Written for In the Bunch
Legend has it that Nicholas White once rode off his entire team – simply because he could.
Well, that’s how the story was relayed to me some years ago by a guy called Gerhard Meyer, who had it on good authority that it was the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Gerhard, once, and perhaps still, the youngest rider to have completed the two-week Rapport Tour, was clearly in awe as he dramatised the incident during a training ride.
Apparently, if I can believe his version, Nicholas and his team-mates (I’ll keep their names to myself to preserve reputations should the story turn out to be true) once dominated a race to such an extent that the entire front group consisted of them.
When it became clear that they had the podium sewn up, their team manager – whom I suppose was bored out of his mind – ordered them to start racing each other to blow some life into a dead race.
So, instead of their anticipated armchair ride to the finish, where the victory would’ve been handed to the team leader or whoever the day’s designated winner was supposed to be, it turned into a war of attrition as they dutifully proceeded to attack one another senseless.
It became a straight fight for the line with the last man standing, so to speak, earning victory by default. Reputations, of course, would’ve been at stake.
I couldn’t contain my curiosity and stopped Gerhard in mid-sentence. I wanted to know there and then who that man was.
Evidently surprised by my question, for it seemed like a no-brainer to him, his translated (he is Afrikaans) answer was: “Niklaas, of course”.
So I decided to make it my mission to one day ask “Niklaas” himself whether Gerhard’s tale was fact or fable.
In the Bunch, I decided, would be the perfect forum and his umpteenth silver medal at the recent national championships in Klerksdorp provided the perfect guise for an interview.
The consummate pro, he chuckled and then answered without really answering my question. “I’m not too sure about that, but it’s always a good exercise to sort out the team hierarchy.”
He continued to undersell himself: he’s never seen himself as a pure winner; when he started off, he was okay in the hills, but not the best; he was okay at time-trialling, certainly not the worst . . .
But young Niklaas soon found a niche for himself. He started winning races by dangling off the front of the peloton.
“I found that I could ride well on my own. That was an attribute, I suppose.” I’d prefer to call it talent, but will refrain from editing his comments to suit my story.
In 1994 – my first year as a reporter – I was released from the office by my editor to follow the first stage of the Rapport Tour, which started in my home town of Port Elizabeth.
I remember that year’s tour for a variety of reasons, but my first memory is of a certain Nic White – how he prefers to be called – dangling off the front as soon as the race left town.
It was his first Rapport Tour, he remembered the occasion. The move earned him the points jersey and, more importantly, he got to stand on the podium that day.
Few people will know that Jan Ullrich, world amateur champion at the time, also participated that year and I asked Nic whether he had any memories of the big German.
He recalled him beating Willie Engelbrecht in a sprint-finish into Mossel Bay on the one day and then going first over Outeniqua Pass the next – just to prove a point after someone branded him a sprinter.
Nic honed his trade with stints in Belgium between 1994 and 1997, where he rode for an amateur team called Kortrijk. Dirk de Mol, a former Paris-Roubaix winner and now a director at Lance’s Team RadioShack, was a team-mate during his final year.
The Belgian was winding down his career and, proving the reality of pro cycling back then, taught Nic how to dry wet kit quickly by wrapping it in a towel.
Armed with knowledge such as that, Nic went on to win the first ever Pick n Pay 94.7 Cycle Classic in late 1997 – true to form, by dangling off the front.
When we spoke, Nic was still “bitter” at his inability to convert good form into victory when he had the opportunity at the South African championships.
He first tasted silver at junior level. On that occasion, he was lying third until he caught up with a Sean McKenzie, who was standing alongside the road, simply unable to ward off the call of nature any longer.
As Nic said, you had to grab opportunities when they presented themselves – even if it meant catching your opponent with his pants down!
Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose company focuses on sports communications.
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