Written for Legends of the Pedal

Cyclingnews caught up with 66-year-old former Springbok track cyclist and all-round nice guy Johan Nicol for a Q&A session at his home in Wilderness.

CN: What a pleasure it is to interview you here in lovely Wilderness. You must be very happy living here.

JN: Thank you, being interviewed is an honour much appreciated! Yes, we are indeed very happy here. We’ve been here now for 16 years – ran a guesthouse for 12, which we sold four years ago. I now work part-time in my field of industrial psychology, and still find enough time for cycling.

CN: We?

JN: Marianne, my wife, went to my very first national track champs with me in 1964. That was our first date and we have been together ever since. Cycling has always made good things happen for me!

CN: Your dad, William Nicol, after whom the big thoroughfare in Joburg is named, was still around then?

JN: What a man and what a fan! He was 60 when I was born, but this did not stop him from being a huge supporter. If you speak to (fellow cyclists) Jack Lester or Basil Cohen today, they will tell you that he attended every meeting and even helped by pumping tyres. The street name was due to him being a prominent figure in the Dutch Reformed Church and subsequently serving as administrator of the Transvaal for 10 years. A fine dad, he drove Marianne and I to our matric dance later in ‘64. Sadly, he died at age 80, just two days before the 1967 Springbok trials where I gained my colours.

CN: That is sad. How did this influence your career?

JN: Initially, one had the excitement of preparing for Worlds; I also found a wonderful “father” in our coach, Harold Bloomfield. And then there was the inspiration of competing at the championship, getting to know some of the world’s greatest riders (both amateurs and pros) and obtaining their training secrets, which we brought back and applied here. Cracking the five-minute barrier for the pursuit was done on the impetus of my dad and of the Worlds. Had he still been around in 1968, I may have handled the Olympic disappointment better.

CN: Tell us more about the “pursuit” of your Olympic dream.

JN: Okay, but then we move on to changes and developments that have taken place in the sport. Fifty years is a long time!

CN: Okay, promise.

JN: We were all so keen on the Olympics, even though, before TV, we knew very little about the immensity of it. There were the sprinters like Nefdt and Marx, the pursuiters like Payne and Peacock, time-trial riders like Dekker and me. All of us were flying and hoping to do well because we had beaten some of the stars in Europe. An Olympic team was shortlisted early in 1968 but soon after that we heard that SA would not be allowed to participate due to its racial policies. Hope flared up again around May that we would go to Mexico City. We prepared like mad, only to be expelled, this time finally, later that month. Verwoerd owes us a couple of medals as both Jack (Lester) and I beat Janusz Kieskowski in Europe and he was on the podium!

CN: That was a tough break. Let’s turn to happier memories, like breaking
the five-minute 4 000m individual pursuit barrier.

JN: Now there was a challenge right up my street! For years, the SA record had been hovering just above five minutes; no one seemed able to make the breakthrough. I spoke to the German pursuiters and they convinced me it was possible (even easy), provided I follow their training programme for three months. I had a wonderful coach, Mario Pellarini, and also loyal club mates like Earl Sirakis and Danie Auret. We all worked together; sliding rules came out, a schedule was drawn up, intervals were ridden, motor pacing was done, gear and cranks were selected for the attempt (91,8″ and 177.5mm). It was one of those perfect summer evenings: no wind, ideal temperature. The old record was five minutes and a fraction of a second. I could feel the Cinelli was flying, the 28-spoked wheels with number three silk tubbies pumped to 11-bar doing their thing. I could also feel I was fading, too much adrenalin, starting too fast, but there was the bell and we were right on schedule, 500 metres to go, with huge support from the stands. Crossing the line, I saw Mario crying and Sirakis jumping – the clock had stopped on 4:59.4! The Germans were right, but it was not easy!

CN: Wow, I can see you still get excited to this day, 45 years later! Let’s dial it back and talk about what has changed in the sport.

JN: “Everything” would be the short answer, but let’s look at it from the perspective of participants, equipment and standards. Fifty years ago, competitive cycling in SA was a tiny sport and participants were young males from about 15 to 30 years old. There were no mass participation events, very few competitors older than 30 and no female riders. Not even one – when world champ Beryl Burton visited from the UK, she had to compete against our junior men. Most of us rode track as well as road, there was, of course, no mountain biking and we were perhaps regarded as a rather weird minority. The sport enjoyed limited coverage in the media and we were totally reliant on imported magazines to know what was happening in the world. When we look at the wonderful situation today, we can only marvel! And the changes in equipment! From four to 11 sprockets at the back! Hard-soled shoes on clipless pedals, carbon frames, computers and GPSs on every bike, jockeys that can accommodate a variance of 44-teeth (ours could do 12 at a push). Too much to mention, it boggles the mind but contributes hugely to the enjoyment of the sport for those of us who try to keep up.

CN: You also mentioned standards of performance?

JN: And this is a tough one. On the one hand you have the likes of the British Olympic team doing a 3:51 team pursuit; they would have lapped our best even on a 500m track. On the other hand, I do not think anyone has broken Brian Enslin’s Joburg to Durban record of 19 hours established in the sixties. I still think that the achievements of our trackies in the ‘50s rate among the best, given their total isolation from mainstream cycling at the time and the conditions under which they had to train and compete. For guys like Tommy Shardelow, Jimmy Swift, Ray Robinson and Bobby Fowler to win Olympic medals was to prove that South Africa was at that stage among the very best.

CN: Awesome achievements indeed. We have to wrap things up. Any regrets?

JN: I’m glad that I chose cycling but sad that I did not make more hay while the sun shone.

CN: And what about Johan Nicol, the cyclist, today?

JN: I do a fair amount of mountain bike touring, mostly in the timeless Karoo. And I try to “collect” as many mountain passes as possible. These are always situated in beautiful surroundings and I have about 60 so far. I hope to keep on cycling for a while; I am enjoying it more today than ever before. And to keep in contact with other cyclists; they enrich my life!

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Coetzee Gouws
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