VeloNews Interactive wire services, Copyright AFP2001
Making history was the last thing on Rob Hunter’s mind as he became the first South African to ride in the Tour de France in Dunkirk Saturday.
The 24-year-old Lampre rider, who relocated to Europe three years ago in a bid to join the pro ranks, was pre-occupied with the demands of the opening 8.2km prologue than etching his name in the record books.
Hunter could only manage a “disappointing” 68th from 189 riders on the first day of the 3454km race, 32sec behind French prologue winner Christophe Moreau.
But despite that setback, his comments prior to becoming the first South African to ride a bike in the ‘Grande Boucle’ suggested the Johannesburg native is ready to take the world’s toughest bike race in his stride.
That’s a good question,” a smiling Hunter told AFP when asked what making history for South Africa meant.
“I’ve never really thought about it (making history), but for me riding in the Tour has been part of my plan for the past three years. It’s just that in 1999 I had tendonitis and last year the team (Lampre) didn’t make it to the Tour.
“I fully intended on being there in 1999.”
As if to hammer the point home, a friendly text message in Afrikaans came filtering through on his mobile phone to remind Hunter of the relevance of his history-making moment only an hour before his prologue start. But pro cycling, he insists, is not just about the Tour.
Hunter, who as an amateur upped and left Johannesburg for Belgium with some friends in search of his dream and impressed enough to win a contract with his Italian team, has made up for his two successive Tour absences by using his sprinting powers in other races.
In 1999 he crossed the finish line first in Benidorm as the Tour of Spain traversed the Catalan city of Barcelona. A year later he won the Montagu-Ceres stage in the South Africa Vodacom tour, then doubled up his tally of stage wins after twice beating the peloton to the line in the Tour of Holland.
Those kinds of races, says Hunter, are just as important to take part in for any young rider with aspirations of riding into the big time – although, with a gentle push, he does admit that nothing can get bigger than France’s cycling baby.
“There’s other races to ride in apart from the Tour (de France),” said Hunter. “But of course the Tour is special.”
Hunter learned that the Tour’s opening day is not always a happy one for riders, and he took solace in that slice of reality.
“I’m disappointed with my time, of course, but I just had a bad day.”
A blond-haired South African living next to the idyllic Lake Como, and riding for a team which counts more than five European nationalities including Italy’s Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto Simoni, may give occasion for locals to raise their eyebrows.
But there’s a simple solution to stop the tongues wagging, including getting used to the sumptuous Italian food, says the fluent Italian speaker. “You just have to fit into their culture and make an effort. I like the food there. Not all of it’s better than what I’m used to back home, but it’s really good!”