Tour of Ara
For a cycling obsessed city dweller like myself the Tour of Ara could not be further from my own world of cycling. An event unlike any other, this super remote, all-gravel South African based bicycle race is so much more than just a race. Bringing together a diverse group of people who all share that same passion of pushing the pedals. With no support or sponsors this bicycle race has a lot more soul than your average. The Tour of Ara prides itself on not only celebrating the history of cycling in South Africa and the areas in which it travels through, but also helping to support these local communities too.
I managed the social media for the Tour and travelled with race photographer Rich Johnson; we drove along the route following the racers and got a taste of the adventure as it happened.
A few years ago race organiser Stan Engelbrecht was discussing cycling races with friends whilst admiring the book ‘An Intimate Portrait of the Tour De France’ it was then that the seed was planted. Stan wanted a race, which wasn’t corporate and had the feel and soul of cycling races of years gone by (just like those in the book). Stan races as well as organising the whole event. Each year the route changes making every tour individually as special. This year the six-day stage race travelled through the never-ending beauty of the Cederberg Mountains and the Karoo desert.
The rules of the race state that only pre-1999 South African built road bikes can be ridden, mix these bicycles with some unruly dirt roads and you’ve got yourself a hefty challenge. Components and clothing must also be vintage too. Since it’s hard to find vintage cycling clothing, or even vintage bikes in South Africa the rules are very slightly flexible. With just 35 riders the tour is an intimate endeavour, creating a group of friends and not just numbers competing for first place. It costs 10,000 Rand (roughly £500) to take part. The entry fees cover all costs for accommodation and food, which is greatly provided for by the local communities.
Each stage is super remote with just a few farmhouses scattered along the way and very limited phone signal, making this adventure risky business for any lone riders. As the race is unsponsored and unsupported then competitors ride at their own risk and need to be able to maintain their bicycle competently.
Each morning the riders gathered together for a hearty and filling breakfast, they were given a map and had a briefing about the tough journey ahead. At the end of every stage, riders crossed the finish line to be greeted with wine and cheese, quite possibly the classiest finish to a bicycle race. In the evenings everyone came together for a well-deserved meal and some story swapping. Each stage winner was presented with an engraved Opinel knife and engraved Cinelli stems were awarded for any heroic, interesting or difficult situations, which happened each day. The towns (if you can even call them that), which the race stops overnight at, are so small that competitors have to share rooms and sometimes even beds, yes things get quite cosy. Because of the small size of the group, evenings and mornings are quite an intimate feature, bringing along great camaraderie as well as a little fighting talk.
Every rider at the start of the race was handed a 2015 Tour of Ara jacket as well as a Tour of Ara engraved head badge. All of the items were produced locally in Cape Town, including the engraving of the stems and knives. The winner’s trophy was hand crafted by racer (and artist) Justin.
With every little detail of the race so carefully considered it’s hardly surprising that the ToA was a massive success, with racers eager to do it all again next year. This was only the second year and it has gathered a huge buzz in the cycling community in SA. This years entrants were a mixed bunch, with half coming from Cape Town and half from Johannesburg, around half of the riders also competed in last years event.
The entry fee also enables a few sponsored riders to take part, bringing an amazing opportunity to those who are not so fortunate. This year there were three sponsored riders - Mmeke, Mpho and Nkosi. Stan met Mmeke while touring two years ago in Lesotho and they have stayed in contact since. He met Mpho, on the cycling scene of Johannesburg (who was racing the Jozi Hustle - a crit race in Jo'burg) and Nkosi was one of many cyclists featured in Stan's book – ‘Bicycle Portraits.’
On the Monday before the Tour would begin Stan received some bad news from Nkosi - he was ill and was unsure he would be well enough to race. After a few days spent in hospital with a chest infection, it was clear he would not make it to the start line. His place had already been paid for. Dan - A friend of one of the riders was interested in travelling along with the race and being an extra photographer. Nkosi's place which included food and accommodation was offered at the cost of the race fee, this covered the cost of Nkosi’s medical bills.
Due to illness and other circumstances 32 riders lined up to take on the Tour of Ara 2015. There were two fixed gear riders, one tandem and just one female racer. Whilst some riders were taking part just to complete the Tour of Ara others were being tactical and racing hard, making some great viewing for Rich and I.
Each day had it’s own difficulties, whether it was treacherous corrugations, an incredible distance or icy temperatures, there was always something. Every day was just as beautiful as the next and just as eventful. Day one had a crash on a steep downhill that managed to claim race favourite - Andrew Wheldon. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been but it meant Andrew had to take an early exit.
With Mat and Liz spending a mammoth 12 hours on their tandem on day one. They arrived after dark and were met with a joyful and warm welcome from their fellow racers.
The longest stage of the Tour - day 3 was 164KM. On this day those nervous early risers were treated to the rare sighting of a 'blood moon'. This is the result of a combination of an eclipse with the closest full moon of the year and the next one will not happen for another 18 years.
Stage 3 had a lot of racers working together to make it through the longest day of the Tour. Werner Mennen and the two Boshoff brothers’ decided to have a quick stop as they crossed a small and narrow bridge. Werner came to a stop on the bridge but didn't manage to unclip his shoes in time. Resulting in him falling over and tumbling off of the bridge and into the river below, which was roughly a four-metre drop. The brothers helped to fish him out. Luckily he was fine and finished the stage smiling. His story went down very well at dinner that evening.
Day 5 brought rain and roadblocks in the form of sheep as well as icy temperatures and low misty clouds. The last riders to finish on day 5 were met with a heavy downpour. Those who had already finished helped to get the shivering racers seated, warm and dry around the fire with the wine flowing.
It’s hard to pick my most memorable moment of the Tour but one, which is definitely up there was when Matthys' beloved Cosmos frame broke in two pieces, yes two separate pieces, one bike in two. He was riding uphill with just 6KM left when it happened, he decided to make his way to the finish on foot carrying his bicycle. The finished racers cycled back to greet him and travelled the last few kilometres to the finish line with him, making it a really monumental finish. Stan made the decision that Matthys could finish the race on the tandem. Mat cycled to collect him but he refused. He wanted to cross the line with his bicycle and so he did, with a bottle of wine too.
The final stage was slightly different to the others with a 1KM sprint at sunset to crown the day’s winner. By the time the sprint came around racers were well and truly tired but the sprint opened up a new opportunity for a winner on the last stage. Nils managed to get the stage win as he crossed the finish line with a decent gap on the rest of the riders.
The Tour ended in the picturesque colonial town of Matjiesfontein (it’s really just a fancy hotel). Dinner on the final evening was just the right setting to bring the race to a close. Mpho was crowned the winner and a few heart felt speeches were made whilst the alcohol was flowing and the food was a plenty. It was the perfect finish to what was a truly amazing adventure through one of the most beautiful landscapes. If you’re looking for an all-out, eye-opening kind of challenge then you have found it, if you’re lucky enough to make the cut that is.