Vintage steel, African desert: Inside the weird and wonderful Tour of Ara

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Named after the Southern Hemisphere constellation of Ara, the Tour of Ara was a race ridden on pre-1999 South African-built steel racing bicycles in the proud tradition of the early Italian multi-day stage races. Held between 2014 and 2018, the six-day Tour followed a tough dirt-road route through the beautiful but harsh semi-desert of South Africa’s Karoo region. It was as much a race as it was an exploration and celebration of this unique and sparsely populated landscape and the people that live there.

Each year 40 racers experienced life-changing situations, met locals, and faced some serious race challenges — soft sand, corrugated roads, loose stones, tyre-shredding rocks, rain and mud. Broken frames and forks were not uncommon, and each race brought at least a few serious injuries. The race routes predominantly followed dirt roads, and distances varied from approximately 100 kilometres to 180 kilometres per day. The longest stage was a gruelling 213 kilometres.

Below is photographer Bill Tanaka‘s tribute to the fifth and final Tour of Ara and the hardy riders that took part.

Stage 1 (Prologue)

Route: Fraserburg to Klipheuwel Farm
Distance: 10km (+10km neutral return ride)

Bob Minsky, who flew all the way from New York, in the minutes before the start of the prologue. Stormy clouds overhead predicted the sleet to come.
Johannes and Sipho quelled their pre-race nerves with a bit of banter. Johannes is from Amsterdam; 2018 was his third Ara.
Race director Rolf’s start line and sick sense of humour. The race would begin with black clouds brooding overhead …

Stage 2

Route: Fraserburg to Fraserburg loop
Distance: 127km

The Tour of Ara always includes a bit of local history and a lot of community involvement. Here local historian Martinus gives a brief rainy lecture, dressed appropriately in an undertaker’s suit and top hat, before the riders set off into some very stormy weather.
The lead peloton made its way south-east towards the escarpment. The Karoo is a very sparsely populated and hostile environment. You can ride an entire day and never see a soul.
Mother Amateur Cycling Club members Mat and Carl were starting to feel the conditions. This was their first Ara. By this point it had been raining for hours, and the cold wind had not let up.
Mike Parker from the UK. While racing in the cold and rain might feel familiar to Mike, racing on African gravel sure doesn’t. It was a steep learning curve for Mike but he was already racing up front midway though stage 2.
Jared, also from Mother Amateur Cycling Club, stopped to help Carl wash some mud and grime from his eyes. When a dirt road is wet and hard packed you can move at tarmac pace through the landscape, but when you hit a wet spot the mud can go flying. And with these unpredictable conditions you daren’t take your eyes off the road for fear of hitting and rock or rut.
Isobel Hunter, also from the UK. If she was wondering what the hell she’d gotten herself into, she didn’t show it — she rode very strongly.
Midway through stage 2 photographer Bill Tanaka came across this scene in the middle of nowhere – Felix, alone, wrapped in an emergency blanket, with his bike in a heap next to him. His steerer had snapped, and while he crashed hard he fortunately didn’t hurt himself too badly. He was more concerned with the fact that this looked to be the end of his race …
An hour or so later race support picked up Felix and his Le Jeune. His race was over.
The Tour of Ara wasn’t just for those racing to win; some did it as a personal challenge and Greg is a great example of that. Over the years he earned himself the nickname ‘The Bonecollector’. It wasn’t uncommon to see Greg come in dead last on any stage, with a huge smile on his face, and an accoutrement of animal skulls and other bones, and even snake and lizards skins, attached to his bike. He has an uncanny knack for finding skeletons and such out in the veld, and often collected so much that he built roadside vigils for other racers on the side of the road with whatever he didn’t have space for on his bike.
The Tour of Ara was tough on racers and equipment. This photo is from stage 2.
At the lunch stop everyone learned of Felix’s broken bike, and the end of his race. Here Felix is helping fellow racer Las whose saddle bag was failing. Felix saw Las struggling to secure the saddle bag, and he promptly offered the toe strap from his broken Le Jeune. True Ara spirit.
Sipho fighting the first hill after the lunch stop.
Justin Fiske, Ara veteran-turned-support, heard of Felix’s broken bike at the lunch stop and drove ahead to find him with Bill the photographer. Even though Felix was officially out of the race, Justin offered his own Peugeot to Felix, so he could keep riding at least. Felix jumped at the opportunity, and he was back on two wheels.
Ara veteran and winner of stage 1, Nkosi Mpofu – exhausted but ecstatic.
At the end of the second day exhausted riders rolled into the little town of Fraserburg on the only stretch of tar they saw the entire day. The rain eventually relented in the mid afternoon, and the slower racers were treated to a spectacular sky as the clouds opened up to the sun.

Stage 3

Route: Fraserburg to Langbaken Farm
Distance: 75km (+31km neutral ride to Williston)

Racers disappeared into the eerie early morning mist on the road north to Williston. The thick mist coated riders and bikes in a thin wet layer, which made the biting cold even worse. The mist reflected the sound of the thin tyres on gravel, breaking the oppressive silence.
Race director Rolf and Ara unofficial support Justin discuss logistics, route markings, and coffee. Yes, that’s a tin bath tub on the roof of Justin’s VW, and yes he does have a wood-fired boiler to make hot water, and yes, it gets used on Ara.
Race favourite and Cape Town local Nils Hansen flying on his South African-built Peter Allan. The Tour of Ara rules required all racers to compete on a pre-1999 steel frame that was made in South Africa (or their country of birth, for internationals), with period-correct components.
Most people, even South African bicycle enthusiasts, don’t know that we used to have a burgeoning local steel framebuilding movement here at the southern tip of Africa. Alpina, Hansom, Du Toit – to name a few – are very commonly seen vintage brands on South Africa’s roads, and all share a proud locally built heritage. Some, like Le Jeune, Zini and Peugeot, were also built here, under license.
Every year the Tour of Ara sponsored up to five underprivileged riders, who might otherwise not have the opportunity to do an event like this, to come and race through the Karoo and experience the culture and remoteness of this place.
The sponsored riders were always selected months before, and given enough time to find an appropriate vintage bike and familiarise themselves with the mechanics of these old machines. And then of course there was learning to ride on gravel with those skinny tires.

Stage 4

Route: Williston to Middelpos
Distance: 130km

Cameron Barnes bringing the lead peloton up a short steep climb not long after the start of stage 4. Bad roads were predicted for later in the day …
Racer Nils Hansen, owner of Woodstock Cycleworks in Cape Town, had a happy moment while the roads were still good. Nils was an integral part of Ara, as many of the bikes racing each year came through his shop. Woodstock Cycleworks is somewhat of a centre-point for the alternative side of cycling in South Africa. If you ever visit Cape Twin, pop in. You will not be disappointed.
A few kilometres before the end of Stage 4 in Middelpos, road works had turned the surface into what Nils called “pumpkin shit”. He’s still smiling in this shot as there was still a hard-packed tyre track to follow. This didn’t last long – soon the soft, loose soil became almost unrideable.

Stage 5

Route: Middelpos to Gannaga Pass
Distance: 31km (+31km neutral return ride)

For stage 5 riders raced a short and fast but muddy 31 kilometres to the edge of the escarpment to the south of Middelpos. At the finish line on the escarpment the idea was to look down the Gannaga Pass into the Tankwa Karoo basin, and have some lunch. The weather didn’t play along and there was no view, only a spooky mist rain and hot coffee (with an optional shot of whisky, of course).
James, happy to have reached the finish line without incident.
Tyre choice and clearance was a constant topic of conversation amongst Ara riders in the lead-up to the race. Bigger tyres are obviously more comfortable, but these old road frames can normally only fit 28c tyres; 32c if you’re lucky. But if you squeeze them in, there is no room for mud. It doesn’t often rain in the Karoo, so it’s a gamble and a trade-off between comfort and being ground to a halt by clogging mud. The stickier the mud, the worse the clogging, and the harder to clean. When it gets bad most racers simply remove their brakes and keep riding.
Simz, delaying that unpleasant 31 kilometre neutral return ride and getting colder by the minute.

Stage 6

Route: Middelpos to Fraserburg
Distance: 149km

Hannes on Prince, set off stage 6 back to Fraserburg. Prince leading out the start of the many stages that have started in the tiny village of Middelpos became something of a tradition. Middelpos was an important part of Ara, and the smallest town we stayed in. If fact, Middelpos determined the small number of racers that Ara was open to – Middelpos can only sleep 50, at a stretch. Mostly on the floor on mattresses, and sometimes sharing double beds. The little town is a clutch of houses, a police station, a tiny school, and an old hotel. A very unique place, in the middle of nowhere.
Surprisingly, punctures are far less common on these dirt roads than one might imagine. Pinch flats are what everyone feared most, and tyre pressures were usually run at maximum. Here is Martin, taking a breather mid-repair.
Felix fighting some soft sand. Still going strong on Justin’s Peugeot.
While punctures are not common, complete tyre failure is. The rule is: spend money on the best tyres you can afford.
Karoo local Poppie van As and Capetonian restauranteur Donnet Dumas teamed up and traveled with Tour of Ara 2018. They created a special lunch stop along the route each day based around Poppie’s famous ‘roosterkoek’ – traditional breads baked on an open fire. Lunch on stage 6 was a three-cheese and homemade aubergine jam fire-toasted roosterkoek sandwich, plus an array of snacks, wine, and hot drinks. Good food was always a vital part of the Ara experience.
Poppie comes from the Karoo town of Laingsburg, and makes her now-famous roosterkoek for weary travellers on the side of the national highway stretching between Cape Town and Johannesburg. She has been part of the Tour of Ara family since the very first year, when she made a surprise appearance at the top of a tough hill welcoming racers with a roosterkoek in each hand. She has an infectious energy, does a mean ‘Rieldans’ (a local traditional dance), and was known to run out and sprint next to racers as they approach her Ara lunch stops, bellowing at the top of her lungs “Hier kom hulle” – “here they come!”
Your typical Ara racing machine. These bikes are much loved by their owners, and often such a bond is formed that they become primary race bikes, training bikes, or commuter bikes. Some experienced Ara riders have even raced these bikes in mountain bike and gravel bike races, raising a few eyebrows.
Mike and his English-built Graham Weich that carried him safely over the finish line to second place overall.
Mat Kieser, still some kilometres back, was riding on this roadside repair to the fork of his Peugeot that developed a serious crack below the crown.
Left: Felix, with his beloved South African-built Le Jeune. Felix bought this very special Le Jeune, with a rare fluted downtube, from Cape Town some years before, and he took it back to Berlin where he lives to use as a day-to-day commuter, training bike, and occasional racer. When he heard about the Tour of Ara, he knew that this was a race for him and his Le Jeune, back on African soil. He was devastated – the end of his race, and his bike. Center: Multiple-time Ara finisher Lance Williams’s Alpina, proudly emblazoned with his finisher’s frame badges from previous years. Right: Nkosi and his Cosmos, third place overall. Nkosi is wearing his prize – a custom MÃÄD x Tour of Ara wool jersey, hand dyed with pomegranate leaves. Franka, who makes these beautiful jerseys, lives in Barcelona and created a very special limited run of jerseys just for Tour of Ara.
Overall winners of the last ever Tour of Ara – Isobel Hunter and Nils Hansen – with their trophies of rocks collected from the Karoo.

The Tour of Ara is officially over. The Tour had a run of five incredible years, and we all made some great friends in the Karoo. Those who have raced Ara share a special bond, with each other and their vintage steel bikes, and will forever remember our adventures out in the Karoo desert.

For a further glimpse of the race, please see below for a fantastic documentary by Rick Wall and Adriaan Louw.

For further information about the Tour of Ara or to get in touch with its organisers, head to the event website.

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