The 1979 Argus Cycle Tour - Cape Town Cycle Tour

The 1979 Argus Cycle Tour

26 Sep 2022 - Cape Town Cycle TourHistory

As a sign of what was to come, entries nearly doubled in 1979. John Stegmann handed over the organiser reins to Neil Bramwell, as his deep involvement was impacting his architectural career, but remained heavily involved. Stegmann, De Waal and Mylrea still had fabulous dreams for the event – just not the way we see it today. They hoped it would become a showcase for cycling as an acceptable mode of transport, rather than just a rich man’s sport.

To that end, they did make some progress in these early years – the bike paths they helped the council lay out, linking the schools in the leafy Southern Suburbs, are still in use today. Another healthy sign was that more than 100 of the field – 10% – was under the age of 15.

The start was once again outside the Castle, in Strand Street, but this time the ‘registered’ riders – 58 of them – took off first, so that they were not forced to race through the slower riders out on the course. As the first groups hit the pair of unnecessary rises towards UCT, the full force of the South Easter was first felt – the city centre was mostly sheltered – in a flurry of caps.

Few riders outside the registered group wore helmets, and even they opted for the traditional leather hairnet-type numbers, which were very good at protecting riders from scraping their heads, but offered very little in impact protection.

Don Spence would continue the rough start to his Cycle Tour career (it would become one of the better ones, eventually, including coaching the winning team half a dozen times, and riding on it three times personally) with a spectacular puncture on the gravel road near Kommetjie (progress hadn’t got as far as tarring the Deep South in 1979), where a stone ripped the sidewall of his front tubular tyre and sent him scrambling, and ultimately sliding off the road.

Both defending champions were in the field. Janice Theis would eventually prevail once more, knocking nearly an hour off her previous year’s effort, but for Lawrence Whittaker there would be no repeat. Six weeks before, he had broken his arm in a training crash involving a snapped chain, and the battle to keep fit involved long one-handed training rides from his Somerset West home. ‘I remember one ride, just after I had started riding again. I had my arm in plaster, and was essentially riding one-handed. As I started the Lord Charles climb out of Somerset West, the Maties guys came past. I jumped in, and we chatted, but all the time the pace was rising, until Wimpie started going really hard. I couldn’t follow with one hand, and got dropped, but just kept going, and slowly started getting back on. I caught them all, including Wimpie. He was not pleased.’ Following on from the broken-skewer ritual debacle of 1978, Lawrence admitted that his race food of choice in those days was a largish piece of cold steak just before the start of a race …

The impression was made, though, and the invitation to train with Wimpie came a few days later. ‘140km in the Boland. It was okay, but I knew he would hit me hard coming back into Stellies, so I anticipated and made sure he couldn’t drop me.’ The extra strain was not kind, though, and Lawrence was diagnosed with anaemia shortly before the Tour. A recovering arm and a course of iron supplementation were not ideal prep for the title defence, and the champ had to settle for 4th, behind Hans Degenaar, Pierre Smit and Wimpie.

The timing system was manual – and remarkably accurate even as the Tour grew in size.

The non-registered section was won by 31-year-old Cape Town doctor Alastair MacDonald. The distinction between SACF- licensed riders and ‘funriders’ was made, with a separate start group, all the way up to 1988. This was to keep the federation happy with letting ‘their’ riders share the road with these dangerous funride types, and from this top-level insecurity sprouted a proud list of winners who either eschewed the establishment, or were temporarily fighting with it. One of the successes of the Cycle Tour over its 40 years has been its acceptance of all, and for many years it and the Federation were locked in battle over its status, and their riders. There are even stories (corroborated by multiple sources) of SACF officials ‘spectating’ on Chapman’s Peak, notebook in hand, hoping to catch registered riders who had illegally entered the funride. Initially, this battle was a pure power struggle: jealous of the success of a race over which it had no control, officialdom couldn’t help itself, and made the riders’ lives supremely difficult. As the event grew, however, this battle became less about the cheek of it all, and more about the money, as we will learn later.

Out on the road, times tumbled in 1979. For the first time, riders went under three hours for the 104km course, which remained unchanged from the inaugural one, and three times as many riders went sub-3:30 as had six months earlier. The event had moved to autumn, rather than spring, and the late April start allowed the non-professional riders to train through the summer. The new date didn’t actually suit many of the pros, as the cycling season in South Africa was based on the European one, so they tended to race through winter here,

while their French and Italian heroes swanned it along the Riviera, working on their tans as they raced. April was very early for them, and the growth of the event ended up forcing a change in this outlook, as the Western Province Pedal Power Association (now the PPA) began to add to its race calendar at a rate of knots, with races throughout summer.

For Achmat Geyer, the memories are still vivid: ‘First race on a steel bike. No helmet.
No toe clips and straps. There were no supplements back then, not even glucose, and a lot of people did without water. I remember the Rotunda finish, the Castle start, stopping to clock in at the reserve entrance, and no full road closure. The Slangkop climb! Family support cars throughout the race. A lapel badge at the finish, and the poor-quality certificate.’

1979 was to be future Tour winner Mark Pinder’s first ride, after he had helped second Don Spence – he of the one-cycling-shoe fame – in the first edition. ‘I was 15 at the first one; it was my introduction to the wonderful world of cycling. I was invited to accompany Don’s support car (with his wife, daughter and son) and exchange water bottles at designated points along the route. In those days, water bottles were 500ml – not the 750ml bottles or two-litre hydration packs we have today. Seconding vehicles were allowed, carrying spare wheels, food and water bottles, and these could be exchanged at the side of the road, usually on an ascent or the top of a climb.’ Mark would debut on the bike in 1979, aged 16, and finish in just over four hours. ‘I was wearing tennis shorts, a T-shirt and takkies on a metallic green Peugeot Champion, bought from Speedy Cycles in lower Wynberg, that cost me R99 brand- new. I rode 4:04 and came 165th overall. I wish someone had told me about the benefits of cycling shorts with a chamois padding, and that the cheap way of making your bike lighter was replacing the moving components with lighter alternatives. I invested in a lighter aluminium wheelset, narrower tyres and pedals with toe clips immediately after. I also bought a pair of woollen cycling shorts, a cycling jersey with pockets at the back, a leather strip helmet and leather cycling shoes. It was so much more comfortable.’ Mark was back in 1980, and his investment realised an improved time of 3:09 – three years later, he would win it outright.

George Langley remembers the woollen shorts all too well: ‘They were terrible. You had to leave them in the sun to dry, but not for too long or the chamois – it was real chamois, not the fake stuff – would get so hard it was like sandpaper.’ The shoes, too, would seem archaic today: the grooved cleats would have to be nailed into place on the leather sole using fine cobbler’s tacks. These had to be really short, or they would poke through into the sole of your foot. You only made that error once, much like leaving your shorts out too long.

Hout Bay resident Peter Barber remembers the 1979 Tour so well, he has even kept the event T-shirt, but it was the inaugural Tour that hooked him on the sport: ‘I recall seeing an advert for the very first Argus in the paper. As I was fit enough to play first-league squash I thought I would give it a try on my cast-iron supermarket special: a ten-speed racer. I tried about three training rides and then just thought that I’d give it my best. The night prior to the ride, I gave some passing thought to my “nutritional” and “comfort”

needs; comfort won the debate as I wasn’t sure if I would need food or drink but I knew that I was going to get hot, so I elected to put the sprinkler cap on my one water bottle. The next morning, I set off early from home on the slopes of Table Mountain down to the start at the Castle. Even over that modest distance I could already feel my posterior protesting at the discomfort of the saddle. I joined a motley group of riders at the start, feeling that I fitted in reasonably well in my T-shirt, boere-shorts, takkies and a floppy hat. There was just the one bunch of riders at the start, as far as I recall, and my long love affair with the bike began just a few minutes later. During the ride I suffered like crazy with cramp, dehydration, low blood sugar, chafe and general fatigue, but something must have stuck as I have now completed many Tours, among hundreds of other cycling events, and have been lucky enough to get faster as the years have advanced. But cycling isn’t like weightlifting, where you can drop the weights once they are over your head; you have to keep turning the pedals hard. Use it or lose it!’ If 1978 had been a struggle, we can only imagine what Peter’s 1979 looked like, as he slumped to a 5:16 finish, a full hour and ten minutes slower than on debut. Yet, he still kept the shirt.

The story of the Tour, though, was one that showed the spirit that would drive this event for
years to come. SACS is a fine Cape Town school, arguably the oldest in the country.
When the junior school’s headmaster, 51-year-old Les McEwan, was bundled off his prize steed – an old-fashioned no-frills black roadster, single-speed with mudguards and rubber pedals – and left at the side of the road bleeding and dazed, he got back to his feet (shakily), allowed a spectator to straighten
up his handlebars, and rode off with a cheery wave, with a hand that was now missing one fingernail. He finished in a fine time of 4:48, all things considered.

Date: 14 April, 1979

Distance: 104km

Official name: The Argus Cycle Tour

Route notes: Today’s route, but via Slangkop and Kommetjie, and finishing alongside the beach in Camp’s Bay

Entries: 999

Finishers: 760

% Finishers: 76

Male winner: Hans Degenaar 2:52:38

Female winner: Janice Theis 3:36:46

Tandem winners: John Stegmann/ Richard Stegmann 3:52:00

First non-registered: Gary Koen 3:06:46

Youngest rider: Colin Parsons (8)

Oldest rider: John Kennedy (68)

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