Tour of Ara: The Story

Told by racer and founder, Stan Engelbrecht

On the second night, just after dinner, a mild panic crept up on me. It had been a very tough day, with road conditions as bad as anything we’d seen on the Tour in previous years. The recent storms in this normally arid Karoo region had destroyed many of the old gravel roads, and since they are seldom used, they’d been left in disrepair. The last 80 or so kilometres of our 150 kilometer second stage was a mess of sand, loose rocks, and ruts and corrugations that would shudder a four-wheel drive to a standstill.

My mind had been wandering to Tour of Ara 2016, when the lead racer’s old steel bicycle literally broke in two under him midway through the second stage. He was badly injured and in need of some stitches, and that was the end of his race.

But it could have been worse. That day the road conditions had been bad too, but not like what we’d just been through. Some hours earlier I was just outside of Middelpos, joyful and relieved to be so near the finish line, and I sprinted as fast as I could. I just wanted to be off my bike, I wanted the shaking and wrenching to stop. Fatigued, I didn’t see a section of corrugation, some of the most aggressive you can imagine, and hit it at full speed. I was nearly ejected right off my old Alpina. It was this that might have done it… see, it was while sitting there in the Middelpos Hotel after desert that I decided to speak to everyone again, and urged them to closely inspect their bicycle frames for cracks and inconsistencies daily, or at any given opportunity. I spoke about the dangers of a frame or fork that snaps, and how badly one can be injured. In the hall where we had dinner our bikes lined the walls. And as each person finished their meal, they inspected their frame. In a while the room was full of small groups of racers, huddled over bicycles, discussing marks on frames, stress points, and the limits of these old machines.

I looked at my Alpina, and subconsciously I believed it was indestructible. It had survived thousands of dirt-road kilometers over the years since I’ve had it.

I walked over to it, just to move out of the way really, but something told me to run my finger through the dust under where my down tube meets my head tube. There it was - a crack running half the way around the tube. I stood there in shock. I was very fortunate that it didn’t split right in two right as I hit that last bit of violent corrugation. That was it. The end of my race. And my beloved Alpina.

Image of a bicycle standing against a wall
Image of a cyclist fixing a tyre

Five years earlier I jumped on exactly that Alpina, to see what it feels like to ride an old steel road bicycle a few hundred kilometers through the Karoo. Myself and a couple of friends jokingly came up with the idea for a vintage road bike race, paying homage to the Italian stage races of old. And why not send it right through our favorite, but infamously inhospitable, Karoo. Swooping vistas, big skies, and gravel roads that go on forever.

My exploration on the back of my Alpina went very well, and when the dirt roads were smooth the going was great. No cars, hardly any people, and fantastic little towns to punctuate the silence. Karoo hospitality and fantastic food. The Tour of Ara was born.

An intimate 6-day stage race, limited to only 40 riders. An all-gravel route that changes every year. Involving the communities we visit and supporting local projects wherever we can. Great food, always fresh and traditional. And every year the distance has grown - for 2017 we burned through over 870 kilometres of gravel. With one important rule - you have to race an old South African-built steel road bike. The kind with drop handlebars, shifters on the down tube, and skinny tyres.

Image of cyclists resting with their bikes
Image of dirt road extending into the backdrop of mountains
Black and white photo of two cyclists resting, bikes against a wall behind them
Image of cyclist picking his flat tyre up
Black and white image of cyclist on the peak of a hill in the distance

It’s been a few weeks since the end of Tour of Ara 2017, the fourth one. It was a tough race, and the longest yet. Even though it was held in winter, and in the region of Sutherland known for its extreme cold and snow, the weather was surprisingly pleasant.

This year the roads were bad. Not all of them, but enough to break some bikes, and some people. About a third of the field didn’t finish, and four bikes were destroyed. The Tour of Ara is hard. Very hard. But it is also beautiful.

I’ve spoken to many racers, and I find the same thing myself very often - it’s very difficult to impress on someone the feelings of pain and pleasure, despair and exhilaration, hopelessness and sheer joy, that the Tour can bring. It’s an intense mental and physical roller coaster, hard to express in mere words. Those who race, or just ride, the Tour - they know. When one’s worked so hard, endured so much discomfort, battled yourself and the elements, the sense of achievement in crossing the finish line every day is something deeply personal. So those bemused “Why on earth do you do it?” questions from friends and family are often met with an inexplicable “I… don’t know.”

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All images photographed on film by Stan Engelbrecht