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One of the founding fathers of the Cape Town Cycle Tour has passed away. Bill Mylrea was the business brain, the sensible futurist who conceived the world’s biggest bike race alongside the idealists Louis de Waal and John Stegmann. The voice of reason when dreams seemed to outgrow the reality of running the event. Rest well, Bill, and thank you.
This is an excerpt from The Official History of the Cape Town Cycle Tour, published in 2018 to celebrate 40 years of the event
Bill Mylrea doesn’t like being touted as the father of the Cape Town Cycle Tour, because he sees his goal in creating the event as nothing like what it has become. ‘I wanted to get people on bikes. Ordinary people – especially black people who were hamstrung by the restrictions of movement and transport back then. Bicycles were the answer – they would have mobilised the entire workforce.’
From the outset, the organising committee wanted the Cycle Tour to be an official, sanctioned event, but no matter how much the Department of Sport loved the idea and wanted a part of it, their proviso that it only be open to white participants remained a stumbling block, to the degree that Mylrea was forced to write the department’s representative an extremely polite letter (on his business letterhead) in the build-up to the event, telling him that this was a non-segregated event. This was brave stuff in the late 1970s, when BJ Vorster and PW Botha were ruling the roost and perceived anti-apartheid thinking could be met with dire consequences, and doubly so for a man whose business worked closely for and with government on massive civil engineering contracts. But the spirit of cycling, and its inclusivity, prevailed, and on 28 October 1978 over 500 cyclists left the start line outside the Castle in Strand Street.
Mylrea owned a huge civil engineering firm in the 1970s, and struggled getting his staff to and from work. He was not allowed to drive into the townships to collect them, nor was he allowed to arrange for transport for them. Everything was government controlled – either the workers walked, or used the transport provided, to centralised drop-off/pick-up spots, where employers could collect them. Mylrea saw this not just as a waste of time and money, but intrinsically wrong, and felt the bike could be the answer. ‘I grew up in Johannesburg, and I remember watching thousands of black commuters heading down Louis Botha Avenue each day on their bikes. It fascinated me. White men didn’t ride bikes in the 1950s and 1960s, and when I started to ride in the 1970s, kids used to laugh at us as we pedalled by.’
As he became more involved in the recreational side, having ‘emigrated’ to Cape Town to build his businesses, Mylrea saw an opportunity for mobilising the poor in the Western Cape, who were reliant on public transport almost exclusively. He was involved as a contractor in some aspects of the building of Mitchell’s Plain, and pushed hard for bike-lane infrastructure to be built into the planning, ‘but the man at the council, I think his name was Brand, was on the take and it never happened.’ Alongside John Stegmann and Louis de Waal, Mylrea researched and developed cycling strategies for the local authorities, along with best practices from successful projects in
both the USA and Europe, but learned quickly that unless there was financial gain for the powers that be, nothing would happen. Ironically, much of this groundwork is finally being implemented today, as (very slowly) bicycle-friendly traffic measures are being implemented across South Africa. He and Stegmann organised the Big Ride In, in 1977, and then the beginnings of the Cycle Tour.
At the same time, Mylrea began importing what he saw as the answer: mopeds. These were bicycles with small motors that didn’t require licensing in Europe and provided reliable, efficient transport for millions. ‘The public transport system was so efficient; it worked so well. We had some contracts that involved working on the railway lines, and we would be given a one-hour window each day, between midnight and 01:00, in which to work.The lines were too busy with commuter and cargo traffic to give us more time. Then, the government started politicising, essentially, the set-ups. Part of the apartheid machine was to make sure the workforce was contained in areas where it could be controlled, the so-called townships, which were remote. So the bus and train systems became vehicles of control. As these restrictions began to lift, with the country heading towards democracy, the minibus taxi took hold. If we had managed to get bike lanes in in the 1970s, things might have been different.’
Through the bike shop he had already started, Soloped (one of myriad directions Mylrea’s business brain has taken him, including wine farming and cultivating cucumbers), he began to bring in Motobecane and Batavus poegies, but once again butted heads with the authorities, who insisted they were motorbikes and required licensing and duties as such. He also owned LeJeune bicycles for a while … quite some commitment for a man who says he is ‘not really a cyclist’. Mylrea rode the first Cycle Tour, in five hours flat, and another four after that before hanging up his event wheels in 1984 to focus on business matters. His final words on the Cycle Tour sum up the original intent; ‘I hope it is an experiment that works.’