Written for Legends of the Pedal
Andrew Mclean has come a long way since Alan “The Idol” van Heerden first dangled the carrot of a professional road contract in front of the 19-year-old newbie.
Now, 30 years later, Andrew has four Giro del Capo titles to his name, is the driving force behind the wildly popular SuperCycling television show and recently opened his flagship Cycle Lab megastore in Fourways, Johannesburg.
He is also the current national mountain bike champion for veterans in the cross-country and marathon disciplines.
“It certainly is a balancing act with family, business and training,” says Andrew, whose wife Ali runs Cycle Lab’s national club and is also an avid mountain biker.
The couple has two teenage children, UCT student Michael – who was head boy of Hilton College last year – and 15-year-old Lauren.
“There’s always something that’s suffering a little just to fit everything in,” admits Andrew.
An average day for this cycling legend starts at quarter to four in the morning.
“I’m on the road early, finish training, have a quick shower and I’m then in the store or at SuperSport till about six most evenings before heading home for some family time.”
Even there he’s never far from those two-wheeled machines as home is a mountain bike farm just past Lanseria Airport.
But all this might never have been had Andrew not fallen into cycling as part of his tertiary studies.
“I studied Phys Ed at JCE, which was the teacher’s training college at the time. As part of the curriculum, we had to do triathlon and I really enjoyed it.”
However, he says, he quickly realised that his swimming and canoeing were pretty average, while his running career was injury-plagued.
“I really enjoyed the cycling and I was doing really well, so I decided to start racing.”
He quickly got results, catching the eye of Van Heerden and the Southern Sun-MNet team.
“It was the big pro team at the time and he said if I won the national amateur champs, they would offer me a contract. I’d probably been racing for less than a year at that stage.”
Naturally, he shone and the rest, they say, is history.
“I proceeded to stop studying. In those days we had conscription and I didn’t want to go to the army, although the guy in charge of cycling in the army knew about me and tried to get me in every year.
“So I would enrol at varsity for one subject every year; I wouldn’t go to any lectures and I raced my bike all over the world. And then the following year I’d do the same.”
Then just as he was running out of time, the feared conscription ended.
Born in Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia) and raised in South Africa, Andrew raced internationally on a British passport.
“What I would do is race here in the summer months and then in winter I’d go across to Belgium and do some racing in Europe.
“In the beginning, I raced under the pseudonym Richard Andrews, which is my second name and first name, but then it got to a point where we could race under our own name.”
After dominating the local scene for two years, he went in search of a new challenge and joined Robbie McIntosh’s Topsport-VW Fox team in 1991.
“From there I moved on to a team called Peaceforce. And then I raced in Europe for a year on a Belgian pro team.”
It was after contracting a virus at the All Africa Games in Zimbabwe in 1995 that Andrew decided to start exploring alternative career options.
“All I knew was cycling, so I started Cycle Lab, which in the early days was predominantly a training place.
“People came to my garage and I had a couple of indoor trainers and I trained them.”
It eventually dawned on him that this was no way to build a sustainable business.
“I realised you had to sell them some bits and pieces as well. So we started a small retail outlet and it grew from there.
“That must be close on 16 or 17 years ago now.”
From his garage, the store moved to Woodmead, then Paulshof and then to Design Quarter.
Today it is the country’s largest cycling retail chain with 12 corporate-owned stores and franchise outlets nationwide.
Last year, in another strategic move, Andrew sold the business to the MoreGolf Group and stayed on as chief executive.
He keeps his office at the 2 300m2 megastore – the largest in the southern hemisphere.
“I’m still very hands on. If I’m not racing or riding, I’m here in the store, ready to talk to customers and advise them.”
Talking about cycling is something he remains passionate about and it is also what prompted him to approach SuperSport about a dedicated TV show just over a decade ago.
“I said, ‘You’ve got a rugby show and a cricket show and a soccer show but nothing for us cyclists’.”
The channel’s response was enthusiastic but they tasked him with finding a sponsor and enough content to fill the one-hour time slot every week.
Once again he proved himself up to the job and the show just took off from there.
“It’s so difficult, we could do an hour-long show every night with all the content that is out there, but keeping everyone happy is an impossible task.
“Some people mail or tweet or SMS us that they absolutely loved a particular segment, while someone else will say they couldn’t stand it and that they can’t believe we wasted valuable airtime on it.”
Andrew says the challenge is to try and create a balance between different age categories, genders and disciplines, while featuring both local and international news as well as the latest nutrition tips and gear.
It was his perpetual need for a fresh challenge that saw him take up the burgeoning sport of mountain biking – winning the inaugural Old Mutual joBerg2c and the masters’ category at the Absa Cape Epic twice.
“A mountain bike race is really a time-trial with some obstacles in it, and I was really good at time-trials and multiday tours.
“So the fit came relatively easy to me, I just had to develop my skills, which I’m still doing.”
He says the rise of off-road stage racing and the demise of so many road tours – such as the Allied and Hansom tours – has seen the large-scale defection of roadies to the sport.
“On the road, we’re expecting our guys to prepare and race at a world-class level yet all they’ve got to work with are flat 100km fun rides.
“It’s no wonder when mountain bikers race on the road against the roadies, especially when it’s really long and tough, that the mountain bikers start to come to the fore.”
Aside from supporting the handful of stage races, like the upcoming Bestmed Tour de Boland and Mzansi Tour, Andrew reckons more good, hard classics are needed.
“We need to look at ways to regenerate the road side; there’s just so little for those guys at the moment.
“We can’t look to the organisers of the fun rides for that. If we want our pros to do well, we need to start putting on events that develop them as well.”
One way would be to hold spectator-friendly circuit races in various business parks, he says.
As for his personal racing future, Andrew says he will compete as long as he can ride his bicycle.
“Maybe not competing eventually but just riding my bicycle and enjoying cycling.”
Looking back on his career, he says there have been no real lowlights to speak of.
“I’ve had lots of disappointments, crashes, broken bones – they’re just part of the journey. You have to adapt, change and come back stronger.”
It’s clear that his passion for cycling in all its forms is as undiminished as when he first cleated up three decades ago.
“I got my first Springbok colours after one of the Rapport Tours. All I know is I have a green, moth-eaten blazer somewhere in a cupboard.
“I’m not very sentimental, I don’t keep much stuff, but that I’ve certainly kept.”
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