Launching today is the first in a series intended to move the spotlight to some unexpected and unusual riders from the racing scene; those with fascinating life stories you will not encounter elsewhere. When it came to deciding the standard bearer for this debut profile, it took all of a heartbeat to pick a man who already catches the eye, despite seldom winning. A gentleman with a grin bright enough to shine through his small mammal of a beard, the man in question is Dan Craven. Spokenforks first encountered Dan at a Tour of Britain sign on, when he was riding for the now defunct domestic IG-Sigma Sport. As the black and red clad riders hobbled atop the podium, Dan was pulled to one side for a typically unexpected rider interview in front of the massed crowds. A softly spoken voice floated over the heads of those present; inherently articulate and with a warming tone, the public naturally looked up to see where this peculiar accent was emanating from. Like a man who had recently escaped from Jumanji, Craven did not immediately appear to be your typical professional bike rider. With a beard to make watts obsessives weep and a beaming grin to please the camera; Dan Craven was gaining more fans with each ride he made around the country.
At this point in time, Dan’s career was hard to gauge in regards to its chances of further progression. He had already ridden for the top dogs of the British domestic scene (Rapha-Condor) and now looked to be heading away from the United Kingdom in order to grasp his chance before age became an unattractive factor for suitors. His eventual move came in the form of the Azerbaijani Synergy Baku Cycling Project, a team which had him packing his bag once again in order to race throughout Eastern Europe and Africa. It seemed like the British scene had lost a character everyone enjoyed rallying behind, but upon his return to these shores it was apparent the nation had not forgotten him so swiftly. The Lincoln Grand Prix is Britain’s closest thing to a classic, with the riders hurling themselves up a wall of cobbles repeatedly, such a task earns riders bombardments of whooping and motivational cheering as they crawl skywards. Regardless, Dan Craven was the man given custom shouts beyond the generic grunts of the public, it was clear his presence and efforts had been missed on UK shores immediately. But another subsequent transfer would take him away from the British scene once more, this time signing for the Bike Aid – Ride For Help team. A German licensed outfit with a roster which mirrored this fact, making the sole Namibian standout once more against his fellow riders.
The liaison with Bike Aid – Ride For Help would prove to be a brief one; not long after signing with the team an unexpected deal was brokered, catapulting Dan Craven to WorldTour status in the colours of Team Europcar. This sudden transition was certainly a bolt from the blue for most paying attention to Craven’s career; the mechanics behind the deal proving equally fascinating. Back in Dan’s home nation of Namibia, he had nurtured a partnership with Nedbank as a financial backer for his own ‘Craven Camp’ events for Namibian youngsters. Since its early days, the relationship had now grown to see Nedbank sponsoring the Namibian National Cycling Team, developing youths by ensuring they can compete at top level competitions across the continent. Since Dan’s move to Team Europcar, Nedbank had also moved to the French team, becoming an official sponsor alongside the Namibian’s surprising transfer. It is harsh to say that having a financial backer willing to channel funds into Team Europcar was the sole reason behind the transfer, but for a WorldTour team with one of the smaller budgets, it does make sense to bring such a rider onboard. In reality, the foundations behind Dan Craven’s move to the top table were laid several years ago when he met Jean-Rene Bernaudeau (Team Europcar Manager) at the Tour of Gabon in 2011. Evidently the pair must have got on like a house on fire, as within a year Bernaudeau was attempting to find space within Team Europcar to slot Dan Craven into the roster.
Despite the Frenchman’s efforts, it would not be until the spring of 2014 when he was able to contact ‘the bearded wonder’ with an opportunity to finally join Team Europcar and step up to the WorldTour. Obviously Dan Craven did not hesitate to say yes, but it must have been even more unexpected as to where his acceptance would take him racing by the end of the summer. A childhood spent riding beneath Namibia’s scorching sun, on roads which stretch onwards until they melt into the horizon breeds a resilience to arid conditions. The autonomous intake of fluid, tarmacs changeable character and knowing how hours in the sun lower your ‘red zone’ threshold. All of these skills learnt by a young Dan Craven would prove to be the Swiss Army Knife which not only saw him invited to, but also flourish at the 2014 Vuelta a España.
Yet it was the polar opposite conditions in which we saw Dan Craven display his class and form ahead of his eventual selection by Team Europcar’s Bernaudeau for their Spanish conquest. Despite the World’s fondness for the bicycle, it is still a sport dominated by the major central European nations, with a sprinkling of USA and Australia. So when the Commonwealth Games appear on the year’s calendar, those from smaller countries have an opportunity to compete against some of the sport’s finest and measure their prowess in the process. This year’s Commonwealth Games Road Race was a war of attrition in the Glaswegian deluge; only 12 finished that day, all of which deserved a medal for surviving the herculean trial afforded to them. Dan Craven was one such conqueror of the Scottish roads, but walking away with nothing to show of his efforts; not immediately at least. Fast forward to the start of 2014’s La Vuelta a España in Jerez de la Frontera; a stressful Team Time Trial awaits the riders as their first task at the calendar’s final Grand Tour. Many are speaking of their eagerness to get the event over and done with, a sentiment which also emanates from the familiarly cheerful and bearded face of a certain Namibian.
Dan Craven made the cut for his debut Grand Tour in less than a year of riding for a UCI WorldTour team and those aware of such an achievement were to be keeping a close eye on his efforts. Survival is the word on the lips of riders and pundits alike, a daily routine of doing your job perfectly before being cast out the back and tasked with clinging on until the end – even then the concern of time cuts forces you to push harder still. Over the three weeks Dan’s daily finishing positions were peppered between the 140’s – 160’s on average, a seemingly unimpressive statistic until you inspect closer on these performances. Fulfilling his commitments to Team Europcar and still finishing amongst the likes of David Millar, Peter Sagan, Rohan Dennis and Carlos Betancur; indicating that Dan was conquering each stage as effectively as any Grand Tour veteran or mountain man. Finishing 140th of the original 219 starters back in Jerez de la Frontera is not simply a respectable achievement, but a huge realisation of talent and dedication from a rider who represents a continent’s growing power in the world of professional cycling.
Another note of satisfaction must of been apparent once Craven glanced down the list to see those which he had finished above in general classification after three weeks of testing terrain and wearing weather. A supposed dark horse heading into the Vuelta was meant to be Colombia’s Carlos Betancur, a rising talent who had been chasing the podium places at the previous year’s Giro d’Italia. Instead we found a struggling and possibly overweight Bentancur falling to the bottom of the pack, before eventually finishing almost an hour slower than Craven. Now this is not to revel in another rider’s poor performance, but most would agree that this fact was not due any misfortune at the Colombian’s expense, but rather a shining example of how “hard work beats talent, when talent does not work hard.” Having wound down the season at smaller races, the next challenge appearing on the horizon is Europcar’s confirmation that they will cease to sponsor the team at the end of 2015. Next year will be a testing time, Craven will no doubt be keen to maintain his WorldTour exploits, so an impressive year will be required when it comes to negotiating a contract with either new sponsors or perhaps a new team altogether. Until then an off season of relaxation is richly deserved for Dan; with friends and fans happy to welcome him back anywhere from Namibia to France, Bristol to London – Dan Craven is a star for many.