Robbie Hunter became an early post-apartheid inspiration for South African cyclists hoping to make it into the highly competitive cycling environment of Europe and elsewhere abroad.
Now, after a lengthy hiatus, this legend of SA cycling is set to make a welcome return at next month’s Cape Epic mountain-bike race.
The 41-year-old was one of the first SA riders to make a breakthrough onto the world stage following isolation and helped various other cyclists, including Chris Froome, do the same.
Hunter had a career in the pro peloton spanning 14 years and raced for renowned teams such as Rabobank, Phonak Hearing Systems, Barloworld and Garmin Sharp.
The Johannesburg local participated in 16 Grand Tours and claimed the SA national individual time-trial title in 2000 and the road-race crown in 2012.
He has left a lasting impression on cyclists from the tip of Africa and believes many more will rise to the top.
“The [SA] guys definitely have more opportunities now in the sense that a few more doors have opened,” Hunter told In the Bunch today.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was more difficult for me, but it was quite rare for riders in further-away countries to make it into the peloton.
“There were the exceptions, such as Lance Armstrong and Baden Cooke, but it wasn’t the norm for Anglo-Saxons to make it [in Europe].”
Hunter modestly suggested that more opportunities may have arisen over the years partly due to “what I did”.
“It was really difficult to even try and work your way into amateur teams and then pro teams.
“Over the years guys like Daryl [Impey] have done really well and I think people have noticed that the Anglo-Saxons are up there.
“Sponsors have also started coming from further away as well, not just from your common countries.”
His breakthrough came after an amateur stint racing in Italy in the late 1990s, which was arranged through an acquaintance of his.
Recognition came purely from achieving some decisive results, he said.
“I went around racing in Italy, France and Switzerland and luckily I managed to produce results in some really big international races.
“Those were sort of the picking grounds for pro teams to look out for possible athletes for the next year. Fortunately I managed to get noticed.”
At the time Hunter said he assisted various other riders to get to Europe and eventually turn professional.
“Back in the day I helped Kosie Loubser turn professional with an American team that was becoming bigger in Europe. He [eventually] came back to SA really fast.”
Back-to-back national champ Impey, today’s local icon who has made waves on the world stage in recent years, joined his first WorldTour fold at RadioShack in 2010, also thanks to Hunter’s influence.
“Initially he was at Barloworld and then he moved across to RadioShack. I helped set that up for him. He definitely deserved it. He’s a great rider.
“I also helped Chris [Froome] move over to Barloworld the same time that Daryl was involved [in 2008 and 2009].”
Hunter still “looks after” athletes today, but in a different way. He co-owns an international sports management agency in Switzerland.
Hunter had at least one stage victory in each Grand Tour during his career. He has the accolade of being the first and only SA rider to win a stage in the Tour de France, which he achieved in 2007.
“That was obviously a highlight in my career and it’ll always be something I’m proud of.
“But Daryl has been highly successful over the last couple of years and he’s one of the best riders in the world at the moment.
“He’s had some success at the Tour as well. He’s been involved in team stage victories and has worn the yellow jersey before.
“Yes I’ve won an individual stage, but there are many more [up-and-coming] riders and SA has a huge amount of talent. There are riders who are capable of getting results at the highest level in the future.”
Regarding the French Grand Tour, Hunter was part of the Swiss-based Phonak team that saw American Floyd Landis stripped of his Tour title in 2006 due to doping.
He admitted that had an effect on his career, but said he had put the incident behind him without holding any grudges.
“He was stripped of his title, the team closed and people lost their jobs. But it was what it was and I didn’t walk away bitter.
“I wasn’t angry at anyone and it was just one of those unfortunate things that happened.
“Floyd is still a friend of mine and he made a massive mistake in his career. But looking back now, he wasn’t the only person who made those mistakes then. Everyone’s paid their dues.
“Cycling has moved on from those years, which is a good thing.”
Although he hung up his racing bike six years ago, Hunter has remained committed to his year-long plan to debut at the Epic next month.
He will feature alongside fellow former pro road rider Rene Haselbacher of Austria. Hunter said their goal was just to race and “have fun”.