February 1995 and the riders in that years edition of the Rapport Tour were setting off one by one in the prologue time trial around the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
One of the early starters was a young rider from Johannesburg riding as part of the South African national team who set a blistering time for the course to take pole position on the leader board.
With most of the tour favourites only starting later on in the day, it would only be a matter of time before his moment of glory would end. But by the end of the day, Nicholas White would still own the fastest time and be the proud wearer of the leader’s jersey at the beginning of a memorable and dramatic Rapport Tour.
Nic has certainly come a long way since that day over fifteen years ago and is now one of the elder statesmen of SA cycling. As a professional cyclist for Team Medscheme, he has certainly had his fair share of ups and downs.
CRANK recently caught up with the charismatic White who is on his way back to full fitness after an injury-plagued few months.
CRANK: You had a bad accident in the Joberg2C MTB race. How long were you off the bike and could you tell us a bit about your recovery and subsequent rehabilitation?
Nic White: It was a little fall, but hard and due to falling on the wrong place, I had an impacted fracture of my femur neck, which meant they had to put a few screws in to hold the bone together while it healed. I had to walk with crutches for 10 weeks, and then after 12 weeks I could ride again. No driving, no weight on my leg for all that time was a bit tough, but it is feeling better now, and my strength is returning to the leg. Some small exercises have helped to keep my muscles in a bit of tone, making the return a bit quicker.
CRANK: With you having been a past category winner of the ABSA Cape Epic, do you have any inclination to make a competitive return to the event in the future?
NW: I would like to ride the ABSA Cape Epic again, and being close to the Masters category, perhaps I will have a warm up year or two, and then give that a bash. I think that it is the ultimate in MTB stage racing in this country.
CRANK: Having been an elite cyclist for almost two decades, what are your impressions of our younger pros of today? How would you compare them to the days of Engelbrecht, McClean etc?
NW: There are some good youngsters these days, but things have changed, and the races are different to the older days. There were some harder races then, and more chances to ride tours. That is what is lacking in today’s calendar locally.
CRANK: In a previous article with Hendrik Lemmer, he alluded to the advent of National Service as a great breeding ground for his generation of riders. Having been in the army yourself, could you tell us about your days in Defence Cycling? Who were your riding contemporaries in “die Mag?”
NW: I was in the SADF in 1992, and there were a good group of riders that year. They say that in the years when there was two years conscription, the Defence cycling team was a lot stronger. But we still had some opportunities and good fun. One of the strongest riders of that year was Blayne Wickner, but there must have been about twenty good riders in my year.
CRANK: You were part of a group of highly talented young riders in the mid-1990s, which co-incidentally were also the twilight days of the Engelbrecht/McClean era. How difficult was it for you guys to secure a place on a European team in those days? Did the older pros ever act as mentors/advisors to you young guys?
NW: It was quite difficult in those years to get into the ‘pro’ teams. There was a big gap, but what I did was try my luck in Belgium for a few years. I had some help from the older guys, Andrew Mclean had helped me to get into a setup in the beginning, and I stayed with a good friend of Alan Van Heerden and also had some help from Robbie Mcintosh’s Belgian friend. After that first year I managed to find my way a bit further, and with new opportunities, but never in the four seasons that I spent with clubs in Belgium did I get to a consistent level to be noticed properly by a pro team. I may have tried longer, but with the difficulties of visa’s and cash flow, I had eventually had enough!
CRANK: With the confirmation of a new Tour South Africa for 2011, one is reminded of the glory days of its predecessor, the Rapport Tour. Having competed in several Rapport Tours, what were the highlights and lowlights for you in this event?
NW: I had some special moments in the Rapport Tours. I worked for the Southern Sun/M-Net team in 1993 as a helper and driver. I gained valuable experience helping Willie Engelbrecht, Mark and Gary Beneke, Fransie Kruger and Steven Wolhuter.
(Side Note: The 1993 edition of the Rapport Tour was the first year where top amateur teams began competing in the event officially, whereas previously various Europeans competed under pseudonyms due to the sporting boycotts.
1993 also marked the inclusion of the German National team who had managed to enter both and “A” and a “B” side, including their entire Olympic 100km team time trial squad which had won gold in Barcelona the previous year. While officially competing as two separate teams, they were in reality one 10-man team which took on the lone South African GC hopeful Andre McClean. With only marginal help from his fellow SA riders, the plucky McClean fought right to the end enduring constant switching maneuvers, eventually succumbing to the German juggernaut to finish a valiant third overall in Nelspruit.)
I raced it the next year and finished top 10 overall, and then managed in 1995 to win the prologue, and have the yellow jersey for a day (taken by a young Robbie McEwen who won the next stage!)
In 1996 I managed to crash out in the second stage, riding in the Deo Gloria team with Andrew Mclean. That was a low point for my Rapport Tour career. In 1999 I won the first stage and took the jersey for a few days, eventually finishing 3rd overall. In 2000, the last of the Rapport Tours, I was about 6th overall, but we won the team competition with the HSBC team!
CRANK:The Rapport Tour certainly played host to several of today’s international cycling superstars back when they where young amateur riders, most notably the likes of Jan Ulrich, Robbie McEwen etc. But there were also several unknown overseas riders who would dominate such a tour and later fade into obscurity as professionals. Could you tell us about the Swedish rider Michael Andersson who ripped the legs off everybody in the 1995 Tour?
NW: Michael Andersson was a special rider. He won the Rapport Tour in dominant fashion, and then went on to win the Giro and also the Argus if I remember correctly. He rode away up Suikerbossie with three Kazakh riders (including a young Alexandre Vinokourov) and then won the sprint too! He never made it to the top in big teams in Europe, but I am not too sure the reasons – his few weeks in SA that year were very special.
(Side Note: Interestingly, Andersson was almost completely blind in one eye riding with a permanent squint. He would later win a silver medal in the World Time Trial Championships in 1999, riding for a small Danish outfit called Team Acceptcard after turning pro with a Portuguese outfit in 1995).
CRANK: How important is being part of a National team selection to you for overseas tours and world championships? Does this ever create a conflict of interest between sponsors and the federation? Is their a good team spirit on these National teams?
NW: I have had great chances to race tours and a few world championships with the National team. I have also had some great results like that, but what sometime occurs these days, are National team races that take place at a similar time as other local races. Local sponsors pay riders year round, keeping them in competition and supporting them. There is always a choice that has to be made in these situations, and mostly, the riders will support the teams that pay them to ride all year long for important local objectives, instead of becoming available for a once off national team opportunity.
Back in 1994, a few of us who had ridden for the National team in that years Rapport Tour were selected to ride the Rhineland Phalz Tour in Germany, which was a leading amateur race in July. The team consisted of Doug Ryder, Malcolm Lange, Moolman Welgemoed, Mark Blewett and myself.
We had been racing in different places: I had been in Belgium with my club setup, Malcolm was also in Belgium, while Doug, Mark and Moolman had been spending time in Germany. This tour we started was a top level race, fielding many National teams. There were scouts from various professional teams looking out for new talent as well, so the competition was fierce. Our great early year performances of the Rapport Tour had passed and we were now just “cannon fodder”, with the notable exception Doug Ryder, who had great form and was up there (eventually finishing 14th overall).
Moolman lasted 7 kilometers in the race, getting dropped from the bunch in the first stage, and never regained contact, much to the amusement of the rest of us. But the jokes did not last long, as we were dropping out of the tour one after the other. The speed was intense along with the difficulties of negotiating our way around the bunch. It was always a big fight. The windy gutter sections were terrible, and when we hit the hills we were flat out, maxed, and struggled. Mark soon had a bug or something, and stopped. Then it was Malcolm’s turn. I think I lasted another two days. I battled in the bunch, so my task was to fetch bottles for Doug, take them to the front for him, where he was riding, and then wait at the back again till the next opportunity for bottles! With about two days remaining, I got dropped in a large group with riders who had been riding well in the tour, and placing in stages, but as they race so many races they weren’t interested in riding to stay in the race. So after our gap to the bunch got to five minutes, we were pulled off as the roads would re-open soon after the bunch passed. That is how I exited the race, in good company – but out!
I could not ride on alone, as I was not strong enough, but in Europe they just pull you off! For the Europeans there is always another race, and that is how they treat it. For us with a National team opportunity – maybe only one of that year, it was sad to stop, but you have to be strong enough to stay up front. And at 20years old, I was just not up to it.
CRANK: Getting back to your current career, you conduct MTB tours in Lesotho and Europe in addition to being a pro cyclist. Tell us about how this idea came about and what being a tour operator entails.
NW: I have had some fun in taking people on biking tours, and the idea came about from the JHB to Durban rides developed by the Benekes, Mark and Gary. I can think of nothing more enjoyable than riding a bike from one destination to another, and experiencing all that can bee seen and felt from the bike along the way. I have had some nice experiences in Lesotho, and decided with a few mates to make a trip through a place that is not easy to do, and then we got started. A good friend of mine, Ken Hill, from Drifters is also passionate about bike touring, so we have come about with some of these ideas together. We did a trip to Switzerland last year, MTB through the Alps, and a day at the Tour de France! It was a great experience, and we had a lot of fun.
I am planning another tour through Lesotho this year in early December, and each time you ride through the high mountains, the experience is a different one. Weather, riders, and atmosphere are always changing, but it always an interesting experience to do it!
CRANK: Your articles in RIDE magazine about the various tours like the Giro del Capo, are very interesting giving the reader a great insight into the race as well as life behind the scenes. Do you keep a daily log of events in order to give such a graphic description of an event like the Giro del Capo? Could you ever see yourself working as a sports journalist?
NW: I don’t keep a daily log of the races that I do, or cover, but seem to have a good memory for some things, or be able to tell the story, or interesting parts of it. I am not sure if I could be a sports journalist, but you never know… I get to write some stories now and then when I get a chance, so perhaps I am already doing that!