Port Elizabeth triathlete Jonathan Barber was a well known face on the SA triathlon scene back in the 1980s and early 1990s and now resides in California, USA. Not many South Afrcan athletes will know that he raced as a professional triathlete in the States for many years after arriving in America with little more than his personal belongings.
Now a successful businessman, CRANK was fortunate enough to chat to Jonathan about his fascinating journey from the SA triathlon scene to his present day life.
CRANK: Could you tell us about your sporting background prior to triathlon?
Jonathan Barber: Nothing too exciting to tell really! I used to swim in Primary and High School and although I tried hard was never really any good. I swam provincially but never nationally. My best events were the distance Freestyle events, 400m and 1500m.
I used to run cross-country and track at High School as well. Again, I was OK but never really any good.
CRANK: The Eastern Province certainly produces a lot of sporting talent, especially in endurance sports. What do you attribute this to?
JB: Port Elizabeth was pretty isolated from the rest of the country in the 80’s. We were more or less forced into doing our own thing. There wasn’t much to do, so you either “partied hard” and drank beer, or you did sports.
Most of the endurance and multi-sports were centered around the life-saving clubs. Endurance sports got a lot of local media attention in those days and that encouraged elite athletes from other sports to get involved in sports like triathlon. That stimulated triathlon, raised the level of competition and further increased media attention. And I think the wind made us tough….ask Raynard Tissink (current PE resident) about the wind!
CRANK: The Deans (Andrew and Mandy) were great icons of the SA triathlon scene and from PE – did you have much interaction with them?
JB: I spent a lot of time with the Deans in the early years. My brother lived with them for a while. We all belonged to the same Life-Saving Club, worked as Municipal Lifeguards together, and of course trained together. We would go on mini-training camps. Andrew was not competing then, so it was Mandy and I that trained together most of the time. We travelled to races together for the first few years. We were all learning how to train for a triathlon in those days and we made more mistakes than we got things right!
CRANK: Could you tell us about your first triathlon? What was your equipment like back then?
JB: My first triathlon was in February 1985, a Totalsports event in Port Elizabeth. My brother turned me on to the event. I grabbed a bike out of the shed, pumped the tires and I was good to go. I was still in High School and still swimming so the swim went well. I was out of the water 2nd. But from then on things went downhill. The other guys had 10 speeds or lightweight bikes and they just blew by me. I was destroyed by the time I got to the run and suffered my way into 2nd last place. I loved it! I knew I’d never be a great swimmer or runner. Triathlon seemed like something I could do well at. I dedicated most of the next 18 years of my life to the sport.
CRANK: You were one of the pioneers of SA triathlon – when did “tri-bars” make their first appearance in SA?
JB: I remember seeing something on a handlebar in an American “Triathlete” magazine. I fabricated something similar out of hose-pipe and electrical tape. Even that primitive ‘bar’ seemed to help. I think that was 1987. The next year I bought a home made “tri-bar” from the bike shop. It was not much better than my own, but had pads on the handle bar, which helped. The next year Nigel Reynolds (who started racing triathlons even earlier that I and did London to Paris with the ‘SA’ team in 1984) showed up at SA Champs selling the Scott Bar. That was it from then onward. Everyone got them. A few years later I created my own brand of bar and made and marketed them for a short while before I left for the States.
CRANK: The Fedlife Interprovincial was the highlight of the triathlon season in SA – your impressions of this event?
JB: That was a great event. The first event was in 1986 and was arguably the best organised and most competitive race in SA’s short triathlon history. It started shaping the sport into a legitimate and elite sport. The event drew a tremendous amount of publicity. That first year I placed 8th. I was 18 and it was only my 7th triathlon. That was when I realized what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I did the next two Fedlife events while doing my National Service and the event kept growing. I think the biggest Fedlife I did was in 1989. Those were the days of Big Keith Anderson! Triathlon was becoming a huge sport and it was a really big event for those times. I remember placing 7th and then got sick and missed the rest of the season.
CRANK: Any crazy training stories?
JB: In November 1985, in the middle of my Matric exams, I travelled with Mandy Dean and Alec Riddle to the Wild Coast Sun for a race. I was lying 2nd about 10K into the bike when someone came blowing by me. I was totally demoralized and looked down between my legs and that’s when I saw my big heavy bike chain and padlock wrapped around the seatpost.
In 1986 I did the Carling Ultra in Durban. I knew nothing about competing over that kind of distance. I took baked potatoes and grape juice with me on the bike. I was still doing OK at the end of the bike, but when I got into the transition area I found that the organizers had not transferred my gear and had lost my running shoes. Obviously I was pretty upset. After running around for 50 minutes looking for my gear the race organizer announced that they had most definitely lost my shoes. I asked him what size he wore. 10 1/2? Perfect! I was able to finish my first Ultra.
In 1995 I was racing in St. Croix. My goggles were kicked off right at the start of the swim. I made my way around the swim course but could not see where everyone else was. When I came out of the water my eyes were burning and I could hardly see a thing. I got on the bike and saw nobody ahead of me. I hammered hard and still saw nobody. The spectators were going crazy when I went by. I thought how nice, they are even cheering for the last guy in the race. I kept hammering.
With a couple of miles to go I looked back because I could still not see anyone in front of me. I saw two riders coming. I thought that the ladies, who started 5 minutes after the men were catching me. As the riders approached I saw one was Mike Pigg, 4 X winner of the event! He caught me just before the transition. I considered never wearing goggles again.
In 1997 I did the Ukiah Triathlon. Its one of the biggest and longest standing short course races in Northern California. That year the Highway Patrol decided that the competitors had to stop at each stop sign on the bike. There were 5 signs. They made the announcement right before the start while half the guys were still warming up. I ended up racing neck and neck with this guy. At every stop sign I stopped and he did not. I’d catch back up to him. He’d give me this strange look, and then there would be another stop sign. I’d stop and he’d keep on going. We started the run together but I was knackered and dropped off the pace. Turns out he was disqualified and I was given the win. I did the race for the next 4 years and won each time, always stopping at every stop sign. A few years later I was talking to the organizer of the event. “Do the racers still have to stop at the stop signs?” “No, it was only that one year that you had to make the stops!”
CRANK: You are now based in the USA. What made you move there and what are you up to nowadays? What is the US tri scene like?
JB: I stopped racing in SA in 1991. I took a volunteer job working with the street children in Hillbrow
I met up with a group of foreigners who were feeding, clothing and generally caring for the 200+ street children that lived in Hillbrow. I joined forces with them and we got quite a program going, including schooling, sports programs and even some camping trips out into the country. It was quite an experience! I learnt to stitch wounds and set broken bones. We saw a lot of death and misery but we were able to help a lot of children and we were instrumental in getting 18 children adopted into great homes. The street children had all experienced terrible childhoods and we simply did what we could to ease their discomfort, provide food and shelter as we could, and give them the hope and opportunity for a better life. But after 2 years away from triathlon I was ready to get racing again.
I wanted new challenges so with 68 American cents in my pocket, no bike and completely out of shape I got on a plane for California. I was very tough initially. I got a job on a ranch and eventually I earned enough to get a bike and I started training. 14 months after arriving I was able to do my first race – St. Anthony’s in Florida.
I later got a work permit to race as a Triathlete which helped me stay in the US, but I still struggled to get settled. In the US the money races are spread out over the 50 States. It costs a lot to travel. Sometimes you’d get your expenses paid by the event but most times the prize money would go to cover the travel expenses. In reality, there were only 6 or 7 male triathletes in the US in the 90’s and early 2000’s that were making a decent living. I was not one on the best and although I won 74 of the 154 races I did in my career I never really made much money. Actually, I made more money as a cyclist than I did as a triathlete.
Road cycling has always been a huge sport in California. Many US and European teams would use Santa Rosa as a winter training ground and we locals got to train with many of them. I noticed that for the most part I could hang with them in training and that encouraged me to do some racing. I would do some of the local races in the early spring as conditioning for the triathlon season. Mostly criteriums but some road racing. In California I raced as an independent in the Division 3 Elite races which was tough but I could slip away unnoticed in enough races to make it worthwhile. While in Hawaii I raced for a team (Bike Works)and did more road and stage races. The hardest race I ever did was a Hill Climb that went from sea level to 5,200 ft in 25 miles! I placed 2nd, beating Roberto Gaggioli who was at one time the most prolific winner in the US. My fondest memory in cycling is jumping from the gun in the final stage of the Big Island Stage Race – I was looking for 25 seconds for the overall win and won the stage by 26 seconds.
In the US there is now a bigger base off which pro’s can make a living, with more events and more paying race series’. But for the most part, it’s still an “Age Group” or Amateur sport…and the “Age Group” side of the sport is huge.
To supplement my income I started working on friend’s bikes and selling my sponsors products. That grew into a small bike shop. In the next few years my wife and I owned and operated 3 bike shops in Northern California. They were very successful as the sport was huge…and Triathletes spend money! I kept racing during that time but was not very competitive.
In 2002 we sold the business and moved to Hawaii to race out our last few years before quitting racing altogether.
One of my customers at the bike shops became a good friend. He was a local businessman and told me if I ever quit the bike business and racing he’d like me to work with him. The day I decided to stop racing I called him and moved back to California and started my first “real job” at the age of 37. Five years later I am now just as entrenched in my new career as the GM for a Peterbilt truck dealership as I was as an athlete.
CRANK: Could you tell us a bit about your sponsors in the USA and how you went about acquiring them?
JB: My first sponsor in the US was KHS bicycles. At the time they sponsored Ken Glah. I went to Florida and did a race and beat Ken so I sent KHS a postcard from Tampa Bay – “Hi, just beat Ken Glah at St. Anthony’s!” The next weekend I raced in St. Croix and beat Ken again…another postcard to KHS! By the time I got back home there was a bike frame waiting for me! Soon after that I was sponsored by a Life Insurance Company and a number of product manufactures – Vittoria, Velocity wheels, DE Feet, GU, American Classic, my Health Club and others. Later in my career I was sponsored by Zoot, Cannondale, Hammer Nutrition and Reebok, as well as Bike Works in Kona. Probably my biggest sponsor was our bicycle shop business as all my traveling, equipment and racing expenses were “write-offs”!
CRANK: How often do you visit SA?
JB: It took me a good few years before I was able to return to SA for my first visit. Since then I’ve tried to visit my family at least every 2 years. I used to try combining the visit with some training and I’d plan the trip in the off season. One of the highlights was doing the EP Champs on one of those visits and winning the event for the 4th time. Now when I go back I play some golf with my brother, but not much else!