“Cycling is a job, it’s something you do,” says John-Lee Augustyn, reflecting on his pro career that led him all the way to the Tour de France.
“But when you get there (the Tour), you realise that it’s your dream and your whole passion.”
In 2008, John-Lee made his Tour debut for Team Barloworld and promptly caught the world’s attention when he summited the Col de la Bonette at the head of the field before overshooting a hairpin bend and plummeting down the mountainside in spectacular style.
“That was a big shock to my system. I went over the mountain first, thinking I could actually win that stage,” he says, shaking his head at the memory.
“But by then you’re tired, there’s the altitude and your heart is pumping fast. You have to try to concentrate and not crash – and then that happened.”
In a show of extreme fortitude, the climbing specialist literally crawled back up the mountain to finish stage 16 and then, a few days later, the Tour.
“You have to have the mental strength to come back and move on. You have to make the decision not to quit.”
According to John-Lee, the psychological aspect is the toughest part of the world’s most famous race and the pressure starts mounting months before.
Once the pro teams receive their invitations, he says the stress of the rider selection hits. “Especially in the big teams with around 30 riders, it must be very difficult to choose just nine because everyone has actually qualified to ride the Tour.”
The 25-year-old says it’s a huge relief to be chosen because it shows that the team has faith in your ability. “And you get all the nice limited edition stuff!”
He says after his own selection, the feedback from the fans was incredible. “That’s when you realise how many people follow your progress, it’s a real eye-opener.”
As a wide-eyed young rider, John-Lee says the support of older, more experienced team-mates proved invaluable. “The team helps you with your self confidence – they tell you that you can do it.”
He says that’s also where the coach takes centre stage. “He helps you stay focused on your training in the lead-up to the event because you get very excited.
“So many questions go through your mind. Am I good enough? Am I fit enough? Did I train enough?”
In reality, a rider’s real worries should be about getting sick or injured in the final days before the start of the three-week event, he says.
Then the big day dawns and riders find themselves standing in front of a massive crowd at the official team presentation.
“That’s when you realise you’ve actually made it to the Tour de France. That’s every cyclist’s dream.”
“I’ve taken part in European classics, even the Giro d’Italia, where the build-up is big and they have a huge following, but the Tour is just on a different level.”
John-Lee says words cannot describe the emotion. “When they call out your name and ‘South Africa’, that’s something no one can ever take away.”
And then the world’s greatest cycle race begins.
“On a typical day, we get up at around 7am – not South African early, but early enough.
“After a good breakfast, we travel by bus to the start. Then we sign on for the day’s ride, start the stage, suffer and get back on the bus.
“We have a good recovery shake, and a shower and massage back at the hotel. Once everyone’s done, we go downstairs for dinner.
“Dinner’s usually at 8pm; sometimes later depending on how far we had to travel. And then you have to try and get some sleep, but the adrenalin is often still pumping.”
Three weeks is a long time to stay focused, says John-Lee.
“The first week is very stressful; the bunch is very tense before it eventually settles down.”
In the second week, he says the mental challenge begins.
“There are some days when you think, ‘Gee, this is awesome’. And then there are days when you just want to stop and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore’.”
John-Lee says if you can get through that, it’s plain sailing thereafter. “In the last week, the physical challenge sets in. You just have to pray that your legs hold out to the end.”
Then the weeks of mental and physical agony turn to pure elation when riders finally hit the home stretch along the Champs Élysées in Paris. “You see all the people and the South African flag – it’s very emotional.”
Although his pro career is temporarily on hold as he recovers from the effects of radical hip surgery, he is determined to live out his passion.
“That’s how life is, you have to move on. Luckily, for now, I can work in the sport I love.”
The former U/23 national road champion says he’s looking forward to a new chapter in his life, which includes setting up a boutique cycling shop with brother Wesley in his hometown of Port Elizabeth.
He has also been snapped up by the university to mentor the Mecer-NMMU cycling team.
Ultimately, he says, he plans to use the experience he has gained while racing for professional outfits such as Britain’s Team Sky and Italy’s Utensilnord-Named to help others towards their goals.
“Anyone who’s a keen cyclist, pro or not, I’m there to help.”
Note from Ed: With an invitation like that, we thought it appropriate to include his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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