THE RIDE The largest timed cycling event in the world
DISTANCE 109km (68 miles)
CHALLENGE Four main climbs and the heat!
The Cape Argus Pick ’n’ Pay Cycle Tour is the largest timed cycling event in the world. It takes place on the second weekend in March each year, on a 109-kilometre (68-mile) circular route from the centre of Cape Town in a clockwise direction around the Cape of Good Hope peninsular. All of the roads are closed for the ride and this includes 20 kilometres of motorway from the start out towards Muizenberg!
It’s not a difficult route by any stretch of the imagination; if you’ve done a UK sportive you won’t have any issues with the Argus route. It’s the scenery that sets this event apart from others in the world. From the quaint seaside Victorian architecture of Simonstown, to the stunning oceanside views along Misty Cliffs and Chapmans Peak, it almost makes you want to amble along just to take in the views. It’s one of the cycling ‘must dos’, alongside Alpe d’Huez and Ventoux — one to ride before you die.
There are four principle climbs: Edinburgh Drive, Smitswinkel, Chapmans Peak and Suikerbosse. None of them are particularly long or steep, with six or seven per cent being the maximum gradient. The wind can sometimes make things difficult when the ‘Cape Doctor’ south-easterlies kick in, although we should be used to windy conditions living on an island in the Atlantic. Unlike UK sportives, it is openly referred to as a race — in fact, the riders from the Giro del Capo road race lead the field away.
Established in 1978 as a protest ride to raise awareness of the lack of cycle routes around Table Mountain, 525 riders took part in this inaugural event. Little did they realise how successful the ride would become, with over 40,000 riders taking part in recent years, including 500 from the UK and around the same number from other EU countries. From live rock bands, to the smell of the ‘braais’ (BBQs), the encouragement from the thousands along the road can take your breath away. At the 18 refreshment stations 50,000 litres
of Powerade, 160,000 litres of Coca-Cola and 50,000kg of ice are consumed.
2008 was my third attempt. My love affair with the ride, Cape Town and South Africa, however, started back in 2004, while taking part in the Gran Fondo Cinque Terra, in Italy. One of my riding partners suggested that we should meet up the following March in Cape Town.
Being an Argus novice, I simply took the starting place that the organisers allotted to me, in the international group — KK, with a start time of 9.02am. I thought that four hours would be a reasonable target. Everything was going well until I got to Smitswinkel, when I hit a log jam and any hope of a decent time went out of the window. So, I just got on with it and enjoyed the rest of the ride, finishing in four hours 43 minutes.
My next visit was in 2007. Lessons learned, I applied for a seeded place and got allocated a start place an hour earlier at 8.02. Despite riding a borrowed bike, with mountain bike pedals and cleats, I managed to knock 50 minutes off my previous time.
My target for 2008 was to try to get below three hours 30. I had the use of a state of the art Museeuw MF5 Hybrid Flax frame, with Campag Record groupset — my first ever ride on the Italian componentry. I had trained a bit harder through our winter and my intention was to carry all of my food and drink, saving time by not having to stop. Registration for the event is held at the Lifecycle Expo — a bike show that matches anything we have here in the UK.
It is situated in the Good Hope Centre on the western edge of the city centre, near to the castle. It’s a domed building which reminds me of the one the Minis drive over in the original Italian Job movie. Entry is free for riders and 20 Rand for other visitors. Clothing from local manufacturers Cape Storm and First Ascent are very good quality and great value due to the strength of the pound.
“Everybody say hoopla!”
Most hotels offer a carbo-loading meal the night before the ride and pre-ride breakfasts from around 6am. The surreal experience as you ride from your hotel to the city centre start area with thousands of other cyclists descending on it like a plague of locusts is weird. This year, I managed an even earlier start at 7.54am. Riders start alternately either side of a dual carriageway going at five-minute intervals. The announcer shouts “everybody say hoopla” and then you’re off!
Under a clear blue sky, with temperatures already in the mid-twenties, the route takes you onto the closed-off left-hand lanes of the M3 motorway, and the timing mats are a few hundred metres from the start, so don’t set your computer going too early. My HAC 4 refused to record, which left me fiddling with it all the way up the first rise of Eastern Boulevard; not a bad thing as the temptation is to go off too fast on this climb. The first descent of the aptly named Hospital Bend needs to be taken cautiously, as speeds of over 40mph can be achieved. The next short rise, with its Dutch-style windmill on the summit, is followed by a fast and tight downhill. I’d started to experience my gears jumping on the lower ratios on the following short climb up Edinburgh Drive, but I didn’t want to waste time stopping so I tackled all of the remaining climbs having to hold the change lever across.
Once over the top of Edinburgh Drive the remaining few kilometres of the Blue Route freeway are somewhat boring and flat. I managed to get into the middle of a large group and draft myself along in relative comfort at around 50kph, conserving energy.
The freeway is left behind via a tight 90-degree left turn, which leads onto Main Road, Muizenberg, St James and Kalk Bay. The road here is considerably narrower with potholes and manhole covers to watch out for. At this point I had my first glimpse of the sea, and luckily this year the wind wasn’t waiting to retard our forward momentum. No sightings of the great white sharks that frequent False Bay; my concentration was on the riders around me as riding standards can vary immensely.
As we reached Fish Hoek, the road became somewhat wider and smoother, and the pack quickened as we raced through Glencairn and past the large feed station at Jubilee Square in Simonstown. As the road climbed past the naval base, I moved to the front of my group in readiness for the undulations of the foothills leading up to the Smitswinkel Climb.
Spectators dressed as penguins greeted us as we passed the turning for Boulders Beach. I didn’t have any fish, so I threw one of them an unwanted banana.
I was amazed the first time I rode Smits, for as well as people spectating, there were also several baboons looking for riders’ leftovers. Made a change from the sheep at the top of the Bwlch!
The summit of Smitswinkel is reached as you pass a large cedar tree on the right and the turn off to Cape Point on the left. As I passed this milestone, I knew I was halfway round and I was feeling good. From here was a chance to relax, take a drink and squeeze off a High5 gel, as the road is straight, relatively flat and shaded. The route heads into the countryside here, with no roadside support, just the company of fellow riders — unlike most other sportives I’ve ridden you always seem to be surrounded by riders on the Argus.
The next significant section comes after the fast, twisty descent to Scarborough and onto the beautiful traverse of Misty Cliffs. This is my favourite part, and this time we rode in shade with a gentle cooling breeze coming off the Atlantic to my left. A short, deceptively steep climb follows and then a nice fast downhill past the Ocean View township. The T-junction at the bottom then leads us on to Noordhoek, while up ahead the signature climb of Chapmans Peak looms into view.
The flat road past the shopping centre needs to be taken with care as the Catseyes are formidable. The first part is steep, but flattens out slightly once you pass the toll booths. If you have time, take in the stunning view along Long Beach, over towards the lighthouse.
Many novice riders think the short descent that follows means you’ve cracked the peak. Not so, as around the corner the remaining two kilometres of the climb appears. Hewn out of the cliff face, the ocean is a sheer drop below, and there’s a vertical rock face on your right.
Thankfully, it’s not that steep, and you are soon over the false summit and heading up the final half-kilometre to the top. Ahead of you is the conical peak of the Sentinel with Hout Bay below.
A fast, open five-kilometre descent follows; you just need to watch out for one tight right-hand bend recognisable by some very rough road surfacing.
The final climb of Suikerbosse is approached along Main Road in Hout Bay. It is in two sections with a slight downhill just before half way. Although only one kilometre long, the main part, at around seven per cent, feels hard, as you are usually tired by now. The support along this section is huge; lots of encouragement to help drag your tired body up this final obstacle. It was hot at this stage, with my recalcitrant bike computer showing 30 degrees, and I’m sure that a mirage of a cold beer appeared in front of me — not long to go now!
Once over the top, it is downhill and then flat all the way through Camps Bay and Clifton. I got into a reasonably fast group along the foothills of the Twelve Apostles. A narrow and tricky left and right brings you onto the final flat few kilometres, but my fellow riders didn’t seem to be going as quick as I would have liked. So, at the 1km-to-go board, I pulled out to the right and launched myself for the line, and for a few minutes I was transformed into Tom Boonen as I crossed the line with a broad grin.
Once I’d collected my finisher’s medal, met up with my partner Val and deposited my steed in the mega bike park, the ice cold glass of beer that followed tasted wonderful, as we relaxed in the finishing village.
My time was three hours and 37 minutes, so I’d shaved 16 minutes off my previous best, but it was still seven minutes more than I’d hoped for. Nothing for it then, I’ll just have to come back again next year.
Flying is the most practical choice. UK flights direct from Heathrow by BA, SAA, and Virgin. 12-hour overnight flights — no jetlag as CT is in the same time zone as Europe. Other airlines such as Nationwide, Namibian, Emirates and Qatar fly from the UK with a stop. Prices can be high (£750+), unless one of the airlines has a sale — we paid £475 with BA. You will need to start looking for your flights in the September before the Cycle Tour, and you will also need to check which companies are offering the best deals on bike transportation.
Airport — Cape Town International is 22km from the centre. Airport-city shuttles are available, and most hotels will organise this. Alternatively, visit the tourism info desk at the airport.
Car Hire — Reasonably priced, 10-day rental of an Astra/Focus-sized car cost us £280. Fuel in March ’08 was about half the UK price. If you’re taking your bike, request a hatchback.
WHERE TO STAY
The most convenient place to stay for the Cycle Tour is in Cape Town city centre or the V&A Waterfront. You are in easy reach of the Expo for registration and can ride to the start. If you do stay further out bear in mind the road closures — these will dictate a very early start on the day. Higher standard hotels are more likely to offer secure bike storage and pre-ride facilities. An online search will reveal dozens of locations in and around the city.
If you’re travelling around South Africa and don’t want the burden of lugging your own bike, it may be possible to rent from one of the Cape Town cycle shops. Numbers will be limited, however, and you will struggle to get anything other than a mid-range model. An alternative would be to get them to store your bike while you’re travelling.
The quality of the food is great. You also get the comfort of brands like HP and Marmite available on the hotel condiments shelf, and bacon the same as in the UK — an echo of British influence from colonial days.
WHAT TO DO
* V&A Waterfront — The old docks, regenerated with upmarket hotels, shopping malls and restaurants
* Table Mountain — Iconic backdrop, accessible by cable car for superb panoramic views of Cape Town and the peninsular
* Robben Island — Island out in the bay where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned
* Kirstenbosch Gardens — Botanical Gardens at the foot of Table Mountain
* Constantia Winelands — Ancient vineyards with traditional Cape Dutch architecture
* Cape Point — Southern tip of the Cape peninsular, with superb sea views from the lighthouse
* Boulders Beach — Situated just south of Simonstown, and home of a colony of Jackass Penguins. Swim and share the beach with them
* Stellenbosch / Franschhoek Winelands
* Oudtshoorn Ostrich Farms
* Cango Caves
* Garden Route Knysna/Plettenberg Bay
TRAVELLING AROUND & TIPS
South Africans drive on the same side of the road as us, and all the road signs are in English/Afrikaans. ‘Robot’ is the local term for traffic lights. Taxis are cheap and safe, but you’re not recommended to use minibuses or trains. Generally, when you park you’re expected to tip the ‘guard’ a few rand. Fuel stations are not self-service, and a windscreen clean is usually part of the service, with associated tip.
Crime, like anywhere else, can be a problem, but you really need not do much more than take all the usual precautions. Know where you’re going before you set off, particularly at night, watch your possessions, don’t walk alone in dodgy areas, and lock your doors at night. Like anywhere else in the world, there are some areas of major cities that are dodgier than others. It is easy to avoid these, however, and still have a good time.
South Africa’s tap water is of high quality so there’s no need to get bottled water to mix with your energy drink. Incidentally, you’re better off taking the powder you use out with you, as British brands are not available locally.