“So I’m that African cyclist with the big beard and glasses. You know, the one who tweeted ‘live’ during the road race and then rode the time trial on a normal bike…”
As we celebrate Namibia’s greatest cyclist by launching the jersey and cap he wore in Rio de Janeiro, read on for Dan Craven’s exclusive story of how he became a viral sensation.
Rio’s accidental hero
The exclusive story of Dan Craven’s time in Rio de Janeiro, as told by the man himself.
My name is Dan Craven, but some people know me as Dan from Nam. I’m the guy who went viral three times at the Rio Olympics without getting any results, nevermind any medals, and this is my story.
To tell you the truth, I almost didn’t make it to Brazil. At the qualification event in 2015, I crashed 100m from the finish line, seemingly ending my hopes in a millisecond. Utterly bewildered and scuffed to pieces, I dropped my bike and walked towards the pits. After a few steps I realised I had been so close to the line that crossing it really wouldn’t hurt me, so I turned around, picked up my bike and walked across the line. Lo and behold, due to some confusing small print and some even more confusing results, I was informed 11 months later that I had indeed qualified!
Being able to represent Namibia at the Olympic road race was an absolute honour, but I was realistic about my chances. The route was, quite frankly, the hardest that anyone had ever seen. Big cobblestones, big climbs, and tropical heat?! Hard is an understatement.
Knowing my limitations I knew I needed a realistic goal, but one that would also make some kind of an impact – the early breakaway became my only target and I tried my darndest from the gun. In the first part of the race I daresay there wasn’t a single attempt of a breakaway that I wasn’t in and at one point I thought we would snap the elastic – until I looked to my left. Tony Martin. ‘For crying out loud, Tony!’. No team was going to let Tony get away.
As I went from ‘in the red’ to crosseyed, we hit the race’s first little climb. The Colombian Jarlinson Pantano, fresh from winning a stage at the Tour de France, attacked. Meanwhile, I attacked backwards.
The rest of my race was about hanging on but eventually, along with 60% of the field, I dropped and was pulled off the course. I couldn’t be disappointed as I’d tried everything to achieve my goal, so I rolled into the feedzone with a smile on my face, enjoying the vibe. Suddenly, two Namibian staff members rushed over: “Dan, your girlfriend is amazing! Your Twitter has gone mental!” – ‘Excuse me, what?’
The night before the race I had given my girlfriend Collyn my password and told her that if I made the breakaway and looked at the camera, she should tweet something silly like ‘Hi mum!’. I should have known that she would take the idea and run with it, ‘live tweeting’ the entire race.
I finally turned my phone on and the notifications were just… like something I’d never seen before. Someone like Chris Froome can turn off his notifications or set them so he only gets certain ones. On mine, I got every. single. notification. As my phone vibrated and vibrated and vibrated, I literally couldn’t keep up with my notifications and function as a human being at the same time.
How many times have I competed and done things that I thought were potentially cooler, or more interesting and not had the same impact? The Olympics has this magical power of amplifying everything and suddenly I was going ‘viral’.
Anyway, the next day I was sipping on a beer when I received a phone call from the Namibian federation: “Dan, would you like to compete in the time trial? So many riders crashed out of the road race that they’ve offered us a place for you.” My first response was a quick no. I had no time trial bike, no skinsuit, no aero helmet, and had done no preparation whatsoever.
But then, as with all big decisions in life I went for a bike ride and it slowly dawned on me that I had just turned down competing at the Olympics because I was afraid of a frail ego. I was terrified to be seen to be taking the piss out of the Olympics, or making Namibia look bad, so I asked my new Twitter followers if I should race – which was answered with a resounding ‘yes’. It was settled.
As much as everyone remembers, admires and loves Eric the Eel, I don’t want to be him. I’m a professional cyclist, this is my job. I can’t be seen as the guy who can’t cycle in the cycling competition. Fortunately it wasn’t my abilities but my lack of preparation and equipment that made the difference.
Before the start, the Namibian tent was next to the Swiss tent. Obviously. So there I was, warming up alongside Fabian Cancellara [who went on to win the gold medal]. This was an event that he’d focused his entire season around, and had been training for months, if not years for: his last race as a pro. Next to him was little old me, who’d had less than 24 hours’ warning.
I was the first man off the start ramp, with 50km ahead, the longest time trial I’d ever done – because hey, I wasn’t at enough of a disadvantage already – and I knew I was going to get my head kicked in. No discussion, I was coming last, even if I took it seriously. Pretending I was in a solo breakaway in a road race really helped with the focus. I was on a road bike, what else could I do?!
I made it to the first checkpoint with no one behind me. Then the second. Then the third. Only shortly before the fourth checkpoint did one guy pass me. Coming into the final stretch I could not believe it but I was the second rider to cross the line, only overtaken by one rider – so I was in the virtual silver medal position, which is a ridiculous thought, but one I knew I’d never be able to savour again. I dashed as quickly as I could to sit on the hot seat, utterly chuffed to bits with myself.
After a couple of minutes feeling a million dollars, I realised I had a big problem: being so early in the race, no one was looking at the hot seat! There wasn’t a single photographer in sight, just two volunteers. By the time I asked one of them to take a photo with her phone, the guy sitting in first place had already left so I was all on my lonesome.
Booted off the hot seat, I caught up with my joyous Namibian support team and turned my phone on. If I thought the twitter notifications had gone ballistic at the road race, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Pandemonium had broken out!!
What had happened was that I had been on the start line early, and then the guy behind me hadn’t turned up, so with nothing else to film, I’d received a crazy amount of global TV coverage. Anyone who knows anything about cycling knew that my bike and what I was wearing (along with my hairodynamic beard and thick glasses) were not right for a time trial, so the internet went ballistic. Again. One of my favourite comments was on the forum Reddit, where someone posted a photo of me with the words: ‘when you’ve got the Olympics Time Trial at 10am and your barista shift at 4pm’.
Even that wasn’t the end for my internet infamy in Rio though. My friends from the website Peloton Brief then decided to photoshop my face onto athletes doing other sports, because who knew what event I might do next…. Brilliant. One retweet later and all of a sudden there was this whole collection of hilarious photos of me doing ballet, weightlifting, synchronised swimming, and on and on. I don’t know if they had a slow news week but the photoshopping exploits made national news in Australia, as well as CNN!
Which cyclist, besides a Tour de France winner, makes it onto CNN? I was the headline story on USA Today’s sports page. I had a live interview on the BBC. And on VeloNews.com my story was more popular than the one about the gold medallist (Sorry Fabian).
Calling it overwhelming is an understatement – I competed at the Olympics and then all of this happened. I haven’t seen or heard anything negative and it seems to have really touched people – some have even told me it was one of their favourite moments of the Olympics, which is an utterly humbling thing to hear as I feel in no way that I deserve the praise that some other athletes do.
To come from a country that most people have never heard of in Africa, and then to come from a small town in that country that most locals never talk about… and to make waves at the Olympics without winning a medal, but instead by coming last!? It’s pretty insane. It seems that I have made a few more people aware of Namibia and I could not be prouder.
Actually, I could! I was not alone in Rio. Namibia has never qualified a female cyclist for the Olympics before and in Rio we didn’t have one, but two – road race and mountain bike! Our local scene is growing with the support of some amazing sponsors, brilliant events and a lot of interest in the sport. Development is growing slowly but surely and I can only hope that we three Namibian cyclists in Rio made a lasting impression on our youngsters back home.
Now my national duty is over it’s time to put on my trade team jersey again and find more amazing events.
Until next time,
Dan + Rapha
From Rapha-Condor to Rio 2016
Rapha’s friendship with Dan Craven goes back to 2009, when he began racing for the British UCI Continental Rapha-Condor cycling team. With his distinctive beard, effortless charm and quirky sense of fun, ‘Dan from Nam’ quickly became a cult figure in British cycling, as well as the star of several Rapha photoshoots. While the Namibian cyclist went on to compete in the WorldTour with Europcar and now with Cycling Academy Team, Rapha was happy to be asked to make the Olympic kit for him and the Namibian team this summer.
Dan was the liaison between the Namibian cycling federation and Rapha, and has this to say: “I’ve been involved with designing jerseys and kit before, but never in my life have I seen something like how Jack Saunders of Rapha worked on this project. It was just such an eye-opener and so humbling to see the ideas behind the design, the typography, and so on. When it came out, all I could think was: ‘this is amazing’. That’s pretty much summed up in what’s happening now – people want this jersey!”