My South African Cycling Adventure

Back in 2013 I took part in the Cape Argus, a 109km bike ride around the Cape peninsular, starting and finishing in Cape Town. The fantastic scenery, smooth traffic-free roads and the thrill of riding with 30,000 others blew me away and I vowed to repeat the experience. Then, during a holiday in 2014, we met a South African 10 year Argus veteran and his wife. Plans were hatched to ride the Argus in 2016 and visit their house in Cape St Francis. I subsequently heard about the Cape Rouleur, a four day cycle event preceding the Argus, organised by Hot Chillee. A feast of cycling was on the cards.

So, in late February this year, I arrived in Cape Town with my precious Cannondale Synapse and was whisked off by the Hot Chillee rep to our hotel base in Franschhoek. On the following day there was a hilly 7.6km time-trial prologue to determine which of three groups we would be riding with on subsequent days. I found the course and the 30C temperature tough and was not surprised to be placed in group three.

The next morning, approximately 80 riders assembled for Stage 1, a 153km circular route with 1367m of climb. Each stage featured timed sections that counted towards ‘sprint’, ‘general classification’ and ‘king of the mountains’ prizes. Each group had three experienced ride leaders who helped us ride safely and efficiently in two by two formation, a support car carrying water and food, a medical car and a broom wagon for those who had ‘mechanicals’ or could ride no further. We also had a team of motorcycle outriders, supported by the local police, who stopped traffic at junctions so that we rode through unhindered by such annoying things as traffic lights. A major issue was the heat, with my Garmin recording an average of 35C and a maximum of 45C. Water stops were frequent as my group completed the ride in 5 1/2 hours at an average of 28 km/hour.

One of the benefits of staying in Franschhoek is that it has some of the best restaurants in South Africa. Coupled with the current strength of sterling against the Rand, prices are at least half those in the UK. Suffice to say that we felt obliged to sample the local food and wine. There were many suffering the consequences as we gathered at 0515 for Stage 2.

The early start was needed to allow sufficient daylight for a 200km loop south to the Atlantic Ocean. There was an option to restrict the ride to 120km by not continuing after lunch and the majority decided that the combination of a hearty lunch, a hotel swimming pool and the incessant heat were a sufficient deterrent to carrying on.

Stage 3 was billed as one for the climbers - 146km with 2858m of climb. It was topped and tailed by the dreaded Franschhoek Pass, 8km of steady upward grind. I had now found my cycling legs and felt strong enough to have spells on the front alongside the ride leader. But after 6 hours of riding I was ready for a massage, a beer and the barbecue prizegiving. On the final day we had the ‘Festival Ride’ a 111km easy ride to a champagne reception in Cape Town and a chance to unwind with all our new friends.

After two days rest it was time for the Argus, now grandly renamed the Cape Town Cycle Tour. It claims to be the largest individually timed cycle event in the world and I’m not going to argue with them. Cape Town literally grinds to a halt as thousands of cyclists from all over the globe descend on it. Mention to a stranger that you’re riding it and your guaranteed an animated conversation about bikes, your start time and your target time. Early start times are like gold dust for those seeking to ride fast, as later ones run the risk of getting caught up in traffic jams of mixed ability cyclists. Fortunately, those who rode the Cape Rouleur get a seeded entry so I was in one of the early groups setting off at 7am from central Cape Town. We set off at high speed on deserted dual carriageways as the sun rose ahead of us. Conditions were ideal, dry, little wind, warm but not hot.

As the packs thinned out, lines of single file riders developed, sometimes formed of four or five, sometimes more than twenty, snaking at high speed past slower groups. On the downhills, a tandem would often speed past and lone riders would jump into the slipstream, moving past them once the road edged upwards again. Supporters and steel bands lined the route, creating as much noise as possible as they shouted encouragement. The sense of fun was overwhelming, carrying riders along a wave of enthusiasm through the many communities and townships on the route. And there is beauty. The views from Chapman’s Peak as you sweep down wide roads hugging the rock face, with the Atlantic Ocean waves breaking on the rocks below, are breathtaking.

The Cape Rouleur and the ‘Argus’ are once in a lifetime must-do events and combining them with a holiday in South Africa was a truly memorable experience.

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