Spectators and participants at the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge in Johannesburg on November 18 won’t believe their eyes, but the hundreds of cows on bicycles will be no hallucination.
For most riders it takes months of dedicated training to gear up for one of the year’s most prestigious races, but as if the event were not tough enough, hundreds choose to don hot, cumbersome cow costumes.
The reason for this bizarre spectacle reaches further than just a joke – it is a fundraising initiative for the Childhood Cancer Foundation SA (CHOC) called The Cow Club and to date it has raised an impressive R12-million.
The phenomenon has become so popular that in just four years it has spread to other top cycling events like the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour, Amashova Durban Classic, Knysna Oyster Festival, FedGroup Berg & Bush, BoE sani2c and the Absa Cape Epic.
Co-founder and “cow herder” Cordi van Niekerk explains that the initiative was borne from the tragic death of three-year-old Jessica Bain who, from the age of just 10 months, had been living with a type of cancer called neuroblastoma.
“Jessica underwent months of treatments such as chemotherapy and stem cell therapy. A stem cell transplant was her best chance.
“Her prognosis for survival was only 10%, but we thought she would make it. It was not meant to be and in 2008 Jessica passed away in her parents’ bed.”
Helping among other things with palliative care, CHOC played a significant part in the Bain family’s life during the last few weeks of Jessica’s life.
After her passing, mom Kerrin decided to cycle the 94.7 in Jessica’s memory to raise money for CHOC.
Van Niekerk says that, as a friend of the family, he and some friends decided to join in by cycling in cow suits.
“We are now in the fifth year of The Cows. The monies raised have been applied in strategic projects all over South Africa.”
There is also method to the mad cows, he maintains.
“People who join The Cows can decide how they want to participate and this determines each one’s fundraising target. Most initiate social events to achieve their goal.”
The humble start of just six cows in 2008 exceeded the fundraising target by more than 300 percent. The initial target was set at R10 000 each, or R60 000 in total, but at the end of the race a whopping R230 000 had been raised.
The initiative has gained so much traction that 270 cows – including 18 single-gear ice cream bikes and a CHOC cows racing team called the Apocalypse Cows – took to the streets of Joburg last year.
“It has grown to be the biggest fundraising initiative of the 94.7,” says Van Niekerk, adding that R3.6-million was raised during last year’s event.
This feat has been recognised by the organisers who have presented The Cows with the Red Jersey for the past two years for most money raised for a charity.
Van Niekerk says almost 300 people have already signed up to ride for the charitable cause this year.
The cow suits, made from wool, also have high quality cycling gear underneath.
“It gets hot, especially on warm days. For us it symbolises the journey a child must go through if they are diagnosed with cancer,” says Van Niekerk.
“It’s all about the journey.”
Monies raised have gone to initiatives such as buying a house in Soweto for children who are undergoing cancer treatment.
“We have just finished the upgrade of the children’s cancer treatment wards at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital and we are also upgrading those at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.
“We bought five vehicles to transport children during treatment and have also funded Circle of Care to educate healthcare professionals on how to detect cancer in children early on.”
Anyone can join The Cows by visiting www.thecows.co.za and registering. The organisation will contact participants personally.
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