After almost three decades of podium finishes on the road and track, lifelong cycling aficionado Theo von Ruben finally laid his hands on what he considers the ultimate and most elusive prize – a national champion’s jersey.
The former Springbok and 1993 World Masters Games champion, who started cycling as a 15-year-old in 1967, counts 22 national championship medals among his collection.
But it was the green and gold strip that plagued his dreams until he finally pulled it over his head after winning the individual pursuit at the national champs in 1995.
“That jersey was more prized to me than my Springbok one. It had always just eluded me; I was always the bridesmaid.”
On paper, his gold medal two years earlier in the 10km scratch event in Perth, Australia, was the highlight of his career. Although he also claimed silver in the road race, his achievements felt incomplete.
“Here I was, aged 41, winning internationally, but I’d never had a national title.”
Von Ruben had begun to feel increasing desperation and in 1994 his hopes faded even further when he fell and broke his right collarbone following a crash with Jack Lester in the 5km in Port Elizabeth.
The local rider was so determined to take gold in any event that he got on his bike with his arm strapped for the 3km individual pursuit. “The officials called it off and awarded me the silver.”
But years of hard work finally paid off when he got his jersey the following year, the first of four national titles.
However, in true Von Ruben fashion, more drama was to follow on the eve of the ’95 World Masters Championships in Manchester, England. While working on his track bike as he prepared to pack it, he sliced off the top of his finger.
One emergency surgery and an international flight later, he was in immense pain and at the competition. “Two days later I started feeling terrible – the thing had turned septic.”
Undeterred, he sought treatment, strapped up the hand and ultimately came sixth in his event.
Fiercely competitive to this day, the 60-year-old admits that he still wants to win his age category in every race he enters.
“I started riding in the golden era of track cycling, when the whole grandstand was packed on a Friday night. Mass participation wasn’t the thing it is today; it was competition and nothing but first, second and third counted.”
Von Ruben says it wasn’t natural talent that saw him represent Eastern Province from under-16 level to the present day, and win all the senior provincial track titles barring the sprint.
“I was always a little guy, so I developed a very keen sense of tactics. I learned not to be physical and to ride through the bunch; I could see where a race was going to go.”
Although his size was often an advantage in cycling, it did him no favours on the rugby field and Von Ruben was almost expelled from school because of his lack of interest.
“The headmaster called me into his office and said I wasn’t playing any sport, which was compulsory, and I said, ‘Really? Because I just captained EP to the Tour de Jurgend.’
“I was in the newspaper almost every weekend!”
His status in the “sport” of cross-country saved his school career and also helped him with his fitness on the bike. He counts former Springbok Henry Smith and Olympian Rowan Peacock among his friends and mentors.
“I rode both road and track. Because I enjoyed it so much, I rode everything from sprints to 1 500 metres.”
Off the bike, Von Ruben also immersed himself in the administrative side of the sport.
“I’ve spent lots of time on committees from the age of 17. I don’t like things being badly organised or run, I’d rather just get in there and fix it myself.”
He has been a member of the PE Cycling Club since he first started riding. Established in 1880, it is South Africa’s oldest club and when numbers started dwindling, Von Ruben decided to do something about it.
“I had this terrible sense of responsibility to keep such a historical organisation alive. We’ve probably produced more Springboks than any other club in the country, including Wayne Pheiffer, Blayne Wikner, Anriëtte Schoeman and John-Lee Augustyn.”
Last month, the club relaunched with a new strip bearing the traditional Maltese cross design featured in its logo.
“The response has been good and hopefully it will snowball. I’ll stay on as acting president but we need people with fresh ideas to take the club in a new direction.”
In 1990, Von Ruben also co-founded the Masters and Ladies Cycling Club, which is the biggest in the Friendly City today.
“It’s great,” he says, “but the downside is that people are competing far longer than they used to and now we don’t have officials!”
Nowadays the husband and father of two keeps himself busy running his own biochemical solutions company while still managing to train at least two to three times a week.
“I still ride road and I do mountain bike but poorly; I fall off too much. Your bones get fragile as you get older.”
Given sufficient time and encouragement, we suspect this particular Legend of the Pedal will add an off-road win to his wish list . . .