From Poverty To Winning Bronze At The Commonwealth Games

Kirsten Curtis |

Clint Hendricks, a 26-year-old from Paarl, sprinted to the bronze medal in the men’s cycling road race at the Commonwealth Games when he took third in a photo finish behind Australia’s Steele von Hoff and Welshman Jonathan Mould.  We caught up with him a few years back, after his win at the 2016 Cape Town Cycle Tour. This is his story.

By Kieren Legg | Top photograph Paul Samuels

Clint Hendricks is proof that if you wake up every morning ready to fight, success is inevitable. 

The peloton of riders ahead of him parted like the red sea, and in a second he took the gap to avoid being sandwiched between barrier and bikers.  It was one of those rare, impossible chances that comes along once in a cycling career – and moments later Clint Hendricks was sprinting over the line to claim his first Cape Town Cycle Tour win.

Pundits pin the victory partly on luck, but if Clint is proof of anything, it’s that preparation and opportunity meant that brief moment of fortune was inevitable. The Paarl rider, who was born into abject poverty, has had to fight his way out of terrible conditions, survive on slim earnings and come back from a bizarre injury that could’ve claimed his life. And this year he’s set on defending his title at the world’s largest timed cycling event. “I’m ready, I’m always ready,” he says.

Klein Nederburg is a small community situated between the mountains of of the Paarl Winelands. It’s characterised by swathes of fertile land, crawling with blooming vines and dotted with sought-after guest houses. But it’s also home to poor bric-a-brac townships where many families struggle in the long empty days between seasonal jobs.

“Let’s just say we grew up on the poor side of town,” says Clint. While they lived in dire conditions, the young rider says they were a close family. His dad worked tirelessly at a bike shop, and cycled at indoor track events in his free time. It’s the only reason Clint could consider taking up a sport with such a high financial barrier of entry. “My dad would get us parts at a discount,” he laughs.  From his first stints in the saddle, Clint was hooked. He would challenge his friends to drag races down strips of informal road, leaving them playing catch-up in the dust. At the time he was playing rugby, proving to be a dominant player on the pitch, but he admits his heart wasn’t in it – even when he was accepted into high school based solely on his talent, he was already plotting on taking a different trail. “I told my dad I wanted to start cycling seriously,” he says. And to the old man’s credit, he told him to follow his heart. “But he also said, if I do this, I need to commit.” A week later and Clint was straddling the saddle of his first road bike. He was excited, he could feel that there was something bigger waiting for him around the corner. He didn’t know how much he would have to suffer before success turned into a reality. “There’s just something about cycling on the road,” says Clint. “Your lungs are pumping; you’re soaking in your surroundings… it centres you. It doesn’t matter if you’re angry or sad, cycling is like therapy.”

When he was 17, Clint was a rider on a mission. He would wake up early and hit the road, training for almost four hours a day. He knew he didn’t want an office job. “I wanted make a living between the mountains, on the road – I want to clock in for work and know I’ll be moving,” he says.

For the next few years, it was this raw, spiritual relationship he had with his bike and the open road that would keep him on track. Even when results weren’t going his way, and he  was scavenging for enough money just to feed himself. “So often I wanted to just walk away and leave it all behind me,” he says.  Cycling is an all-consuming beast, an obsession of tweaking diets, riding style and oscillating saddle time from four-hour slogs to one-hour climbs up brutal hills.

“If I stuck to rugby, maybe it would be less training, less sacrifice and more money,” he says. “I said to myself, maybe
I should’ve stayed with it.” And then he would hit the road, his legs spinning in a steady rhythm, fresh air filling his lungs – and those doubts would fade away.

Fresh out of school, he joined Team Abantu, an academy devoted to uplifting and training promising riders from impoverished communities. There, he raced alongside another great in the making, Nolan Hoffman, who would
go on to win two Cape Town Cycle Tours. The team’s principal, Dean Edwards, helped him with  a basic salary. And another friend gave him a place to stay. “When you’re making less than R5 000, not having to  pay rent was a godsend,” says Clint. “Even then, I was scavenging to survive.”

At this stage the young rider had made the move to Joburg and was regularly taking part in races on the local circuit. He committed to becoming a work horse on the tarmac, riding hard to assist his team. While he wasn’t the star, his time in the saddle helped pros such as Hoffman claim podium finishes. “I wanted to show my team I would put in the work even when I wasn’t in the spotlight,” he says. It paid off: he was being noticed as a rising star. Then, his upward trajectory was stopped short when he was hit with a bizarre injury. The rider was racing in Durban and having  a strong string of performances. However, during the Carousel Classic he found himself on the back foot. “I was suffering; I didn’t know why, but it felt like I was riding in slow motion,” he says. Only once he was finished did he discover that the space between his shoulder and neck was severely swollen. He booked an appointment with a race doctor, who suspected it may have been a sprain. However, after three days with the area strapped up, there had been no improvement. He went back again for another check-up and after a series of infrared scans, the truth was uncovered. Doctors had discovered a blood clot extending from his neck all the way down his arm. “They told me if that thing breaks down, that’s you dead right on the spot,” he says. What had caused it? They didn’t know. The rider was put on a course of warfarin, a blood-thinner that would safely break down the massive clot. For six months he wasn’t able to train, as a single cut could cause him to bleed to death on the spot.

That was back in 2011. He returned to the sport the following year and started dominating straight out of the gate. The months spent sidelined with injury had ignited a fire in the rider. “It reminded me how badly I wanted this.”
With lofty ambitions, he moved to a smaller team, Team RoadCover, where he could be in the spotlight. Now his former role model and teammate Hoffman had become a rival on the road. He watched as the sprinter grabbed two back-to-back wins at the Cycle Tour. “I knew I wanted to beat him.” His opportunity came last year, when riders lined up for the Cycle Tour which draws in 35 000 riders from across South Africa and the rest of the world. He felt strong, confident, and quick. At that stage he was training for 30 hours a week, and had his diet under a microscope.
The race came to a head in the last 4km, with the peloton of pros bunching together just before the final sprint. He was drafting behind Hoffman, keeping a close eye on the veteran. But the pair started to get boxed in, and it looked like his hopes of sprinting to his first Cycle Tour win had been derailed. But then a gap opened up.

His team’s boss says watching the rider was “like watching a taxi on the N1 finding an impossible gap.” The surge gave him the opening to sprint to the front of the pack. By the time he was 100m from the finish line, he knew he had sealed the victory. “I was over the moon. All that struggling, all the pain, and I had finally done it.”

Photo: Cape Town Cycle Tour
Photo: Cape Town Cycle Tour

Now, plotting his return to defend his title, the rider isn’t worried. He’s going to fight for another victory every step of the way, but he knows there are some elements that are out of his control. “If it happens again, it happens again,” he laughs.  “But I have a good chance.”

He’s cycling better than ever, and his rivals are appropriately worried. Clint has gone from the kid from no man’s land to the man to beat. But at the end of every day, it’s not the victories or the prize money that occupy his mind. The 25-year-old rider is just happy he gets to do something he loves. “This sport allows you stay healthy, it allows you to travel, it allows you to experience the world how it’s mean to be experienced,” he says. “And I get all of that as part of my day job? I can’t imagine a better way to live.”

This story was first published in the March 2017 issue. For more inspirational stories likes these, get your hands on a copy of the mag today. Available from all leading retailers or online – click here.

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