HARROGATE, England (Reuters) - It is a long way from the palm-fringed beaches of Anguilla to rainy Yorkshire and Hasani Hennis must have felt he was riding on a different planet when he made cycling history for the tiny Caribbean island this week.
Hennis, 22, became the first Anguillan rider to compete in the UCI World Road Championships when he braved atrocious weather in northern England to complete the Under 23 men’s time trial.
He got another battering by the elements in Friday’s rain-lashed Under 23 road race which he was unable to finish after becoming tangled in a mass pile-up, having stayed with the pace for 150km. He is far from downhearted though.
Hennis will fly off to race in next week’s Tobago Classic fuelled with the belief that he can return to Europe and live the dream as professional rider.
“It’s been a crazy week,” Hennis, who found out only two weeks before that the UCI had awarded him a wildcard into the championships, told Reuters. “I’m not disappointed though.
“This was my fastest road race ever and I was impressed with my condition. I was able to go fast, coped with the hills. No pressure at all. Hopefully I’ll be over here racing next year.”
While riders representing the powerhouse cycling nations have access to mechanics, masseurs, physiotherapists and all the latest kit, team Anguilla consisted of Hennis, father Brian and manager and main funder Calvert Fleming.
Just to make the trip, Hennis, set up a fund-raising page on social media while family members and supporters back home held barbecues to raise money.
To keep down costs the trio commuted by train from Leeds to Harrogate — Hennis and his sleek Trek bike jostling for space with fans and commuters.
“It’s cost us about $30,000 to be here but once we got the last-minute wildcard we did everything to make sure Hasani could be here,” Fleming said. “Even if I had to spend my last penny I would have done so to make it happen.”
“Just him being here was a victory for Anguilla.”
So how did a young man from an island of 90 square kilometres, 15,000 inhabitants and a maximum altitude of 70 metres set out on the path to becoming a professional cyclist?
“I was 10 when I started riding an old BMX trying to keep up with my older brothers on their road bikes,” Hennis said.
“I just tried to hang on as long as I could. Then I got a road bike but I used to cry like a little baby because I couldn’t keep up.”
He stuck at it though and realised he could go fast and for long. He is deadly serious about his sport and has already represented Anguilla in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, coming 34th in the time trial.
This year he spent six months training in Australia’s Gold Coast, making a name for himself with a local team and winning numerous races including the prestigious Under 23 race at the Queensland State Criterium Championships.
“That was a big deal for me,” said Hennis, twice a winner of the John T Memorial Race in Anguilla.
He has ridden Criterium races in New York and Philadelphia this year and his ambition is to join a World Tour team.
“I would love to ride Paris-Roubaix,” he said. “That would suit my style. I’m a Puncheur. My hero is Fabian Cancellara. He was a really strong guy. He used to just ride guys off.”
Fleming, whose own sons are keen cyclists, hopes to set up a cycling academy on Anguilla and says Hennis’s achievements are inspiring young children to get on two wheels.
“They see him as a role model,” he said.
While you might expect Hennis to be yearning for warmer climes, he said coping with the Yorkshire rain had shown him he could tough it out in the peloton.
“The rain was good, riding in this kind of weather, missing the crashes,” he said. “It was a great experience.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Fallon