The oldest cycling club in South Africa and one of the oldest in the world, the Port Elizabeth Cycling Club, recently underwent an overdue revival following a lengthy period of dwindling participation.
Theo von Ruben, 67, joined the club when he was 15 before later chairing the association until about 1990. Over the last several years he has been a patron of the club.
However Von Ruben said the PE Cycling Club had been under tremendous pressure for the past 10 to 20 years due to the advent of mass-participation events and fun rides.
“The club was really just a shell and I was the last man standing. I’ve been paying the licence fee [to Cycling South Africa and East Cape Cycling] for the last five years just to keep the club alive,” he said.
“The actual value of cycling clubs has fallen a bit by the wayside because riders do not necessarily have to belong to clubs to enter big races.
“We’ve had a tremendous struggle over the last 10 years to keep it alive,” he said, adding that club membership had diminished to six riders and to just “two or three at times”.
He said one key motivating factor for keeping the club alive was its age and history.
The club was founded in 1880, making it one of the oldest in the world outside Europe, with just one club in Australia said to be “one or two years older”.
The Peterborough Cycling Cub in the UK, launched in 1873, claims to be the oldest continuously active cycling club in the world.
Von Ruben said he had a “lightbulb moment” when a proposal arrived to amalgamate the club with the Friendly City Cycling Club, also based in PE.
“They were more viable at that stage. They still had members and were organising races.”
Some were former PE Cycling Club members and they thought it was a good idea to keep the name alive, Von Ruben explained.
The club then kept its historic name, with “Friendly City Cycling Club” as the strapline.
Von Ruben said the club had gained much “synergy” since the merger.
“We’ve absorbed many of the Imveli Cycling youngsters after the woes that club has had recently. We’ve become unofficial guardians for that club.
“So we have a very good development component and we have various people who work very hard behind the scenes who have put money and time into those youngsters.”
Cheeky Armstrong has been appointed the new chairman of the club, with his soon-to-be wife Faye Woolard serving as treasurer.
Von Ruben expressed his gratitude to the various PE businesses and individuals who had invested in the club, keeping it afloat.
“The club has undergone a rebirth; it was like blowing a bit of breath on those last remaining cinders and making a fire.”
Despite cycling clubs having been under pressure over the past couple of decades, Von Ruben believes they are still vital for the sport.
“Riding in fun rides, cyclists will never learn racing tactics and how to ride within a team,” he said.
“South Africa is back in international cycling [after isolation] and the young pros racing overseas would have to come from a club system to provincial and national levels before joining a pro team.
“Their skills have to be honed at clubs and the youngsters need that.”
“The club has honed many top cyclists over the years.”
The club hosts annually the Festival of Cycling event, which took place in PE last week. Von Ruben said the onus was up to each club to host at least one annual event in which to keep the membership participation alive.