When they cross the finishing line of the Argus Cycle Tour in Cape Town, the eleven men that make up Team Thornvale complete a journey that began not 110km back at the starters gun, but worlds away on a farm near the northern Free State town of Viljoenskroon, South Africa. Two months earlier these men had never before touched a racing bicycle and most had not been beyond the borders of the landlocked Free State province. Now they’ve completed the largest timed cycle event in the world. This was the first time in the history of the Argus Tour with its annual 35 000 entrants that farm workers competed, let alone made up an entire team.
Chris Botha runs Thornvale, a farm that specializes in maize, peanuts and sunflowers. He is committed to farming within a developmental framework and is busy with a redistribution process that will see half the farm owned by his workers. Chris’ wife Miriam, amongst other things, is involved in creating self- help projects for the many unemployed farm residents in the area.
The original idea of the bicycles was to provide a means of transport to facilitate access to opportunity for many of these unemployed people on the farm. Although the racing bikes developed out of this it was actually quite a different idea. It was more about giving people a sense of a world greater than their own.
Andrew Wheeldon, Miriam’s brother, is a top amateur cyclist and the managing director of the Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN). The aim of BEN is to promote the use of the bicycle to encourage low-cost non-motorised transport and to improve health and access to opportunity by linking exercise and mobility. Through BEN bikes donated by organizations from across Europe were passed on to the farm workers from Thornvale. Andrew drew up a training program and spent time on the farm taking them through their paces, emphasizing the importance of safety, diet, and the commitment needed to achieve success in the sport.
The film is narrated by Firi, who is the son of one of the farm workers that worked for Chris’ father. Firi had the good fortune of being sent to Michaelhouse, an eminent private school.
We look at the oldest and the youngest members of the team. Petrus is 56 years old and has been working on the farm for 30 years. Joseph is an orphan. Both have never left the area around Viljoenskroon. Apart from these two we also hear from Pendile who is employed as a general worker and Isak who is unemployed.
The team’s physical and psychological journey from farm worker to competition cyclists is shown. From the day the bikes arrive on the farm we follow them through their training and preparation. There is drama and tension when heats are held to decide the final ten-man team from the original group of seventeen. They then get a taste of what is to come when they enter a preliminary race in the nearby conservative town of Klerksdorp, which some of the team struggle to complete.
On the first train trip of their lives, they journey to Cape Town, far from the small Free State town of Viljoenskroon. They experience their own country as a tourist for the first time. The trip to the top of Table Mountain where they are given there competition outfits, the visits to Robben Island, the prison that incarcerated Nelson Mandela for over two and a half decades leave big impressions, but they are most impressed with the Houses of Parliament, where they are guided by Chris’ father, who is an MP. The big day of the Argus Tour arrives, where we experience the race through their eyes. Everyone manages to finish within medal time.
This journey may be the main story, but the evident subplot is the special relationship and mutual respect that exists between the farmer and the men that live on his farm; men that, because of historic circumstances and economic conditions, do not have particularly bright prospects of betterment. For them this bizarre and wonderful journey represents an incredible opportunity that in some way will change their way of thinking of themselves in the world forever.