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Wimpie van der Merwe – Still Chasing and Setting Records at 62

"I’d love a crack at the world hour record for my age group..."

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Cycling is full of ‘what ifs.’ 

‘What if’ the Second World War hadn’t stolen some of Fausto Coppi’s best years?

‘What if’ Greg Lemond’s brother-in-law hadn’t shot the Tour winner and World Champion when they were out turkey shooting; denying him a wedge of his prime?

And ‘what if’ the UCI hadn’t changed the rules governing bicycle design after our own Graeme Obree shattered Francesco Moser’s world hour record on ‘Old Faithful,’ a ‘home-made’ machine which infuriated the UCI and was diametrically opposed to Eddy Merck’s 1972 jewel of a Colnago hour bike and Moser’s futuristic 1984 machine?

Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe on the Stelvio during the 2018 Alpi Audax (1,500 km). Photo©supplied

Then it would be entirely feasible that South Africa’s Wimpie van der Merwe with a 53 plus kilometre ride would have succeeded Obree’s 52.713 kilometre ride and not Miguel Indurain with his 53.040 kilometres. 

With Jim Gladwell soon to go after the Scottish Hour – before them HUUB boys in the Andes – we thought you might like to hear Wimpie’s tale. 

Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe with Graeme O’Bree 1994 in South Africa, before Wimpie’s attempt to break his World Hour Record. Photo©supplied

My hour record attempt took place in Bordeaux at the Velodrome du Lac on June 21, 1994. 

“I knew I could break Graham Obree’s record if I did 53 kilometres; he’d ridden 52.713 on April 27th of that year.

“In my preparation and with the calculations made by the technical support team from Lotus and Aerodyne it was determined that if I could deliver 420 W for the hour it would be possible. 

“I crunched out 427 W for 65 mins in my trial workouts. 

“The aerodynamicist from Lotus, Richard Hill worked with Chris Boardman, set me up in the wind tunnel.

“Some 24 Hours before the attempt the UCI came to measure the bike to see if it was legal. 

What we didn’t know was that they had changed the rule of how a ‘legal’ bike should look like, in reaction to Obree’s ‘washing machine’ bike two weeks before my attempt. 

“They did not inform our team.”

Wimpie van der Merwe
Richard Hill (Lotus aerodynamicist) – who also worked with Boardman – tries to get the saddle compliant whilst the UCI officials measure Wimpie’s bike prior the record attempt Photo©supplied

“My set-up was already established and since the frame was a monocoque structure, nothing could be changed to fulfil the demands of the required alteration. 

“They demanded that the saddle had to move back 5 cm and it couldn’t – the saddle support on which I had to sit was about 7 cm. We had to butcher the saddle and this gave me only 2 cm to sit on, which made riding the bike impossible.

“This hour was the most excruciating, self-inflicted pain I have ever experienced, but I tried more than my best under the circumstances. 

“The result eventually was a South African 4,000 m Elite and veteran record (4:50 min) and a South African One Hour record of 45.541 km. 

“The experience was sobering; I quickly saw that the press that hails you are same as those that crucify you.” 

Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe during his painful Hour Record attempt. Photo©supplied

Is that still the RSA national record?

“No, the current South African record holder is Gert Fouché who established himself as world record holder in his 35-39 age group – we can be proud of his 51.599 kilometre achieved at Aguascalientes in August 2019. 

“I’m lying eighth in the world in my age category. 

“It’s still on my bucket list to tame this Hour beast. 

“The Hour is not called the ‘hour of truth’ for nothing. 

“It is a career ending effort for most that try it.”

So who is this guy that none of us heard of on the international stage but who was turning out wattages that could have won him an elite professional time trial at the highest level?

Wimpie van der Merwe
The 1986 Rapport Tour and Wimpie van der Merwe takes over the yellow jersey in Durban from a German rider, with Miss SA. Photo©supplied
Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe (second right) in a team handout at the 1977 Rapport Tour. Two of the riders there, Alan van Heerden and Jan van der Berg later became winners of the Tour. This was the first of Wimpie’s nine Tours. Photo©supplied

Why choose ‘the impossible hour?’

What do you do when the RSA [Republic of South Africa) national selectors inform you that you and other senior riders will no longer be chosen for the national cycling teams because they are focusing on a younger generation for future Olympic Games? 

When your country is readmitted to international sport in 1992 after being denied since 1960 because of the ‘apartheid ban,’ you’re at your peak, but cannot select yourself to represent your country, how do you then compete against the world’s best? 

“You take them head on by breaking their world records, no matter when the records were set. 

“Instead of waiting for opportunities to come, you create them.”

Paris-Brest-Paris
Wimpie van der Merwe and his four-yearly pilgrimage to Paris-Brest-Paris completed. Photo©supplied

But where did you come from and what had you done on the bike prior to being able to pump 400 watts for an hour?

“I got into cycling originally by riding back and forward to school, then in 1973 the Rapport Tour was launched, a multi-stage race from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

“This captured the imagination of me and a group of guys I was at school with and we decided to ride the route – obviously not the race but cycle touring the parcours it described.

“That was the start, I went on to ride the Rapport Tour nine times and win the South African Road race Championships three times.

“But as I said, in 1992 when the world-wide ban on South African international sport was lifted the powers that be decided that they were going to concentrate on young riders for two Olympics hence.

“It left me high and dry, that’s why I turned to record breaking.

“I trained for six months for that record bid, most of it indoors on a turbo because it was our winter and I was getting the numbers.”

Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe after the South African Madison Championships in 1982 (his first of three Madison titles). This was a very popular win; before Wimpie was in the back straight the crowd streamed onto the track and carried him shoulder height to the podium. Photo©supplied

Why not go for it again after the unsuccessful attempt with a new bike and the knowledge you’d gleaned?

“The press weren’t kind to me after the attempt and the sponsors were disillusioned by what had happened so it would have been very difficult to resurrect things.”

Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe (second left) with his support crew for the last records, 4 and 10 km at the High Speed Oval of Gerotek (SA). Photo©supplied

And then you turned to recumbent records?

“I remember speaking to the famous US coach, Eddie Borysewicz – and he told me a rider should play to his strengths, not waste his time riding events which didn’t suit him.

“I’m not a light rider but even at 62 years-of-age I can still produce 380 watts for an hour so if you put an engine like mine inside a streamlined fairing it’s pretty effective.

“Knowing my ‘hour’ background, a couple of engineers approached me about a project involving a streamlined recumbent bicycle. 

“I used that to set the fastest-ever time for the Argus Tour circuit in South Africa; in 1993 I covered the 105 kilometre parcours in 02:16:40, averaging 46.1 kph. 

“From there we created ‘Project Synthesis;’ I worked with Tim Noakes who’s a physiologist and doctor and a team with whom we created aerodynamic machines which took me to RSA, African Continent and world records for HPV (human powered vehicles).

“I list the world records I set along the way: 

* 4,000 m flying start – 3 min 22.388 sec

* 4,000 m on four occasions, best – 3 min 33 sec

* 10,000 m on four occasions, best – 8 min 39 sec

* 12 hours – 566.974 km

* 24 hours on two occasions – 904.887 km

* 1,000 km – 27 hr 43 min 48 sec.

“These records were all set under the auspices of the IHPVA – International Human Powered Vehicles Association.”

WAOD World Road Champion
Wimpie van der Merwe was blacklisted as South African in the Benelux in 1987 after becoming WAOD Road World Champion in Belgium. Photo©supplied
Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe at the start of his first international Audax in 2015; Paris-Brest-Paris. Photo©supplied

You rode 1,000 K on a recumbent?

“Yes, and I do ultra-distance Audax events on a ‘normal’ machine: 

* 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris (1,230 km)

* 2016 Cape 1,000 (1,036 km)

* 2016 Mille Miglia (1,600 km)

* 2017 London Edinburgh London (1,400 km)

* 2019 Cape 1,000 (1,042 km).” 

Scotland Welcomes You
Wimpie van der Merwe enter Bonnie Scotland during his London-Edinburgh-London ride in 2017. Wimpie found the night riding fascinating, ‘a completely new experience!’ Photo©supplied

With all that, is there anything left on the Wimpie ‘bucket list?’

“I’d love a crack at the world hour record for my age group but it’s not easy to get sponsorship for an attempt.”

We’re sure that if it’s at all possible, Wimpie will organise it – and did we mention his ‘Everesting?

Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe on a local climb (Steenbras dam) where he did 10,000 m in one ride. Wimpie has now done 14 of these most taxing but very rewarding events, and has some clips on Youtube. Photo©supplied
Wimpie van der Merwe
Wimpie van der Merwe on the ‘Everest Steenbras’ sherpa’ing a local talent, Elize Janse van Rensburg, to become one of the few ladies in the world to do a 10,000 m climb in one go. Photo©supplied

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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