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Tour of Ara

Photographer Richard Johnson — who shot our feature on Drogo Michie — has shared his photographic account of last year’s gruelling Tour of Ara in South Africa, along with words by the tour’s founder, Stan Engelbrecht.

Words Stan Engelbrecht

Photographs Richard Johnson

The Tour of Ara is a six-day, all-gravel vintage road-bike race, through the beautiful but harsh African Karoo. At nearly 700km in distance, it’s a physical and mental challenge that’s not for everyone. But with such hardship comes great reward — searingly unforgettable landscapes, untouched vistas and lesser-travelled back roads.

It all started a few years ago. A photographic book project led me and a friend on a 10,000km bicycle tour, meeting and photographing the brave souls commuting in the face of social and cultural stigma, crime, and dangerous roads. With South Africa’s poverty line dividing black and white, we saw many hand-me-down racers that became commuters. During apartheid, mainly because of sanctions, importing racing bicycles was near impossible, but importing tubesets and building frames locally was an option. So, between a pioneering spirit and the growing need for racing machines, a new local industry was born, and by the mid-1980s the professional level steel frame-building scene was in full swing.

South Africa has a rich and multicultural cycling history. We had major multi-day stage-races, one-day classics, very active cycling clubs, and quite a few velodromes dotted around the country. We had record holders, racing-day dramas, and road-cycling heroes signing autographs. Newspaper-endorsed races, fantastic team kits, famous bike shops, and legends galore. But it was pretty isolated. Internationally we were banned because of our violent and fraught political history, and locally the sport was mostly ignored by the apartheid government because of its leftist leanings.

We came to realise that we had a very unique, insular past, and that some of these locally made frames were indeed very, very rare. And as all this was being revealed to us, the hipster cycling scene was arriving on our shores in a small way, and the trend of taking an old frame, removing the paint, and turning it into a singlespeed was taking hold. All this history being destroyed, stripped off and washed away, to be replaced with generic powdercoat.

One day, while looking through an old book of photographs of the early big races, like the Tour de France and the Giro, we were struck by how ugly racing had become. Branding, energy gels, and racing machines so modern they’d become generic. Where was the charm of the races of old? The strange set-ups and and experimental bikes? The fierce madmen caked in dust and grime? We lamented that no contemporary race-day photograph will ever look as cool as those old black and white images.

But what if we recreated it? Make our own race? That was how the idea for the Tour of Ara was born.

In time the rules and restrictions followed. You had to race a steel racing bike built before 1999, with period-correct components, and tyres no larger than 32c. And we had an important realisation: if we restricted the frames allowed to only South African-built ones, we’d inform and educate South Africans to the real value and heritage of these homegrown bicycles. And so it was: only South African-built steel racers allowed were in Tour of Ara. I must say it worked. People are now proud to own a piece of our cycling history, and will preserve the old paint as far as possible.

The Tour of Ara has become so much more than just a race. Not everyone riding is competing to win, with some riders taking it on as a personal challenge. And it really is tough. Not everyone finishes. I’ve seen people weep, quit, bleed, scream. I’ve seen racers remove their brakes to try and fight the mud clogging they’re tyres to the point where they simply didn’t turn anymore.

There’s something special about experiencing intense challenges and great joy, and then being able to share it with the same people day after day. A camaraderie develops, and the sense of achievement is amplified by our communal agony. That is where the beauty emerges. The shared poetry of suffering and satisfaction.

From now on, at the end of winter every year, 35 riders will band together to burn their way through sun-drenched, wind-blown and snow-touched Karoo, to compete for only the honour of having conquered the Tour of Ara.

A full-length edit of this story was previously published by Peloton magazine.