Sunday, June 8, 2008

Cycling in South Africa

I'm in Johannesburg, South Africa for a few days on a business trip. Arrived on Friday morning and leave on Monday afternoon. Yesterday I rode with the CycleLab Saturday morning group. If these riders are reflective of what's going on throughout S.A. cycling then I can report that the sport is quite healthy here. I can easily see S.A. becoming a world powerhouse of cycling in the next few years.

And I found a few things different from group rides I've done in the U.S. The first was how many riders showed up. I was told later that there were about 400. And that was a low turn out since it's now winter here and a bit chilly (it was in the mid-30s when we started at 7am). They get around a thousand, and even more, in the summer months. This is partly because S.A. has some of the biggest road races in the world. Three years ago I rode in the Cape Argus race which starts and finishes in Capetown and goes around the Cape of Good Hope. There were 38,000 starters. It's the biggest bike race in the world.

On Saturday I rode with a C+ group of about 30 riders of nicely matched abilities. Each group had a "moderator" (I don't know what they call these people) whose job it appeared to be was to lead the group and keep everything safe and appropriately paced. Each of them wore a reflective vest much as road workers wear so they were obvious to their groups.

There were a lot of juniors and U23 riders including several National and World Champions in road, mountain bike and track racing. Many of the juniors were driven to the ride by parents, some of whom followed the ride "just in case." I spoke with several of the parents and they showed great interest in their son's or daughter's progress as a cyclist. Each also had questions on what they could do to help their child continue to grow as a cyclist. This is the primary reason I think we'll see S.A. establish a formidable place in world cycling competition.

There was no attempt during the 2.5-hour ride for anyone to try to splinter the group. There was no "attacking" which is such a common theme in almost every group I've ever ridden with in the States. I seldom ride with U.S. groups because of the unbridled aggressiveness of the riders. No one in the S.A. ride seemed to have an ego that needed soothing. They rode steadily over a quite rolling course and chatted. There was always a friendly banter going on. For some in the group the ride was a steady aerobic threshold (AeT) effort. Not real hard but hard enough to improve the aerobic system. For others, like me, it was a muscular endurance/tempo effort. Had I wanted an AeT ride I could have gone with a slightly slower group.

Another thing that struck me was the friendliness of all the riders on the road. In the U.S. when I wave at another rider he/she seldom returns it. I'm passed by riders who don't even acknowledge that I'm there. No "hello" or "how are you doing." There, riders going in opposite directions always waved. Remarkable.

Along the same line, manners in the peloton were exceptional. If someone's tire inadvertently flipped a stone and hit another rider there was an immediate "sorry." The same happened when a rider cut off another without looking and quickly realized it and followed up with an apology. I've never seen such good manners on bikes.

The bottom line... The entire ride was a refreshing change of pace from what I see most everywhere else in the U.S. Watch for many of these same young riders to be on podiums around the world in the next few years as they mature. The sport is certainly headed the right direction in South Africa.


At June 10, 2008 6:49 AM , Blogger Java said...

So glad to pop in again today and then found this great post. You are right SA-cans still get brought up with old fashion manners and respect and are quite a religious country, unlike what most people think/know.
I fly out to SA in less than 2 weeks. I'll wave when our planes pass each other :-)

At June 10, 2008 12:02 PM , Anonymous Mike said...

I like your comments about US rider's egos...I'm primarily a mountain biker, but other than the most casual group road rides, all I hear from road riding friends is how the goal of the group ride is to be the last one standing.

At June 10, 2008 7:20 PM , Blogger CoachLiz said...

Lack of manners and big egos (too much testosterone) is why I no longer ride with the local race/cycle club. They also are quite vocal about their feelings on triathletes and their dislike of them.

I have come accross more friendly triathletes than cyclists. And why is it that there are still road cyclists that insist on not wearing a helmet? If you can afford that fancy Colonogo and the CSC kit, why can't you spring a measly $40 for a Bell helmet?

Glad to hear that I can be looking forward to watching some great racers coming out of S.A.

At June 10, 2008 11:39 PM , Blogger Bruce Diesel said...

Hey Joe,

We met at dinner on the Saturday night. I didn't get much of a chance to chat to you, but it was great just to meet you.

The area that you rode in is called "The Cradle of Humankind", and is a World Heritage Site. Your blog readers may be interested to read a bit about it at

Kind Regards,

At June 11, 2008 10:07 AM , Blogger Tim said...

I think the US v. World comparision with regards to manners / no manners and friendly / not friendly extends way beyond cycling. Quite unfortunate :(

At June 11, 2008 1:25 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Bruce--Yes, very nice to meet you and your wife last Saturday. Thanks for the URL.

At June 17, 2008 3:50 PM , Blogger d2g said...

Hi Joe, my wife's dad lives in SA, I've been there and what you say is true about their personalities. Ditto the comments about why so many of us no longer road race - I've been riding and racing for 22 years and have had zero interest in road events for most of those years for exactly the reasons you describe. Triathlon was my next frontier and it, sadly, has taken on much the same personality. Ultra-distance events and MTB are left - where people respect each other and share the love of the sport. I was fortunate to do well for a number of years at different cycling events and now get much more joy in coaching and organizing our rides - your post comes at a very good time, we have an amazing community of cyclists in a small town in northern WI, with quality group rides that get a couple dozen in peak weeks, and our goal is to surpass three dozen this year. How? We concluded that we needed exactly what the SA riders already knew. So we're doing it - and we all benefit from the refreshing approach and inclusive attitudes. Thanks for another inspiring message. -d2g

At June 20, 2008 10:08 PM , Anonymous Terry said...

Hi Joe,
I stumbled on your blog and found it very interesting what you say about South African cyclists. I had no idea. I rode with a group way back in 1953 around the roads between Johannesburg and Pretoria. That was way back in 1953.This is an account of my first cycle race in 1948,

At September 18, 2008 5:21 PM , Blogger Beth said...

Glad to hear that cycling is doing well in SA. I am moving there next year and was uncertain on the condition of the sport. Great Blog!

At October 28, 2008 7:54 PM , Anonymous Rome said...

Hey Joe,

So glad to google Bike rides in Africa and land onto your Blog. I purchased a home in a little beach town just outside of Durban in South Africa two years ago and this past summer I purchased a road bike there this past summer and never felt so acknowledged on the road by drivers. I live here in the bay area and have been riding for a year now and eventually would like to attend the Cape Argus race next year. Have you participated or been back since? I really enjoyed your sharing your experience in the RSA..
My site:

At October 29, 2008 9:47 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Rome, Thanks for your note. I've not been back to S Africa since I posted this blog. I'm sure I will be sometime in 2009, though. And I look forward to riding there again. Very friendly.


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