When 14-year-old Rowan Ernest Arthur Peacock walked through the doors of Nimmo’s Cycles in Bellville back in 1954, he had no idea that his life was about to change.
Buying his first second-hand bicycle from former Empire Games road champion Hennie Binneman, the young Peacock could not have foreseen that he would soon pedal the same international path as the 1936 Olympian.
He could also not have known that he and his fellow track riders would become the last South African team to compete at the Olympic Games before the country’s isolation from world sport.
“I was 20 at the time, inexperienced, brand new,” says 74-year-old Peacock.
“I thought that my first Olympics would be the one to gain experience from and that I’d try to make a name for myself at the next.”
Of course, there would be no next time and the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome would prove to be South Africa’s last until 1992.
“It was a wonderful experience but that was one of those sad things with our political situation at the time.”
Peacock was assigned to race his favourite event – the 4 000m team pursuit – alongside Syd Byrnes, Bobby Fowler and Abe Jonker.
“We’d ridden really well previously and done really good times in training,” he recalls.
Everything appeared to be quite literally on track until their tandem team crashed two days before the race.
Their manager did some hasty reshuffling of both teams, which, as it turned out, was against Olympic rules.
“When we were on the starting line for the 4 000m, we found out that he’d drafted Jimmy Swift into the team pursuit and you weren’t allowed to make more than two changes.
“Syd was sitting up in the stands, so we had to get him back in the team, rush him to the Olympic Village, get his kit and get him ready to ride the team pursuit. That was a debacle and we were a bit messed up.”
Without the necessary warm-ups and mental preparation, they did not cover themselves in glory.
As part of the Springbok squad, Peacock and the others got the chance to redeem themselves two years later when they rode two tests against a touring Dutch team.
“We lost the first test and won the second. It was a classy team that was out here and we were able to beat them.”
Then, in 1964, South Africa went to the world championships where they finished 9th in the team pursuit.
The competition galvanised Peacock’s decision to move to Germany after the SA champs the following year.
“I just felt that I still had something to offer and I wanted to race against the best.”
His actions were vindicated when he clocked the fastest time in the world in 1965 to win the German indoor title.
“I also became the first South African to ride the 4 000m individual pursuit in under five minutes.”
Over the next four years, the multiple SA champion would go on to garner more successes, beating Olympic and German champions in the solo event.
What made it more remarkable was that Peacock did so while holding down a day job, whereas his adversaries were fulltime cyclists.
“If more of our young cyclists were able to base themselves in Europe for a whole season without having to concern themselves about where their next meal was coming from, I think we could definitely produce some Tour de France winners,” he says.
But, he acknowledges, the face of the sport has changed and today riders compete for more than the pure passion for the sport that motivated their predecessors.
“To set the context for the effort that we put in as opposed to what we got out of it, let me say this,” explains Peacock.
“In the 64/65 season, I competed in 85 races on the track. I finished in the top three 55 times and won vouchers to the total value of about R50,” he chuckles.
One thing he was not short on however was success in the heyday of SA track cycling, when he raced against rivals such as Byrnes and Eddie Kriel.
As a senior, he shared in multiple team pursuit national titles, was national champion in the individual time-trial and notched up two Paarl Boxing Day titles among others.
Although he was also a double junior road champion, Peacock says he didn’t have time to train on the road and really only raced on tar to get fit for the track.
“My track cycling career was really in two parts. In the early years, I was a skinny runt and wasn’t strong enough to win races on my own.
“After a few years I gained a little weight and could sprint better. Most of my races were then won on my own with a breakaway from the field and so on.”
Having lived, worked and raced all over the country and overseas, the Rondebosch-born Peacock eventually returned to Cape Town before selling up his office automation business eight years ago.
Now retired, the father of four and grandfather of three enjoys the quiet country air of Greyton.
“I’ve got a mountain bike now and I ride it once or twice a week. Having ridden on the cobbles of Europe for so long, I battle with my wrists on longer rides.”
Peacock assures Cyclingnews that he won’t be lining up to race any time soon.
“No, I had my fill for 17 years – and that’s ENOUGH!”