NOBODY QUITE REALISED IT AT THE TIME, BUT WHEN A YOUNG CAPE LAWYER DASHED AROUND THE PENINSULA IN A SHADE OVER THREE HOURS ON 28 OCTOBER 1978, HE WAS TRIGGERING A CYCLING TSUNAMI.
By Steve Shaprio
This feature appeared in the March/April 2018 edition of Ride.
In many respects, Lawrence Whittaker embodies an evolutionary, popularising turning point in South African cycling: he was there at the start and he’s still there. He was part of the visionary team which developed the Western Province Pedal Power Association (later to become the PPA) and the then Argus Tour into the world-leading organisations they have both become; but he was the only person who won the fixrst edition of what has become the trendsetter in timed, mass-participation cycle racing.
And he won it by half a wheel, in a legendary dice, 40 years ago.
It started long before 1978: Lawrence was 13 years old when he started racing and even before his Argus triumph, he was shaving his legs and winning titles across the country. If he is somewhat self-effacing about his sporting achievements, he is even more modest about his role in developing the Pedal Power Association and the “Argus Tour”, which was then owned by the WPPPA. He is at pains, with both organisations, to attribute equal passion to his co-conspirators in these seminal endeavours. Lawrence is quite amusing about the recent change of name: like most of us he understands the reasons but finds the current nomenclature to be a bit of a mouthful. He recalls, many years ago, when the then editor of the Argus and a friend of his, Andrew Drysdale, hit the roof when a name change was innocuously mooted in an innocent survey. Of course, the name has changed but not too many people are likely to ask you your best time in the Cape Town Cycle Tour.
Lawrence was one of the relatively few elite cyclists, all of whom belonged to small, upper echelon clubs until the start of the mass-participation events. He talks about: “The magic of what we were obliged to call ‘fun rides’. Suddenly you’d get something like a thousand people… people who just wanted to go for a ride, and people like myself who regularly trained at night in the pouring rain.” At first, they were simultaneous but separate events, for legal and political reasons; registered riders, whose affiliation with the apartheid-kosher official body, were obliged to start 10 minutes after the ‘rebel’ WPPPA riff-raff. The pros, who were also obliged to wear silly rubber strip helmets, soon became aware of growing numbers of unlicensed riders who were very fast. But, happily, the division soon fell away.
Those of us who took part in these fun rides and paid R6 for a postal entry (a staggering R10 on the day) were thrilled and felt privileged to test our mettle against the elite. Attempts at untimed fun rides were hopelessly unsuccessful, although in overseas and elite bicycle racing time was far less important than who won. “You can’t over-emphasise the influence of The Argus in this regard. No one says he won the Paris-Roubaix in so many hours and minutes, critical. It is enough to say you won,” says Lawrence.
But, it seems that at every level Cape Townies on bicycles were zealously competitive. Maybe even fanatical. Without the stopwatch, hardly anyone turned up. “It didn’t work. The competitive element was missing.” The seeding system did work, even if there was much letter-writing, and even cheating, to be promoted to an earlier, and faster, start group. That, in most respects (not the skullduggery), was carried through to The Argus, and later this caught on all across the country.
“If you were clever enough to get into the right group, you could do a relatively amazing time. There was no point in starting in a group that was too fast; you would just be ejected and then you’re all alone in no man’s land.”
And don’t I know that…
“For us racers, that first Argus was an important event. In those days we didn’t get much newspaper coverage: and here I was, an English-speaking South African, now able to race around the peninsula with a newspaper covering it. We’d never been able to race that route before, although we’d all ridden it a hundred times.” That first Argus was front-page news on the Monday with pictures and a quote from Lawrence which was to become iconic. He was asked why the event was special and he famously said: “Because it is the most beautiful route in the world.” That he had never ridden beyond Rhodesia was diplomatically ignored. Lawrence seems reluctant to go into any excessive suggestions about his pivotal place in the history of the Cycle Tour, repeatedly emphasising the team effort of like-minded and passionate men and women. He seemed chuffed about the other growing numbers of similar races across South Africa which adopted the WPPPA formula and became qualifying events themselves for the ultimate challenge, right here in windy Cape Town.
But when it came to the Cycle Tour itself, he allows himself to be more personal. And his vivid recollection, to me at least, is in itself archetypal, at any level, to the thrill of bicycle racing.
Please allow me the self-indulgence of setting the scene. Lawrence lives with his partner Carrie in a quiet part of Constantia, just around the corner from where so many of those six-rand fun rides were wont to begin. As I did so often going to the start of the race (we always said “I’m racing on Saturday/Sunday”) those days, I’d ridden over Constantia Nek for the interview. Carrie, although invited to join us (it was more of a pleasant conversation than an interview) diplomatically declined and, instead, opted to serve us coffee and a very potent stollen. This pastry later propelled me up the sharp side of Ou Kaapseweg into the teeth of a south-east gale without having to use the full range of my already modest cluster and had Old Whatshisname used it, in place of high octane chemicals, his name would still be attached to those seven missing Tours de France. But I digress.
“My main competition on 28 October 1978 was Wimpie van der Merwe. I was very concerned because he was such a talented and dedicated cyclist.” Van der Merwe was recognised as one of the greats of SA cycling and had just finished the Rapport Tour in the Transvaal. He arrived in Worcester by train and early on that fine morning (later to be windy, of course). He was ferried to Cape Town in time for the start. There were over 500 riders, with more than a sprinkling of hot-shots. For Lawrence, the adrenaline started to kick in on the charge up Edinburgh Drive. “I made a point of really going hard just to test the mettle of the bunch and I dropped them all. Okay, I thought, I’m the strongest on the climbs so all I have to do is make sure of Wimpie.” Van der Merwe had just done the Rapport Tour and had several hundred kilometres of fast, steady riding in his legs “and he likes to get away on the flats”. They were watching each other. A small group had broken away, but both of them made the technical considerations which were appropriate to those times and the escapees were caught.
“There we were riding along and watching each other and when we got near to the start of Chapman’s Peak, probably about half a kay away, Wimpie came flying past. It was a real jump, but then again he was an accomplished track sprinter.
“It was one of those moments and I thought to myself: I either catch up to him or it’s over… I’ll never see him again.
“So I went flat out. As we hit the start of the first part of Chapman’s Peak, I made contact with him. Because of the effort, I was massively tired. And then we hit the climb. Fortunately, that was more of my kind of terrain and I was able to recuperate. Then we rode shoulder to shoulder. The bunch was history as we descended into Hout Bay and my plan was to drop him on Suikerbossie because that’s my style and I like to win alone. He’s a sprinter, a track sprinter and I think he had some records on the track. I made a few jumps on Suikerbossie and I got away but not enough and it was a long way to the finish in Camps Bay. The downhill didn’t favour me, it favoured him. I couldn’t get rid of him so we rode in together.”
Approaching the finish with the adrenaline going off the charts, and with motor traffic coming and going in all directions (it was before the sanity of road closure), Lawrence conjured up a scheme on how to beat the Springbok ace.
“Look, I’d raced with him often and I was current WP road champion – Wimpie, I think, had come third ‒ so I had an idea on how to beat him. He’s a much bigger man than I am, probably head and shoulders bigger and twice my strength; but of course with this comes quite a bit of added weight. In situations like this, you try to shorten the sprints as much as possible. It’s nerve-wracking: if you go too soon, the other rider will get on to your back wheel and take your slipstream. I was hoping he wasn’t going to jump and yet I wanted him to make the first jump. The plan then, as in track racing, was to take that slipstream and come around to beat him on the line. You know fortune favours the bold… and it worked out well. I got half a wheel on him and I think it stayed like that to the finish.”
Again, that adrenaline rush as you get closer to the line is quite phenomenal said Lawrence: “You’re thinking: am I going to win or aren’t I. You’re wearing yourself out because if you don’t, it won’t be possible to win.” In bicycle racing, unlike running, he adds, many other people are using your resources, and you have to work out how you are going to deal with it.
“It’s a beautiful sport… there’s nothing quite like it.” Wimpie van der Merwe deserves his own interview and in spite of feigning a decline in memory power, he can recall the 40-year-old dice. He says he was naïve and considered the event as “just a fun ride”.
“If I’d known what it would become I would have ridden it differently.” He remembers Lawrence sticking to his wheel like a magnet and, given the historic significance of the event, he urges young riders to take all their rides more seriously. Echoing the role played by the sponsoring newspaper, the Cape Argus, he acknowledges the importance of media sponsorship in the development of South African cycling at that critical moment of the sport’s development. He had just ridden the Rapport Tour and other newspapers would, even if reluctantly, become involved in cycling’s blossoming. It showed as he said, how media competition (as in Europe) led to public fascination, with increasing sponsorship.
“If you don’t see sport as showbiz, you’re missing something.”
But, on that fateful day, it was Lawrence Whittaker who claimed the headlines – even if by just half a wheel.
After finishing, he rode back to his wife who was doing her first event ride. She was on Chappies and surrounded by a male escort. “How did it go?” she asked after suggesting that he had some responsibility for her losing a shoe cleat. “I won,” he said to jeering disbelief from the lads. More diffidently and with the mollifying effect of time, he later offered that the cleat (they were nailed on in those days) might have been weakened “by all that walking”.
In later years, the name Lawrence Whittaker reappeared more than once in the top results of various categories of Argus results.
More than four decades on, he still rides with inspiring enthusiasm but goes out of his way to avoid motorised traffic. Spending a few hours with him, with his encyclopaedic knowledge and passion was, for a duffer like me, a profoundly enriching tonic.