Dan Craven skipped his post-race massage after the Olympics road race, because he was done racing. He started eating ice cream in the athletes village. He even took a few sips of beer. Then he got a call: A time trial slot has opened up, do you want it?
He didn’t have the right bike, he didn’t have the right gear, he hadn’t trained for the event at all. Anything but last place would be a miracle.
But of course he’d start. He rolled down the ramp on Wednesday on a Cannondale road bike with drop bars, no skinsuit, no disc wheels. He did so because Namibia’s lone male cyclist rides for something bigger than himself.
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The first thing you need to know about Craven is that he’s not like most pro bike racers. He’s a smiling, bearded, laid-back counter-balance to the monomaniacal tendencies of elite sport. He is the anti-Sky Death Star, bringing balance to The Force. There was never really any chance he’d turn down racing the Olympic time trial, even if he was destined to come in dead last, even though he didn’t bring a time trial bike or a disc wheel or aero anything.
The second thing you need to know about Craven is he’s from the sparsely populated African nation of Namibia, and the Olympic stage is about more than his own ambitions.
“When I was a kid growing up in Namibia, watching Namibians in the Olympics was like, ‘Wow, we can be there,’” he said. “Okay, yeah, I’m going to come last, but there are going to be some Namibians at home that go, ‘But we can be there; it’s possible.’”
So he started. It was his accidental time trial, a mission doomed from the first pedal stroke. It might be embarrassing to other pros, but not to Craven.
“If someone thinks I’m going to be embarrassed here, today, they have no idea what I’ve been through,” he said. “They should have seen me when I had chronic fatigue syndrome and couldn’t even move up from last position in the Lincoln GP in 2013. You should know what salary I’ve ridden for in the past. This isn’t embarrassing, that was embarrassing.”
Still, the decision was not an instantaneous one. Craven’s first reaction was to refuse the spot. Athletes don’t like being unprepared, and the short lead-time to the time trial caused a bit of soul-searching. It’s just not done, riding a TT on a road bike.
“We are professional athletes, and riding a time trial on a road bike isn’t professional. So I am doing something a little bit unprofessional,” Craven said on Wednesday, half an hour before he set off on course. “We all have egos, we all have reputations we want to live up to.”
So he hemmed a bit, hawed some more.
“Then I started walking around the village, I started thinking about it. I thought, ‘I just said no to competing at the Olympics. Like … what?’ Surely that’s a little bit crazy,” he said.
He texted a few friends, and the response was mixed. He tweeted, “What do you guys reckon?” Twitter provided a near-unanimous ‘yes.’
Deep down, Craven always knew that was the right answer.
Craven has struggled to return from chronic fatigue syndrome, and though he’s well along the road to his old self, he isn’t quite there yet. “Until I am there, I might as well have fun,” he said.
Then there’s the flag on his back. Namibia, a nation of 2 million inhabitants that gained independence in 1990, has few international role models. Craven knows he’s one.
“I heard a statistic that for every 12 extra tourists per year to Namibia, a new job is created in the tourist industry,” he said. “Every time I get mentioned on Eurosport, how many people who have never heard of Namibia go, ‘what, where?’ and then Google it? And if you Google it, you’re going to go, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never heard of this place but it’s amazing.’
“With a country that has got few internationally known role models, it’s hard to know that you can do it. When I was growing up, [track and field Olympic medalist] Frankie Fredericks was the only worldwide famous Namibian. He was so important to me because it told me I could. If it wasn’t for him, it would just be like, ‘Oh, Namibians can’t.’”
Dan Craven can, of course. And he did. His final place matters not. To win his accidental time trial, all he had to do was roll down the start ramp.