Hendrik Lemmer Interview

“We local amateurs train 100 kilometers a day while the ONCE team have training camps where they don’t sleep.”

These were the words of Hendrik Lemmer to a bemused commentator on national television during the 1995 Boland Bank cycle tour, where his Village Cycles sponsored WP cycling team grabbed the yellow jersey from the powerful ONCE, Telekom and Collstrop professional outfits.

Well known in SA cycling circles as a rider, bike shop owner, CSA official and tour organiser, Hendrik was kind enough to chat to us in between juggling business, CSA, family and the odd bike ride.

CRANK:  Hendrik, you have been involved with cycling for many years – could you tell us about your involvement with CSA and exactly what your position entails?

Hendrik Lemmer: I’m heading the Road Commission. As CSA also have a recreational commission headed by Dave Bellairs, my focus is more towards medals and the UCI categories that include the Junior, under 23, Elite and Women divisions. I do have a very full inbox on a Monday after 15 to 20 road races on a weekend, but it’s not really my focus or job to sort out potholes (they really must have a lot of them in Gauteng). My main goal for South African road cycling in a few years is to have 10 pro tour riders and win medals on the world stage – for that we need to give our local riders exposure in Europe.

CRANK: You are the brains behind the highly successful Tour de Boland. How did you get this tour off the ground and could you give us an insight into how you could stage this event on a low budget?

HL: To start is easy – “just do it”. Design routes, contact the traffic department, start the race.

I cannot do this without the work of my friend Ian Goetham who organises most of the stuff. We receive about R30 000 from the Western Cape Dept of Sport for the event but we give it back to Boland cycling. We “donate” that to Boland cycling so that the youngsters can attend Nationals, Junior Tours, Eric van Enter and other events that they would not normally be able to attend. We run the tour on the entry fees received but still pay out about R20 000 in prize money. So I’m lead vehicle, commentator, race director and a few other things.

The Tour has a lot of potential, but we need a sponsor to add the nice stuff and to get nicer Tour routes, especially to include the mountain passes in the area. I think the Giro just proved that you don’t need a million like in the past – by organising their event on only about R250 000 from a local sponsor. The Giro employs and contracts a lot of people to add the “frills” we don’t have. I would like a Giro budget but with the laid back friendly atmosphere of Boland. In the Tour de Boland we always try and do things for the rider and the sport.

Hendrik presenting an award during the Tour de Boland.

CRANK: You have completed several ABSA Cape Epics. What is your impression of the event? Do you think that participants need to fork out loads of money on masseurs/mechanics/dieticians/coaches? What is your approach to the event?

HL: I’ve started and finished 5 Epics surviving without the frills. I’ve tried to race top 10 in the Masters category, and other times it’s a social event with lots of time spent in the chill zone after stages. Just go there and ride your bike, have a few beers, chat to friends. The worst thing is the 5am alarm to start at 7am.

The event has become a bit too “VIP centered”, it should be more “rider centered”. I think as the price tag increases the fall out rate (non finishers) will increase as it’s catering for fat cats and tourists. Fortunately there’s a lot of other events on the calendar to choose from if you want to get more “bang for your buck”.

If you’re racing for a podium or like wasting money, go for the extras, otherwise just enjoy the ride and chill. The biggest mistake amateurs make is to dice someone, either a team-mate or rival/buddy (same thing). And don’t take it seriously, it’s a holiday, no need to stress about mixes, powders, tyre choices. If you don’t know the route, how the hell can you make a tyre choice, just take a heavy, tubeless thingy. Another mistake from back markers is to have the lightest bike possible, but then they load the camelback so that it looks like a rolling workshop. So they spend R5000 on the lightest seat pillar, but the camelback weighs over 10 kg’s. Oh, and the seat pillar breaks cause the oke is too fat anyway.

CRANK: You held the record for the fastest time on a mountainbike for many years in the Argus Cycle Tour – could you tell us how you were able to hang in with the “roadies”? Did you ever run out of gears?

HL: I rode the 1991 Argus on a mountain bike as I was sort of retired from more “serious” cycling and they had a trophy for the fastest mountain biker. It was also the year before the first ever Giro del Capo and as my seeding allowed me to start in the front bunch I had the advantage of racing in the first group with the pro “roadies”: Willie Engelbrecht, Ertjies Bezuidenhout, Alan van Heerden, “Rambo” McIntosh and the rest.

I did put a bigger chainring on front and changed from knobblies to “slicks”. I managed to keep up until Smitswinkel(halfway) when the front group split and about 60 riders went away. I was then stuck in the second bunch of “roadies” with three other mountain bikers: Spook Groenewald, Steve Bowman and Fourie Kotze. I really suffered but managed to out sprint them in Camps Bay in a time of 2h38min.The winning time by McIntosh I think was around 2h29. Overall I was in the top 70 and faster than the winning tandem. As far as I know the record still stands. But we all know road cycling is not about time, it stays a great story if I want to brag after a few beers and I’ve got some funriders over. I received a trophy and they misspelled my name on the trophy. There was no prize money – it’s a funride.

CRANK: You were the WP Road Race champion two decades ago – how has the provincial championships changed/stayed the same?

HL: The race was longer, around 160km, and that suited me. I only trained about an hour a day, as I worked full time, but I believed in quality rather than quantity. I also had a good tactical sense and could “psych out” my rivals with my big mouth. I used to phone some of them the day before the race and tell them how they should ride if they want to win. Then during the second half of the race I’d tell them what they were doing wrong.

My main competition was guys like Gerard Genis, Mark Pinder and Hennie “Wiele” Wentzel. They were good finishers and I’m a useless time-trialist, so I had my work cut out for me. But I managed to finish on my own. The following year I finished second after 4 laps over Helshoogte, but the “brandied and coked” officials placed me fourth. I refused to pay R50 to appeal to get silver as I knew the real result, and I lost anyway. Second place is just the first loser. It was a long race so I guess I couldn’t blame them from getting a bit tipsy. And since they used the same guys for 50 years I guess their eyesight wasn’t the best on a good day.

I think Provincial champs and other big races must start to mimic Nationals, just as we’re trying to get Nationals to mimic Worlds type courses in distance as well as design. Or we can go and select our riders in a spinning class.

CRANK: Tell us about the “government pro” days of Defense cycling. Do you think the demise of this sort of structure was detrimental to SA cycling?

HL: It was actually quite hard to run a 2,4km, do 100 push ups, and go to a race without proper nutrition, but it made us harder and hungrier. The kids now are really spoilt and I think it’s difficult to do a hard sport like cycling when Mommy does everything for you. Maybe that’s why we see a lot of youngsters coming back from their first Belgium trip all wide eyed and de-motivated. I think with the latest plans that the CSA road commission is implementing the fallout rate from junior to u23 won’t be that great. I’m referring to the academy team, a CSA home base in Geleen Holland and National junior and u23 teams racing abroad. Here I really have to thank Barry Austin for his commitment.

I was lucky to be in a batch with top riders and it lifted my level of racing a lot. For instance, our track team were the top amateur riders in the country and I was the only person without national colours of some sort. It included my Madison partner Rene Duiker, Ralf Gebhardt, Mark Pinder, Martin Stockight, Corne Bence and Mark Strydom. That’s a team that could take on any team in the country. I was rider, selector, co-manager and talker in the team. On the road we had the “trackies” as well as Graeme McCallum, Gerhard Nel, Anthony Martini and some other very good riders.

During ’87 my long time friend and training partner Willie Engelbrecht told me about a young triathlete called Andrew McLean who was training with them. Apparently he was quite strong. We met in the SA amateur road champs the next year and this little “pipsqueak” attacked us after about 150 of 180 km’s on a climb. He won the race and the other top 6 placings went to Nel, Bruce Reyneke, Gebhardt, Mcallum, Kruger and myself. That’s 7 but I had to get my name in somewhere. But it was good times. I managed to break my collarbone in the 150 lap Madison while changing with my partner Rene Duiker. Had the privilege of Robbie McIntosh crashing over me – not often that he sat my wheel.

CRANK: Did you ever ride the Rapport Tour?

HL: I thought I had a good chance in ’88 when in the final selection race, the Allied Tour. I managed a second place in a break over the Huisrivier pass outside Calitzdorp(the winner Andrew Geldenhuys got suspended for doping twice), but “oom” Gotty Hansen didn’t think I was good enough – they selected some Cape Town sprinter that couldn’t go up a damn mountain without holding on to a car. I also think he used stuff, nowadays he causes trouble, think he’s in the video industry. The guy’s name was something like Latrinus or Carinus or something like that. But that evening in the bar in George, “oom” Gotty told me that “I’m not serious enough about my cycling” (he confused talking nonsense with being serious about your sport). I don’t think I was well liked in the boardrooms of the SACF, my licence was taken away twice, and one time I got suspended for life without a hearing (the suspension was about something I said while commentating).

CRANK: Will we ever see a tour of SA again?

HL: I hope with the help of CSA’s new commercial partners and the hard work of our new CEO that we’ll have a tour very soon. If someone gives me a million I’ll turn the Tour de Boland into a 10 day tour.

CRANK: There was certainly a “lull” in SA pro cycling from the end of the Engelbrecht/McClean et al era till when Robbie Hunter and David George were signed in Europe in 1999 – what do you think was the main cause of this? How difficult was it for somebody like Doug Ryder to sign for a European Team back then versus our riders overseas today?

HL: There were many reasons but I don’t know all of them. I think a mistake made by that generation was that one team (Southern Sun/MNET) dominated and signed most of the top riders ie, van Heerden, Willie, both Beneke’s, Fransie Kruger and McLean. After a while the other sponsors will pull out if only one super-team wins everything. Five of those six riders won a Rapport Tour, and Willie was the greatest one-day rider of the time.

About Europe – maybe not enough support from the federation, maybe not good enough, I don’t know. That is why we as a federation must give our young riders all the opportunities possible. The days are over when we’ll send a team to worlds, even on junior level, without racing and “qualifying” abroad first.

In the deep end: the talented Doug Ryder (second left) taking on overseas professionals, Milk Race 1993

CRANK: Being manager of the WP team in the 1995 Boland Bank Tour, what was it like being up against ONCE, Telekom etc?

HL: I was involved for 2 years as selector, co sponsor and manager. I remember during the first one, maybe in 1994, Douglas Ryder was a youngster in the team and lucky for me he went in the main break on one of the days.

We went up Helshoogte from Stellenbosch and at the end of the steep part, Johan Bruyneel and Hendrik Redant looked back at the other riders in the break, which included Malcolm Elliot (UK), Doug (Ryder) and Willie Engelbrecht – they just changed into their big chainrings and rode away from them to the finish in Paarl. It was like: “I’m going to go, and there’s nothing you can do about it”.

Doug was a passionate rider and like me never scared to voice his opinion, especially when he passed Malcolm Lange in the hotel. Malcolm rode for the national team that year and maybe Doug felt he should have been there. I think that was also the year when I begged the other selectors to include a young track rider, David George, that specialised in the individual pursuit in the team. One of the most professional riders I’ve ever met. But like all top riders, with his own unique personality.

The next year (1995) we had a super Western province team that our little bicycle shop (Village Cycles) sponsored. After the long stage one on the West Coast, Blayne Wickner was in yellow, with the team in first position. It was quite cool having car number one in the convoy, with Manilo Saiz of ONCE car number 2 and T- Mobile in third. We also had David (George), Rudolph Wentzel, Pierre-Henri Olivier as part of the team. I think I’m a fairly good tactician and motivator – I really love working with riders and racing. That’s maybe why I’m on permanent ‘sms’ and twitter with Barry Austin when our riders are racing in Europe. That’s also my downfall in a way, as I get too involved and end up swearing at incompetent traffic or cycling officials when I think our riders are not being treated well. I should work on the diplomacy side of my very important position.

The following year we had a shortage of staff in our little shop as two of our staff members went to the Olympic Games in Atlanta: Blayne Wickner and Erica Green.

CRANK: What are you up to these days business wise?

HL: I’m a born entrepreneur, maybe from growing up behind my parent’s cafe counter in Stellenbosch. For the last 10 years I’ve been selling property in Stellenbosch, couldn’t get the Village (cycles) name out of the system, so my wife and I run a small show, Village Living, from home. Go check our website www.villageliving.co.za and buy something please. I’m also a qualified auctioneer, debt-counsellor, sports commentator, prophet and coffee consumer in the greatest town on earth, Stellenbosch.

I’ve been married to Teri for 18 years and we have 2 sons, aged 13 and 16. They’re both named after cyclists but I don’t encourage them to take up the sport. Maybe it’s because I deal with the “other” side of the sport where I see parents getting too involved and ruining talented kids cycling careers. My boys are built like climbers, so maybe one day…

CRANK: What’s your biggest personal dream in cycling?

HL: There’s two actually.

1. I would like to commentate at the highest level like Mr Liggett. I know I’m good enough.

2. I would like to own a South African pro tour team and ride in that number one car in the convoy just like in that Boland Bank Tour.

Anton Oberholzer and Graham Cockerton lead the bunch during a Sanlam Kermesse, Cape Town foreshore, 1990