Fritz Zurcher won the “Snowstorm Marathon”

The Snowstorm Derby

Source/Author unknown

In the following year (1920), however, occurred one of the most romantic races of South African history. It was known as the “Snowstorm Derby”, and not without a cause. The riders who lined up outside the City Deep bound for the coast could little have realised what lay before them, otherwise few would have started.

Three hours after the flag had dropped, a storm of indescribable intensity began to rage in the Biggarsberg barrier to Natal, and only eight men managed to pull their mud-bogged mounts through. Their times ranged from 23 hours 18 minutes 20 seconds to 50 hours 42 minutes 10 seconds. The tale is a heroic one and deserves more than a mere passing mention.

The late Fletcher Owen on an Indian was in the lead nearing Newcastle, and had caught up Percy Flook, a Douglas man, when the two struck the full force of the blizzard. They were both drenched to the skin with the rain and the sleet, and their machines were caked in mud. In the darkness of the storm they espied the lights of a farmhouse, and you can judge the good landlord’s surprise when the two damp, bedraggled and shivering men pushed their stubborn mounts into his back yard.

The housewife got busy over the roaring fire, and hot coffee and “grog” were soon forthcoming. Flook and Owen were so frozen that they were unable to remove their sodden clothes, and the farmer stripped them and wrapped them in blankets.

Suddenly the two men were surprised to hear the beat of a machine, but did not pay much heed to it, as they did not think it possible for anyone to have got through the terrible road conditions prevailing. A farm-boy brought in the news a little later, however, that Zurcher had gone through on the Douglas. Without a moment’s hesitation, Flook and Owen donned their wet “togs” and set off in pursuit. Owen was shortly afterwards held up by a broken chain which he repaired by the light of matches.

Simultaneous with the “Snowstorm Derby” there was run off a sidecar race in the opposite direction. The winner was Alf Long, one of South Africa’s premier “aces” who piloted an Excelsior to Newcastle in 7 hours 3 minutes 37 seconds. His trip to Johannesburg was made in a further 6 hours 30 minutes 31 seconds, making a total of 13 hours 34 minutes 8 seconds.

Percy Flook’s story of the 1920 “Snowstorm Derby”

“It was still raining and the road was just mud when I started off, and I passed two of the front markers soon afterwards. They had had spills and were on the side of the road, and a little later I passed another rider.

At 10a.m. it was colder than it had been in the early morning. I soon had 15 falls due to the mud. Between Balfour and Standerton alone there were about 30 farm gates that I had to open and close. I could hardly go 100 yards in the red mud without the machine slipping under me. It went on like this for miles and miles and I tried riding on the grass alongside the road and getting back into the mud at each gate. In this way I zig-zagged along to Standerton. Normally it would take not more than two hours; this trip it took eight hours. By that time I couldn’t remember the number of spills I’d had and the machine was in a mess. One time the carburettor froze and I had to use a screwdriver to punch the ice out.

I asked the Standerton people to telephone Johannesburg and tell them to stop the race, but they said communications had broken down.

At Volksrust I asked them to do the same thing. I arrived there frozen up at 5 p.m., teeth chattering, and there was an inch of mud on my saddle, the officials suggested waiting for the other riders and getting them to agree to stop. I poured some brandy down my throat and waited. Another rider turned up so bespattered with mud that at first I didn’t know who he was and by 6 p.m. another rider arrived.

It was decided to carry on and two of us got over the railway line but the third fell into a donga, machine and all, and I didn’t see him again. We were up in the hills and just below Laingsnek we found a rider at the sideof the road with the machine beside him. We couldn’t ride our own machines down the slopes but had to push them and near Mount Prospect a farmer named van Niekerk opened the gate on the road. When he heard there was a race on, he thought we were crazy. He went back and picked up the rider we had passed. He gave us a hot drink and we all had a bath, but even then we could hardly stand. Another rider, Murray, on a big Harley Davidson, arrived in the pitch dark at 9 o’clock. Word had been sent to Mount Prospect to say we were stopping for the time being at van Niekerk’s farm. He told us only eight or nine riders had arrived at Volksrust out of 42 starters.

We agreed among ourselves to go on at dawn, but at 10.30 p.m. a man arrived from Mount Prospect and informed us that a rider named Zurcher had reached Mount Prospect. When told we had stopped, he decided to go right on.

He must have pushed his machine through the heavy mud going past the farm as we did hear him. Well, that piece of news woke us up all right. Instead of turning in for a badly needed night’s rest, out the three of us went into the cold and the mud. Owing to the pitch darkness we decided to keep together to Newcastle, which was the checking point. The road was icy slush.

After six or seven miles Murray lagged behind, having trouble with his machine, and I got to the top of a hill and sat and waited. I was freezing by then and decided to carry on to the next hill, where I waited for the second man and when he eventually arrived we both waited another 15 minutes for Murray and then pushed on.

I got to the top of the next hill by myself and waited 10 minutes and noticed lights about a mile back. Afterwards I found out he had broken a chain, while Murray had turned in at a farmhouse along the way as mud had gotten into his eyes and he could not see his way. At that stage I had another 17 miles to go and then I went slap bang into a flock of sheep, my machine went one way and I the other way on the backs of a couple of sheep. I fell off the sheep about 15 yards further on.

I went back and looked for the machine but couldn’t find it and after 10 minutes I searched the other side of the road and found it there. When I reached Newcastle there were no soles left on my boots. I got there at 2.11 Zurcher had arrived at 12.55 a.m.

Next day was a Sunday and we were due to set off again on Monday morning according to the times we had checked in. Another rider, F Owen on an Indian, got in after me.

There was a bit of feeling about Zurcher getting a march on us on the Saturday night. I was still feeling hot over it when I started off after him on Monday morning. I’d managed to patch the machine up a bit after the knocks it had taken but the handle bars were badly bent.

I went along not caring for the consequences and at Estcourt I was only four minutes behind. Going up a long hill after that I caught him. He was a steady rider and I opened up a gap and next thing one of my handle bars snapped right off and down I came. I got up hopping mad, I’d been so determined to beat him, and just then he came along and passed me. I went to the nearest fence and with a piece of wood and some wire bound up the machine again.

But my pace was gone, I couldn’t hold the machine properly at top speed. Zurcher arrived in Durban at 1.31 p.m. I came in 3.9 p.m. I was riding with one handlebar. The other I couldn’t use and it nearly killed me.”


From the September, 2002, edition of “Kick Start”. The magazine of The Vintage Motorcycle Club, Johannesburg, South Africa.

The below report came from the 1941 publication “Personalities in South African Motoring and Aviation”, author unknown, and has been supplemented with notes from the writings of the late Jock Leyden and with text from “Through the Dust Barrier” by Ken McLeod.

By 1920, the roads had been improved but the Jo’burg-Durban race had been cut down to two days, which made it perhaps a trifle more strenuous. Furthermore there were still those unbridged rivers and boulder-strewn sluits which concealed themselves with treacherous hostility in dips and around bends in the road.

Out of these conditions, however, largely intensified by certain freakish influences, was born the famous “Snowstorm Derby”, unquestionably the great epic as far as this classic race was concerned.

The race as usual was being run from North to South, although a side-car handicap with a smaller entry was being run from the other direction. In Johannesburg it was bitterly cold on the Saturday morning of the start and the riders faced the prospect of untold miles on an earth road which torrential rains the previous day had turned into a slimy bath of liquid mud with here and there raging streams of water.

Some of them were for calling it off but a vote was taken and several entrants were in favour of the contest. Riders of the small machines thinking that this was their heaven-sent opportunity elected to go ahead, a decision which they must have later regretted, for most of them were passed by the bigger machines within 30 miles.

All the way across the unprotected plains of the Transvaal the riders struggled against a howling gale, with rain and snow which froze them to the very marrow. Forty-two riders started out wearing close-fitting helmets and balaclava caps and sheathed in muddied oilskins from top to toe. Broken handlebars, magneto trouble and sheer exhaustion accounted for the early retirals. Others plugged on, often walking beside their machines downhill and having to trundle them up the other side.

At length, after eight or nine weary hours, ten riders had clocked in at the Volksrust control – all arriving between four and six in the afternoon. Most of them went on and by the time they reached the mountainous section on the borders of Natal they were enveloped in a blizzard of Arctic proportions, with snowdrifts many feet deep and the road in some places almost impassable.

Previous year’s winner, Percy Flook (Douglas) and Fletcher Owen (Indian), who had been second and third at Volksrust, turned up at Van Niekerk’s farmhouse just off the road at the foot of Laing’s Nek at about half past five and asked for shelter. They were utterly exhausted having struggled down the long hill to the valley in which the farm lay. They doubted whether anyone could pass them and decided to establish an unofficial control at the farm and continue on to Newcastle in the morning. Three hours later Murray (Harley-Davidson) arrived and went to bed in bad shape.

But Zurcher had other ideas. Having heard the sound of the bikes ahead of him, he decided that “where an Indian can go, a Douglas will surely follow” and he pressed on. He was building up a good lead in the conditions, in spite of slithering and falling many times during four unsuccessful attempts to climb Ingogo hill, finally succeeding at the fifth attempt.

Nearly an hour later Flook and Owen, dozing over a fire, were told that a rider had gone by, pushing his machine down the hill. They were convinced it was G T Taylor (Harley-Davidson) who was thought to be the only other rider in the race. A little later a car pulled up at the farmhouse and Murray’s business partner rushed in to tell the trio that it was FAR Zurcher who had gone by on his Douglas, and with the avowed intention of making the Newcastle Control that night.

Flook, Owen and Murray struggled into wet clothing and pushed out after Zurcher. Flook, with his light Douglas, a mount which was, like Zurcher’s, more portable over the bad spots, was best equipped to chase the indomitable leader. Nevertheless he arrived at the control at 2 11 am to find that Zurcher on the 5OOcc springframe Douglas had reached there 1 hr 16 minutes ahead of him.

Through the night and the next day, six more stragglers arrived. Monday resolved itself into a grim chase over the Natal roads. Zurcher flew ahead but Flook gained on him, pulled him down mile by mile until, at Estcourt, when he was just a few minutes behind. But he broke his handlebar in a crash, but continued after he had cut a branch from a tree and fitted it to the handlebar. He had two punctures near Hillcrest and was on the point of collapse but he continued at the entreaties of the crowd.

Zurcher lost 40 minutes with a puncture but still beat Flook to Durban by 37 minutes. Flook had to be assisted across the finish line.

The winning time was 23 hours 18 minutes 20 seconds. Eight riders finished, with the last man, Impey (Indian) being credited with a time of 50 hr 42 min 10 secs.

Most famous of all the DJs, the 1920 “Snowstorm Marathon” won by Fritz Zurcher riding a Douglas. Artist unknown.

The 1920 race conditions were somewhat hazardous.
Drawing by Jock Leyden.

The mud was so deep and glutinous that they had to push their machines downhill! Drawing by Jock Leyden.

Near Estcourt Zurcher stopped to change a tube after a concussion burst and Flook got to within fifteen metres of him before he got going again. Drawing by Jock Leyden.