A Coffee with Chris Willemse

Family man, Chris Willemse is the big boss of SA bike-shop owners.


AS TOLD TO TIM BRINK |

When triple SA road champ and Springbok track star Chris Willemse started his first bike shop in Paarl in June 1977, Shimano was… heresy. 

Only Campagnolo – with a nod to budget-friendly Zeus and Gipiemme – adorned racing frames such as Gios Torino, Colnago and Atala, and no American had ever ridden the Tour de France. Italian hard man Francesco Moser had just become world road champion aboard his gold Benotto, and the TdF podium would read Thevenet (Peugeot), Kuiper (Ti-Raleigh) and Van Impe (LeJeune). 

But Willemse also recognised these hard-racing (and now uber-collectable) machines were the very tip of the iceberg: the answer to success in the bike industry lay in keeping the next generation of racers, and their fans, pedalling smoothly on far more affordable machines, until such time as they absolutely had to have the droolworthy stuff.

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“You want it fixed? We’ll fetch it, fettle it, and return it as good as new.” 

He started the hard way – tiny premises and suburb-by-suburb knock-and-drops to advertise his multiple national championship-winning attitude to bike sales and repair: “You want it fixed? We’ll fetch it, fettle it, and return it as good as new.” 

It worked. Within five years, Eddy Merckx had begun a life-long love affair with SA through Willemse personally, and through his importing Merckx’s brand. One shop became two, then three – and sometimes more, as summer rolled in and the annual Argus Tour boomed, before they would close for winter and reopen the following year. 

Willemse grew too; as an administrator, organiser and eventual Vice President of Track Cycling South Africa. Street-mile racing, a national criterium series, international tours and track meets, alongside organising government-level subterfuge to get Merckx and other big international names into pariah South Africa, led to a career in politics. 

Initially a member of the National Party, he eventually stood for the DA, culminating in becoming the Exco member for the Tygerberg area; all the while maintaining a stronghold in the bicycle retail game. This would only be loosened in 2018, when Johannesburg giant Cycle Lab bought into Chris and his son Chris Junior’s burgeoning online offering, together with the tyre-kicker brick-and-mortar store most South Africans still love. 

And now it’s over. Chris squared are off to new things. The streets are eerily silent on what; but after 47 years of consistent and unbending retail resilience, it’s bound to be awesome – we can’t wait to hear about it.

But first, coffee!

I take my coffee in the morning – I love my cappuccinos.

I’d love to go on a ride with… Eddy Merckx again.

The secret to happiness? My family. I love having my family around me, my children and my grandchildren. We all stay within six kilometres of each other – my youngest daughter stays on the farm Maastricht. Family is worth more than any money to me.

My greatest exhilaration… Happiness in my family. And to wake up and breathe every morning. I’m a really big family man!

I fear… Not my death. But if one of my children or grandchildren had to die before me… I don’t know how I would handle that.

A moment of pure clarity. It was when MoreCorp came to buy the business; and I knew that all the hard work – not me alone, but the family too – I realised we’d made it all worthwhile, 40-plus years of working as hard as we could.

Passion is… To be successful. To work, have aims – and they come off. 

When I wake up… I thank God I’m still alive.

I rage against… People who don’t return phone calls – it’s just disrespectful! And anyone saying bad things about my family.

I wish… to be sure I’ll live in eternity one day, with the family.

 

READ MORE ON: interview People

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