South Africa's hopes ride on cycling prodigy
How is this for a debutante’s ball? It is the Tour de Bretagne Cycliste 2012, stage seven, northwestern France. Twenty-three-year-old South African Reinardt Janse van Rensburg is in second place, 13 seconds behind the yellow jersey worn by Eric Berthou.
Janse van Rensburg’s Team MTN-Qhubeka, directed by the implacable Jens Zemke, has a plan: ignore the attacks until the final 30km of the 166km course, then split the pack, forcing Berthou’s Bretagne-Shuller teammates to chase, leaving their leader alone and exposed. At the 2km mark, Janse van Rensburg, MTN’s anointed “general classification” – the rider tasked with winning it all – must employ his gifts as a sprinter, somehow making up the 13 seconds and securing a debut yellow jersey on the European circuit.
If you are like me and require a calculator to run the numbers on this caper, there is one important thing to keep in mind: MTN-Qhubeka, which has some of the country’s best young talent, harbours serious European ambitions. Does Janse van Rensburg have the legs to execute Zemke’s Tour de Bretagne robbery? Janse van Rensburg is all legs. Yellow secured; reputation burnished; statement made.
Thus begins endless hand-wringing in the hermetically sealed South African cycling fraternity: Do we finally have a cyclist worthy of leading a local team to the European pro-continental circuit? It is not that South Africans do not have a presence in the Tour de France and other European fixtures – take a bow, Robbie Hunter and Daryl Impey but in a country that boasts the two largest timed races in the world and in which cycling enjoys a disproportionately large following, no properly local team has ever competed on the pro-continental circuit.
Both Hunter and Impey were attached to the most significant South African team experiment, Barloworld. But as South Africans they were in the decided minority. Barloworld, for all its pizzazz, was never able to deliver on its “local is lekker” mandate – it was more spaghetti putanesca than boerewors and pap.
For its part, MTN is not being coy about its African pedigree. Said Serame Taukobong, chief marketing officer at MTN South Africa: “As proud sponsors of Team MTN-Qhubeka, we are pleased to announce our pursuit of the African dream to get the first African cycling team with predominately African riders to race in the Tour de France.” That is a lot of “Africans” in one sentence, backed up by the fact that the team contains three Eritreans, one Namibian and nine South Africans. And the cherry on top? Janse van Rensburg, born in Virginia, Free State, lately of Pretoria, Gauteng.
The young man is in the middle of a highly successful 2012 campaign. With more victories than Slovakian sensation Peter Sagan, he has won, among others, the general classification at the Tour of Morocco, took the 176km Circuit de Wallonie in Belgium and won the two-stage Ronde van Overijssel in the Netherlands. He is this year’s South African time-trial champion, and has won the Pick n Pay Cape Argus and Jo’burg’s Berge en Dale Classic. The results represent dominance of the South African circuit and a significant introduction into the international minor leagues, but it does nothing to confirm whether Janse van Rensburg and his team are ready to compete in classics and grand tours in Europe.
During the lull in his racing schedule, I met Janse van Rensburg at a suburban home in Erasmusrand, where he trains in the surrounding hills for the better part of his short sabbatical. He is tall and quiet and appears to have just crested the hillocks of adolescence. He grew up in a cycling house: his father’s South African time-trial champion’s jersey is framed and hangs on a wall. “My dad got into [cycling] for lifestyle purposes to lose weight and he got me into it.”
Janse van Rensburg entered his first race when he was 11 and got his first proper racing bike when he was 13. “At first I hated it,” he said. “I liked rugby most. Why should I go out to the sticks in the middle of nowhere and ride? But then I fell in love with it.”
And why not? When he was 14, he won the time-trial championships for his age group and won again as an under-16. In his second year as a junior, he raced and won the Circuit de Wallonie.
Meanwhile, school was a problem. After helping a friend to Photoshop the likenesses of the head and vice-principal on to the bodies of two underdressed musclemen, he was embroiled in a disciplinary case that went all the way to the Constitutional Court. This black mark did not solidify his reputation as a first-class scholar and this he regrets. “With cycling you miss a lot of social stuff, so you’re a bit awkward. You’re never part of the cool kids.”
On the bike, Janse van Rensburg struggled to make the move from junior to elite. He was chosen to represent South Africa and the African cycling championships in 2009 and although he got results, “it was difficult to still believe that you can be a professional cyclist. There didn’t feel like much hope.” His tenure with 2008-2009 Toyota SuperCycling resulted in no significant hardware, but MTN’s owner, Doug Ryder, noticed him after a podium finish at the Race for Victory and signed him up.
The bet paid quick dividends. Janse van Rensburg won six South African fixtures in 2010 and showed his form at the tours of Morocco, Gabon and Rwanda. He flatlined somewhat in 2011, stunned as he was by the level of racing on his first proper elite run in Europe.
“It was an eye-opener,” he said. “I learned a lot that month – what it requires to race at that level. The bunches are 200 strong, you’re cornering all the time and it’s double the distance. To see what it requires meant a lot.” Then, a ray of light: at the Herald Sun Tour in Australia he won stage two, beating Baden Cooke to the line. That presaged his surge in form in 2012. Now, he and his team await the notoriously brutal Volta a Portugal, which starts in the middle of August.
Janse van Rensburg has his limitations: he is not a climber. But he is a startlingly good sprinter and superb at time trials. Those are bankable commodities. “Look,” he said of MTN, “we basically all want to get to the Tour de France; that’s the holy grail. Sometimes, in Jo’burg’s Berge en Dale you get frustrated watching guys on TV you know you can beat. It is about time that Africa had a professional team on the pro-continental circuit.” He is not wrong.
One thing is certain: MTN-Qhubeka are throwing major resources behind a pan-African team and there is every chance they will be racing in France in a year’s time.