“I’ll bet this is the strangest interview you’ve ever done,” says Conrad Stoltz as he locks his Specialized road bike to a lamp post outside a Stellenbosch coffee shop.
Thirty minutes earlier, he had to duck out from our conversation to visit his physiotherapist for a good working over: a couple of niggling injuries needed some soothing.
The “Caveman” has certainly been through his fair share of ups and downs over a career dating back to 1991. In fact, he may just be the longest serving professional sportsman in South Africa (if one thinks back to the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Conrad was already a “veteran” of the French triathlon circuit).
CRANK was fortunate enough to sit down with Conrad recently and talk about his early days as a professional triathlete in South Africa and continental Europe.
CRANK: Conrad, you had your “breakthrough” race aged 17 at the SA Champs in Langebaan way back in 1991. Could you talk us through your build up, expectations and the race itself?
CONRAD STOLTZ: That was indeed a “milestone” race for me – something just “happened” that day and I moved up the next level.
It was the first year that we had a heated pool in Pretoria – they built a Health and Raquet Club in Pretoria in 1990; I bought a life membership costing something like R700. So that was the first year that we were able to swim right through the winter, which had always hampered us in the years before.
My aspirations then were to win the junior category – there was great depth within the junior ranks with Greg Lunderstedt, Bryan Mellville, Cameron Jones, Dave Hyam; to name but a few.
On race day, there was a “more than” gale force southeaster which resulted in huge waves in the swim- very intimidating for us “Vaalies”. Back then we swam out the marina out to sea – or so it felt. – Kevin Richards had a huge lead out of the water, which he extended on the bike to over four minutes.
I was a complete “tri geek” and rode an aluminium Bridgestone Radac with Scott DH bars (half the bar tape was neon pink and the other half lime green) wearing purple and yellow LOOK shoes. To afford the shoes in particular (it was over R400), I sold ancient tribal grinding stones and bamboo from our farm. What sacrilege! Anyway, despite the wind I was biking well and was right up with Jaco Loots (EP) and Richard Willmore (WP). The three of us ran down Kevin who blew on the run and started walking at about 8km. Jaco went onto win his first SA title, with Richard second and myself third – It was a huge breakthrough for me and I found it hard to concentrate on schoolwork after that…
CRANK: How important was being in the Northern Transvaal provincial team to you? Was there a great team spirit?
CS: We had a great team spirit. Phillip Oosthuizen was the captain – we looked up to him as our “silent leader”. He was very humble and soft spoken and somebody us youngsters looked up to and respected.
With me being the “junior” of the team, I always had to sit in the back (as in the luggage compartment) of the bus on our trips around town once we got to Port Elizabeth (PE) or Cape Town. Sometimes, when Gary Whitehouse drove, I got a “roofie ride” back there.
The Fedlife inter-provincial race in PE was probably the biggest race of the year, even bigger than SA Champs; so there was in effect two “SA Champs” per season. Everybody would be there so all of our training would be aimed at those two races. Both were at the coast, swimming in the big, salty ocean. I got to skip 2 days school, so it was the biggest thing for me.
I remember for a number of years, the Northern Transvaal (NTvl) team was put up in a homestay in PE by a guy called Ron (who was the race organizer). The NTvl team was a bit of a “wooden spoon” team and I really felt sorry for Ron and his wife with all of us “gate-crashing” his house year after year. The triathlon folks are such good people.
CRANK: Any disappointments for you in that first year?
CS: After the 3rd place overall at SA Champs in Langebaan, I was obviously super-motivated to do well in the last race of the domestic season, the “Prestige” race in Gordon’s Bay.
This race would involve competition between the Springbok, Junior Springbok, Invitational as well as a Junior invitational squad of which I was part of – these teams had all been pre-selected from the SA Champs and inter-provincials. All of the big names were there – so it was a huge deal – our “World Champs”. Some of the guys already featured in previous CRANK articles who were present: “Big Keith” Anderson, the two Trevors (Seinen and Meyer), Kevin “Bergie” Richards, Simon Lessing (whom I barely knew), Jaco Loots, Deon Steyn (Die Bloemfontein Trein), Harald Zumpt (the sound a triathlete makes when it hits a taxi – PE ‘94 I think), Tim Carter and Andreas Lombardozzi (the 1st guy I ever saw with dreadlocks and beads). Even today those guys seem so much meaner and faster than, say Macca (Chris McCormack) and my other peers do now (like when you re-visit your primary school as an adult).
Everything was sponsored by Nic van den Berg of LONGMILE; including race-kit, tracksuits, bags, travel costs and accomodation in Gordons Bay. I was in the 6 man junior team and we got these wild canary yellow tracksuits. Jack Parow will go wild for that stuff now…
The week before the race I was riding my bike to the Hillcrest swimming pool in Pretoria, when I was hit by a car and broke my arm. I was seriously on form and my confidence was boosted by my 3rd at SA’s a few weeks before, so needless to say, I was hugely disappointed. However, the ticket was paid for and I was a sorry spectator at that race.
CRANK: When was your first taste of international competition?
CS: I competed in the 1991 World Duathlon Champs in Palm Springs, USA. Skipped my last two matric exam papers, which was a riot – I was seriously “uncool” at school and couldn’t get out of there quick enough.
1991 was when the sporting sanctions against SA had just been lifted and I was part of a large SA team that attended the race. I roomed with Ben Jansen van Vuuren – our English was horrendous and neither of us could carry much of a conversation with the Americans. The race itself was characterised by 80 km/hr winds, which blew over electricity poles and the made the bike a survival test. I was fourth at Junior Duathlon Worlds. Dr Matt Brick won the professional race and Kenny Souza really did wear a pink bikini with a lightning bolt on his hip and a “skull & crossbones” tattoo that said “Victory or Death”. We “Sarfies” wore grey tracksuits and carried the Olympic flag (as opposed to the old SA flag) and I remember us buying that expo “LEEG”! I bought a pair of pink Oakley M frames and a pink Zipp tri-spoke. But Hennie “Wiele” Wentzel bought something like 24 Corsa CX tubbies. Even more impressive to my seventeen year old mind was when, after a few beers, “Wiele” told an older lady from Durban: “ek sal vir jou pomp laat jy soos n blaasoppie lyk” (after she had told him he was old).
The next year, Kevin Richards approached me on the steps of the Van Riebeeck Hotel after the African Championships in Gordon’s Bay and asked me if I would like to join him in France. He said there was this town called Cahors where we’d stay and race for the local club. Needless to say I didn’t require much persuading. So much for the Industrial Design course at Wits University that I was contemplating.
My parents of course thought that this was just a “phase” I was going through and that I would soon settle down into a “normal” life.
To be honest, I also never believed that I would make more than a basic living from triathlon, so off I went to France with great excitement and little trepidation.
CRANK: Could you describe how you coped with your first year in France?
CS: Coming from “teenage-hood”, conservative Pretoria, and very Afrikaans, I could barely boil an egg, let alone operate a washing machine. But every second lady at our “training pool” was tanning topless – it was certainly a culture shock.
I would get all my dirty washing together in the bath, fill it with water and shampoo and walk on my clothes to do my “laundry” – I always wondered why my white T-shirts turned grey.
Before races we would calculate the amount of prize money available, the depth of the field, pick what seems like “easy money” and budget accordingly – so while you race you constantly negotiate with yourself – “If I get 5th I’ll be ok until the following Sunday’s race”.
”Les Sud Africains” (Kevin Richards, Wilfried Hurwitz, Pieter Uys & Albe Geldenhuis and myself) stayed together in an old stone farmhouse and would go into town to buy pasta, vegetables, bread and beer- then take turns cooking. The guy who cooked didn’t have to wash the dishes. Kevin was the accepted leader running a “tight ship” but was always very fair and just. When I arrived at the house, he told Wilfried “go get Conrad’s cutlery.” Wilfried jumped on his bike and rode to the store, and came back with a plate, a cup, a bowl and cutlery – we lived extremely frugally.
That first year (1992) was marked by torrential rain, which ended up lasting for three weeks. One day I decided to clean my bike (we lived in a flat, I grew up in a house with a yard) in the bath, using the shower-head. This was the only time that Kevin spoke to me in Afrikaans; saying “Hey! Ek moet my gat daar was!”
CRANK: What were your results like for your first year?
CS: Compared to South Africa, I definitely under performed. It was so weird and foreign and we were so ill prepared in terms of the courses, logistics and equipment. One of my best bike legs in a triathlon (head to head with Serge Lecrique) was with a huge lump of Shoe Patch filling a big cut in the middle of the tire tread. I could watch and feel the lump hit the road every time it went round. The commentary was so furious (and French, of course) you could barely pick out your own name from the announcer’s babble. Kevin spoke a fair bit of French, and I had to hang on his lips for any info. That summer in SA I went on a full on French course – 5 hrs a day for 2 months- and went back the next year speaking good French. Which is crucial to immersing yourself with the amazing locals and the culture. (Read “Food”)
In my first race, a sprint distance event, I had high hopes and was stoked to see how much money there was to win. I came out the water and fellow South African Richard de Villiers, who was a spectator, shouted to me that I was in 8th place – which I knew offered good prize money – same a 1st Junior (under 19 back then). Great! I thought I was now going hit them hard on the bike (as I was a poor swimmer back then) but almost immediately got caught. First by a few riders, but later by entire groups, then several groups. Those Frenchies can bike! I got my ass kicked and came off the bike in the 20s. I had to make up time on the run to get “in the money” but still finished 23rd! So this was quite a wake up call.
I was in Cahors for 3 months that year- it was amazing and I couldn’t wait to return – faster and stronger. And with French…
Although the last day of my stay in France I contracted gangrene, which almost put an end to my career.
CRANK: Could you tell us what happened to you?
CS: On the day that I was leaving France to fly home, I cut my ankle on Kevin’s chain ring while bringing the bikes back from the shed for packing. (I rode my bike and pushed Kevins’ black Lejeune with Shimano 105 next to me). I just wiped the small wound with a piece of toilet paper – “Caveman” style. The wound soon became infected and once I was on the six hour train trip to Paris, it got really bad.
I got horribly lost in the metro (my first time on a train), I took the wrong train once, then had to back track, then I couldn’t fit my bike bag and my luggage through the turnstile. My foot hurt like nothing I’ve felt before – I could hardly walk – never mind carry luggage, and I was getting a fever – the only French I knew was “Deux baguettes” and “ou est le aeroport?” Out of desperation and pain, I cried a bit and some guy helped me get my stuff over the turnstile and had me follow him to the airport.
Once at the airport I asked a pharmacist for medication. After telling him that I was from “Afrique de Sud”, he pointed at a large World Map showing worldwide tropical disease occurrence – the African continent was marked in bright red, and he thus gave me some aspirin!
The flight attendant was a lot more sympathetic- she put me in first class and gave me some hectic pill – I passed out all the way to Johannesburg. Once I woke up I realized my “bean-bag” (another cute thing from the 90s!) was gone- with my passport and wallet. By then my leg was swollen and red up to the knee, plus I had a terrible fever. I had to wait for a wheel chair.
With no passport, I couldn’t get through immigration but my mom luckily left photocopies of my passport in the lining of my luggage, so it was straight on to the hospital in Pretoria.
The doctor there confirmed that it was gangrene and that he would have to operate. I was dead against this (I obviously had no idea how serious it was) and I rather fancied my chances for the upcoming World Championships in Muskoka, Canada a few weeks later.
After three days on intravenous antibiotics and wild delirium the doctor said he was “going in.” I cried again. When he opened my leg (about 15cm cut) he said he initially thought that he would have to amputate, but then decided to give it a chance, and had to clean it up again a few days later. I stayed in hospital for a week and eventually had to get a skin graft, because a large part of the ankle had become black.
The doctor then advised me to give up running. Of course I didn’t even hear him.
Stupid youth I was, I started riding a mountain bike “one-legged” – with the other leg dangling – in order to maintain my fitness almost straight out of hospital.
CRANK: How hard was it to come back after that episode?
CS: At that age I was like a bull in a china shop – I don’t remember anything about “coming back”. I just trained as hard and as much as I could. I moved from my parent’s home in Pretoria down to Port Elizabeth and crashed on Kevin’s balcony floor in Central PE. The local prostitutes operated from the steps of the building, sometimes using the roof of the building to “trade”, so it was another culture shock to me. PE was also the triathlon hotbed back then. Great times, good memories and really cool people. Warren Dickson, Chop (Ryan), Choppy Hills, Krusty Bezuidenhout, the Deans (Andrew and Mandy), Jaco Loots, Dave Hyam, Cameron Jones, Will Beukes and of course, Kevin, my mentor. Eight months after the gangrene I won the inaugural African Champs in Gordon’s Bay, out-sprinting Jaco Loots on the line – a small miracle after the trials and tribulations of the previous year. At 7km on the run us EP guys were running shoulder to shoulder – Kevin, Jaco and I – certainly was a proud moment and we (the whole of EP) were a cool team. I wish I could quote the reason Kevin cited for his bad form that day, but that story will have to wait for my autobiography. Or his – whichever comes first…
Interview courtesy Jason Bailey