Apartheid was the spoke in South African cycling
As the 36th Cape Argus gets underway the M&G looks at the chequered history of cycling, characterised by prejudice, subterfuge and great passion.
In September 1975, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton visited Johannesburg to attend a celebrity tennis tournament. A week into their stay, the divorced couple flew to Chobe National Park in Botswana, where they promptly remarried.
A hastily planned South African honeymoon followed. The itinerary included a stopover in Oudtshoorn and Taylor and Burton arrived as the ostrich capital played host to the fourth stage of the third Rapport Tour, a now defunct invitation-only bicycle race between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Among the riders finishing the uphill climb from Mossel Bay were two Irishmen: Pat McQuaid (25), a physical education teacher from Dublin, and Sean Kelly (18), a farm boy jobbing as a bricklayer. McQuaid, who came from an established Dublin cycling family, had recently won the Tour of Ireland, and Kelly was an Irish national junior champion. Both riders had their sights set on Olympic glory in Montreal.
The Rapport Tour, which offered international riders free flights, accommodation and living expenses, represented the perfect off-season training.
What happened next was farcical. It is also subject to many ellipses and retrospective qualifications in the retelling. Despite these qualifications, it is important to understand the details of the day that apartheid politicking, competitive cycling and Hollywood collided in the Karoo.
A colourful past
It helps to make sense of competitive cycling's strange history – a history characterised on the one hand by extraordinary passion, selfless commitment and occasional achievement by the faithful devotees of a sweaty church, but one also marred by grand-scale political manipulation and wilful occlusions.
Bicycles, like photography, marked the arrival of an emerging modernism in colonial South Africa. In 1870, a Pietermaritzburg merchant imported several bicycles ("extraordinary locomotives" the Natal Witness remarked). It wasn't just Chinua Achebe's white missionaries who took up cycling: lamplighters and rural farmers also took up pedalling – to work and for leisure.
In 1881, the Port Elizabeth Bicycle Club became the country's first local cycling club. Such associations of like-minded enthusiasts have played an important role in competitive cycling, grassroots activism and advocacy for commuter cycling.
At the inaugural meeting of a cycling union established in the Transvaal Republic in 1897, two years before the outbreak of war, which saw bicycles sequestered by the English military, participants proposed five resolutions dealing with road safety, road maintenance and the rights of cyclists. They are nearly synchronous with the aims of the Bicycle Empowerment Network, a non-governmental organisation in latter-day Cape Town involved in advocacy, consultancy and the distribution of new and used bikes to low-income households.
Louis de Waal, a retired transport engineer and the empowerment network's avuncular chairperson, emphasises the close relationship between commuter and competitive cycling. "In the whole 360 degrees of cycling, competitive cycling is a big part of it," said De Waal, one of seven riders to have participated in all the Cape Argus fun rides since 1978. The Argus differs from the Rapport Tour in being a single-day event for allcomers.
The curiosity of white men wearing silly clothes racing each other on bicycles has a long history in this country. In 1888, a group of riders cycled their high wheelers (or penny farthings) from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. In Johannesburg, where the idle rich have long prized novelty, the Wanderers once hosted sprint races around a gravel circuit. The action later moved to Delville in Germiston and Malvern in central Johannesburg. In the 1950s, crowds of as many as 15 000 spectators came to watch riders such as George Estman and Tom Shardelow – winner of two silver medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics – compete.
"White cycling was a blue-collar sport and its officials and admin people came from this background," explained Geoff Waters, a retired Durban sociologist and hobbyist cycling historian. "They were amateurs who gave freely of their time. Most were nice, honest people. However, they became tools of the apartheid state and its sporting policies and propaganda."
These policies were not only aimed at disproportionately privileging white cycling, but also overly valorising its star performers. So Alan van Heerden and Ertjies Bezuidenhout are well known in the annals of competitive riding but Edwin Biko, a black rider whose "fluid and relaxed" continental cycling style saw him rated as "possibly the country's finest road cyclist" in 1971, is largely forgotten.
A protégé of George O'Brien at Blyvooruitzicht gold mine near Carletonville, Biko is one name on a long list of forgotten grassroots heroes. The list includes Jack Ntseau, a Botswana-born rider who competed in four Rapport Tours. Troubled as it was, the Tour offers a way to recoup the histories of riders such as Biko, Ntseau and Peter Nicholson, the first coloured rider in the tour, in 1982.
"The history is steep, and if you write a history of our sport you have to include that," insisted William Newman, the president of Cycling South Africa. "A lot of people don't understand the number of riders we had who could have been winners of the Tour." Thwarted possibility is key to the story of local competitive cycling.
The sport hits back
On the day McQuaid, Kelly and the rest of the peloton rolled into Oudtshoorn, South African cycling was in a bad way. The hardening of the apartheid context throughout the 1960s, which saw the country excluded from the Olympics, resulted in the International Cycling Union, cycling's governing body, shutting the door on local cycling in 1970.
The Rapport Tour was the republic's rickety response. According to the sports historian Lappe Laubscher, the idea for this 1 600km multiday race grew out of a 1972 conversation between Arrie Joubert, a sports journalist, and Raoul de Villiers, a Bloemfontein carpet merchant and vice-chairperson of the South African Cycling Federation (SACF).
De Villiers calculated that it would cost R12 000 to organise a local race similar to the Tour de France Contrast this with the R15-million Newman estimates is needed to revive the stalled Tour of South Africa, which started and ended in 2011. Louis Luyt, the fertiliser and brewing mogul, offered to stump up R5 000. Rapport newspaper agreed to come up with the balance, on condition it was granted naming rights and the race was multiracial.
De Villiers approached Piet Koornhof, the newly appointed minister of sport and recreation, who pledged government support for the race if at least two other countries took part. Basil Cohen, the charismatic owner of Deale & Huth, a specialist cycling store in Johannesburg, secured an Italian and two French teams.
Route planning was the last major hiccup and offers a retrospective lesson in apartheid's petty mean-spiritedness. An administrator in the Orange Free State, on hearing of the inclusion of a team of black riders, refused permission for the 1973 race to pass through his town.
An Italian, Pierre-Luigi Tagliavini, and long-in-the-tooth Brit, Arthur Metcalfe, won the first and second Rapport Tours respectively. Although given less publicity than rugby and cricket, which were similarly the site of sanction-busting and activism, participation in the "rebel" race was not without consequence. John Curran, the Scot who won two stages in the 1974 tour, served a six-month ban as punishment for racing in South Africa. It was a slap on the wrist given that the ban ran through the European off-season.
McQuaid, who credits Kader Asmal's activities with the Irish anti-apartheid movement for rousing his interest in South Africa, weighed the odds. He arrived in the politically isolated republic via London, Paris and the Congo. McQuaid's team was sponsored by the deodorant brand Mum for Men and listed on the programme as British. The subterfuge extended further: McQuaid adopted the alias James Burns, and Kelly rode under the pseudonym Alan Owen.
In Oudtshoorn, John Hartdegen, a local Sunday Times journalist who published short stories under the nom de plume Shane O'Flaherty, allegedly asked Shardelow, the team's manager, whether he could photograph the Brits with Taylor and Burton.
Shardelow, who served his apprenticeship as an electrician but whose Olympic medals secured him more profitable work as a salesman, presented Hartdegen with five riders. "I pointed out to Shardelow that two of the men I had photographed spoke with pronounced South African accents, and that a third was a member of another foreign team," Hartdegen wrote in an exposé article published in the London Daily Mail.
"The secret team who masquerade as Britain," read his article's subheader.
'That finished the team," recalls Shardelow (82), who lives in Edgemead, a suburb of Cape Town. His two silver medals hang in a framed display on a wall between the kitchen and lounge. Shardelow disputes much of the story as told above, which appears in Kelly, British cycling journalist David Walsh's 1987 biography of Sean Kelly.
"No," Shardelow managed to squeeze out while abundantly and incredulously laughing at the mention of Taylor's name, blaming latent animosities between the English and Afrikaners as the reason why McQuaid and Kelly's identities were leaked to the foreign press.
"The journalist who reported them was a guy who was tied up with South Africa cycling," said Shardelow. "He made his money out of it."
McQuaid and Kelly were banned for six months, as anticipated. But the International Cycling Union also compiled a list of all the rebel riders, which it forwarded to the International Olympic Committee. In May 1976, McQuaid, Kelly and 14 other international riders received lifetime bans from Olympic competition.
The story of McQuaid and Kelly's fraudulent participation in the Rapport Tour is well known among cycling enthusiasts. For McQuaid's many doubters, it affirms their belief that the current International Cycling Union chief, who last year called Lance Armstrong a "scumbag", is unfit for the job.
Far less remarked upon in the habitual retelling of the Rapport Tour's dodgy history was the presence of black riders and then noticeable absence of coloured riders. "They never got much publicity," said Jeremy "Jimmy" Rose, a former Gold Fields mining administrator involved in black cycling. "On the mines we all knew about them, but that was it."
Now retired and living in St Michaels, Rose has an encyclopaedic recall of names and events. In 1973, for instance, he drove overland in a Kombi with George Pitso, Abie Oromeng, Sam Ramaboda, Jewboy "Skelm" Selatwe and Elias Ramantele to participate in races against Portuguese riders in Mozambique.
Out of this grouping, Oromeng went on to compete in four Rapport Tours, but it is Selatwe whom Rose rated the highest. Skilled across a range of disciplines, including short sprints and team and individual pursuits, he was known equally for his high gear ratio (52/14) and heavy drinking.
Rose also mentored Jack Ntseau, the first black rider to achieve widespread attention after placing third in the KWV Tour of the Winelands. Like Ramantele, he formed part of a group of excellent cyclists who originated from Botswana.
Growth of black cycling
Writing in 1972, Francis Wilson, now a professor of economics at the University of Cape Town, remarked how black labour on the mines was diverted by recreational facilities that included "dance areas", indeterminate "playing fields", "first-class" cycling and athletic tracks, and "bar lounges", the latter attached to the hostel compounds.
"We used profits from the pubs to purchase and sponsor sporting and extracurricular activities," said Rose, clarifying the circular relationships that enabled black cycling. SAB, for instance, was key sponsor of the prestigious inter-mine sporting events.
"We had a tremendous organisation, we had money, we had venues, we had regular cycle meetings, at least once a month, and in winter we had our road cycling programmes," summarised Rose.
"It was great, but it wasn't ever really recognised by the press. Black cycling was black cycling, and white cycling was white cycling, never the twain shall meet. That's how it was."
Cycling on the mines began to decline in the late 1980s, the brief effervescence of physical chess on the mine tracks lasting about three decades. Mine cycling originated out of allcomers races tacked on to athletic meetings in the late 1950s. Clunky dikwiels (thick wheels) were the steed of choice.
By 1964, when the first mine track was completed at Blyvooruitzicht, there was a small but vibrant cycling scene in Soweto, largely based at Elkah Stadium in Rockville. Now a cricket ground, this purpose-built cycling stadium opened in 1956 and was paid for largely by cycling entrepreneur John Hurwitz, owner of the cycling business LK Hurwitz & Sons.
"He asked me to help with the track racing, to get it organised properly," elaborated Cohen, who was 17 at the time and used to cycle to Soweto.
Cohen, known widely as "Mr Cycling", still has original copies of the permits he needed to enter Soweto. He administered the annual Potchefstroom to Johannesburg day race, which finished at the Elkah Stadium. "Hell, was that fantastic!"
Why didn't it grow? "The guys were poor," said Cohen. "They couldn't afford it," confirmed Rose, whose mine team were kitted out with the best equipment. "The majority of the mine riders had better equipment than your white cyclists, for sure."
Arthur "Archie" Barnwell, a Johannesburg finance and management consultant who rode in Durban's small but vibrant coloured cycling league in the 1970s and 1980s, offers a more nuanced analysis.
"The attempt to bring black riders into the sport through the mines and railways was fraught with all sorts of problems," Barnwell said. "I remember as a youngster meeting some of these riders ... They would sell [their equipment] to you for nothing, because it was currency for them."
Barnwell, whose ancestry is a tangle of Saint Helenian, French, British, Chinese and coloured identities, was a member of Bayview Wheelers, a club affiliated to the Amateur Cycling Union of Natal, itself allied to the larger South African Cycling Association (Saca). Although comprised of largely coloured members, Saca had an explicitly nonracial constitution and vigorously opposed the whites-only SACF.
In the late 1970s, following state concessions that made it possible for sportspeople of colour to use white sporting facilities, the SACF proposed a merger with Saca. "There was a lot of tension," said Barnwell. Some clubs voluntarily dissolved rather than be associated with the SACF. The merger went through in 1979, enabling Barnwell to become the first coloured cyclist to be awarded junior Springbok colours.
"A lot of guys ... succumbed and went over," said Newman. "We called them the sellouts."
Cape Argus boycott
Newman is a third generation member of the illustrious Cloete family from Lansdowne. His grandfather, WJ Cloete, was the founder of Crown Cycles and his uncle, WF Cloete, was a former champion racer.
As a young Saca rider, Newman upheld the code of the South African Council on Sport, the domestic sports wing of the anti-apartheid movement. "No normal sport in an abnormal society," it asserted. This extended to boycotting the Cape Argus.
"Deprived of our vote, we had nothing else but our sport," said Newman. "We had to use what little we had and what power we had was our sport." He joined the SACF in 1991.
Like Barnwell, Newman thinks administrators missed the boat on transforming cycling by failing to address the troubled history of the SACF, now Cycling South Africa. Barnwell describes its merger with Saca as a "takeover" that "decimated" the grassroots club structures. "There is an untold part of our history that nobody acknowledges, nobody talks about," said Barnwell.
He and Waters are attempting to archive cycling's oral history. His enthusiasm is marked by a subtle tone of mourning. "At the moment, it is a just a lost history, a forgotten history. It is a history that perhaps will never be written."