PAARL BOXING DAY

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The year was 1897, the day Sunday 26 December. The international craze for velodrome racing had hit South Africa, and the scene was set for the inaugural race event at the newly built Faure Street Stadium in Paarl, about 60km north-east of Cape Town.


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The velodrome – with its oval banked track – is in an enclosed arena and makes for a fantastic spectator event. By the early 1900s, the 25 Mile race had become the crowd’s firm favourite, already commanding a tremendous purse for the victor. This 25 mile discipline, about 40km or almost 88 revolutions of the track, quickly became notorious for wild high-speed crashes and would firmly fortify the reputation of each year’s winner as a hard-man cyclist with whom to contend. With an initial maximum of up to 75 racers on the track for the 25 Mile, it was not uncommon to have as few as 10 finishers, with the rest of the field crashed out or having thrown in the towel. All this drama summoned the crowds, and since it was always held on the day after Christmas, it developed into an annual family event, developing fan rivalries and favourite racers.

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Bicycle racing in South Africa was historically more liberal and multicultural during the height of Apartheid, and in the politically heady year of 1976 the Paarl Boxing Day event reopened itself to cyclists of color. This event was always much-loved by the coloured families predominantly living in the winelands around Paarl, but the re-inclusion wasn’t a sudden welcome return for everyone. Since whites, blacks and coloured folk still lived in segregation as enforced by the Apartheid government, and there was still a lot of racial tension day-to-day, some people actively chose not to participate in or attend the event. The years drew on, and many champion cyclists of color never had the opportunity to compete in the famed 25 Mile. It was only in 1994, with the proud abolition of Apartheid, that the event became as it is now known – a bicycle race for the people.