After a decade-long absence, the Tour of South Africa returns Saturday for an eight-day, seven-stage route that will lay the groundwork for what organizers are hoping will become a fixture on the international calendar.
Officials are unveiling the race this year with relatively modest terms, but they hope to position the race as soon as next year as an important destination for snow-bound European teams looking for good roads and warm weather.
Ranked 2.2 on the international calendar, the race begins Saturday in Pretoria and covers seven stages across the breadth of the nation.
With prize money topping R500,000(about $70,000) and an important sponsor (Cell C), the South African cycling community is enthusiastic about the race’s potential.
“Everyone is very excited about the race coming back. There’s huge passion for cycling in South Africa and the hope is to build the race into a World Calendar-event in the next few years,” Malcolm Lange, manager/rider at the South African-based Bonitas team, told VeloNews. “It’s in a good spot on the calendar and the idea is that teams will come across from Australia after racing the Tour Down Under and race and train in South Africa. The potential is huge.”
Lange’s Bonitas team will be racing on home roads and will start as one of the favorites for stage victories and the overall.
A mix of domestic and international teams makes up the field, including Europcar from France and Team Type 1. The strength of the field is something backers are hoping to expand quickly and plans are already afoot to invite more top-flight European teams next year.
One rider who would love to return would be Robbie Hunter, the only African rider to win a stage in the Tour de France.
The 33-year-old said he’d like to be able to compete in next year’s edition, ideally with RadioShack, which he joined, along with Robbie McEwen, in a final-hour move following the implosion of the Pegasus team.
“I will push as much as I can to race down there next year – hopefully riding with RadioShack if the team continues, and hopefully I will stay with these guys. I’d love to go back and actually race in my home tour again,” Hunter told VeloNews. “I rode the last Tour of South Africa. It was a pity to see the event go, but it’s brilliant to see it return. They’ve got some backing from some nice big sponsors, Cel-C, some people have done some really good work to get it back. It’s great to see an event like that come back.”
Like Lange, Hunter is equally enthusiastic about the race’s potential. Both Lange and Hunter were recently in India, where Hunter won a circuit race in Mumbai, and both agreed that South Africa’s infrastructure is much better-suited to support a large-scale, European-level race than India’s.
And unlike such far-flung early-season destinations as Malaysia, Australia, Argentina or Qatar, South Africa has the advantage of being on the same time zone at Europe, a plus for riders and teams cautious about the effects of long-distance travel.
“There’s no time-change, you don’t have to fly half-way across the world to get there,” Hunter said. “It’s a fantastic place to ride and train. If you look back over the past 20 years, pros like Rominger, Ullrich, Cipollini, a lot of the European pros used to go down to train and race. The roads are fantastic, the weather is brilliant. There’s a rich culture of Europeans going down there to do preparation for pre-season, end-of-season riding, so it will be really good to get the event up to a really good level again.”
The revived South African tour has the full support of the national cycling federation as well as from the UCI.
It might not be long before the race is part of the world tour and South Africa once again becomes a hotspot among international racing circles.
On the Web: www.tourofsa.co.za