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  • Dan Craven, professional cycling’s ultimate journeyman

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    Collecting passport stamps, seeing the “famous African tractors” and passing Tibetan monks with the globetrotting Namibian who has raced in 37 countries (and counting)

    Photographs: Paolo Martelli
    Dan Craven

    Professional cyclists don’t pay much attention to building up accolades on Pro Cycling Stats. Numbers are nice but give them a piece of Sèvres porcelain or a rough lump of French granite any day.

     

    Dan Craven is a long way from the heady heights of Alejandro Valverde, Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan, those perennial high-achievers busy bagging PCS points like Henry the Hoover in a dusty cupboard. But not long ago the Namibian realised he was just shy of the top spot for one of the stats website’s more obscure categories: ‘most nations raced in‘.

     

    “I’d never even thought of trying to race in as many countries as possible,” he says. “And then PCS put up that list and it’s like, ‘ooh, look at that, I’m so close to being the guy with the most countries raced in. It’s harmless, fun and a nice thing.”

     

    A glance down the list of those countries he’s raced in – Azerbaijan, Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Ukraine, South Korea – points to a career spent following the road less ridden, the flight path less flown. His fifth most raced in country is the west African state of Gabon, ahead of Belgium (by a mere 18 kilometres) thanks to completing three editions of the Tropicale Amissa Bongo. Cycling heartland Italy sits a distant 22nd.

     

    All told, there are 37 nations, tying him with fellow globetrotters Christoph Springer and Lars Pria. Nope, we hadn’t heard of them either.

     

    Craven points out that the list only includes UCI ranked races and that PCS has failed to note his participations at the 2003 African Games in Nigeria and the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia. Top or not, his total is around double that of the likes of Sagan (23), Van Avermaet (20) and Valverde (18).

     

    Read: How the Tour de France winner’s trophy is made

     

    The closest active pros – and for this we mean Pro Continental teams or above – are fellow Africans Jay Robert Thompson (31) and Youcef Reguigui (30).

     

    Perhaps it’s no surprise for a 34 year-old Namibian who took up cycling at university in South Africa and whose CV comprises Italian amateur outfits, two British Continental level teams, the Azerbaijani national cycling project – “just a name on a jersey” – and a stint with Europcar, with whom he rode (and completed) his solitary Grand Tour, the 2014 Vuelta a España.

     

    Girona with Dan Craven

     

     

    Dan the journeyman
    Indeed over the 18 months prior to his three-week Spanish summer, Craven raced in Malaysia, South Africa, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Latvia, France, UK, Croatia, China, Egypt, Gabon, Cameroon, Morocco, the Netherlands, Germany, Ukraine, and finally Belgium.

     

    His inky, dog-eared passport, stamped with cycling’s global eddies and off-shoots, is a breath of fresh air in the modern era of Tenerife training camps, 100ml bottles of hand-sanitiser and ‘controlling the controllables.’

     

    There are memories of riding past snowy ancient villages in Morocco, and desert steppe and Tibetan monks in Qinghai Lake. He has raced along the Seoul waterfront in South Korea, live-tweeted the 2016 Rio Olympic road race (it was actually his partner) and raced the subsequent TT last-minute on a road bike.

     

     

    A particular highlight was finally spotting the ‘famous African tractors’ – not an agricultural band, Africa’s own Wurzels, but a semi-mythical tale from his youth – in Congo-Brazzaville ahead of the 2015 African Games, “probably the most random place” he’s ended up in.

     

    “It’s just a good example of aid being given to Africa; people think it’s amazing but they don’t understand what the people on the ground actually want, how they actually work,” he explains. “The tractor gets a puncture or runs out of fuel and that’s it.

     

    “We went out of Brazzaville on these training rides, on this beautiful new toll road which I’m pretty sure was built by the Chinese – as almost every single new road in Africa is, because the Chinese are now the economic colonisers of Africa, stripping Africa of money, nothing dissimilar to what all the Europeans did but just in a different way…. anyway, this beautiful road with almost no traffic.

     

    “Along there I saw clusters of tractors and ploughing equipment. Besides a layer of dust they were brand new, and the fields were all fallow. There were these ancient houses, really informal by European standards – not the best living standards even though I’m 100% sure those people are happier than most Europeans are – and then next to them these brand new tractors and ploughs just standing there.”

     

    Dan Craven

     

     

    Paradoxically for our bearded frequent-flyer with permanent wanderlust, his job is still to make his environment as homogenous as possible. When it comes to ironing out the little creases to performance that would normally make travel that little bit more exciting, Craven is world class.

     

    “We’re bike racers, we generally do not get to see whatever is going on locally,” he explains. “When I did the Tour of Qinghai Lake, I took over tons and tons of tuna. You take as much of the stuff that you can eat with you.

     

    “I brought a lot of my own food to Congo, which ended up not being necessary. I also had a whole bunch of hand sanitisers and I had a little survival kit, so if we had been in the worst conditions I would have been able to look after myself. And I wasn’t stressed.”

     

     

    Travel sick
    Nevertheless his journeyman lifestyle has come at a certain price. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – which he believes stems from a concussion sustained in 2006, a virus picked up at Qinghai Lake, and the final trigger of another concussion at the 2012 Rás in Ireland – continues to dog his career.

     

    “I’ve had a whole bunch of injuries, which if I’d done things properly, I should never have got there. But I was never stable enough, or earning enough money, to be able to invest to prevent that,” he explains, with a touch of regret.

     

    “Someone once told me that a pro rider is someone who is actually earning enough money to put something in the bank,” he adds. “In those terms I’m not a successful pro…. but it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t fulfilled or wasn’t happy.”

     

    Success comes in myriad forms; although he hasn’t picked up the fattest pay packets or palmarès, Craven believes he has earned his own personal rewards from professional cycling.

     

    “People hear Africa and think malaria pills; people heard Ukraine and thought war. Another example was India, the [2010] Commonwealth Games, there were people who didn’t go because they heard horror stories beforehand. Same thing with Rio and the Zika virus.

     

    “Reading the travel headlines is a bad idea. Do your research, but at the end of the day if people live there then that means you can also survive there.”

    Israel Academy with Craven

     

    Next stop, Israel

    Now Craven is racing for Israel Cycling Academy, a young Pro Conti outfit whose stated goal of creating a pathway to the pro peloton for young Israeli riders chimes with his own journey to make it as a youngster from Namibia.

     

    A scheduled trip home at the same time as this season’s Baltic Chain Tour saw two potential new countries – Finland and Lithuania – slip through his fingers, while another season hampered by illness and injury means Craven, as ever, must first prioritise keeping his place on the team. Yet whatever the circumstances, the journey will continue for as long as it can.

     

    “If I’m at a random race in Belgium, it’s not like I’m going to inspire anyone if I’m there. Whereas if I’m at some of these races in Africa, some of these guys know I’ve come from Africa and made it to Europe. You can see the sparkle in their eye and it’s magical, and that makes it mean even more to me,” he says.

     

    “I still feel the last few years I’ve been limping along. It might just be very stupid but I’m having fun, I love doing what I’m doing.

     

    “And as much as I know I’m a journeyman, it’s sort of like… really? Am I the guy whose raced in the most countries? I wouldn’t have thought so. But I’ll take it.”

     

    37 and counting: Craven’s Countries
    France, Great Britain, Spain, South Africa, Gabon, Belgium, China, Ireland, Canada, Morocco, Malaysia, Luxembourg, Cameroon, Rwanda, Portugal, Denmark, Azerbaijan,  South Korea, Switzerland, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Namibia, Estonia, Ukraine, Germany, USA, Latvia, Brazil, Egypt, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Croatia, Slovenia, India, Congo-Brazzaville, Qatar