By Andres Martinez Casares
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Ousline Georges, 22, only started to take cycling seriously a year ago, wary of the many hurdles she faced such as the prohibitive cost of a decent bicycle and the treacherous roads in her home country of Haiti, the poorest in the Americas.
This past weekend though, she became the first Haitian ever to win a medal in the Caribbean Road Cycling Championship, thanks to a new program created by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI)that fosters the sport in small, developing nations.
"I was really moved," said Georges, a student and mother of a four-year old boy. "When I saw the others cry over my victory, I cried too."
Cycling is not an easy sport to practice in Haiti, a country wracked by poverty, natural catastrophes and political instability.
Bicycles and a good diet are too expensive for most and there are few roads that lend themselves to training given the destruction wrought by the 2010 earthquake and a scarcity of cash to build infrastructure.
The country's main arteries clogged with trucks and buses, along with roadblocks that have been set up as part of the anti-government protests that have paralysed the country for months now, have made it even more dangerous for cyclists.
Those protests, over corruption and inequality, prevented Haiti from hosting the championship of more than 20 nations this year as originally planned, which would have provided the country an economic and morale boost.
Instead, the race - one step below the Pan American Championship where cyclists can qualify for the Olympics, was moved to neighbouring Cuba.
Given the poor track record of Haiti's cyclists, they cannot get sponsorship.
However, it appears change is afoot. At the Caribbean Cycling Road Championship held on November 3 in Havana, Haiti's national team put in their best performance ever.
Under the program, Haitian cyclists were given equipment and a French coach, Yann Dejan, as well as a month's training in Brittany, France. Dejan also created a female national team to complement the men's.
As a result, some of Haiti's cyclists finished the circuit for the first time ever. According to Dejan, they had always been eliminated before arriving at the end because they lagged too far behind the pack.
Georges won the bronze medal in the under 23 category. She reckons she could have won gold if she could have had the full training originally planned.
Administrative delay for visas and other difficulties due to Haiti's general disarray meant the training was reduced from five months to two for the men and one for the women, according to Dejan.
"I hope to go further with cycling, I wish the Haitian Federation and sport ministry would keep us training," said Georges.
Cycling is still very niche in Haiti; the Haitian Federation of Cycling (FHC) now has 360 cyclists. Football is the most popular sport on the island and the discipline in which Haitians have shone most internationally to date.
But Dejan reckons Haitians have proven they have the physical qualities and talent to shine with the right training and support. And once they shine, they can get sponsorships.
The UCI will continue to support Haitian cycling for the time being, he said. It hopes for example to distribute bicycles in schools and youth clubs, once the political situation has calmed down.
Dejan, who has trained cyclists from all over the world, said cycling tournaments had proven very popular in poor nations because they offered a free outdoor spectacle. Haiti was applying to host the Caribbean Championships in 2021, he said.
"Cycling could be a way of giving the Haitian people back their smiles," he said.
See related photo essay here - https://widerimage.reuters.com/story/haitis-cyclists-brave-protests-and-poor-roads-in-race-for-gold
(Reporting by Andres Martinez Casares and Andre Paultre in Haiti, Alexandre Meneghini and Sarah Marsh in Havana, Gonzalo Fuentes in Brittany, France; Editing by Diane Craft)