Dan Craven will be the first to admit he doesn’t fit the mould of a professional road cyclist. A Namibian by birth, Dan is a self-prescribed journeyman, a man of the world. Professional cyclist by trade, a traveller by necessity and an individual by choice. His unique outlook on life, as well as his country of origin (Namibia being far removed from the European heartland of road cycling), has seen him battle his way along a winding route to the top of his profession.
Forced down a road less travelled, Dan has come to embrace his position as an outsider. “I’ve grown up completely differently to the average person in Europe.” Dan says matter-of-factly. “In Africa you grow up more in touch with nature because you are completely surrounded by it.”
When talking about Africa, his curiosity and open attitude towards life shines through and his soft African tone is buoyed with excitement. “Often when people talk to me and they hear I’m from Namibia they’re like ‘oooo aren’t you afraid of snakes’ but for example when my mother was once warned about the tell-tale signs of a leopard prowling the family farm, her initial reaction was to jump on her mountain bike and set off to see for herself.” A story Dan recounts with African good humor. It’s clear to see where Dan gets the bravery and self belief that has formed his cycling style. Not just from his mother and father, but from Africa itself.
The benefits of a happy childhood growing up in the Namibian back country may be easily apparent at a personal level, but it’s not so clear how a country with a limited road network at best, could foster such a passion for road riding. “In my hometown there is one road and it’s practically straight. You can go north, turn around and come home, or go south and turn round and come home. In either direction the first town is after 65km and you have to go 140km north to find a T junction. I don’t see that one very often.”
Growing up, Dan was surrounded by sprawling singletrack intersecting the kind of terrain that would be considered a paradise by many European mountain bikers, especially those used to the restrictions of UK trail centres. “If you saw where I grew up you’d think I’m pretty insane to be a road cyclist and not a mountain biker. Our farm has a little mountain on it that would take you two hours to climb on foot.” A fact that he emphasises as if you wouldn’t believe him.
It wasn’t until Dan moved to South Africa and enrolled at Stellenbosch University that he really found his feet when it came to cycling. “Although I started riding in my final year of school, it wasn’t until midway through my first year at uni that I began shaving my legs” he jokes, “which is a sign that you might be starting to take it a little bit seriously.”
Inspired by an Iron Man event, witnessed with his parents when he was eight, Dan’s initial sporting ambition was to become a triathlete. An ambition which faced an immediate setback upon discovering that his school did not have a pool. Dan quickly forgot about triathlon, until one day it all came back like a bolt of lightning. “I went to a football match and there was a poster for a Triathlon on the wall and I nearly burst into tears. All of a sudden it was there in my face and I knew, that’s what I wanted to do.”
These emotions would soon prove to be misplaced though as Dan began to find swimming too monotonous and has come to admit that the running never quite clicked. “My roommate killed himself laughing at me because for the first six months of uni I still claimed to be a triathlete. In those six months I went running once and never swam but I was cycling every single day.”
Within the university cycling club, Dan found a place where he made a good fit. “It was such fun, hanging out with great people, always on their bikes, always doing things. The area was stunning and getting out on your bike just gave a sense of true freedom.” Dan found something that he had been looking for, without ever realising it. He had stumbled upon his calling and found his place in the world, even if he would have to work to make it fit.
As it became apparent that he had what it takes to make some headway in the ultra-competitive world of professional cycling Dan made a decision to move to Europe and pursue a place on a professional cycling team.
In his own words Dan ‘connected with an Italian, who knew an Italian who knew a Swiss guy who happened to sponsor a cycling team’. They liked what he had to say and invited him to Switzerland for a four week trial. “I rocked up and the only words I knew were ‘pizza’ and ‘ciao’ and their only English was ‘hello’. But after four weeks I had proven something that they appreciated, so they let me hang around.”
For the next two years Dan lived quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks, in a small house backing onto the railroad of a scrap metal yard that he shared with a Belarusian and two Polish guys. “It was definitely a school of hard knocks.” Dan says, and you can hear that he means it, “It was just about the roughest introduction to European cycling you can get.”
In 2008 after years of training and sacrifice Dan won the African National Championships which caught the attention of John Herety, manager of Rapha Condor. Dan signed with them in 2009 and relocated to Manchester and then Bristol, England beginning a period of his personal and professional life that he looks back upon with conflicting emotions. “As much as I loved it in the UK, so much of it was great, racing in the UK after coming from the dry heat of Namibia absolutely killed me. No other way to put it.” He says with complete conviction, “I’m used to living in a country where once every three years you’ll get cloud cover and rain for a full week. For the first few days people celebrate and run outside, but soon people become fed up because they miss the sun. The lack of sun killed my soul but I got stuck.” Regretfully he continues, “I love English culture and feel at home with the people, so it was far from all bad, but my cycling took a step backwards and I picked up a virus I couldn’t shake which made my results even worse.”
In 2011 Dan did not renew his contract with Rapha Condor but continued racing in the third tier of professional cycling for several different teams based in Europe, as well as riding for Namibia in the Olympics. He continued to underachieve over several seasons, posting a consecutive string of bad results. Admitting to feeling “completely useless” and struggling with poor form for the best part of three years, Dan came close to giving up on numerous occasions. Eventually he managed to find treatment for the mystery virus and began to rebuild, not knowing that a life changing opportunity was coming his way, a move to France and a leap into the Pro Tour.
Part 2 of Dan’s story will be released soon.
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