Yanto Barker: building a cycling legacy in Sierra Leone
As the cycling world gears up for the final weekend of the Tour de France, we chat to the founder of sportswear brand Le Col and former Welsh Commonwealth Game cyclist, Yanto Barker.
Following our collaboration with the brand to sponsor the Tour de Lunsar – a bike race organised by our long-term partner the Lunsar Cycling Team – Yanto talks personal bests, inspiring the next generation, and the moment he thought ‘wow, I can do this’.
Hi Yanto, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us how you first came across the Lunsar Cycling Team?
It was through one of the guys in our marketing team here at Le Col. They knew a journalist who had been to Lunsar and one of the first things he noticed was the town’s enthusiasm for cycling. There was no infrastructure, no governing body, just pure love for the sport.
That passion was something that really resonated with me, so we decided we wanted to get involved.
Did you know much about Sierra Leonean cycling before working with the Lunsar Cycling Team?
Not a thing. Like most people, my knowledge of Sierra Leone tended to be based around the negative stories that you read in the press. Life can be tough in west Africa, and seeing the strength and resolve involved in putting on cycling events out there is something we really respect.
Do you feel a responsibility to help grow the sport in underdeveloped countries?
If you’d have asked me before our work with Lunsar, I wouldn’t have said it was something I was particularly focused on – but when an opportunity like this comes knocking then it’s important to respond. We are a pretty established brand so I feel like we’ve got lots to offer the club.
Along with Speak Media, you recently sponsored the first ever Tour de Lunsar – which included both junior and adult races. Can events like this inspire the next generation?
Absolutely. The Tour de Lunsar will provide something for local cyclists to work towards and it’s only going to grow in popularity, which will increase cycling opportunities for young people in the area.
I had a lot of success as a junior rider, but it wasn’t the winning that made me think ‘wow I can do this’ – it was being recognised for my performance and ability. To have that recognition requires some sort of formal event, because otherwise you’re just riding around by yourself wondering whether you’re good enough or not.
Structured events like this provide those opportunities to be recognised. People might see that you’re good and then approach you to say ‘hey, we can help you’.
Cycling is a global passion, why do you think some countries are so far behind in terms of infrastructure?
Cycling is a global passion, but it is also a luxury. Many countries are too busy fighting serious illness, poverty and war.
You’ve got to get your basics sorted – to be able to buy food and put a roof over your head – before you have time to think about cycling. In developed countries the general public are far removed from these worries.
I know the team at Le Col designed the Tour de Lunsar shirt, can you tell us a little about the design?
We provided a product that would be suitable for the conditions they would be riding in – so things like heat transfer were really important. We also wanted to make sure it was of the highest quality.
If you’re going to be cycling then don’t let a pair of cheap shorts ruin your ride. We gave them what we deliver to all our customers around the world, and that is the absolute best of what we have.
What advice would you give to those who are hoping to compete in the next Tour de Lunsar next year?
It would be the same advice I give to any cyclists anywhere. Be disciplined, and be tenacious. Results and progress in cycling take time, and time takes commitment.
When did you first know you wanted to be a professional cyclist?
Probably about 13 or 14 years old. I was riding to school and trying to beat my personal best every morning. The beauty of beating your personal best on a bike is that you can do it anywhere. With other sports you need more structure, whereas with cycling all you need is a bike and you are on your way.
And it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be a good bike. When I was on my honeymoon in Bali for two weeks, I decided to rent a bike from our hotel – and it was probably the most dilapidated mountain bike that I’ve ever come across.
But that didn’t matter, I went out every day and although I wasn’t able to go quickly my intensity was just as high as if I had been on the most up to date road bike. Don’t worry about the machine, that doesn’t matter until you enter a competitive environment.
You founded Le Col in 2011, where did the idea come from?
Well obviously I was a professional cyclist, so this was a good fit, but I think the early part of my business decision-making was very intuitive. I would have struggled to explain why I thought something was right, or why I chose to do a particular thing.
Even from an early stage, something that appealed to me was building a workplace for others to thrive in. I wanted to create an environment where staff feel motivated, challenged, appreciated and generally happy. And I think we’ve done that.
What are your plans for the future?
I think the cycle-wear industry has a really positive future. There are going to be a lot of adjustments and changes to the sport, but every single one creates an opportunity. I’m focused on driving a business that works on the right projects – ones that fulfil who we are as a business. That’s not just to drive financial success, but also to help us achieve validation and respect throughout the cycling world. I want customers and collaborators to be glad they have purchased from and worked with Le Col.
The hardest was probably a stage of the Tour of Poland in 2016. It was seven and a half hours of snow and rain at an altitude of 1000 meters. Without a doubt the coldest, wettest and hardest stage I’ve ever competed in. I managed to finish it, but around half of the 180 racers that day did not.
Is there anything you’d change about your career if you could?
No, nothing at all. I just don’t think like that.
Who did you look up to as a junior cyclist?
You know that’s a funny one. Growing up I didn’t really have heroes as I was so focused on being one myself. However, since I’ve got older, I’ve developed heroes as I can appreciate how much hard work goes into other people’s achievements. So now I would say my hero is Miguel Induráin.
Do you have a favourite ride?
So many it’s difficult to list them. One that I recently visited was The World Championship course in Yorkshire, UK. It’s beautiful, and can rival anywhere in the world.