My first encounter with the world’s biggest bicycle race was a voice, a voice so sad, disappointed, hesitant and hopeless that it remained imprinted on my memory; and when I heard that voice again after a 25-year gap I immediately recognized it.
The voice on the phone that day in February 1980 belonged to John, one of the founders of The Argus Cycle Tour, and he was unhappy at the lack of coverage from the newspaper that was supposed to be promoting the race. As newly appointed promotions manager of The Argus (now Cape Argus), it was apparently all my fault. I didn’t feel too guilty though, because Bob, the incumbent manager who was training me in the position during that February prior to retiring, hadn’t got round to mentioning this particular promotion. He had told me about the Two Oceans Marathon, The Argus Festival Queen Competition, the Wine Taster of the Year, the Cook of the Year, Adventure 80, a big conference, etc, etc, all of which would take place in the two months after Bob had left us. I was the guy on whose head ten tons of crap would fall if anything went wrong, but who would get little praise if everything went off smoothly.
By and large all our promotions, including The Argus Cycle Tour, went off fairly well. And I decided to buy a bicycle and get involved in cycling. After going on a few rides, organisers of the tour asked me to attend their monthly meetings which were held at Neil’s house. Neil, a recent widower, was chairman of the Western Province Pedal Power Association and he lived a rough and ready existence with his two sons. At each meeting the first order of business was the opening of the wine. Neil did not possess a corkscrew, so a variety of instruments such as car keys, knives and screwdrivers were employed. Eventually the much-mangled cork would be extracted and our parched lips would finally be moistened.
Then, if any member was in the process of a new cycling venture this would be thoroughly explored. I can remember that Ian, an architect, would lovingly display a set of photos of the lightweight Campagnolo parts that were going into the building of his new bicycle. These were spread out on the dining room table, and would be oohed and aahed over by everyone there. Eventually, close to midnight, we would briefly discuss the organising of the next tour. And some of us would arrange to meet at six in the morning to race each other up Edinburgh Drive.
Above: Wineou at a publicity shoot having some fun during office hours
Long into one meeting Vernon – only slightly odd from brain damage sustained in a cycling accident – arrived. He was to be in charge of the finish and seemed supremely confident in his abilities to handle the timekeeping, etc. As the race date got closer the committee assured me that although the organisation seemed casual and chaotic, everything always turned out okay on the day. In any case the SA Cycling Federation would be there to do the official timekeeping . . .
The only people who would not be there were the members of the organising committee (including me) who would all be riding the race. Of course.
The race took place in ideal cool, calm conditions and I managed to stay with the third bunch of riders nearly all the way. When I got to the finish (in position 73) things were not quite as expected. Vernon was standing with his arms outstretched with finishing tickets sticking out between his fingers. My assistant Joanna was recording race numbers and finishing times (using her lady’s watch) on a pad balanced on the back of a pretty T-shirted girl who was bending over obligingly (the girl was one of a group from the advertising department who had volunteered to help add a little glamour and excitement to the finish). And committee chairman Neil, an excellent rider who had finished much earlier than me, was sitting with his head in his hands muttering, “It’s a fuck-up”.
He told me that the cycling federation officials had only recorded details for the top 30 riders, and had then buggered off. Jo had used her initiative to do what she could, but quite a few riders had got through the finish without their details being recorded (she later went on to become the mayoress of Cape Town). Vernon told me later that riders are supposed to know that when they see someone standing with his hands outstretched at the finish they are to hand him their race tickets in finishing order. He was storing them in his fingers in such a way that he knew where the gaps were.
I told Neil that we couldn’t give up. I got him to help me set up a trestle table with chairs for officials at the finish and asked him to sit in the first chair with a decent watch, and record the numbers and times as finishers filed past him. Another man handed out cloth badges to every finisher. The sheets filled in by Jo, and later by Neil were ferried to the computer people, and later on sets of results were pinned up on notice boards.
Somehow we got through the day, had a prizegiving for the top few riders, and I announced that a special prizegiving function would be organised in a week or so for the age-group winners. And during the next week members of the committee fielded a succession of phone calls from riders who had been left off the lists posted at the finish, or weren’t happy with the times given to them. Neil arranged for adjustments to be made to the computer files, and new certificates were issued and posted.
I vowed that there would have to be some radical changes for the next tour.
With the help of Rotary it went on to become a great race, and attracts cyclists from all over the world including Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain and in 2010 Lance Armstrong. Even yours truly did it 11 times.Above: Wineou struggling up the last big hill after a stormy ride.