From Birmingham to Milan, Cape Town to Durban, Dunkeld to Braamfontein, and finally to Vosloorus, South African cycling was Olympian, grand, mad and full of activism this past weekend.
First the mad. On Thursday, May 24, five riders, led by set off from Cape Town to Durban on an 11-day journey that will see them ride 1 700km to in 10 days before taking part in the Comrades Marathon this coming Sunday. It is the Unogwaja Challenge.
According to the official website, “the Unogwaja challenge was initiated to follow the footsteps of Comrades legend Phil Masterton-Smith, who was affectionately known as ‘Unogwaja’ which means the Hare in Zulu. Phil Masterton-Smith was involved in two of the closest finishes in Comrades Marathon history, when in 1930 he narrowly lost to the great Wally Hayward. The following year in 1931, he battled against Noel Burree, and crossed the finish line meters ahead to claim Comrades Victory and become the youngest ever Comrades winner at the age of 19. In 1933 Masterton-Smith couldn’t afford the train fare from Cape Town to run the Comrades Marathon, so he cycled over 1700kms from Cape Town to Pietermaritzburg in 10 days, and on the 11th day he ran the gruelling Comrades Marathon and came in 10th position. Noel Burree and Phil Masterton Smith – 1931. Tragically Phil Masterton-Smith was killed in action on 5th June 1942 by a mortar bomb, defending the Gazala line during the siege of Tobruk in World War II.”
Led by John McIlroy, who started off Red Sock Friday, an initiative that mobilises charity projects, and includes Dr WP van Zyl, Lourens van Zyl, Paul Blake and Miranda Symons. They were sent on their way in the wee hours of a Cape Town morning by Graeme Smith, who has been known to ride a bike very occasionally. They’ll be easy to spot, all riding KTMs, wearing Oakleys and red kit. To support them and donate money to their charity, go to www.unogwajachallenge.com.
On Friday night 300 riders gathered at the Dunkeld Shopping Centre on Jan Smuts for the monthly Critical Mass ride. Around the world, in over 300 cities, Critical Mass rides are, in essence, a bike ride with the aim of, well, riding a bike. Some are divided as to the purpose of Critical Mass; some say that it will show that cycling is a viable transport option in Johannesburg, others feel that it is a reclaiming of the streets in Joburg. It is, at its basest, a way to reclaim the streets of the city for cyclists. The local organisers also got some unofficial marshalling help from the SAPS. The next ride is at the end of June.
In Vosloorus last week, MTN-Qhubeka handed over hundreds of bikes to the locals who had earned them by planting trees and community activities. It was a magical day as children and adults were given the gift of transport, a way of making their lives that bit more pleasant. The Qhubeka bike has become an icon in rural and previously disadvantaged areas.
As South Africans were expressing their love of cycling for the hell of it, in Birmingham on Friday night, Team MTN-Qhubeka’s Sifiso Nhlapo was demonstrating the talent of the nation to compete at the highest level. It has been a long path back for Nhlapo, who has struggled with injury for some time. He qualified for the final 64 in the time trial on Friday, where only 1.5 seconds separated the top 64. He rode well in his heats, finishing second, fourth and second, before landing short on two of his jumps in the quarterfinal, but still managed to get fourth. In the semfinal, a rider fell in front of him and Nhlapo crashed. He had done enough to earn his place in the Olympics, though, and that was all he needed. He is a true medal contender.
On Sunday, Rob Hunter celebrated as his Garmin-Barracuda teammate Ryder Hesjedal won the Giro d’Italia. It was the second time Hunter has been involved with a winning team at a Grand Tour, but in 2006 Phonak leader Floyd Landis was found guilty of doping and had his title stripped from him. During the Giro, Hunter and Garmin-Barracuda won the team time trial, thus fulfilling Hunter’s dream of winning a stage in each of the Grand Tours. He failed to finish the Giro, a crash just before the final day forcing him out, but his work in the team was immense. It was the end to a great week for South African cycling. Mad, active and glorious.