NOSTALGIA: The All-Gravel Tour of Ara

Words: Stan Engelbrecht
Images: Richard Johnson

The dirt roads were bad. The weather was hot. And the mountain passes? Well, they were steep. It was a tough race and that was the plan. I didn’t conceive the Tour of Ara as anything easy. But on the first two days of the all-gravel, vintage-road-bike stage race, riding with the other competitors, I wondered if I had gone too far. Racing an old steel bike on roads like these was near suicidal at times and, of course, the first bad crash was only midway into the first day. A race favorite, riding in the lead bunch, went down just in front of me. I couldn’t stop. Sure, I was racing to win too, but trying to slow a drop-bar road bike with skinny tires on a downhill at speed over such rough terrain was nearly impossible.

In such conditions, the handlebars shake wildly, threatening to whip right out of your hands at any second. You have to use your fingers to hold, or brake — you can’t have both. You have to steer clear, if you can, of any rocks for fear of pinch flats, or being thrown off the bike. In this chaos, you sometimes remember to wrench your eyes up and away from the road and cast them to the surrounding mountains. All clatter and violence disappears, and for a moment it’s you in the immense landscape, floating in silence. A stone the size of a fist punches your front tire. Concentrate! You also could be lying bloodied by the side of the road, frame bent and out of the race. Stay focused!

This is the six-day Tour of Ara, which traverses the beautiful but harsh African Karoo. At nearly 700 kilometers in distance, its physical and mental challenge is not for everyone. But with such hardship comes great reward — searingly unforgettable landscapes, remote vistas and lesser-traveled back roads. Then there’s the food. Oh, the food! Local and traditional, all prepared freshly for the weary racers within the communities we encounter.

It all started a few years ago. A photographic book project about the very small but slowly growing commuter cycling scene in South Africa led me and a friend on a 10,000-kilometer bicycle tour, meeting and photographing the brave souls biking in the face of social and cultural stigma, crime and dangerous roads. With South Africa’s poverty line dividing black and white, we saw many hand-me-down race bikes that became commuters. During apartheid, mainly because of sanctions, importing racing bicycles was near impossible, but importing tube sets and building frames locally was an option. So, between a pioneering spirit and the growing need for racing machines, a new local industry was born, and by the mid-1980s the professional-level, steel-frame-building scene was in full swing.

We had everything being built — from super-high-end and sometimes very experimental racing bicycles to more mass-market weekend racers. But, it didn’t last long. The fall of apartheid in 1994 brought the end of sanctions and that converged with the mass-production and subsequent import of aluminum frames, shortly followed by the first carbon experiments. Advertisers touted aluminum as the new must-have, and that was the death-knell for our few steel-frame builders.

But besides our small steel-frame-building scene, South Africa has a rich liberal and multicultural cycling history. We had major multi-day stage races, one-day classics, very active cycling clubs and quite a few velodromes dotted around the country. We had record holders, race-day dramas, road-cycling heroes signing autographs, newspaper-endorsed events, fantastic team kits, famous bike shops and legends galore. But it was pretty isolated. Internationally, we were banned because of our violent and fraught political history, and locally the sport, because of its leftist leanings, was mostly ignored by the apartheid government.

Hansom, Alpina, Du Toit, De l’Ange, McIntosh, Le Turbo, Cosmos, Zini — these were among the names we noticed emblazoned across the down tubes of very-beat-up steel commuters, some now-defunct, home-grown companies and others international brands built here under license. Running flat bars, converted to single-speed because the derailleurs stopped functioning and often ridden with no brakes, this was (and is) the common state of South African commuter bikes, their owners usually in no position to have even the cheapest repairs done, even if they could find a bike shop near their rural homes.

So, through the scratches and the mud and dust, we learned those names and the history behind them. We discovered the undocumented story of the rise and fall of our steel-frame-building movement. We came to realize that that we have a unique, insular past and that some of these locally made frames were indeed very, very rare. As all this was being revealed to us, the hipster cycling scene was arriving on our shores in a small way and the trend of taking an old frame, removing the paint, and turning it into a single-speed was taking hold — all this history being destroyed, stripped off and washed away, to be replaced with generic powder coat.

One day while looking through an old book of photographs of the early bike races, including the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, we were struck by how ugly racing had become. Branding, energy gels, racing machines so modern they’ve become generic. Where was the charm of the races of old, the strange set-ups and experimental bikes? The fierce madmen caked in dust and grime? We lamented that no contemporary race-day photograph will ever look as cool as those old black-and-white images. But what if we re-created it? Make our own race? That was how the idea for the Tour of Ara was born — named for a small constellation in the Southern Hemisphere.

In time, the rules and restrictions followed. You had to race a steel racing bike built before 1999, with period-correct components, and tires no larger than 32C. And we had an important realization — if we restrict the frames allowed to only South African-built ones, we’ll inform and educate South Africans to the real value and heritage of these homegrown bicycles. And so it was: only South African-built steel racers were allowed in the Tour of Ara. I must say, it worked. It sparked a conversation — the value of these bikes has gone up tremendously and buyers now ask after the heritage of a bicycle when they shop around. People are now proud to own a piece of our cycling history and will preserve the old paint as far as possible.

Now, with all this interest, it doesn’t mean that the Tour of Ara will become a big race. I want it to stay small, independent and intimate. There is something special about experiencing intense challenges and great joy, and then being able to share it with the same people day after day. Camaraderie develops and the sense of achievement is amplified by our communal agony. That is where the beauty emerges — the shared poetry of suffering and satisfaction.

The Tour of Ara has become so much more than just a race. Not everyone riding is competing to win, with some riders taking it on as a personal challenge. And it really is tough. Not everyone finishes. In 2014 we had heat, headwinds, rain, sleet and snow over the six days of racing, and a few riders took more that 12 hours to complete some stages, finishing in the dark, near hypothermic. I’ve seen people weep, quit, bleed and scream. I’ve seen racers remove their brakes to try and fight the mud clogging their tires to the point where the wheels simply didn’t turn anymore. While the weather was more agreeable in 2015, the condition of last year’s roads was much worse. Sand, loose stones, sharp rocks — none too friendly for a narrow, overinflated road tire. And then there were the corrugations. Long stretches of furrowed gravel so exaggerated that it would literally jolt you to a standstill.

Sadly, these conditions take their toll on the old bikes. One racer had his frame bifurcate under him close to the finish on the final day — thankfully on an uphill. He refused to throw in the towel, and ran the last few kilometers to the historic, isolated Matjiesfontein railway hotel, his prized Cosmos on his shoulders, greeted by a congregation of race finishers who’d come out to meet him after hearing of his misfortune. This is the kind of theatre that makes the Tour of Ara remarkable, a marriage of torment and euphoria.

Victor of the 2015 Tour of Ara, sponsored racer Mpho Moloi, made a tearful speech before our lavish celebratory dinner in the Lord Milner Hotel dining room on that final night — not in praise of his own prowess, but in honor of his South African-built Zini, which he lifted above his head in thanks.

From now on, at the end of winter every year, 35 riders will band together to burn their way through sun-drenched, wind-blown and snow-touched Karoo, to compete for the honor of having conquered the Tour of Ara.

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