“Day 5 of the race was not a long day. It was a stage of 140 kilometers, including the very short but steep Rammelkop pass. Around 10 o’clock in the morning, the wind picked up. And by the time we got into 60 or 70 kilometers into the day, the rain started. Not from above, but from straight ahead. We were riding 12 kilometers per hour into the wind. And it was getting worse. The rain was relentless. Gravel roads turned into mud, the wind was freezing cold and riders formed groups, trying to survive. At 85 kilometers in the race, we found Chisto’s bike in the middle of the road. This strong Cape Town rider was digging a hole next to the road, to lie in. He just surrendered himself to the exhaustion and the cold. Yeah, people get really fucked up by day 5 or 6.”
South African photographer and cyclist Stan Engelbrecht came up with the idea of a vintage steel bike race while browsing books about the old European multi-stage races like Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. Tour of Ara is a yearly six-day stage race of 800 kilometers through some of the most unforgiving parts of the Karoo. Riders are restricted to pre-1999 steel bikes and are pretty much on their own out there, without GPS or mobile phones. “In a way, Tour of Ara pays homage to how tough our races used to be.”
Stan speaks avidly about the old days, when there were no carbon fiber frames, medical interventions or support cars. “Those racers challenging dirt roads, with faces caked in mud…If your bike would break, you needed to fucking fix it. That’s what I love about those pictures. They capture a true sense of adventure.”
“A couple of years ago, the whole world seemed to get interested in ‘vintage’ steel bikes and fixed gear riding. I noticed people just did not know all those beautiful steel bikes like Alpina, Le Jeune and Du Toit were actually built in South Africa. People would buy a second hand one and strip off the paint, powder coat it and turn this nice old racing bikes into hipster fixed or single speeds. I was very saddened by that. When you strip off the paint, you strip off history.”
The South African frame building history is somewhat remarkable. In the late ’70 and ’80, South Africa, same as other western countries, grew an increased interest in cycling. But during the Apartheid years, sanctions prevented the import of bicycles from Europe or the USA. In a short period of time, a local frame building scene developed and produced unique hand built steel frames. A lot of these old steel frames nowadays emerge from countryside garages and slowly find their way back to passionate riders.
“People who ride the Tour of Ara spent months finding the right frame, trying different tire sizes, learning how to change a spoke and set their gears. They train to ride properly because there’s no suspension you can rely on when you’re going over a rock or DOWN steep sandy tRails. By the time those 40 people get to the start of the race, they’ve build a relationship with their old machine.”
As did Kirstin, with her Le Jeune. Stan: “During her first Tour of Ara in 2014, I found Kirstin on the side of the road, very upset. She got her knee injured and although she was determined to keep going, there was no way she could ride any further. I made the decision to take her out of the race, and I struggled with that. And there we were on the roadside, surrounded by those beautiful mountains, both crying.”
In 2016, Kirstin rode again. She was in good shape and determined to win. But on the second day, she crashed. “We didn’t know what was wrong with her arm but I could see it might be dislocated.” Kirsten was forced to step out of the race once again. Despite her arm, which she held in a makeshift inner tube sling, she insisted on riding the last day of the Tour. Back in Cape Town, a scan showed her bone was fractured. Stan: “Obviously, she has unfinished business with the Tour of Ara. She is gonna be back in the Karoo next year.”
The Karoo is a relatively unexplored and isolated area. There is not much to find. Towns are slowly dying and lands are left abandoned. Stan insist on working with local people to facilitate Tour if Ara.
It’s one of the reasons why the race is limited to 40 riders; the small hotels and roadside eateries are simply not capable of providing for bigger groups.
“Those who welcome us to their humble hotel or B&B have difficulties getting enough tomatoes for 40 people, because it is a 100 kilometers on dirt road to get them. We on the other hand have an appreciation for history and heritage. Although the people of Karoo think we’re totally nuts [riding out there], we do have an understanding. There’s an appreciation between someone who lives in such a deserted area, and someone who’s crazy enough to ride a bicycle out there.”
"Charl is a tough, very fast fixed gear rider. When he came in after a day of rain and wind, he fell down on his knees and he cried. He said: ‘This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life." – Stan
"When I started, it was just dreaming out loud. I didn’t know if people would hate it or love it."
South Africa is thick with bicycle events. Every weekend there’s races to join. But within 3 years, Tour of Ara, with it’s restricted rules and limited participation rate of 40 racers, stood out and became a phenomenon within the cycling scene. Stan: “When I started, it was just dreaming out loud. I didn’t know if people would hate it or love it. "Since last year, there’s over eighty of potential participants subscribing to the waiting list. Apparently, Tour of Ara captures a lot of people’s imagination.”
“Once you ride 200 kilometers with someone, sweating and swearing over dirt roads, you have a bond that goes beyond age or common backgrounds.” 4 - 6 places are kept for strong but underprivileged riders, who cannot afford the entry fee or the purchase of a suitable bicycle. “Mmeke for example. He’s a young kid from Leshoto who I’ve met while touring. We buzzed him down here and he had a blast and he has raced 3 years in a row since. Or Mpho, a bike messenger from Jo’burg who we’ve sponsored and won the Tour in 2015. He didn’t race last year because he broke his arm, but he is already training for this year. He is very driven.”
The Tour of Ara is not really about winning. The different stage wins each day are more important than the overall champion and are celebrated every day. But above all, Tour of Ara is a personal challenge. Stan: “When you get exhausted and you’re on the verge of giving up, that is when things get real. It is not about you within racing anymore; it comes down to decisions about you within life. In that moment, you are truly and only faced with yourself, your bike and the elements. And that’s a beautiful place to be.”