Written for Legends of the Pedal
“If you do something, do it well or leave it. That’s my motto in my work, in my sport, in everything in life,” says former Springbok cyclist Bennie Dekker.
While these would be admirable words under any circumstances, what makes them even more remarkable is that Bennie is blind.
After suffering corneal nerve damage at the age of six when, he says, the wrong eye drops were administered in hospital, Bennie’s eyesight began to deteriorate.
Undeterred, he took up cycling in his teens and rode his first 10-mile time trial as a 16-year-old in 1961, when he finished third.
Over the next three years, he would go on to share Port Elizabeth’s prestigious Frans Binneman Memorial Trophy with Dutch rider Rob Redeker, take his first senior title in the 1 000m time trial at the South African championships and obtain his national colours on the track.
All this time, Bennie had been gradually losing his sight and by the time he competed at the ’64 world track championships in France, he had only 20 per cent vision – and could not read his letter of selection.
Despite this, he was still an integral part of the national squad that comprised legends such as Abe Jonker, Rowan Peacock, Willie Marx, Steve Viljoen, Mike Payne and the two Eddies – Kuhn and Kriel.
In the surrounding European tour, Bennie went on to win the 1 000m time trial against Switzerland in Zurich and the same event in the first test against Germany.
A specialist over this distance, he had developed clever techniques to compensate for his visual problems.
“I used to stay out of the bunch and ride at the front or the back. When at the back I would shoot through on the inside closer to the finish or if I was in the front I would lead out.”
Nevertheless, Bennie caught the attention of the Swiss team manager, who was a close personal friend of a medical professor at the biggest eye hospital in Switzerland.
Following a quick examination just hours before the Swiss test, Bennie returned after the world champs and European tour for further testing.
“We as a team were supposed to leave straight for the airport for the flight home but they asked me to stay another month for more tests.”
The prognosis, when it came, was not good.
“They said I wouldn’t go blind all of a sudden but that it would gradually deteriorate. The nerves were burned full of holes.”
Having set several SA records and earned a number of national titles as a junior, Bennie’s time on the track was coming to an end. But with characteristic patience and fortitude, the talented cyclist accepted the inevitable.
“There was no time limit to my condition. I just took it day by day.”
In 1966, he and his friend Francois Dannhauser cycled from Pretoria to Durban so that he could get more road mileage in.
“At the time, I lived in Pretoria and worked in Joburg. I was more of a track cyclist and had to cycle to work and back, which was about 85km a day, but I needed more hours.”
Bennie said his work commute involved him following the white lines and watching to see when the cars moved, as he could not see the traffic lights change colour.
Eventually, without clear vision or the option of Paralympic-type competition, Bennie was forced to finally retire from competitive and social cycling in 1969.
As it turned out, however, it was his love of sport combined with his failing eyesight that had opened up a successful new career in an unexpected direction.
“I had gone to the school for the blind in Worcester at the end of Standard Eight to get matric to study physiotherapy.
“Then my gymnastics coach suggested I take the three-year piano tuners’ course to have more time for my sport. I did have more time for my sport and received Springbok colours in cycling two years later.”
Although Bennie admits knowing nothing about pianos when he first started, he is today one of the country’s foremost piano technicians.
Now completely blind, he has serviced and voiced Unisa’s collection of concert pianos for various national and international music competitions for the past four decades.
The 69-year-old father of two and grandfather of one still lives and runs his piano business in Pretoria, where he was born. His daughter Melissa helps with the administration aspects.
Although he has faced many personal setbacks, including a battle with cancer, Bennie is the embodiment of triumph over adversity. The negative notes have ultimately worked together to create a harmony.
He says as much as he loved cycling, piano tuning has become a form of therapy and it soothes his soul.
Described by his fellow Legends of the Pedal as the consummate gentleman who never had an unkind word for anyone, Bennie was officially welcomed into their ranks at the end of last year.
“That came as a big surprise to me. I never expected something like that – it was the cherry on top of my career.”
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