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Cycling South Africa

Werner Muller-Schell Tekst Werner Muller-Schell Gepubliceerd 04 August 2017

Because it’s off the beaten track, few people consider South Africa a cycling destination. This seems incomprehensible once you’ve been there however. Mountainous landscapes, excellent riding conditions, a long cycling tradition, and a growing scene that’s bristling with passionate riders and mind-blowing events await cyclists in search of their next great adventure.

The sun is just peeking out over the mountains that surround the quaint village of Montagu, where a dewy mist still hangs over the neighbouring fields. The town is normally a sleepy destination for Capetonians who are seeking a weekend getaway, but today, unusual-looking cyclists punctuate its still morning air. They emerge from all directions, drawn toward the live music that echoes through the city centre. At the source of the sound, a hand-painted banner stretches across the street by a former brandy distillery, where a gathering throng of wool jerseys and vintage bicycles suggest that something out of the ordinary is taking place.

Image: Gary Perkin

A classic Volkswagen bus and a Mercedes sedan are parked outside, both emblazoned with odd, retro-looking logos, the latter bedecked with a retro roof rack full of steel-framed bikes. Amidst the Victorian-era wooden houses, the scene seems like a throwback, despite the occasional smartphone. This pageant is familiar to the founder of Eroica, Giancarlo Brocci, who journeyed all the way from his native Tuscany to participate in the first Eroica South Africa, a ride organised in the spirit of the event he created 20 years ago. Next to him is Stan Engelbrecht, the event director and one of a few passionate South Africans who are at the forefront of a bicycle culture that’s evolving out of a dark and troubled past.

Around 150 riders are taking part in this inaugural Eroica event, which is being held in a near-desert region a few hours’ drive northeast of Cape Town on the southern edge of the African continent. It’s a small number compared to other cycling festivals, or even other Eroica events, but the gathering in Montagu is yet another indication of the blooming interest in cycling that South Africa is experiencing, as more events spring up each year and attract a growing number of riders.

For the majority of this route, riders will see little of civilisation, only a vast and searing expanse of natural beauty. This is Africa.

Another event, the Cape Town Cycle Tour, had nearly 40,000 participants this year, making it the largest timed cycling race in the world once again. There’s the Cape Epic too, which is one of the most famous mountain bike stage races on earth. And, along with a considerable racing and gran fondo scene, there’s also a remarkably committed community of riders who take on the gravel roads that criss-cross the country like an intricate spider’s web; the Tour of Ara, which is a week-long stage race for fans of gravel and vintage bicycles; and, in 2017, a small stage race for modern gravel grinders that will take place in the Little Karoo desert, not far from Montagu.

> We recently published a stunning gallery of the Tour of Ara of 2016 including a story about the race, based on an interview with Stan Engelbrecht. Check it out. <

Eroica South Africa offers three routes, from 50 to 140 km, each one named after one of the rivers that meet in the spectacular Montagu valley — the Keisie, Kogman and Kingna. It doesn’t matter which option the participants choose — each route immerses them in the typical Eroica feeling of time travel, with an impressive mix of stunning landscapes and challenging routes in remote areas to give them a glimpse of what cycling in South Africa has to offer. The long route, a 140-km, almost all-gravel challenge through the sparse and mountainous wilderness, is a true adventure. It crosses the Ouberg Pass, a tremendous climb, and passes the Pietersfontein Dam, where the riders have to shoulder their bikes to traverse a steep stone staircase. “For the majority of this route, riders will see little of civilisation, only a vast and searing expanse of natural beauty. This is Africa.” Stan Engelbrecht smiles. But the road has not been an easy one for South African cyclists.

Image: Werner Müller-Schell

In fact, South Africa has a very long cycling history, maybe one of the oldest in the world. The Cape Town Cycling Club was founded in the 1880s, and in 1891 cyclists competed against each other for the first national titles. Six years later, the Paarl Boxing Day was held for the first time, and today, with a continuous 119-year tradition behind it, it is possibly the oldest track race in the world. But the popularity of the automobile and the effects of Apartheid resulted in a massive dwindling of cycling’s popularity. It’s a fascinating history, but also one that is mostly forgotten. Only a few books exist about the country’s cycling past, and many of the old stories are kept alive by word of mouth.

If you know the history of the cycling industry in South Africa, sparks of recognition await you at the Eroica event in Montagu. There’s the vintage ‘Alpina’ Stan Engelbrecht is pedalling for instance. It’s a South African classic from the 1980s. “At that time, South Africa had to face strict trade regulations and economic sanctions, so it was hard for locals to get proper cycling material. That’s why some enthusiasts over here started to build their own frames. It’s interesting how history can be captured in sports,” Stan says, before rising out of the saddle to tackle a steep, pebble-strewn incline.

Image: Karin Schermbrucker

“When I saw these old bicycles on the street as a child, I didn’t really understand what was going on, but through my growing interest in bicycle culture, I’ve pieced together a lot,” Engelbrecht says. Alpina, De’Lange, Du Toit, and Hansom were the most famous brands of that era, but as the political change in the 1990s made aluminium and carbon fibre frames available, the demand for domestic steel frames decreased rapidly. “Nowadays, as cycling gets more popular in South Africa, people are looking for these brands again. Events like Eroica help to remind us of this history — in all its particulars,” Engelbrecht says.

Apart from the classic bikes that are still knocking around, local frame builders have emerged to carry the gauntlet for South African frame production. One of these individuals is David Mercer, who moonlights as a veterinarian while pursuing his passion for building steel frames and does most of his production entirely by hand in a two-room garden shed in his backyard in Cape Town. But with a long list of backorders, he plans to expand the scope of his operation. “A little bit of expansion would be great. Actually, I get more and more requests, and at the moment the wait for a frame is very long,” he says at one of the rest stops along the Eroica route, as we enjoy a glass of South African wine with bread and cheese served out of the ‘Le Turbo’ support bus.

It's interesting how history can be captured in sports.

Another of the brave riders taking on the Eroica challenge today is Nils Hansen. The 32-year-old is a good friend of Stan’s, and both have shared an interest in bicycles for quite a long time. Five years ago, Nils quit his day job to focus on his cycling passion and founded what is today one of South Africa’s most famous bike shops. With nearly 100 old steel frames from different cycling eras, Woodstock Cycleworks in Cape Town is a place for cycle culture enthusiasts to call home. A cycling emporium with a hodgepodge of old bikes and curiosities, including a small café with a reading corner full of books and magazines that begs visitors to stay and soak in the authentic cycling atmosphere. “In the beginning, I was alone, but today I have ten people working here. People in Cape Town have become a lot more aware of the many advantages of bicycles these days, and the market keeps growing.”

> Related: Five cycling hotspots in Cape Town – read article here <

But it is not only the recreational scene and burgeoning group of shops and manufacturers that brings South African cycling into focus. The continued success of Dimension Data, the first African team on the UCI WorldTour, and strong performances from the young South African rider Louis Meintjes have brought attention to the land over the past two years. This year, Meintjes became the first African to finish in the top ten of the Tour de France and the Olympic Road Race, and MTN-Qhubeka was the sensation of last year’s tour, after a standout performance from Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot. “When I started cycling as a teenager, nobody in South Africa understood what you were saying when you told them you are a cyclist. Nowadays, it has changed a lot, as more and more people are riding bikes. The popularity of cycling is definitely growing here,” Meintjes says. He recalls watching his compatriot Robbie Hunter. “When I started with cycling, he won his first stage in the Tour. He was definitely one of our heroes in the last years who created a bigger public interest in cycling.”

Image: Tyrone Bradley

But for young South African talents, it’s not easy to become a professional bike rider. “Firstly, the financial side is a problem for a lot of people. I’ve been fortunate, as my parents supported me, but many riders are not in this position,” Meintjes says. “And travelling is the next point. Visas are a big problem for us. If we go overseas, we get a visa for three months. So, at least, you will need one month to acclimatise, another month to get used to the racing scene, and then you have only one month left to get a good result. But, even if you can win a race in Europe in this short period of time, which team is willing to commit to a rider with only a few good results? They think you are not consistent enough to get a contract.”

Image: Werner Müller-Schell

As well as the financial challenges, criminality is still an ever-present problem in South Africa. “Yes, there are some areas where going out for a ride alone is still dangerous. But we are used to it. I have several training routes that are pretty safe,” Meintjes says. Efforts are being made to improve safety in the country, along with the attitudes and levels of awareness of South African drivers, to better protect cyclists.

The Pedal Power Association, a public benefit organisation committed to promoting cycling and the interests of cyclists in South Africa, ensures with its initiatives that continual developments are being made to infrastructure, including more bike lanes and better roads. The Cape region is making particularly good progress, thanks in part to the large number of tourists who visit and want to ride their bikes. Even if things in South Africa get better every year, there’s still a long way to go for the country and its cycling ambitions.

Image: Werner Müller-Schell

The organisers of Eroica South Africa are hopeful. When the sun starts to set behind the mountains, the finish area in the heart of Montagu seems like a family celebration. Food is casually served in the backyard of the old distillery, and a live band plays rock classics. People sit on hay bales, drinking local wine and talking about what they experienced during the day, as they soak up the rare atmosphere. The day has shown so much of what South African cycling has to offer, its unique history and its momentum. It is a land with many attractive events, successful professionals, and more and more passionate cyclists.

“With South Africa’s rich cycling history, we’re really proud to have celebrated the Italian spirit of L’Eroica here on African soil,” Stan Engelbrecht says, before he’s thanked and congratulated by yet another emotional attendee. He and some other Eroica riders meet again the next morning to ride another small loop on their vintage South African steel frames. It’s the end of a weekend of cycling in sleepy, picturesque Montagu, which is now the permanent home of Eroica South Africa — and also a new hot spot for the rising South African cycling community.

If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.

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