Cape Town -
It was difficult explaining to his friends that he was ditching the rugby shorts for a Lycra suit. It was even tougher cycling from his small hometown of Groendal, in Franschhoek, to Paarl to train on the open roads.
But sitting at a sushi restaurant in Green Point on Tuesday, just two days after winning the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Momentum Cycle Tour, Nolan Hoffman said it was all worth it.
“I still feel as good as I did crossing that finish line,” he said.
It took the 28-year-old 10 attempts to win the world’s biggest timed cycling event – finishing everywhere between second and 12th.
But while the tour has been a personal and sometimes agonising goal for many years, his journey in cycling really began as a 14-year-old boy growing up in the countryside.
“In my town everyone played rugby and naturally I was on the rugby team,” he said. “But every weekend I would see all these cyclists arrive in the town and hang out at the coffee shops.”
At first sight, it looked sleek and flashy, it looked like something he wanted to do. Soon, he and his bike were almost inseparable. When his friends were preparing for rugby match days, Hoffman was racing through Franschhoek’s spider web of tarred and dirt roads, 40km training runs turning into over 100km loops through the winelands.
“I was lucky with where I grew up, I was never short on new roads to discover, new hills to check out, you know.”
It was only when he won his first race, a small local track event, that people began to rally behind him. That win quickly snowballed into a career scattered with podium finishes all over the country, victories that earned him the title of “one of developmental cycling’s biggest success stories”.
“It wasn’t so weird that I was wearing Lycra anymore, it was cool that I was doing this,” he said. “I started getting all of these messages of support, people cheering me on. I was the local boy who they always wanted and expected to win.”
This expectation weighed heavily on the cyclist as he began tackling the Cycle Tour. His attempts at picking up first place were often derailed by a punctured wheel or a random collision. Sometimes, the pressure on him to win would see him make “stupid” mistakes that would ultimately cost him the race.
“It was so frustrating to go in time and time again and miss out by such a small margin,” he said.
He admitted the constant pressure of the sport eventually drove him to doping. In 2009, Hoffman tested positive for an illegal performance enhancing substance and was slapped with an 18-month ban.
From the start he was apologetic, pleading guilty and “laying his cards out on the table”.
“I felt so ashamed about what I had done, I could barely face the people at home. So many people gave up on me right there, but in my community, they forgave me. I am so thankful for that. I still wear the scars of what I did, and there are still people who look at me and say ‘Oh, he’s won a race, I bet he’s up to his old tricks again’. The thing is, the people that really mattered saw I made a mistake and that I was sorry.”
Since his return, Hoffman said he has experienced some of the best years of his career - the cherry on top being his victory in the Cycle Tour.
“Now I feel I can stand tall with the other road cyclists. Most of them will tell you, you haven’t won anything until you’ve won the Argus.”
Hoffman will now be taking part in the Mzansi Tour in the Free State, a four-stage race that starts next month.