Cycling in SA in the early 1980s was a relatively isolated affair compared to today’s global village (TV, cellphone, wi-fi, Skype) and the improved opportunities the new generation of young cyclists have.
Growing up in the apartheid days, we were prevented from free movement abroad and could not compete internationally.
Die Rapport Toer however, was a saving grace in many ways but knowledge of what was happening overseas was mainly by hearsay, outdated magazines and the odd news item. There was no Phil Liggett or Paul Sherwen to keep us in touch with the most recent happenings in the cycling world.
However, I was lucky enough to do a few short stints in Belgium where I encountered the famed and traditional Belgium Kermesse Koers; this being typically a multi-lap race held on twisty, windy, bumpy and narrow roads through towns in Belgium. WOW! What an experience: high speeds, big fields, intense action where one needed power, speed, fitness and aggression just to survive. It was tough, flat out racing! But what made it so unique was the spectators and sideline activities. Beer tents, hamburgers, PA system blaring and old timers all with their race programmes selecting and betting on their favourite riders. Route marshal’s would all be in place at the various intersections with their whistles blowing, the following vehicles and sweep wagons all racing around making a noise and the smell of various leg liniments permeating the air all made for a unique atmosphere.
Has anything changed since then? Absolutely nothing! I was fortunate enough to watch my son compete and race in a couple of events and believe me the standard and style of racing has not changed. Flat circuits they may be, but with fields of 150 competent riders all vying for the honours of territory that is their own backyard there is no easy ride. After all, Belgium is arguably regarded as the heart of cycling. Any rider worth his salt should experience this traditional form of racing some time in his life. I am not saying that the Belgium Kermesse Koerse must be the be all and end all of one’s apprenticeship, but just try it, the experience gained will surely teach you a trick or two, and raise your game.
On the other hand however, put some of the best Belgium riders onto foreign pedalling turf and they often do not shine.
In SA we have maybe 20 competent talented riders at any one time. In Belgium there are maybe 400 of these top class cyclists. Then add in all the riders of other European countries as well as the USA and Australia and one can understand how high the standard of the sport is.
Races (not fun rides) take place almost every day for all categories, and they are organised easily, roads are safe and the cyclists are respected. In fact cycling is a way of life and one often sees men and women of ages 80 plus riding daily.
So how does a South African cyclist rise to the top of the sport, against all this tough foreign competition, and coming from a historically different culture that considers rugby, cricket and football as the top sports? Ambition, perseverance, intelligent preparation, structured training and being at the right place at the right time is a good starting point. Luck and good self-marketing has something to do with it as well, but it does take a special type of person to make it to the top ranks of the sport.
In SA at the moment the opportunities the MTN Qubheka team initiative creates, the success and example that Daryl Impey, Robbie Hunter and Chris Froome have displayed, the African World Cycling Centre in Potchefstroom and other similar programmes will begin to open the doors for future talented SA cyclists.
Spectating from the sideline, having a beer, handing out a water bottle or two, massaging some legs, pumping tyres; yes my role has changed slightly from being that of a rider to now a proud and concerned parent, but it’s just as exciting and stressful nonetheless. Of course my passion for the sport may have dwindled just slightly but it will never die.
I believe the sport and recreational aspect of cycling in SA will increase in popularity albeit with mountain biking playing a very strong role as well. These positive aspects will surely deliver some more promising talent to the forefront of international cycling. As more doors of opportunity are opened things will happen.
by Gary Beneke
After 36 years of intimate involvement in the sport, Gary is like a parent; he still loves cycling but sometimes he is unhappy with it. He is the 50-54 age group World Champion for 2012 and stays competitive because it makes him feel alive.
Originally published in the September/October 2013 issue 61.