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Classic Lightweights UK
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South African Road Cycle Racing in the 20th Century 

Author Geoff Waters (2011)


The advent of competitive cycling in South Africa coincided with the era of British colonisation of the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But competitive cycling in South Africa was initially confined to dedicated oval cycle tracks and lively track racing scenes developed amongst the colonists in the then burgeoning cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. The first South African Olympic team which participated in the 1908 London Olympic Games included four cyclists all of whom raced in the track events held at White City. 

However, road racing in both its time trial and ‘massed start’ forms has a distinguished place in the history of 20th century South African cycle sport.

Early 20th century competitive road cycling in South Africa

Despite the early emphasis on track cycling, the first South African cyclist in the 20th century to win international honours did so in a road event. This was an Olympic gold medal at the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden.

The 1912 Olympics are unique in that it was the first and only occasion on which no track cycling events were included in the Games programme. The Swedish Olympic organising committee had wanted to eliminate cycling from the 1912 Games entirely. However, following protests by other nations the sole cycling event included in that Olympiad was the
road race which took the form of a massive 196 mile (315.385 Km.) individual time trial, its length rivalling that of stages in early Tours de France.
sa-road-racing-rem1The event was contested on a poorly surfaced course around an enormous lake by an international amateur field of 123 competitors (including 26 from Britain) and started at 2 a.m. with riders departing at 2 minute intervals. It was won decisively by the sole South African entry, Rudolph ‘Okey’ Lewis (see image left), in a time of 10h 42m 39s Lewis was the second rider to be dispatched and he soon caught and passed the first starter. For the remainder of the event therefore he was the lone leader on the road. Only 94 of the starters, drawn from 16 different nations, eventually finished the race. A giant of a man, Lewis was still racing in Europe at the outbreak of World War I. He joined up but was subsequently wounded and taken prisoner. Lewis returned to South Africa after the war and died in 1933 at the age of 45 in his native Transvaal.

The rider beaten into second place by Lewis in the Stockholm Olympic road race was F.H. (‘Freddie’) Grubb, a British road time trialling ace of the period. Grubb finished some 9 minutes behind Lewis while the British multi–champion Leon Meredith (and later the proprietor of the noted ‘Constrictor’ components company) finished fourth at 18 minutes. At the time, Grubb was a leading member of the powerful Vegetarian C.& A.C. He subsequently became a noted lightweight frame builder and the inventor of an early quick release wheel system – a claim disputed by some of his former business associates.  The iconic Grubb marque was to live on for decades, with Holdsworth continuing to produce F.H. Grubb–badged lightweights up until the late 1970s. In beating both Grubb and Meredith, therefore, Lewis’ scalps in Stockholm included two of the most iconic figures in 20th century British cycling.

The next major South African road success was in the Olympic road race in 1920 at the Antwerp Games – the first to be held since 1912 when Lewis had triumphed. The South African rider Henry Kaltenbrun finished the 100 mile individual road time trial event with the fastest time (4h 41m 26.6s) but was relegated to the silver medal position when the Swedish rider, Harry Stenqvist, protested that he had been delayed by four minutes at a closed railway level crossing. The protest was upheld, Stenqvist’s time was adjusted to 4h 40m 01.9s and he was awarded the gold medal. As a result, Kaltenbrun received the silver medal.

But early South African involvement in road racing was not confined to international competitions abroad. According to a history of Durban’s Kings Park Cycling Club:
‘Starting before World War I…an interclub cycling race for the Speedwell trophy took place between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, alternating as an up and down run each year. This was restricted to the Durban and Pietermaritzburg clubs, the Speedwell, Rovers and Lords Cycling Clubs. Cyril Geoghegan won this event many times, breaking the down record three times between 1926 and 1932. In those days they rode with just one gear, usually a small 74 or 78 gear because of the hills. Traffic authorities stopped the race in the early 1930's because they felt it had become too dangerous. Bikes were overtaking the very much slower cars of that period, (with) cyclists in the race flying down the hills at speed…’ (Huckett n.d., page 1).

Durban is a coastal port city while Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital, lies at an altitude of 2 200 feet above sea level some 50 miles inland and is reached by traversing the rugged ‘Valley of a Thousand Hills’. Early editions of the race would have been contested over unmade dirt roads which must have made the ‘up’ versions of the race very demanding indeed.

Evidence is of local enthusiasm for road events, specifically time trials, as having increased considerably during the late 1920s and early 1930s. For instance, according to the official SACF history (Jowett, 1982), the first national road racing title event was held in 1930 in the form of a 100 mile time trial (won by A.J. Gibbs). This annual event was finally discontinued only in1952. Several provincial road time trial championships were also established at around the same time, including:

Natal Province: 10 mile time trial (est.1929; discontinued in1953)
            25 mile time trial (est. 1928; changed to 40 Km. in 1981)
Western Province: 25 mile time trial (est. 1934, discontinued in 1958)
                 50 mile time trial (est. 1934; discontinued in1958)
                100 mile time trial (est. 1934; discontinued in 1952)

But the 1930s were also a time when ‘massed start’ road racing became increasingly popular worldwide. While the road race at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics took the form of a 100Km. time trial, at the 1936 Berlin Olympics the road race was contested as a ‘massed start’ event for the first time. It was won by the Frenchman Robert Charpentier with his fellow countryman Guy Lapébie finishing second. However, no South African riders participated in Los Angeles and in Berlin the two South African entrants were unplaced. But it proved to be a different story at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia.

sa-road-racing-rem4
Henry Binneman winning the 1938 Empire Games 100k road race
In South Africa during the 1930s Cape Town’s Hendrik (‘Henri’) Binneman had emerged as the leading long distance road time trialist of his day. From 1933 onwards he repeatedly won both the Western Province and national 100 mile individual road time trial titles. As a result, he was selected to contest the road race at the 1938 Empire Games. Jowett (1982: 57–8) describes what ensued as follows:
Adding further lustre to the laurels of the two great Springbok cyclists, Rudolph Lewis and Henry Kaltenbrun, was Hendrik Binneman who won the 100 Kilometres Road Race at the British Empire Games in 1938 in Sydney, Australia. Unlike the road races won by Lewis and Kaltenbrun the race in Sydney was the first of a new technique of massed starts. South Africa had two starters, Binneman and Sid Rose (a track sprinter). They were opposed by teams from Australia, New Zealand and England. About 10 Kilometres after the start Rose was forced to drop out with cycle trouble and Binneman was left to race alone against all the competing teams. He won because he made the race to suit himself, and blocked any Team tactics he encountered. No praise could be too lavish for Binneman. He was great!’
Binneman won the 100Km. event in a time of 2h 53m 29.6s in a sprint finish ahead of John Brown (NZ) and Ray Jones (England).

However, the outbreak of World War II saw all competitive cycling cease in South Africa for the duration of the hostilities.

Road racing in the immediate post–World War II era in South Africa

A great revival in competitive cycling occurred amongst the White community in South Africa in the immediate post–war era. Track cycling was boosted by visiting overseas teams like the British one led by Lew Pond in 1948 and then again by the 1952 team captained by Tommy Godwin. Individual track riders who toured the country included the 1948 Olympic sprint champion Mario Ghella and the American Olympian Jackie Heid. But track cycling in South Africa was traditionally a summer sport. Being in the southern hemisphere the track season extended from November through to April of the following year and culminated in the prestigious national track championships held annually at Easter in different centres. In the pre–war period when track racing was pre–eminent and its champions lionised, the winter months (April through to October) had essentially been competitive cycling’s ‘off–season’ during which a low–key programme of road time trials modelled on the British fixed distance system (10, 25 and 100 miles) operated..

In the immediate post–war years, however, all this began to change. A new enthusiasm for ‘massed start’ road racing took root in South Africa. It was inspired by accounts in the cycling media of both the epic exploits of Coppi, Koblet, van Steenbergen and Bartali in European stage races and one–day classics and the ‘BLRC revolution’ in Britain. New massed start road events began to proliferate throughout South Africa during the winter months which are generally mild climatically in much of the country. A typical local winter road season in Durban during that period thus consisted of individual and ‘double harness’ (two–up) 25 and 50 mile time trials run on the flat beachfront Snell’s Parade circuit interspersed with ‘massed start’ races. Some of the latter were handicap events with small bunches starting at intervals and pursued by the fast men in the ‘scratch’ group. Initially these were contested by riders using single fixed machines with 81 being the gear of choice.

However, multi–geared road machines began to be increasingly sported by local riders. Celebrated Italian marques like Frejus, Legnano and Fiorelli were greatly prized along with locally–built ‘DHC’s crafted by Hans Huth from Reynolds 531 tubing and Nervex Pro lugs. Many nevertheless retained their British–made track/path machines (Claud Butler, Hobbs of Barbican and Carltons were great favourites, replacing pre–war Selbachs that were by now considered passé) with brake(s) added.  Some mechanical virtuosos succeeded in adapting their track machines to incorporate derailleur gear mechs – Osgears and Simplex ‘Tour de France’ rear gears – for the duration of the winter road season.

sa-road-racing-rem5

As massed start road races began to proliferate in South Africa so the choice of courses became more varied to include climbs and descents. Some involved racing on unmade dirt roads either wholly or in part. This made having a dedicated multi–geared road machine a ‘must have’ for any would–be contender for road racing honours. (See image ablove)

The first South African massed start road championship was held in 1948 over a distance of 200 Km. It was won by George Estman, a man with the physique of a rugby forward, who was already an established Springbok trackman with international experience which included the 1948 Olympics. In Natal, 1947 was the first year in which an annual provincial road title was contested, with Stan Chelin (also a top track rider) winning. Other provinces rapidly followed suit in instituting massed start road titles.

The 1950s saw a rapid proliferation of single day and multi–stage massed start road races throughout South Africa. These attracted many of the country’s established top riders while also serving to produce a new generation of talented roadmen (see Table 1).

Table 1. Major South African massed start road races in the 1950s

Single Day road races

Union Day Handicap (100Km.)


Ladysmith–Pietermaritzburg

[Natal] 1951–1955

Pietermaritzburg–Greytown–Pietermaritzburg (3 stages)

[Natal] 1952 et seq.
Multi–Stage road races

[Pretoria] 1952–1960    ‘Old Dutch’ (beer) Stage Race
[Durban–Jhb.] 410 miles; 1951–1954

Wynfees Race

[Jhb.-Paarl] 862 miles; 1955–1956

Pietermaritzburg–Kokstad–Pietermaritzburg Race

[Natal] 1959 et seq.
  

Simultaneously with these developments South Africans began to compete increasingly  in road races abroad. In 1950, Peter Ryan finished 20th in the UCI (FIAC) amateur world road race and subsequently campaigned in Europe as a professional. In the following year Ed Gibello finished fourth in the amateur world road championship held at Varese in Italy.

 In 1952, Brian (‘Tuffy’) Boyd finished second in a pioneering African eight–stage international massed start road race of some 350 miles. The event, which included an individual time trial, was run over six days from Salisbury (now Harare) in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) into Portuguese East Africa (now Moçambique). The field of some forty–odd competitors consisted of cyclists from the two Rhodesias (north and south), Moçambique, Portugal and South Africa. Starting initially on the narrow Rhodesian tarred roads of the time, the Moçambiquan stages were ridden entirely over dirt roads. The race’s first stage was to the Rhodesian village of Marandellas; the second to the eastern border region with the town of Umtali serving as a rest day stop. It then descended to the northern Moçambiquan village of Vila de Manica. On one stage riders had to be ferried ‘African Queen’–style across the Punge River. The race finally finished in the Moçambiquan port of Beira situated to the south of the delta of the Zambezi River. Boyd, a top roadman who was third in the first ‘Old Dutch’ Durban–Johannesburg stage race in 1951 (won by Johnny Ramsay with Bobby Fowler second), was one of several South Africans who competed in this legendary south–east African road racing safari. Boyd won one stage, his fellow South African Julie de Bakker took several but overall race victory went to the Portuguese star rider, João Melo.

The decade of the 1960s was characterised by the development of further massed start road races in the Southern African region. I962 saw a multi–stage 1 500 Km. race in the form of the ‘Rembrandt (cigarettes) Wingerdfees’ from Johannesburg to Paarl in the Cape Province. It was won by the Transvaaler Eddie King with Frank Irvine of Natal finishing second. Thereafter there was further contact with Portuguese–speaking cyclists in Moçambique. In 1963 a Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) – Greytown (Natal) – Lourenço Marques stage race was won also by Eddie King. In 1966 the ‘Friendship Race’ (Lourenço Marques– Mbabane [Swaziland] – Lourenço Marques) saw the Moçambiqan–Portuguese rider José Cipriano triumph. In 1966 also the ‘Prova Samorel’ stage race in Moçambique was won by the South African rider Graeme Vos.

But if the 1950s and early 1960s had been a period of the rapid growth of massed start road racing in the region, the late 1960s proved to be a troubled time for cycle sport in the country and for the exclusively ‘Whites–only’ South African Cycling Federation (SACF) in particular. South Africa’s increasing international sporting isolation as a result of the state’s apartheid policies negatively impacted upon SACF cycling on both road and track.  Exclusion from the Olympics in 1963 by the IOC and suspension by the UCI in 1970 served as massive disincentives to SACF–affiliated South African cyclists.

The 1970s and after: South African cycling’s darkest days

The time line of Classic Lightweights ends at 1970 and it might be considered appropriate to end a history of South African competitive road racing in the 20th century at this point since it also marks the beginning of the international boycott. To do so, however, would be to tell only half of the story. It would ignore the ensuing bitter power struggle for control of South African cycle sport in which road racing played a central part.

By the early 1970s competitive cycling in South Africa, while isolated internationally, nevertheless had three separate governing bodies: the South African Cycling Federation (SACF), the South African Cycling Association (SACA) and the South African Amateur Athletics and Cycling Association (SAAA&CA). The SACF was the exclusively White cycling body established in the mid–1950s after a parting of the ways with organised White athletics; SACA, formed in the late 1960s with roots in spontaneous competitive cycling developments in the Cape and Natal provinces in the1950s, espoused an explicitly non–racial policy but its membership consisted mainly of Coloured enthusiasts; the SAAA&CA, which had affiliated to the SACF in 1959 but remained separate from it, drew its membership almost exclusively from amongst black African gold miners most of whom were migrant workers from neighbouring African states like Botswana.

The convoluted sporting policy of the apartheid state at this time was subject to frequent modifications in an attempt to overcome the international sporting boycott without compromising its basic principle of racial segregation. In essence, the apartheid ideology did not allow for local clubs or representative teams in any sporting code to be racially mixed. Furthermore, in terms of this, mono–racial (effectively Whites only) official South African teams could compete only against people of colour if the latter were members of foreign teams. As a result, local competitions between SACF (White) cyclists, SACA (predominantly Coloured) cyclists and SAAA&CA (black African) cyclists were prohibited by law. It was this which both the UCI and the IOC objected to and which led to their institution of a sporting boycott.

In the early 1970s, control of the SACF was wrested away from a previously dominant group of ageing administrators and officials headed by Cyril Geoghegan who had been national president for some ten years during the 1960s. The new youthful and politically streetwise SACF executive had no qualms about unreservedly adopted the apartheid state’s sporting policies and was immediately rewarded by generous financial support from the state’s department of sport.

In 1973 the SACF succeeded in establishing the ‘Rapport Toer’ as an international multi–stage massed start road race between Cape Town and Johannesburg over a distance of some 1600 Kilometres. With substantial funding from an alliance of the apartheid state’s department of sport, the pro–government Afrikaans–language Rapport Sunday newspaper and major local companies, its purpose was to challenge the international boycott. However, its ‘hidden agenda’ was to simultaneously uphold the apartheid state’s segregationist sporting policies. To these ends riders were recruited from other countries (including a Botswanan team composed of migrants working on South African gold mines and a racially mixed Rhodesian team) to compete in sponsored squads against teams of local White cyclists.   Foreign riders from Europe (Italy, Portugal, France and Belgium), Ireland and the UK were offered an all expenses paid trip together with a free post–race holiday in South Africa as an inducement to participate. They were formed into dummy national teams wearing kit bearing the logos of sponsors like ‘Mum for Men’ and ‘TAP’ (the Portuguese national airline).

sa-road-racing-rem2.jpg
Rapport - Portugese Team

These elaborate arrangements notwithstanding, after the ageing British ex–Tour de France rider Arthur Metcalfe won the second edition of the Rapport Toer in 1974 he was suspended by the UCI and this served as a warning to other UCI–affiliated riders.  In the following year the Rapport Toer organisers sought to circumvent the likelihood of further such bannings by arranging for foreign riders to participate in the race under false names. However, quite by chance a visiting British journalist uncovered the real names of the Irish and Scots competitors involved and the deceit was revealed in the international media. This led to official enquiries which ultimately resulted in the IOC imposing lifetime bans on 16 riders from seven different countries including Ireland, Britain, Italy, France, Belgium and Portugal.    Amongst these foreign competitors were two riders who were to subsequently win distinguished places in international cycling.

During the 1970s also the SACF proceeded to organise a number of lesser stage races locally on similar lines to that of the Rapport Toer, with financial support ultimately sourced from the apartheid state.  But since SACA – the explicitly anti–apartheid but predominantly Coloured cycling organisation – viewed none of these initiatives as being genuinely non–racial since participating local teams remained racially segregated, they declined to allow their members to participate. Instead SACA organised separate road and track events for their own members including an annual national road championship. Given the rapid growth of competitive cycling amongst the Coloured communities in different provinces, SACA quickly emerged as a significant presence on the South African cycling scene in the 1970s.

But while the SACF had succeeded in achieving a measure of international competition for its riders through its local stage races, it continued to face major barriers to sending them abroad to compete as had been possible before 1970. This created a pressing problem since races like the Rapport Toer had produced a new generation of top local road riders anxious to compete abroad on the international stage.  In order to meet their demands the SACF adopted a variety of covert means the exact nature of which remains obscure. As a result, several teams of SACF road riders took part in a series of events in Belgium in 1977, 1978 and 1979. These foreign forays were little publicised at the time either at home or abroad presumably to avoid further reprisals.

Nevertheless, two of the best SACF road riders to emerge in the 1970s, Robbie McIntosh (who was the first South African to win the Rapport Toer which he did in 1977 and then several times subsequently) and national multi–champion Alan van Heerden both succeeded in securing professional contracts with European teams; the former in Belgium, the latter in France. Van Heerden subsequently won stage 7 (at Pesara) in the 1979 Giro d’Italia while racing in the colours of the French Peugeot team.  He was thus the first South African to have triumphed in a major international road event abroad since Henri Binneman won the British Empire Games road title in 1938.

The ensuing decade of the1980s was a period during which the wider South African society was further torn apart by escalating internal racial conflicts coupled with international sanctions which impacted negatively on all spheres of life. Competitive cycling was but one activity to suffer deeply in the process.

 It was only with the final demise of the apartheid state in the early 1990s that South African cycle sport became fully racially integrated and was readmitted into international cycling circles, allowing its riders to begin to re-establish themselves on the world scene.  It is impossible to estimate the toll taken on several generations of South African competitive cycling talent of all racial backgrounds by the ‘lost decades’. However, that it was substantial is beyond dispute.

Thus Robbie Hunter’s victory in the eleventh stage of the 2007 Tour de France perhaps marks a new beginning for South African road cycling internationally after the vicissitudes of the sport in the 20th century.