It will be hard to miss the South African influence at the Tour de France this year. Two riders, Rob Hunter and Daryl Impey, will be in the bunch. A third, Chris Froome, the Kenyan-born, South African-raised British rider who has just bought a house in Parkhurst, will be riding for Team Sky. Gary Blem, from Pretoria, will be in the Team Sky car as one of their head mechanics. It’s a Gauteng party and the rest of the country … nay, the rest of the continent is invited.
The lack of African riders in top-level cycling is, naturally, of much concern to the International Cycling Union, whose president, Pat McQuaid, the Irishman, wants to make the sport a truly global one.
It’s a big ask for a sport that has such entrenched roots in Europe.
The traditions, the language, the methods – the very soul of the sport – is held on the continent. The rest, even the Olympic road race, seems a sideshow. Yet, the face of the sport has changed ever so slightly. French and Italian are no longer the dominant languages, with English the lingua franca of many teams.
The sport has become more anglophile through the dominance of Lance Armstrong, no matter what happens in his doping case.
South Africans have had to get into the sport the hard way. Hunter went over as a youngster to race in Belgium. He and Neil MacDonald, his fellow South African who now rides for the RE:CM mountain bike team, had so little money that MacDonald once stole a steak from a butchery by shoving it down the front of his pants.
Hunter hung tough, getting noticed with help from Brent Copeland, a South African who went to race in Italy, settled there and became a respected team manager. The Barloworld team gave John Lee Augustyn and Froome an easier path to Europe. It is a matter of some pride that those two, along with Hunter, were three of the four left from the nine who started for Barloworld when they reached Paris. Froome has gone on to greater things, his second place in the Tour of Spain borne not merely of form or talent, but from belief.
The same is true of Impey, whose talent has been obvious since he turned pro as a teenager. He won races in South Africa, but struggled in Europe until his win at the Tour of Turkey. His horrific crash in that race stymied his career, but in 2012 he is a rider reborn. It is not form, nor power, nor luck – it is belief. Impey now believes he can ride at the highest level and he has become a consummate professional. Allez Robbie, Daryl and Chris, allez. Viva South African cycling, viva.