You learn a lot of things over the course of a 202km bicycle race with a dozen other people. You discover that limitations can be overcome, fruitcake and baked potatoes are a gourmet’s delight, the Afrikaans word for the cream they numb cow’s teats with for milking sounds sexy, bright yellow kit can be attractive, luck isn’t |always on your side and development in sport is not just about filling places in national teams, but in creating aspiration and giving |opportunity. You also learn that you shouldn’t say “Jissus” in front of a dominee.
On Saturday, myself and a dozen others said all sorts of things in front of Wynand Olivier, the Swellendam dominee who had invited myself, Jon Gericke and Gareth Edwards from etv, to ride along with him in the Coronation Double Century, which may just be the best road race in South Africa. It’s 202km on the roads of the Western Cape, taking in a loop that starts and ends in Swellendam. Our team was called CAP Community Development and most of us had ridden the race before, but for four young men this was to be a challenge that might just define and change their lives. These were our “development” riders, four young farm workers from Swellendam and surrounds – Mannie (Roelf Smit), Danville Pietersen, Ghefley Snyman and the man with the shy smile called Mr M (Mzunzima Ganyati) – tucked into piles of pasta as we spoke about the race the next day. Wynnie, as the young dominee insisted we call him, is a strongly-built man, who has the physique of a centre rather than a cyclist. He considers Swellendam one of God’s gifts to the world; it is certainly heaven for cyclists, and wanted to show these four the simply joy of a bicycle and, over 200km, the thrill of achievement.
Mr M ate two huge plates of pasta, while Mannie, who had an impressive little tummy, and Ghefley pointed, surprised, as I |ordered another Hansa and asked me if that was the right thing to do before a big race. “Probably not, but it makes me happy,” I laughed. They laughed. I suspect they were laughing at me and not with me.
They had been training with Wynnie, who had, through the generosity of a local company arranged kit that was bright yellow from thigh to neck and proclaimed we loved “B-Well Canola Oil”. Mr M was said to be strong. He certainly ate like a strong man, with two massive plates of pasta. I bid them good night and wandered off to the Full Stop Café to have a final Hansa for the evening.
The aim of the Double Century is to finish as a complete team, and to do it as quickly as possible. Leave no one behind is the motto, but Saturday was to be a bad-luck day for the men in yellow. Ghefley punctured before our 5.15am start. In total, we suffered 12 punctures and a seized bottom bracket. It was to be the hardest of days.
The first 100km of the Double Century are the most important. A steady pace is required and Wynnie had impressed this upon the four. At the first sign of a long hill, though, Dan, who has legs so thin they might make Twiggy blush, was off, scampering up with a little smile on his mug. I was on his wheel and couldn’t hold it: “Jissus,” I said. Then looked around, but Wynnie was down the road, helping sort out a puncture. Next, after another puncture, the team had broken up, and Mannie was next to push on. Shouting at him to wait had little effect, and five minutes later we saw his bright yellow kit from 2km away, sitting on the front of a 30-strong bunch, pulling them along. It wouldn’t last and with 60km to go he started cramping badly.
Through it all, Wynnie cajoled them, giving advice and instructions; it was a crash course in |bicycle racing the hard way. I’m sure that some of them put on weight with the amount they ate during the ride. The final 40km of the Double Century are tough, with rolling hills and three testing hills. Mr M was exhausted |until we discovered that he had been riding in the big ring. We |reminded him how to change down his gears and spin his legs instead of grind. His shy smile |became one of relief.
“This has been a dream of mine for 18 months,” Wynnie told me as we rode in tandem to catch up after another mechanical. “People said these guys could not ride 30km. Today they have ridden 200km. I’m so proud of them.”
In the end we rolled down the road to Swellendam together, |before turning left for a final 1km climb to the finish. The four strained at the leash to race to the finish, but we held them back. We started this as a team. We would end as a team.
There was relief when we rolled over the line, then pride as the four of them, all in a line, led us into the stadium. Friends from their communities high-fived and cheered them in. I doubt there is a future professional amongst them, but on Saturday I was reminded that development in sport is more than quotas or high-performance centres; it is about putting a youngster on a bike, giving him some boots, throwing him a ball and telling him that there is more to life than just survival. It’s about 202km of achievement. It’s all about fun and smiles.
Jissus, it was fun.