“I just didn’t want people rocking up in their hideous 2009 Penny Pinchers Family Fun Ride lycra tops. Those things are unnecessarily ugly and just alienate people from the sport. I don’t get why people are happy to ride around like a rolling advertisement.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: STAN ENGELBRECT
INTERVIEW : RICK DE LA RAY
LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING, WHERE DID THE BASIC IDEA FOR THE TOUR COME FROM?
For a long time now I’ve loved the aesthetic of those early grueling Italian and French bicycle races, the ones you always see captured in black and white, depicting filthy grease and mud covered men pitted against the elements and the clock, looking like they’re barely surviving. My good friend Nic Grobler and I were looking through an old photographic book about those early Grand Tours, and we were wondering out loud about why modern races had become so ugly and commercial, and so disconnected from the environments they move through. It suddenly dawned on us that we could just organise our own race, and arrange it in such a way that it celebrates the spirit of the old European classics.
WERE YOU FAMILIAR WITH THE TERRAIN BEFORE YOU MAPPED OUT THE FINAL ROUTE OF THE TOUR?
From the outset I wanted this race to be ridden on vintage road bikes, and I wanted the race to follow a predominately gravel road route. I had a few ideas from previous bicycle touring trips through the Karoo, and that was definitely my starting point. The Karoo is an incredible place to ride – the vast open landscapes, big skies, the silence, the harshness of the environment and weather made it an easy choice. From there I had to look at a few logistical aspects like which towns did I want the race to go through and were they close enough to each other to make it viable. In bicycle races it’s not unheard of to have 200 or 300 kilometer days, I thought it wise to make our days about 120 kilometers and have the race run for roughly about a week. Remember, I had not done these roads on an old road bike yet and I had no idea of the level of difficulty. The idea was to start in Franschhoek because of its French heritage, and the wine of course. I really wanted the race to end in historic Matjiesfontein with a big dinner at the old Lord Milner Hotel. So, I mapped out something rough, packed a small backpack and jumped on my old 1980s Alpina and just rode. It was tough going at times – muddy, sandy, windy, hot and cold. It all fell into place in the end, and the route was born.
ONLY 35 RIDERS ARE ALLOWED ENTRY INTO THE RACE AND THE ENTRIES FILLED UP VERY QUICKLY. WOULD YOU CONSIDER BUMPING UP THE AMOUNT OF RIDERS IN THE FUTURE DUE TO THE MASSIVE RESPONSE YOU RECEIVED FROM THE FIRST ONE?
I don’t really want to. From the beginning I wanted the race to be small and intimate. I wanted everyone to get to know each other and be able to hang out and drink wine, talk about bikes and connect. When a group is too big, creating that kind of experience is more difficult. And besides, some of the little towns we went through literally couldn’t accommodate or feed more that 35 people at a push! That’s how I arrived at 35. For next year I might try and take it up to 40, but no more.
IN A RECENT INTERVIEW YOU STATED, “CYCLING NOW IS HIDEOUS, IT’S VERY UGLY. THAT’S WHY I DON’T DO ANY OF THESE RACES, THE WHOLE ATMOSPHERE IS HORRIBLE. THIS RACE IS THE ANTITHESIS OF THAT.” WOULD YOU LIKE TO ELABORATE ON THIS?
Over the last years I’ve been doing a lot of bicycle touring around South Africa, and often when strangers see me on my bike they’d mention that this or that bicycle race came through their town. When you ask them how it was, more often than not they’ll tell you they never interacted with anybody from the race, the community didn’t benefit from the race in any way and all they left behind were thousands of empty energy gel (or whatever that shit is) packets. Aside from that it’s all about the latest, most expensive bikes, big sponsorship (and all their shitty logos plastered over every available surface) and ‘goodie bags’ full of crap no one wants or needs. The Tour of Arae is about drinking wine and eating good bread and cheese, enjoying meals made by local people, sourced locally as far as possible, sleeping in little small-town B&Bs and hotels, and leaving no unnecessary waste behind. And of course looking good while we’re doing it, the rules forbid the racers to wear lycra covered in logos and so forth. Also, participants had to ride a vintage road bike with no modern components.
EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS EVENT HAS SET YOU GUYS APART FROM EVERY OTHER BICYCLE RACE IN THE COUNTRY, IF NOT THE WORLD – ARE YOU AWARE OF ANY SIMILAR EVENTS LIKE THIS?
There are a few events that are similar in ways to the Tour of Arae, and I would say they were definitely an inspiration too. But, I think what makes the Tour of Arae unique is the rule that you have to race on an old South African built steel frame. Now a lot of people don’t know this, but we had a burgeoning steel frame building scene right here in South Africa, peaking in the 1980s. Hansom, Alpina, Zini, Le Jeune and Cosmos are just a few of the brands you might recognise. But many of these great frames are stripped of their heritage when they are repainted and modified into ‘fixie’ look-alikes, as is the trend at the moment. By making it a rule that each competitor has to ride a South African built steel bike, I hope to bring a bit of attention to that mostly forgotten frame building scene and get some of these fine bikes into the collections of like-minded bicycle enthusiasts like myself.
HOW INVOLVED IS THE FARMING COMMUNITY AND RESIDENTS ALONG THE ROUTE?
As much as I could involve them on this first Tour of Arae race. I organised this entire 6-day event on my own, so logistically it was a challenge. Most folks in these areas don’t have email and sometimes only a land-line! So there were lots of phone calls, text messages, WhatsApps and physically going around to folks to arrange everything from hotel bed designation to having pancakes in a little roadside café. But everything went incredibly smoothly, I’m glad to say. One of the biggest highlights of the tour was Tannie Poppie’s roosterkoek and pineapple beer stop that I arranged for the third stage of the tour, between Touwsrivier and Laingsburg. Near the end of the day after a short but very steep climb, racers were met by Poppie and her two daughters, doing the traditional rieldans and running after passing racers to hand them a freshly baked roosterkoek straight from the fire. I hope to include more of this kind of thing in future.
THERE IS NO PRIZE MONEY OR SPONSORS AND SOME VERY SIMPLE RULES BUT ENTERTAINING ONES, LIKE NO CAMELBAKS, NEON LYCRA OR UGLY GLASSES. WERE THESE JUST PERSONAL PET PEEVES OR WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO KEEP CERTAIN FACTORS OUT OF THE EQUATION?
Look, you could wear neon lycra and Oakleys if they’re period specific and you could pull it off, in harmony with you bicycle. Some of those rules were aesthetic guides. I just didn’t want people rocking up in their hideous 2009 Penny Pinchers Family Fun Ride lycra tops. Those things are unnecessarily ugly and just alienate people from the sport. I don’t get why people are happy to ride around like a rolling advertisement. For next year I’m making the rules stricter though, only 100% wool garments like they used to wear in the old days.
YOU HAVE TO CARRY YOUR OWN TOOLS, REPAIR KITS AND WATER WHILE RELYING ON ENDURANCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOUR. THE RACE SEEMS LIKE A TRUE SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE BICYCLE, THE RIDER AND THE OPPONENTS, ALL WITH NO SUPPORT VEHICLE?
You got it. I believe your entire attitude to those around you, your equipment and your environment changes when there is no one to pick up the pieces when things go wrong. I loved it when people were helping each other fix bikes, encouraging each other, sharing their food and water. It really adds a unique element to the race and of course you really learn to know your bike. Because these are old bikes, things can break and wear out, you have to come up with creative solutions to be able to keep going. What a sense of achievement you feel if your machine breaks down in some catastrophic way and you actually manage to repair it out on some dusty road and finish the day. I know that I feel a special love for my Alpina because of it.
WITH THIS BEING THE FIRST EVENT, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WERE THE MOST CHALLENGING UNFORESEEN PROBLEMS THAT REVEALED THEMSELVES TO YOU THROUGH THE STAGES?
Everything went pretty much perfectly. There were some hiccups here and there, but nothing serious. From the start there was a very informal feel to the race and I always wanted that. So, no problems really.
IT SEEMS THAT WINNING IS ALMOST LAST ON THE AGENDA OF THE RACE, HOW COMPETITIVE WAS THE FIRST EVENT OR DO RIDERS SEE IT MORE AS A PERSONAL CONTEST OF STAMINA AND ENDURANCE?
Both. There was definitely a group that were racing to win. It was quite fascinating to watch all the strategy and alliances being formed. Real bicycle racing you know. But, I would say the majority of the field took it on as a personal challenge, with some even surprising themselves by competing with some of the faster riders. It must be said that this race was hard, very hard. Racing skinny-tyred old road bikes at an average of 110 kilometers per day, over 6 days on rocky, sandy dirt roads is not easy. Throw in sweltering heat, insane headwinds, sleet, rain and even snow, and you have yourself a serious physical and psychological challenge. So, for all Tour of Arae racers this is an achievement akin to surviving some of the toughest trails they might ever face in their lives. The fifth stage of the tour was a particularly tough day, the 110 kilometer day between Merweville and Sutherland. The stage included one of the toughest and steepest climbs, but to make things worse there was an extremely strong constant headwind the entire day. Everyone had it tough, but the slower riders towards the end of the day had to fight the wind and icy rain for the last 40 kilometers into Sutherland, in the dark. They refused to give up and after being in the saddle and out in the elements for nearly 12 hours, they rolled into town like heroes. They were wet, freezing and fighting hypothermia, but they did it. What an achievement.
DID YOU RECEIVE ANY FOREIGN INTEREST FROM RIDERS WANTING TO COME AND TAKE PART IN THE EVENT?
Yes, quite a bit actually. But I’m happy for the Tour of Arae to stay a predominantly South African event. I don’t want any of our beautiful South African built steel frames to end up in foreign collections. Ha ha. But seriously, of course I would love to have a few International riders competing. Although it might be difficult, I’ve decided that each competitor who raced in the inaugural Tour of Arae gets to keep their race number for life and they’re automatically entered in every year’s event, with the option of forgoing their yearly place. Only those spots will be available in future and there is already a long waiting list.
WHERE DID YOUR LOVE FOR CYCLING COME FROM AND WHAT HAS MADE IT SUCH AN INTEGRAL PART OF YOUR LIFE ?
I had a red Western Flyer Scorpion BMX when I was little and I loved that bike. I rode it everywhere. By the time I became a teenager mountain biking was becoming a bit of a thing and I soon started obsessing about certain frames, paint schemes, components and so on. I had outgrown the BMX by this stage and I had a crappy Peugeot that I rode to school and back. So, I saved up and I bought my first proper mountain bike from this German bike shop in Windhoek, where I was living at the time, called Velowerkstatt. The owner was the first guy to import decent mountain bikes and even though I was lusting after a pink Mongoose IBOC, I couldn’t afford it. So I bought a teal Giant Sedona. Shit, I loved that thing. And I rode it all over the little single track paths around the city. About a year later my family moved to George, at the time the heart of mountain biking in South Africa. I spent the last two years of schooling riding around the forests in the area and avoiding school, home and any sort of responsibility. It was my escape and it was in that time that I deeply fell in love with the freedom that came along with being on a bike. I could go where I wanted to, under my own steam and I could do it alone. By the time I moved to Cape Town to study art I found a new escape, photography and partying. I always kept the great old steel Kona Explosif I had, but sadly I didn’t ride much in those first years living here. By the time I rediscovered cycling it was all about aluminum frames and suspension, and I joined in. But it was my irritation with driving in city traffic that led me to commuting by bicycle and thanks to the internet and traveling overseas a few times, I learnt that there was more to cycling than competitive mountain and road cycling. I became a commuter. My interest in the history of cycling grew as I was researching older steel frames to convert into as-simple-as-possible commuter bikes. That was it. And the obsession grows. I even got rid of my car about 5 years ago. I only cycle now.
YOU ARE ALSO KNOWN AS A PROMINENT PHOTOGRAPHER WITH QUITE A FEW BOOKS AND EXHIBITIONS UNDER YOUR BELT. ONE OF THE LAST BEING A POPULAR 3 VOLUME BOOK SIMPLY NAMED ‘BICYCLE PORTRAITS’ WHERE YOU DOCUMENTED COMMUTERS FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE ACROSS THE COUNTRY. ARE THERE ANY OF THESE PUBLICATIONS STILL AVAILABLE AND ARE YOU WORKING ON ANY NEW PROJECTS AT THE MOMENT?
Yes, ‘Bicycle Portraits’ and all my previous publications are still available. The exception is my first book ‘The Caution Horses’, a black and white study of a herd of wild horses that live in the Namibian desert. That sold out many years ago. Right now I’m not working on a new specific project. I don’t think I’ll be publishing any more physical paper-and-ink books in future. It’s time for something new. Or maybe I’ll just keep riding my bike around.
FOR MORE INFO – TOUR OF ARAE
WHICH 5 ALBUMS WOULD YOU SAY CAPTURE THE SPIRIT OF THE RACE?
There was one Tour of Arae racer who attained legendary status by the end of day one, artist Justin Fiske chose to ride the roughly 700 kilometer race on a fixed gear bicycle. If anybody truly captured the spirit of the Tour of Arae, it was him. He rode an old Le Jeune road frame, converted to fixed gear, with a wheel that could be flipped for a lighter gear on the opposite side for steep hills. In place of water bottles he had a water bag tied into the front triangle of his frame and instead of padded tape on his handlebars he simply wrapped them in what looked like bandages. Justin rode in a simple woolen jersey with a beat-up old rain jacket to protect him from the cold and rain. Over his shoulder he carried a messenger bag from which he ate gherkins and cheese, and drank rum whenever someone found him ensconced under a bush or tree somewhere along the route. He always had music in his ears. The news came in every day, Justin was seen here or there, sharing his rum or camembert with some fellow racer and listening to Brahms or Bach or Beethoven. So, instead I give you the 5 albums that got Justin to the finish line in Matjiesfontein…
The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
Rage against the machine
Music For Mallet Instruments
Historic Russian Archives