The Tour of Arae
There’s no disputing it: as mountain bike stage races go, South Africa is a prime destination. Stan Engelbrecht had a different kind of epic in mind when he planned the Tour of Arae though — one that didn’t involve expensive carbon fibre bikes and neon race wear. Words: Wesley Reyneke / Photos: Stan Engelbrecht
In simple terms, the Tour of Arae is a homage to the French and Italian cycle tours of old – a throwback to a time when cycling was a little more romantic and a lot less corporate. “Back in the days before branding and the superstars of cycling, racers were real workmen who got on bikes as an alternative to earning a day to day wage,” explains Stan.
Starting in Franschoek on the 22nd of September—and finishing six days and 666km of mostly gravel roads later in Matjiesfontein—racers had to ride steel frame, South African made bicycles produced before 1999. Other mandatory equipment included drop bars, downtube shifters and muted, classically-styled race kit. Energy gels were ditched in favour of cheese and wine, and there were no team mechanics on hand—leaving participants to rely on their own skills (and each other) to keep their bikes rolling.
“The aesthetic of that period was a big inspiration,” says Stan. “Cycling now is hideous, it’s very ugly. That’s why I don’t do any of these races—the whole atmosphere is horrible. This race is the antithesis of that. It’s considering your place within the world—what you ride, how your ride, how you dress, how you interact with the environment and the people you encounter along the way, which is an important aspect for me.”
“Cycling now is hideous, it’s very ugly. That’s why I don’t do any of these races—the whole atmosphere is horrible.”
Stan himself arrived for our meeting aboard the same 1980s Alpina that he completed the tour on—built from Reynolds 531 tubing, with a classy red and white paint scheme peeking out from behind the fresh dirt. “I love riding this bike on a dirt road. It feels really great, and there’s some kind of romance, some nostalgia connected to riding something that was made for the road, on a dirt road. Back in the day people rode dirt roads—because there weren’t tar roads.”
Entries for the Tour of Arae filled up quickly—all 35 slots were booked within two weeks of entries opening, with two racers dropping out at the last minute due to medical reasons. The remaining 33 cyclists faced their fair share of challenges—three failed to complete a stage for various reasons and had to be collected by the sweeper truck. In the spirit of the tour they were still allowed to complete the remaining stages, receiving an “honourable finishers” mention. There was also snow, sleet and mud to contend with, and one rider even picked up hypothermia on the second last stage into Sutherland.
“I prepared everyone as best I could for adverse conditions we might face. From the beginning we always knew that in Sutherland there might be snow. We kind of wished for it initially, and then when reality set in I got a bit nervous. I wanted to make sure that everyone was safe. But everything pulled through – all the bikes made it, all the people made it.”
That’s not bad going for an inaugural event on vintage bicycles. Vintage cycling is clearly enjoying a resurgence—and, with all the racers keen to take part again and enquiries pouring in via email, Stan should have no problem filling 2015’s starting grid.
– Look out for the full feature on the Tour of Arae in Issue 3 of Traffic Magazine