Written for In the Bunch
Back in the day, the “proper” cycling season was winter.
The reasoning behind this anomaly, I assume, was for it to run concurrently with the European schedule.
This meant our country’s top riders would be race-fit and able to compete overseas at the drop of a hat.
The fact that we were in the midst of two decades of sporting isolation, and largely unwelcome on the Continent and elsewhere, didn’t seem to enter the administrators’ thoughts – however, to be fair to them, the pumping track season back then occupied much of the available summer dates.
So there we were, racing from May through October each year while freezing our skinny little butts off. Training was largely at night with state-of-the-art dynamo lights and newspapers tucked under our jerseys.
That part of the year was dedicated to licensed races run by the respective cycling associations, which fell under the conservative and rather stodgy South African Cycling Federation (SACF) of the time.
The circuits were brutal and the weather miserable. In the Eastern Province, races were on Saturdays and started at 2pm sharp – when the icy coastal winds were at their most vindictive and the rugby about to start – and continued until nightfall.
Dress code was important. All-white socks to go with the all-black bib-less shorts that in extreme cases sported your club or sponsor’s name.
If your attire didn’t match the description on your laminated licence card, your race was run before it had begun. If you passed scrutineering and managed to start the race, but crossed the white line, it was also game over.
Excitable dads were also known to hasten the disqualification of their sometimes innocent offspring as the race referees doggedly implemented arbitrary laws no one had ever heard of or cared about.
I recall a race being stopped by a commissaire due to, as he called it, a lack of “racing”. He said a procession did not constitute a race and, after a stern talking to, the peloton were given a reprieve in order to have another go at impressing him.
You had to compete in these character-building events to catch the eye of the provincial selectors and thus be chosen for the numerous interprovincials and national tours – which was the object of the exercise.
As a provincial cyclist, you enjoyed an elevated status and were shown respect by your peers. After the race, your photo would appear in the local dailies alongside those of Danie Gerber and Kepler Wessels.
Initially, the former took place a fortnight or so after the Cape Argus, but was later moved to an earlier date to act as a tune-up race for the big one.
With time, similar events have mushroomed around the country to form a series of money-spinning national classics with huge family appeal. Old-fashioned licensed races were quickly gobbled up as the idea of winter racing lost its allure.
I’m decidedly patriotic and biased when it comes to the Eastern Cape’s virtues, and one of these is, I believe, some of the best and most scenic cycling roads in the country. The Herald, which has also spawned a mountain bike event in recent years, proudly showcases what these parts have to offer.
My memories of the race – which celebrated its silver anniversary last year – range between sweet and bittersweet, but the most enduring one is finishing alongside Willie Engelbrecht as he sprinted to one of his famous victories twenty years ago.
There were many raised eyebrows when I dumped our much-anticipated annual matric expedition to the Drakensberg in favour of The Herald. I was the only one not on that bus.
How could I have been? It was to be my first race in my new sponsor’s kit and I was looking for an adventure of a different kind. So the very day my classmates scaled Mont-aux-Sources, I too felt on top of the world.
By the way, the 26th edition – which takes place on February 6 and 7 – is one of 14 seeding races for the Cape Argus and it concludes a weeklong festival of cycling in Port Elizabeth. But more about this later. In the meantime, visit www.heraldcycletour.co.za and get yourself on the starting line of what is said to be the most scenic race in the country.
Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose company focuses on sports communications. E-mail him at email@example.com, visit www.inthebunch.co.za or follow him on twitter (fullstop) one of these fine days.
Full Stop Communications