As William Mills (UV Thomson) matriculates this year, he leaves behind an exceptional legacy. His vision, unwavering determination, and commitment to establishing the St John’s College & Academy Cycling Group profoundly enriched the lives of the young men who rallied alongside him. This is his remarkable story.
A sport better shared
I was never very good at ball sports, but in primary school, I found I had an aptitude for endurance sports, including cycling. I love the challenge of pushing myself in training and racing, the technology involved in bike design, and the freedom cycling allows you.
I work hard at my schoolwork – a non-negotiable in my family – and the benefits of doing so are self-evident. But working hard at cycling is my own choice. I set my own goals and work out ways to achieve them, and that brings me a great sense of personal satisfaction.
I competed in the nationwide Spur Schools Mountain Biking cycling series in 2019 when I was in Remove (Grade 8). It was a great format to challenge myself, and I even managed to get selected to compete at the national finals at the end of the year. For most of the races in this series, I was the only boy competing for St John’s College. It would have been a lot more fun if there had been more boys to make up a team!
I realised that cycling is a sport better shared, and I was determined to introduce my school to my preferred sport, to train boys to compete in these schools’ races, but also in other cycling events, and for them to enjoy the sport. However, this did initially not go very smoothly, as most College boys are very involved with other school sports and activities and don’t have the time to pick up cycling as well.
The Academy gets involved
With the encouragement of Mrs Agnes Nugent, the Head of the Academy at the time, I extended the invitation to the St John’s College Academy boys. The Academy is very much a part of the St John’s community but didn’t always interact with the rest of the school as much as it could. Getting them involved in cycling would form connections with the College, and since many of the boys had never been afforded the opportunity to cycle, it would also allow me to spread the joy of cycling.
In 2020, before the Covid lockdowns, I was able to run a few sessions with boys from the Academy and a few St John’s boys. We measured our fitness levels on the school's Wattbikes and taught some of the Academy boys who had never ridden before how to cycle. There was clearly a lot of enthusiasm, but Covid lockdowns enforced a halt for most of the year. By the time we returned, I'd put some thought into how best to create a structured environment in which to train.
I decided we should base ourselves at the Hector Norris Park (HNP) velodrome in Turffontein in the south of Joburg. Here, the boys could train in a controlled environment, which would progress their bike skills and fitness massively, as drills can be run without other variables affecting their progression, and nobody can get lost!
It seemed to work. Under the guidance of coach Benedict Moqumo, we were able to progress so quickly that, by the end of the year, we were able to compete in a track league event at the velodrome.
In 2022, under the guidance of UCI-accredited coach Dave Street, we continued to expand our ambitions. The Spur Schools Mountain Biking series was disbanded in 2021 but has now restarted under Cycle Lab sponsorship. We have competed in the first two events in the series, which has been fascinating for our group. The scale of the competition is something to behold, and the fact that you compete with other riders of your age means it is a good benchmark for us. We have also competed in a few track league events at HNP, which are fun and fast.
A highlight of the season has been Comfort Shiburi’s selection to the Gauteng team for the Cycling SA Youth Festival in Oudtshoorn in July. With an emphasis on team participation, this national festival is designed specifically to provide riders with the opportunity to show and develop their potential. Comfort competed in three out of the five events held – the Road Race Crit, the Mountainbike Cross Country and the Mountainbike Oval Track. He returned from Oudtshoorn exhausted but exhilarated by the experience and having made new friends and contacts among fellow cyclists.
The support I have received from my school has been fantastic. I am very grateful that they have understood my vision for the project and allowed it to take place.
My role has been primarily to drive the initiative. With the support of my mother and father, I have made the decisions on what the next steps for the programme should be. We decide when to have training sessions, where they should be, given the event we are preparing for, and if there is anything that we would like to introduce to the boys, such as why it is important to ride in a group on the track and to build that into our session. I ride with the boys and provide on-the-bike coaching.
Mrs Nugent was instrumental in encouraging me to include the Academy boys in this programme initially. Our coach, Dave Street, has patiently and with humour built up the skills base of the boys. Finally, the school, especially Mr Alan Lion-Cachet, the Director of Sports, Mr Mickey Mashego, the Head of the Academy, and Mr Aubrey Buthelezi, the teacher in charge, have allowed the program to succeed through careful coordination of logistics.
A dedicated crew
A major learning curve for me has been understanding the context these boys come from and the difficulties they experience on an everyday basis, such as finding transport to St John’s on days they wouldn’t usually come, needing to eat lunch at school, as well as family commitments. They come from a very different background to me, and working with them has reminded me never to make assumptions about other people's lives.
These are not boys who have nothing else to do except cycle. The Academy has the aim of improving their lives by improving their academic capabilities. The boys are thoroughly committed to an academic process and attend after-school classes at least three afternoons per week. Their dedication to cycling under such constraints is admirable. In return, they benefit from leadership development, skills development, team building, and improved fitness. It's also just a lot of fun and provides a welcome break from their schoolwork.
All along, my goal has been to do some enjoyable yet competitive cycling with a group of boys in the St John’s community. I am constantly encouraged by the boys’ enthusiasm. The fact that they have gone from being non-cyclists to flying around the concrete track of the HNP Velodrome at speeds of up to 35km/h on track-specific bikes – no gears and no brakes – is an impressive achievement.
By encouraging and coaching school-level cyclists to the point that they are able to compete in arenas such as the school series or track league events at the HNP velodrome, this group is part of a wider imperative to grow the sport of cycling on a national level. This was not necessarily my primary goal, but it is something that I am aware of, having competed in national and continental events, and it is part of what keeps me motivated.
What cycling means to the St John’s College Academy and their parents
“In the cycling group, I'm able to grow faster and learn from other riders who are more experienced than I am, and it's fun to cycle as a group.”
“I have a lot of friends in the cycling group, and I learnt how to ride a bike because of the group.”
“What I love is that everyone is so passionate and dedicated about cycling.”
“I like the group energy and that everyone has different abilities.”
“U get to enjoy the wind blowing when riding the bike.”
“The fresh air gives me a break from soccer.”
“We get to learn something new every day.”
“The participation, skill development”
“It teaches my son a lot of skills.”
“Improves my health lifestyle.”
“I enjoy cycling.”
“It was extreme. I felt like Lightning McQueen!”