Written for In the Bunch
“On Tuesday Robbie Hunter, who rides for the Italian outfit Lampre, will know if he is to become the first South African ever to compete in the Tour de France.
“But when he arrived in PE this week he had two other objectives on his mind – the national time-trial and road titles.
“In the fading sun at Greenbushes yesterday he achieved his first goal when he obliterated the rest of the field to take the time-trial title.”
These were the opening paragraphs of an article I wrote for The Herald of May 27, 2000.
It was accompanied by a full-colour photo of Hunter leaving the starting ramp in the time-trial and appeared on the back page, despite competing with a preview of that year’s Super 12 final.
It was, and still is, rare for rugby – at any level – to be bumped by cycling – at any level – and it was perhaps an early sign of the impact that he would have on the sport locally.
Hunter quickly became the torchbearer for South African, post-Apartheid cycling and through sheer determination, lots of self-belief and possibly some arrogance, he started bashing down doors that the current generation is still marching through today.
Simon Kessler, the road race champion that year, summed it up best when he said on live TV that Hunter’s exploits had instilled “a belief” in his generation.
When we look at the achievements of Daryl Impey, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg, John-Lee Augustyn, Louis Meintjes and (why not) Chris Froome, we are starting to see the impact of that belief.
Hunter’s steps were hardly of “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” magnitude, but he was certainly breaking ground that was universes apart from what many of us thought possible.
Now, whenever I see him perform on the world stage, my mind goes back to those nationals in PE.
I was fortunate enough to follow him on the time-trial course and remember being amazed at the sheer power output on what, I heard, was a borrowed bike he was riding for the first time.
Some years earlier, I had the privilege of witnessing Blayne Wikner, who would later represent SA at the Atlanta Olympics, on the very same course.
Wikner was graceful and, when he caught and passed me, it looked like he was merely stroking the pedals at a high cadence à la Lance Armstrong.
Hunter, on the other hand, was all about power. He was in the heaviest gear possible and looked like he was trying to dictate the terms to the bike.
At the end, he was a touch under two-and-a-half minutes quicker than his closest challenger – a certain David George.
But as sorry as I had felt for the rest of the riders in that time-trial, I felt even sorrier for Hunter two days later in the road race.
He was as closely guarded as the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. When he moved, everyone moved.
In a change of tactics, Hunter allowed a small group to go off the front with the idea of bridging later, but each time he darted across, the entire peloton would follow.
It became evident that he did not want to drag the rest of the riders back up to the break and eventually left the responsibility in their hands. However, they continued to watch him and soon the break became the winning move.
If ever I had seen a dominant loss – that was it. It made an impression that I will cherish until my dying day.
When he made a special trip to South Africa in 2012 to participate in the nationals and beat Van Rensburg to the line, I, for one, felt that justice had been served.
But, as his career draws to a close, I think it is important to acknowledge the impact that he had beyond winning races on the world stage and inspiring the next generation of superstars.
What sticks out in my mind, and what few may realise, is that he was the one who had convinced Johan Bruyneel to hire Daryl Impey when the latter was scouting talented young riders for the RadioShack team.
I know this because Impey told me so himself. And I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the only one who had benefited from a good word over the years.
And we should always remember that the Jerry Maguires of this world get paid well for that sort of stuff.