PLANES, TRAINS AND BICYCLES: THE TRUE STORY OF AN ASPIRING SOUTH AFRICAN TOUR DE FRANCE RIDER.
Soon after posting our article on veteran professional rider Nic White, one of his fellow National teammates of 1994, Mark Blewett, commented on the article reminiscing about Nic’s story of their participation in the Rheinland Pfalz tour of that year against the likes of 1993 Amateur World Road Cycling Champion, Jan Ullrich.
If you were a competitive cyclist in Cape Town in the early 1990s, you would be familiar with the name of Mark Blewett. Climber supreme and one of the friendliest elite riders around, Mark once famously exclaimed on national television during the mountainous Hansom Tour in Mpumalanga: “I’d rather be surfing at Long Beach in Cape Town than riding up here searching for King of the Mountain points!!!!!”
Now a successful businessman based in China, Mark was kind enough to give us a fascinating insight into his former life as an elite cyclist with the goal of turning pro in deepest, darkest Europe.
CRANK: Mark, you were part of group of talented riders from Cape Town in the early 1990s to make an impact on the SA cycling scene of the time. Tell us a bit about the local scene then and about some of your fellow “Slaapstad” riders. Did you ever have any inclination to move to the Highveld to pursue a local pro career?
Mark Blewett: The ‘local’ racing season back then was actually not that different to what it is now I don’t think. Sure, a lot more people actually riding the races now, but from an event route point of view I think it was actually better back then. We were allowed to race around Chapmans Peak, up Constantia Nek and even over Kloof Nek, so for guys like myself and Doug Ryder, this was our playground. We also used to have great ‘Registered Races’ as we called them back then, which were SACF sanctioned events, like the Four Passes race. Two stages in one day over the Franschoek Pass and back – those were great races. I understand completely why they can’t have races like that anymore, or over climbs like Kloof Nek, but it is a shame now that most of the races are pretty much over the same few routes all the time.
In those days Doug Ryder, Moolman Welgemoed and I used to compete nationally as a team for various sponsors. We felt that in a lot of ways it gave us an advantage over the other guys racing day in and day out against each other up on the Highveld. We were not mentally psyched out against the ‘Pro’s’ of those days like Southern Sun-MNET and co, so when we raced against them, we were always competitive. We always trained hard together down in the Cape, over all the hills and in the wind so the terrain was great – it was just having the motivation to train so hard all the time that sometimes got to me!
Douglas was always super motivated so I tagged along a lot of the time. Moving to the Highveld was never an option for me at that point. I was completely focused on a European career right from the start. I had a British passport and some family in the UK so I was determined to make that my first destination and try and get onto a continental amateur team from there. Back then of course, it was a lot more difficult to travel and race on a South African passport.
CRANK: In our article with NIC WHITE, he tells a great story of you guys battling against the European amateurs back in 1994. Tell us about your experiences of that particular tour.
MB: The preparation for that particular tour was completely screwed up from the moment the SA Cycling Federation (SACF) sent us to Europe. We had been in Germany for a few months prior supposedly preparing for this ten-day Elite Race where most of the best young riders in the World would be competing and the only races we were doing were criteriums and a few one day classics. How do you prepare for a ten-day stage race with criteriums? It was a mess. Our supposed manager for the last few months disappeared to Majorca on holiday with his girlfriend with all of our start money that we had got as the S.A. National Team riding these races. Three of us were staying in one room in Cologne in the red light District and we were highly de-motivated!
My memories of that tour started before the race. Someone forgot to fetch us to drive us to the start of the race about 300 km’s away so we ended up catching a train at 2am to make the start the following morning. The ‘catch line’ between Douglas, Moolman and myself for that night became: “I wonder what Jan Ullrich is doing now?” The sad thing was , that 3 months prior to this , we were beating Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton etc in the Rapport Tour and were actually still highly ranked in the world national team rankings at the stage.
1993 World Amateur Cycling Championships:
About the actual race – all I really remember is focusing on the guy in front of me’s back wheel, trying to hang on, being spat out the bunch on the gutter sections and basic survival tactics. I became quite good at that over the years!
CRANK: Nic also mentions that you guys were ‘cannon fodder’ at that stage of the season, with notable exception of your fellow Capetonian Doug Ryder. Seeing as he placed in the top 15 in that tour, could you tell us a bit about what made so good at the time? He certainly was an example of an SA rider who could have ridden at the top international level given the right opportunities.
MB: Douglas was always the most motivated, most driven, most serious of us and to have finished so highly in that race was amazing. I think though that all of us in that team had the ability to have gone a lot further internationally. We were part of a ‘lost generation’ of SA cyclists, the ‘in-between’ era. Before us was the strong SA pro scene with Southern Sun, Anglo Dutch, TopSport etc, and after us, a new emerging scene. For us, it was every man for himself. We had already proved earlier in 1994 that we could ride and beat the best young riders in the world so we knew that we could be competitive. The powers that be at the time had grand plans of us having the same European structure as the Australians had in Europe with a team house, back up support and being totally professional. But it never happened. It was all a lot of talk. Just take a look what can be achieved if it is done right. The Australian cyclists are ranked in the top 3 as a nation and have multiple Champions. We have three Pro Tour riders in total.
CRANK: To go back a few years prior, you were part of the first ever SA Team to compete in the 1992 Milk Race in England, which was the premier pro-am race in Europe for many years. How were the team selected and what are your memories of this tour, given that you guys were effectively “thrown in the deep-end?”
MB: My memories of the Milk Race were fantastic. As hard as it was, I really enjoyed it.
1992 was my first year in Europe and I was riding for an English amateur team doing some really tough 2-3 day events combined with a lot of fast, flat racing, so I think I was quite well prepared for the Milk Race.
The other guys in the team all came straight from South Africa, they had done training camps in the old Eastern Transvaal as it was called back then, but nothing prepared them for the speed and the intensity. This was still in the days of the old ‘Communist-Bloc’ countries and their riders were always so aggressive in the races, plus it was an incredibly hard ‘parcours’. You were either in your 53 X 12 or in your 42 X 24 gear back then. I can remember the Devils Staircase in Wales which is 25 % at its steepest part, with Anton Duvenhage heading off-road down the side of a Welsh mountain with sheep running every where and then rejoining the tar road in front of the peloton because he had gone the short way. It was classic! We all got hammered – I think I finished around 70th there, about an hour down, and the next best South African rider was an hour behind me. But we all finished and that was important for us. We were one of the first official South African teams in any sport out of the isolation years to compete internationally, so it was a matter of pride for us.
(Side Note: The Milk Race was in effect a ‘Tour of Britain’ for amateur and second division professional teams which, along with the Peace Race in the Czech Republic and Italy’s Settimana Bergamasca, was amongst the most competitive two week tours for amateur riders. Given that the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were only a few months later, the competition in that years Milk Race was amongst the fiercest seen in the races history, with full strength national teams in attendance.)
CRANK: Given that you spent a few SA winters campaigning in Europe, where were you based and were there any other SA riders with you over there? How did you make contact with the European amateur clubs over there?
MB: In 1992, I was based between England and Belgium. I had met some English riders in the Rapport Tour of the previous year and I had managed get a ride on their team for the 1992 season. One of the races that we did in 1992 was the Tour of Austria. I had a very strong ride on the one big mountain day and finished 19th overall on General Classification and a French Division 1 amateur team, GSC Blagnac spotted me. I had made sure of that by becoming friends with one of the riders. You had to ‘work’ it if you had any ambitions and mine was to race in France. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, France was THE place to be for good amateur teams. This team also suited me because they were based in Toulouse, which is right at the foot of the Pyrenees.
So 1993 was spent in France – it was fantastic! I lived with an amazing family and I got to train almost every day with the likes Laurent Jalabert, Frederic Moncassin, Didier Rous and a whole bunch of other French pro’s living in the area. I can really say that this was the year where I felt the happiest and I was at my strongest physically and mentally on the bike.
The funny thing was that because I was not living in SA, I then became an outsider for the SA National team. There were no e-mails or cell phones back then so communication was difficult. At that point though, I was thinking “first ever South African to ride the Tour”, not about the SA National team. I know that there were a few SA guys in Belgium at that stage but there was no one in France, I was on my own there. It was great! I was thrown in the deep end again and I learnt how to speak an entirely new language and got to live and race in a beautiful part of the world.
CRANK: How would you normally prepare for a tour such as the Rapport Tour? Any specific training or would you just ‘grind out the miles’?
MB: For a race like the Rapport Tour, you definitely need a big base of miles: 4-6 hour rides every day in four to five day blocks for about two months – kind of like looking at a pyramid. The base is the biggest, and as you go up, the hours get shorter but the intensity increases, so just before the Tour you are doing flat and hill intervals – I always used to come on really well by motor pacing about 100km at a time over a few days – then some rest. Then you need to make sure everything else is in line, your mental preparation, your diet. To do it properly is a complete discipline, not just a physical one.
CRANK: You were recruited by a Portuguese professional team in the mid-1990s – how did this come about and what was this experience like? Was the Portuguese pro scene as tough and “cut-throat” as some have suggested?
MB: To be honest, my Portuguese experience was what ended my cycling career prematurely. Just by being on that team was due to a bad decision that I had made the year before.
At the beginning of 1994, the year before I signed for the Portuguese team, Troiamarisco, I made a commitment to the SA National Team based on promises made to all of us that we would be competing in all the top Amateur Races in the world in the then Amateur World Cup. I was going back to my French Team that year as it was a feeder team for a Pro team called Castorama where the late Laurent Fignon rode – they had offered me a place and it was all set. I then told them of my decision to race for the SA National Team and we parted ways. By the time I realized the SA National set up was a complete disaster, it was too late to get on another decent team, so the rest of 1994 was spent competing in local SA races which for me at that point was a huge set back. When I got back to South Africa, I was very outspoken on how badly we had been let down and actually got officially banned for a few months by the Federation for talking to the press.
In Portugal, the racing is every bit as hard and as ‘cut throat’ as they say. Ask anyone who has done the Volta a Portugal, and they will tell you it is one of the hardest races in the World. David George should know, and John–Lee Augustyn – they have both done it a few times. It is hot, fast and the local pro’s are like something out of the ‘Wild West’. I lived in a hotel room for seven months when I was not racing. The old lady next door to me used to dry her octopus on the washing line!! I felt very out of place there and lonely I guess. My Portuguese team mates always considered me the outsider and difficult to communicate with, so I felt pretty alienated. In fact I used to sit at the back of the peloton sometimes with Michael Andersson who was riding for another Portuguese Team called Sicasal, talking, and he felt exactly the same. I think that is what also ended his career prematurely.
CRANK: How did you make ends meet while riding at an elite level here in SA? Did you work part-time?
MB: When I was racing in my late teens and early twenties, I was studying Industrial Design at the same time so my Dad was paying the bills and I was staying at home. I then also used to work part-time at the then Health & Racquet Club, which paid the then whopping total of R8 per hour – it was enough to pay for my petrol. I remember having to open the club up at 5am, and then I used to go upstairs and sleep on the yoga mats on the squash courts until 6:30am.
Luckily, I had some good sponsorship and most of my expenses and equipment were covered, and then my parents who like any elite cyclist or athlete will tell you are a vital necessity!
CRANK: What marked the end of your elite cycling career and what did you move on to?
MB: My 1995 season in Portugal was the end of my elite career at the ripe old age of 25. At that point I actually hated cycling. The failure of the SA Team system back then was a major factor. I blamed myself for long time for making the wrong decision in 1994 to not go back to my French team and the Portuguese experience was just the proverbial straw that ‘broke the camels back’. My picture of what cycling was had also changed over those last few seasons. 1995 was the first real year that EPO came onto the scene in a big way and I saw way too much in all of those hotel rooms – the speed just kept going up and up, as if I was doing a different sport. I was not prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of dying for something that I was supposed to be doing for fun. But for my Portuguese team mates, this was survival – they had wives and families to support and any type of moral system goes out the window. I just decided that I didn’t want the life of hotel rooms, cars, suffering on the bike every day. I can promise you that being a professional bike rider back then was not a glamorous job!
I think that things have changed a vast amount from when I was riding and right now would probably be one of the best times to turn pro if you have the talent. When I got back to South Africa, I never really spoke to anybody about what I had seen first hand – it all just sounded like stories and sour grapes and that I was not good enough. But I guess now, in light of all the drug scandals in cycling and many professionals from the 1990s admitting their drug use, it is easier to speak about it.
CRANK: You’re now living in China. What are you doing there and how did the move come about?
MB: I have been doing business in China now for 14 years. I started travelling here in the late 1990s sourcing various products. It was still very closed then and very communist – it was not easy to get around and I think I could write book just on the various strange and funny experiences I have had in the last decade.
In 2008 I made the decision to relocate to Xiamen in Southern China because I have a Chinese business partner who owns Nylon bag factories. The idea was that we could work together to increase his retail brand business. Subsequent to that business, I have now gone back to my roots as it were, designing and riding bicycles again. Over the last few years I have been building a brand called Swift Carbon, which is a small, focused range of road and time trial bikes. I am in a very strong production area for carbon fiber – a lot of the big brands including Eddy Merckx, Bianchi, De Rosa, Ritchey to name a few all manufacture where I do, so I am at the heart of the global bike industry here. Quite by coincidence by the way, I had no idea when I moved to Xiamen that this was the case.
It took me a long time, but I am once again loving my bike riding. I have rediscovered it completely and I get to work with a product that I love. Rare, I think, to make money from something you really enjoy, so I am very grateful.
I have just done my first Euro Bike show and I am on my way to the USA and Inter Bike to exhibit there.
I never got to fulfill my ambition of riding the Tour de France, but maybe one day my bikes will get to do it!