Magnificent Lewis takes the road to glory

Cycling had a limited presence at Stockholm 1912, and almost did not appear on the schedule at all. In fact, this was the only time in the Games’ history that didn’t feature track cycling, with the sole event being a road race that took place around Lake Malaren, Sweden’s third largest lake, on 7 July.

It was a familiar venue for local competitors at least, as it was the venue for a popular annual cycling race. The course took in a total of 198 miles and was contested as a time trial. Medals were awarded individually and for teams, with the winner of the latter event being the country whose cyclists finished in the best average position.

“It was hardly possible to foretell what would happen at the grand road race,” reads the Official Report. Many of the best foreign amateur cyclists had travelled to Sweden and among them was Rudolph Lewis. A South African from the city of Pretoria, Lewis had one of those backgrounds that encapsulates the Olympic spirit.

Brought up on a farm, he had a full-time job working underground in a gold mine and had held down the role for around nine years prior to the 1912 Games. When above ground he trained keenly as a boxer and skater as well as a cyclist, but it was the latter in which Lewis – a member of Germiston District Cycling Club – would make his name.

Lewis set off on the time trial as one of 123 competitors from 16 different countries. The race began at 2am, but despite the early start a huge crowd gathered to see the competitors off at two-minute intervals. Lewis was part of the second group to depart, at 2.02am, and he reached the 20.5-mile mark in 57 minutes. By now he was already in the lead and he retained his position until the very end. He reached the control station at Eskilstuna, at the 72-mile point, in 3:48.16, 11 minutes ahead of the Scottish rider Charles Hill. By the 99-mile mark, around an hour and a half later, he was nearly 16 minutes ahead of Leonard Meredith, a British competitor who would eventually finish fourth.

At the finish, Lewis’ lead had been cut into slightly but he was still an overwhelming champion, crossing the line in 10:42.39 and comfortably beating silver medallist Frederick Grubb, another English cyclist, who finished in 10:51.24. Lewis took gold and was carried shoulder-high by his South African team-mates, but they would not aggregate well enough to secure the collective gold, which was won by the home country.

“The riding of the winner, Lewis, was simply unique, and the result a magnificent one,” said the Official Report. “Lewis rode the whole time without the assistance of the pacing that competitors with other men in front of them generally enjoy, and his work awakened the greatest admiration on the part of the spectators along the course.”

It was in fact the last that would be seen of the 24-year-old Lewis on the Olympic stage. His exploits earned him enough attention to see him cycle professionally in Germany over the following two years, winning the famous Race of Dresden but he enjoyed little further success. World War One then intervened and he served in the German army, sustaining injuries and being held as a prisoner of war for a time. He eventually died in 1933, back in Pretoria, at the relatively young age of 46.