When Robert Hunter snatched the yellow jersey from Frenchman Julien Antomarchi on day two of the inaugural Mzansi Tour in April, the rest of the field knew they were about to witness a world-class performance right here on home soil.
After soloing to an almost six-minute lead on the 189km queen stage, Hunter dominated the remaining three days, adding the green points jersey and best African rider title to his overall win.
Riding in the colours of the South African national team, he finished in 19:42:31, five minutes 56 seconds clear of second-placed Antomarchi of French team La Pomme Marseilles, with Fortunato Baliani of Japan’s Nippo-De Rosa a further six seconds back.
Although Hunter had designated the 2.2 UCI-rated tour as training for the Giro d’Italia in May, his competitive nature would not be defeated.
“When I race in SA, I race to win. When I got the idea to ride, it was about using it as training for the Giro but by the same token trying to win.”
The sprinter is full of praise for his young South African team-mates – Gawie Combrinck, James Fourie, Kevin Patten, Reynard Butler and Kyle Donachie.
“They all rode their hearts out to do the job needed of them. I think riding for a leader brought a lot out of all the guys – they showed themselves what they could do when they needed to up their game.
“I can honestly say they walked away learning a lot about themselves and how much deeper they can go as riders.”
Hunter, who races in Europe for UCI ProTour team Garmin-Sharp, has hailed the tour through Mpumalanga and Gauteng as the ideal training ground for international pros.
“The Mzansi Tour was great prep for the Giro because of the altitude and the great weather we have here. Europe has been really bad this year with a lot of rain; so many people have had to go to places like Tenerife to train.
“Me personally, I prefer South Africa, as it has it all.”
With its good climate and great roads, Swiss-based Hunter reckons it is a viable alternative to other far-flung racing destinations like Australia and Argentina.
Unlike the now-defunct stage races like the Rapport Tour, Tour of South Africa, Giro del Capo and Hansom Tour, the Mzansi Tour has a promising future, he believes.
“Past tours have all failed because the people who tried to run the events were doing a lot of things for the wrong reasons.”
With Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge organisers Tanya Harford and Jenni Green at the helm, Hunter says it should go from strength to strength.
“This year was a great start; maybe next year they can add a day or two, making it slightly longer, so better for training. But, honestly, not much more needs to be done to make it attractive to European pros – this was a five-star event.”
However, despite a scintillating performance on his own turf, the South African’s Giro campaign did not go as planned.
“I had greater ideas about this year’s Giro and wanted to win a stage but that never panned out. I had great form and still do.”
Riders felt the full force of the weather gods’ wrath as they were pelted with unseasonable rain and snow during the 94th edition of the three-week tour.
“The bad weather played a part in me not being able to do more than I did. I really battle in the cold and don’t function the same as in hot weather.”
But Hunter was not alone in his suffering as even acclimated northern hemisphere favourites like his team-mate and titleholder Ryder Hesjedal and Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins fell foul of the weather.
“We had a clear leader in Ryder but after a week he was out of the race, which was a huge pity because, three days in, he was showing incredible form.
“At that point, he was the only rider to put pressure on Nibali – who knows what could have been if he hadn’t gotten sick.”
When the penultimate mountain stage, featuring the soaring Gavia and Stelvio passes, was eventually cancelled, Hunter says he was quite relieved.
“We had been riding in bad weather for three weeks and nobody was keen on another day in the snow with minus temperatures. If there had been sun, I would have wanted to race like any other day, climbs or not.”
He says, ironically, the cancellation actually made the final week easier, as Grand Tours go.
“These are normally the days that put you into a state of fatigue that you rarely get to go to. So a day off kept us relatively fresh.
“But, in the snow and cold, cycling clothing just doesn’t keep you warm enough, no matter how much you put on. And there’s only so much you can put on if you want to ride your bike well.”
Nevertheless, the veteran of the peloton persevered when those around him fell, going on to finish the final, shortened mountain stage in the snow.
“Not once on the final day was I thinking I wanted to stop. Racing uphill differs from riding downhill; when climbing, your whole body is sweating and emitting a lot more heat, so you stay warmer and its easer to keep going.
“The organisers know that, and that’s why we only had the final climb. If it had been an issue of climbing and descending, I think a lot of riders would have stopped.
“Once you start descending, your body gets really cold – all the now warm clothes are full of sweat, so they freeze and, in turn, freeze you. Your hands, feet, everything just don’t function anymore.
“Anyway, so the last day was okay to finish even though a tad cold,” he finishes (with understated irony) about the hazards of battling a blizzard on a bicycle.
At age 36, Hunter has certainly done the hard yards and is not easily intimidated by what the elements and his nearest rivals have thrown at him.
“All I’ve learned through the years definitely makes me see things clearer and not panic about anything.”
And that’s a strategy that has served him well in the competitive world of international stage racing.
At last year’s Giro, when Garmin-Sharp won the team time-trial, Hunter became the first South African to claim stage wins in all three Grand Tours.
He had previously notched up stage victories in the Vuelta a España for Lampre-Daikin in 1999 and 2001, as well as the Tour de France for Barloworld in 2007.
Although his participation in the centenary edition of Le Tour has yet to be confirmed, Hunter remains as driven as ever.
“I’ve been planning this year a lot around the Tour de France, so I think I’ll be on the start line. If I do go, I’m definitely looking to make a mark like I did a few years back.”
He is loath to put his money on a particular pre-race favourite however.
“Froome will be up there and so will Contador. In what order I have no idea. One thing I do know is that it will be an exciting Tour de France.”
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