Johannesburg – Late on Sundayafternoon in London, after the last stage of the Tour of Britain, Robbie Hunter will cross the finish line as a professional racer for the last time.
It will be the most bitter-sweet of moments for him. He has never been one to go quietly into that good night. He does not do soft exits. He brings a 16-year career to a reluctant and, in his opinion, a premature end.
He feels he has a few good years left in his 36-year old legs, but these are hard times in the world of cycling. Money is tight, and Hunter, as he has said throughout his career, does not race for peanuts. He is aware of his value, of the price that should be paid for experience, results and savvy. He is a proud man, and when that price was not met, he knew it was time to stop.
Hunter leaves the sport with a proud history and a legacy that will continue to reverberate in South African and African cycling for many years.
His list of firsts is long: the first African to ride in the Tour de France; the first African to win a stage at the Tour de France; the first South African to win at the Vuelta a Espana; the first and only African to have won stages in all three Grand Tours – the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta.
He would have also been the first African to ride on a Tour de France-winning team, but Floyd Landis tested positive days after being crowned the 2006 champion. Hunter has seen pretty much everything there is to see in cycling – he has known hard times and wonderful days.
The most wonderful was a July afternoon in Montpellier in 2007 in the south of France. Barloworld, the South African-sponsored team, had already won a stage two days before through Colombian Mauricio Soler.
Hunter had gone close in many of the stages before, almost catching Thor Husovd on the line, but had to settle for second. As the bunch snaked and barged their way into Montpellier, Hunter picked his moment through the final bend and drove hard for the line, holding off the advancing Fabien Cancellara.
The picture of the win is now an iconic South African sporting image, right fist punching the air, face contorted in a roar of pain, effort and joy. It was his finest moment.
“I don’t know what I shouted there,” said Hunter.
“Everything came out. I’d wanted a win at the Tour de France. It’s the biggest thing for any cyclist, bigger than anything in the sport. Everything I’d sacrificed to get there, it all made sense that day. I knew it was important for South African cycling. It’s a relatively small sport, and I knew it would show other South Africans – and the rest of the world – what is possible.”
Six years later, Daryl Impey, Hunter’s close friend, became the first South African to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour after the stage in Montpellier.
“There’s something about Montpellier and South Africans,” said Hunter. Chris Froome became the first African-born rider to win the Tour de France. Hunter played a large role in getting Barloworld to sign Froome and Impey. They, and Team MTN-Qhubeka, have taken up the baton for African cycling on the world stage from Hunter.
Hunter began his career as the EPO era was in full swing in cycling, a difficult time for any cyclist.
Confessions on drug use are the current in-thing among ex-pros these days, but expect nothing of the sort from Hunter.
He has nothing to confess, and wrote an open letter to this effect earlier this year.
“I’ve seen lots of things in cycling,” said Hunter. “The way I approached it was that if others were doing stuff, I just had to train harder. If they were using other means to get faster and stronger, then I had to train faster and harder to beat them. You have to be true and honest with yourself. That’s the way I’ve lived my life and raced my bike.”
Hunter was called the “angriest man in cycling” by Jonathan Vaughters, head of the Garmin team, when he signed him in 2010. He is called the “pitbull” by some.
His reputation is as a man not to be trifled with in the bunch. Many have tried to barge him in the final train to the line in a sprint, only to find themselves bouncing off his shoulder and left floundering. He has a reputation as one of the best bunch riders, able to slip through a packed peloton to the front, anticipating gaps as the bunch snakes, concertinas and expands.
Alessandro Pettachi, the Italian star, made the mistake of getting a little physical with Hunter. Accusing him of changing his line in a sprint. He put his hand on Hunter. Hunter put him in a headlock and explained in fluent Italian that he might not want to do that again.
He is not sure he likes the title of the angriest man in the sport. He prefers to think of himself as one who will not stand back when it counts.
On Sunday night last week, Hunter counted the value of his abilities and decided that the time had come to bring the curtain down. He did it in a typically Hunter way: “Guess it’s time to hang up the wheels.”
He and Garmin-Sharp had agreed on an extension to his contract just before the Tour de France this year. Hunter was not included in the nine-man squad for the Tour by his team as Garmin-Sharp opted for a squad that was better suited to the mountains. It would have been Hunter’s 10th Tour de France, a milestone he wanted to achieve before he called it day.
He has not yet made up his mind what he will do next year. There are options.
No matter where he goes, Hunter will be able to celebrate a life in which he never stood back, never gave up nor was swayed from his dream.
South African cycling owes him a massive debt. He showed it what was possible.
He showed it the way.