It was around take number eight that Bert le Clos began to look a little nervous, but not too nervous. The man who was announced to the world on the biggest sporting stage of all, albeit through accident and circumstance, was dressed in a tuxedo and lip-syncing into a 50s microphone in studio seven at the Atlas Studios in Milpark last week.
He was there to record a promo insert for SuperSport, which will flight this coming weekend. The song is a version of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”, refashioned to include his trademark, “unbelievable”, as the pay-off line. He recorded the song the day before. “That was okay because there were only a few people, but now with all these people I’m a bit nervous,” he laughed.
From good news stories for cycling to the stereotype of Campo, from the gore of a man called Hore, and from the legacy of the Punter to the blunter of the Australian attack, this has been one wicked beast of a week for sport.
It would be best to lead with the good news for cycling. There has been precious little to announce these past few months for those still in the sport who believe that honour and truth will triumph all.
The bell in Swellendam tolled for me yesterday morning. It tolled four times. At 4am. Then it tolled six times at 6am. And only a few stirred in Swellendam, which is, according a motto used on an entrance ticket to a party, a “Dam fine place”. It was a place for aches and groans from some yesterday morning after the Coronation Double Century, a 202km team race that started and ended in the Overberg town, the third-oldest settlement in South Africa after Cape Town and Stellenbosch, according to the locals.
Two of those whose sore and stiff legs could not wipe the smiles off their faces were Manie Fortuin and Danville Pietersen, who had completed the race as part of the celebrity-media teams sponsored by Soill, the Canola oil manufacturers. The teams, a mix of a journalists, television and radio presenters, a magazine editor, politicians, race organisers, a dominee, a security man taking his job to the nth degree, a sponsor’s employee and three rather fit young men from the Velokhaya cycling initiative in Khayelitsha, rode to raise awareness of Cansa and to raise money for the local community, the community that Fortuin and Pietersen come from.
To say that this has not been a happy area to be in of late would be putting it mildly. The wine farmer strikes and the resultant violence fuelled by political posturing and confusion of issues almost caused the Double Century to be called off. There was danger in the air. The restaurant we had dinner at on Friday had had stones thrown at it by a mob rolling throw the streets intent on destruction. The DC is a high-profile event, one of the most popular races in South Africa. Entries sell out quickly, accommodation is booked early and some even train for it. Some of the more serious teams also hire professionals to ride for them in an attempt to win the race. It’s a good payday for Swellendam, with much-needed cash flowing in. The Full Stop bar in town does good business. I should know. It’s my local when I come to town.
Fortuin and Pietersen have probably never been to the Full Stop, but they are DC finishers and, according to dominee Wynand Olivier, who is the driving force behind getting them and others in the Swellendam communities on bikes, they are viewed with some pride and curiosity by their peers. After last year’s DC, which they also rode with the Soill team, Pietersen saved up and bought his own bike, a massive commitment for someone who earns next to nothing. He rides with normal takkies, no cleats, as does Fortuin, who has been using his borrowed bike to ride the daily 40km round trip to work each day.
Around 130km into the race I pedalled next to Pietersen and asked him how he was doing. “Ek’s moeg,” he smiled. And he kept turning over those stick-thin legs of his with the determination of a man who has had to put up with much, much more than just riding a 202km race. Olivier says the two work long, hard hours to eke out a living. They lost their legs at times, as I did over the last three bumps in the road. It was a matter of pride that all 24 of us in the two teams, Barely MO-ving and Slow MO-ving (the MO was a moustache reference for the Cansa charity).
It was a tough day, with headwinds for much of the first 130km of the race. Then it rained. Then we caught a wonderful tailwind on the way home, only for the skies to open again. The last 25km of the DC are tough, with three-and-a-half hills to annoy the hell into legs heavy and dead. The rain kept up. Raindrops sting when they hit you on a 50km/h downhill. I passed Fortuin and Pietersen on one of the last descents and they were smiling fit to burst. They knew we were nearly home. A drag over the last bump, and a turn right over the timing mats…and then Pietersen’s chain fell off his bike and jammed. His bike gave up on the line. Hot Chillee’s Sven Thiele pushed him down to the showgrounds, where he was handed the donation from Soill that was to support the local community.
At dinner on Saturday night, Mike Finch, the editor of Bicycling, organised a whip-around to raise money for proper cycling shoes and pedals for the two. Next year they will be stronger and will be sporting new shoes. “Manie told me that when he gets cycling shoes he will be as fast as me,” laughed Olivier. “I hope he will be.”
Bill Lawry has probably never been happier. Just after 9am, with South Africa receiving a belting from Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey on the first day of the second Test, with South African bowlers breaking down at regular intervals, he decided to put the boot in: “It would be hard for them if they had a dropped catch,” he gloated.
“You can’t say that,” came the mock-shock retort from Michael Slater. But Lawry can, and did. He’s said a lot of things in his time as a Channel 9 commentator. He’s become the one-eyed Aussie in the ears of the rest of the world, the whiney voice that bursts into an excitable screech when a wicket goes down, or when he thinks it has. He often gets it wrong.
It was somewhere on Jan Smuts Avenue that I rediscovered my love of cycling yesterday at the Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge. I renewed my vows with the sport that grips me, envelopes me in an embrace I have struggled to properly describe since it took my fancy some 13 lucky years ago.
It’s the hardness of the sport that attracts me, the sheer absurdity of the physical sacrifice required, the bleed-from-the-eyeballs toughness of it. And it has cheated on me. So often, so horribly, so heartbreakingly. It has had me question my own ability as a writer and a rider; made me curse myself for not being stronger in both disciplines, the latter for myself and the former for the sake of the soul of the sport. I wish I had acted on instinct and rumour instead of waiting until another person I regard as a friend was hurt by the cheapness of doping.
And then, just past Zoo Lake, it all began to make sense again. When my hamstrings were feeling a little too tight, my glutes confused and my back a tad stiff, cycling found me again. The suffering was worth it. Cycling was worth it. It was worth my time, my effort and my love.
Yesterday’s Cycle Challenge was just my fifth ride in the great outdoors since I finished the Absa Cape Epic on April Fool’s Day. I have picked up 8kg since then, and have moved from a “medium” to an “extra medium”. I was in “F” group, started well near the back and was playing catch-up from the on-ramp to the M1 South. And, so, I didn’t play catch-up. I just turned my legs and rode, by myself. A blonde lady rode on the right-hand side of the road while I was on the left. She looked at me: “It’s nice riding by yourself.” Then a bunch caught us and she was swept away by it. It was nice for a while.
We exited at the Joe Slovo off-ramp, dragged hard up the bump where a teacher from St John’s prep called Jon Gunning tweeted that I was “looking fresh!” It went a little ragged from thereon. Cycling in fun races is fun when you are fit. I was palpably not. We dragged down Joe Slovo, past the turn left to Rockey Street, once a haunt when I was younger and prettier. We spend down past Ponte on the right and Ellis-Coca-Cola Park on our left. Daryl Impey, the Orica-GreenEdge rider who had taken part in a charity ride with Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, the double Olympic and world champion, said he had seen perhaps the biggest crash he had ever seen there yesterday.
A kick up on to the M2 east found us some wind, then a detour past Gandhi Square, back on to the M2 and then the M1 South before the slide across the Nelson Mandela Bridge. There I saw a man whose shirt said he was “Cycling for Jesus”. Christ on a bicycle. The next few bits were and are my favourite of the Cycle Challenge. Jan Smuts Avenue. I dare you not to smile as you rip along the spine of Joburg.
I did sigh when I saw a Sunday Times poster that had words to the effect of “Cycling Special: Lance Armstrong’s Twisted World.” I read the story later. It was a lift from the New York Times. It was a rehash of everything that has gone on over the last two months. Nothing new. Not in the slightest. It looked as though they had held the piece just to run it on Cycle Challenge Sunday to get a few extra sales. I sighed again.
Randburg came and went, just as Randburg should. Past the friendly folks from the Douglasdale Retirement Village, along Witkoppen, up Malibongwe, two Godforsaken bits of road that lead you to the boring hell that is the N14. Headwind was followed by cross-headwind followed by hills that were not rolling as the pros might suggest, but were rather tolling. I had no price on this section. I seldom do. I went backwards faster than parliament. The top of my hamstrings did not like me. Neither did other bits. I had drunk just one bottle during the ride, and had not felt a single need to eat. Perhaps it was the seven Hansas I had consumed with my nutritionist, David O’Sullivan, at the Bushveld Pub and Diner while watching the rugby the afternoon before. They’re filling are Hansas.
A group from a church were giving away sticks of Droewors at the end of the turn on the N14. “Jesus loves you,” a lady told me as she tried to force a piece upon me. A man screamed at me that “I could be saved”. It really is cruel to pick on the suffering and weak during a race.
The last 10km are quick at the Cycle Challenge. The kilometres ticked by and I finished in around three hours and 47 minutes. I think. I’m not sure. I’m not sure I care, though. I fell in love with cycling again. It was a perfect day.