to see a lot of black South Africans in the sport."

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