southeastern Zambia is well known for its picturesque safaris, with herds of elephants and big cats drawing tourists from across the globe. But head north to Solwezi near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and you’ll find a different scene. This rural district’s notoriety lies with its large copper reserves. Follow a red-dirt road out of the city of Solwezi’s town center, and small villages dot the lush, green countryside where a tropical climate makes for warm weather year round.

Though it’s the capital of Zambia’s North-Western province, few Americans have Solwezi on their radar—especially mountain bikers. But while the usual day-to-day of Solwezi’s mining community carries on, a dedicated group of cyclists have been gaining recognition here and beyond as they train tirelessly on miles of singletrack they’ve helped build.

“This is Zambia’s first pro cycling team,” says coach and Colorado native Nora Richards. “We get asked by locals every day about how they can join, and we always tell them to get on their bikes and come to races.”

Richards, 28, grew up riding her bike down sketchy trails littered with rocks in Durango. Once she graduated from University of Colorado at Boulder where she raced downhill, she made her way to Solwezi to follow her now-husband Ryan Ellis, a native Zambian and a fellow zealot when it comes to all things cycling.

Solwezi revolves around the mining industry economically, and it got the cycling ball rolling here. In 2014, a senior member who was an avid biker at First Quantum Minerals’ (FQM) local Kanshanshi Mine decided he wanted to start a team. He’d approach talented runners and encourage them to join. And since Richards and Ellis were notorious local cyclists, always out riding and working on trails, FQM recruited them in 2016 to ride for and help train a small, but elite team of male racers—including Richards as the only female on the team. But by June 2018, she was putting together Zambia’s first elite-level national team of fully sponsored female riders.

“Over those two years, I started to discover that I really liked coaching, and I wanted to make more of an impact in women’s cycling,” says Richards. “Today, we have four female riders. Once they were done with school, they could become fully sponsored and now this is their full-time job.”

The racers range from ages 18 to 21, and in August 2018, Richards was able to send one, Martha Sandondi, 21, to Rwanda to attend a training camp with Team Africa Rising, a notable cycling organization. The team’s newest member, Rabecca Chiyuka, 21, smiles over a Skype call as she explains how she officially joined the team in 2018. “My dad is a cyclist and I always admired the sport,” Chiyuka says. So she competed in a village 30K race and placed sixth out of approximately 150 cyclists, including men. “That’s when my dad talked to Richards and I was recruited,” she says.

Not only does the mining company FQM cover a monthly salary, along with fully sponsored housing, food, equipment, race entry and travel, it also hosts major races within the community, including the “1 Zambia MTB”, (1zambiamtb.com), a scenic 250-kilometer race through the African bush. Ruth Kadimba, 19, and Anita Yama, 18, will race in it this year, representing the FQM Team.

Headquartered in Canada, FQM has been heavily involved in community development in Solwezi. “We want to promote gender equity,” says Victor Nsana, the local coordinator of sports activities with FQM’s Kansanshi Mine Foundation.

“This keeps women focused on a passion and they are more likely to keep away from early marriages. No one signs a contract as we do not want to hold the cyclists down. They must be free to leave anytime,” Nsana says. 

With young, mainstream riders like Red Bull’s Bianca Haw as well as legends like Mountain Bike World Cup racer Greg Minnaar, both from South Africa, pro cycling has a foothold in the continent. But Zambia may be poised for a boom.

“Cycling was mainly for transportation. Now you see local kids riding on trails that previously were only used for carrying charcoal,” says Richards, who moved to the Zambian capital of Lusaka in early 2019, but will continue to help coaching at races and from afar. “Right now, not many Zambian women participate in sports.”

A big goal for the team is to get a Zambian cyclist to the Olympics. “At the moment, that’s a possibility for one of the men,” says Richards. “For now, we’d like the ladies to be able to participate and hold their own for Zambia in the World Cups.” And longterm, all four women on the team want to study medicine or nursing.

In April, Yama won the U23 event in the African Continental Championships in Namibia, Africa’s equivalent to the Pan American Championships.

“I want to grow my skills and become a true professional cyclist,” says Kadimba. “I want to coach others. I want to empower more young women. And I want to represent Zambia.”