True grit

Anna Oberholzer and her Belgian pilot, Robert Robijns, head out for an early morning training ride, in preparation for the Cape Town Cycle Tour on Sunday.

I discovered Anna Oberholzer has the magic touch, when she worked on my painful neck and hand at her Strand practice last week, and I’m glad to report that I no longer move like the unoiled Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz…

It also provided the perfect opportunity for us to continue our conversation, started at her home in Somerset West the previous evening (we’re practically neighbours – for years I’ve walked past her entrance, and bid a greeting to her cats, as they languidly watched the passersby, unfazed by raucous guinea fowl partaking of the grain Anna puts out for them).

She’d told me that she is in training for her 30th Cape Town Cycle Tour (previously known as The Argus), the largest timed cycling event in the world, which will draw 30 000 avid cyclists to the Peninsula this coming weekend.

That is in itself no small feat. Consider, then, the fact that Anna is completely blind.

Just short of her 20th birthday, she was a gymnastics student at Stellenbosch University, and then one rainy night, a car accident changed the course of her life forever.

“Those were the days before cars even had seatbelts,” she says with a rueful smile. “I was in the passenger seat, and the car rolled a few times.”

The result was multiple surgeries to restore her facial injuries, the complete loss of her sight, and an abrupt closure to her carefree student years.

After her long recovery, she went abroad to London, where she studied physiotherapy, and did her postgraduate studies in America.

Anna always loved cycling, and has taken up many a challenge, racing in the Medallion Tour de Stellenbosch, Die Burger Sanlam Cycle Tour, Jock of the Bushveld in Barbeton, and the Knysna Oyster Ride, but this upcoming race is her favourite.

I met her tan­dem pilot, Bel­gian cy­clist Robert Ro­bi­jns, who raced professionally for years, and trav­els to South Africa annually – this will be his 15th time as Anna’s pi­lot, and watching them banter, it’s clear that they are firm friends, and have shared many an adventure on the roads.

Robert had picked up a cold on the flight over, and was none too happy about that state of affairs, as the doctor said he couldn’t get into the saddle for his initial days here – they’d clearly been itching to get on the road by the time they came past my house early on Sunday morning (see picture).

Their many races haven’t been entirely incident-free, what with a couple of crashes, inevitable punctures, and broken chains mid-race.

Not to mention a couple of years ago, when the famous “Cape Doctor” created havoc, causing the race to be cancelled after a number of the cyclists were simply blown off their bikes (including Anna and Robert) – forcing the race organisers to make the unprecedented call of stopping the race.

She smiles pragmatically at the notion of setbacks: “I don’t get worried, I trust Robert completely, he’s a warrior.”

Cycling with a pilot on a tandem requires symbiosis of a very special kind, and Anna provides leg power that comes from years of keeping fit on her indoor training bike, and hours in the gym and swimming pool.

Factor in her competitive spirit, and it’s a winning team. The Cannondale they use is a beautiful machine, and when they mounted it on Sunday morning, the familiarity they have with their bike is evident.

A slight setback was a back tyre that seemed to have a leak, but they just amended their schedule to fit in a visit to the local cycling shop for a quick look and patch job.

Anna, an animal lover, grew up in Namibia, in the town of Gobabis, close to Botswana, on the Trans-Kalahari Highway.

It is hard to calculate how many thousands of kilometres she has cycled in her life, but I’m betting it’s a big number.

And more than anything, it takes a mighty heart, to stare down the limitations of blindness, and only see opportunity, which is what she has done.

The Bolander readers will be cheering Anna and Robert on, in spirit if not in person, and here’s hoping for a tail wind!

Carolyn Frost: Editor