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Under the southern sun: Cape Town Cycle Tour sportive

Susannah Osborne
6 Sep 2016

There may be longer and more challenging sportives, but few have scenery and history like the Cape Cycle Tour in South Africa.

There can be few events where the chances of spotting a penguin are pretty high. I’ve been told to look out for them as we pass Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town on the False Bay Coast, just south of Cape Town. However, it seems that they’re hiding, which is disappointing but understandable given that I’m one of a 400-strong group of riders that’s passing their colony at 40kmh, and that another 30,000 cyclists are set to roll past during the day.

The Cape Cycle Tour has been on my agenda for several years, and this is my second attempt at it. In 2015 severe bushfires broke out along the city’s south peninsula and, fanned by gale-force winds, engulfed 3,000 hectares of land, destroying many homes. As a result, the Tour was shorted from its usual 109km to 47km, which given the 6am start meant I was in the hospitality tent by 7.45am. This year, with an extra 62km to cover, I’m guessing it will be mid-morning at least before I can retire in the sun. 

It all started in 1978 when two locals, Bill Mylrea and John Stegmann, organised the Big Ride-In, a protest ride to highlight the lack of cycle paths in South Africa. Several hundred cyclists set out on a route from Strand Street in the city’s central business district to Camps Bay, a wealthy suburb with a stunning white sand beach and a plethora of seafood restaurants.

Affectionately known as The Argus (local newspaper The Cape Argus is still a sponsor), it was a casual ride where cyclists stopped on the side of the road to enjoy picnics and jumped into cars when the uphill sections grew tiring. 

Today around 30,000 cyclists take part in the Cape Cycle Tour (it was rebranded in 2014) and while many continue to take a relaxed approach to the event, there are also elite races for men and women. At one time the race formed the final stage of the Giro del Capo, a five-stage pro race that ran from 1992 to 2010, ridden at one time by Chris Froome and Alexander Vinokourov.

Pre-Tour nerves

By a large degree of luck and a small dash of fairy dust I came sixth in last year’s Elite race, which gives me an eye-watering start time in 2016 of 6.17am. Luckily my hotel is within a stone’s throw of the start, although it still requires  painful wake-up call of 4.30am.

By the time I emerge bleary-eyed from the hotel the streets are already awash with light and sound. The air is cool and thankfully still – in previous years winds of up to 120kmh have plagued the event, and YouTube clips show riders being blown off their bikes and Portaloos upturned, sometimes while occupied. 

As I spin along to the start line, thousands of cyclists are already in place. Today in Cape Town the car is definitely not king. Streets are closed, barriers are in place and the only way to get around is by bike. It feels more like a carnival than a bike race: music is bouncing off the walls of the high-rise buildings, announcements are being made over the loudspeaker system and a couple of clowns on stilts are pacing around. 

At just after 6am the Elite Men set off from Hertzog Boulevard to begin the 109km route. For African cyclists the Cape Cycle Tour is significant. Not only is it a chance to ride with WorldTour pros – Mark Cavendish rode the event last year – but it’s a chance to get noticed. Cycling has become big business in Southern Africa. A big upsurge in interest came after the launch of MTN-Qhubeka (now Team Dimension Data), the first African ProContinental team and the first to take part in the Tour de France. 

The knock-on effect of this surge in African pro cycling is that where long-distance running was once a ticket out of poverty, now there is cycling too. Velokhaya is a charity working in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town’s notorious Cape Flats. The charity works with children, offering cycling as an after-school activity, steering them away from gangs or drugs. Dimension Data’s Jim Songezo, the first black South African rider to compete in the Vuelta a Espana (2015), is a graduate and when he’s in town he still visits the charity’s cycling centre.

As I reach the first climb I’m feeling decidedly un-pro. The first 20km are on the M3 out of Cape Town, and this three-lane highway features a series of cruel ramps that last anywhere between a few hundred metres and a few kilometres. Hospital Bend is a major junction that curves around the grounds of Groote Schuur Hospital, and at 3.7km it’s the first real climb.

Despite a group of pink angels with pom-poms cheering us on, I can’t quite access those fast-twitch fibres to kick up the hill. My legs are flooded with lactic acid but I grit my teeth, knowing that if I lose contact with the group now I can pass up any hopes of a good time.

There is a belief among many racing cyclists that a sportive is not a race, but this event really is an anomaly. As we ladies crest the summit of the climb we are engulfed by 350 of the fastest men. Seeding is based on your time in previous editions, or from your time in a qualifying event, such as Ride London. These are the guys who are hoping to ride the 109km in well under three hours – the benchmark time for a ‘good’ ride.

With this influx our group has now swelled to just shy of 400 riders and I’m surrounded by glistening legs plastered with embrocation, aero frames and the latest deep section carbon wheels. I am in a man’s world. 

Another cruel spike to the top of Edinburgh Drive is enough to make me ask why at 6.31am my heart rate is 185bpm. Turning left off the motorway we head through Muizenberg and towards False Bay, and I’m really feeling the miles. I’m doing the Cape Cycle Tour off the back of the Cape Rouleur, a five-day event in and around Franschhoek in the Western Cape, organised by HotChillee. Entry into the Cape Rouleur guarantees a slot on the CCT. 

As the road narrows we fight for space but out of the blue I see the familiar faces of the HotChillee Ride Captains – four of the guys are locals and some have competed in this event more than 15 times, so I latch on to their wheels.

The Atlantic is now just a few metres to my left. We’re rolling at around 42kmh and after the frenetic start my legs are finally beginning to feel good. I weave my way up to the front of the group, aware that I’m one of several hundred riders and that the back of the bunch is not a good place to be if splits start to happen. 

We’re riding in silence – a result of the early start and the concentration required to stay upright – and the only sound is the whir of wheels and friction of tyres on the road. But then someone shouts, ‘No ladies at the front, please.’ I’m so flabbergasted that I’m tempted to stop, lay down and chain myself to my bike in the middle of the road in protest. Unable to establish just who made the comment, however, I instead roll back to the middle of the bunch, dumbstruck. 

Minutes later there’s a screech of brakes and the familiar sound of carbon shearing into multiple pieces. Those ahead of the pile-up head off up the road, while the rest of us come to a halt. I look up and I know the chances of me getting back onto the front of the group are now pretty slim. If only I’d stood my ground.

Wild scenes

From this point on I make a decision to enjoy the race rather than race the race. The penguins have not made an appearance – they’ve clearly decided to take it easy, so I follow suit. After all, from here on in the scenery is hard to rival. 

The Smitswinkel climb runs south, skirting the Swartkop Mountains, and takes us into the wilds of the Cape Peninsula National Park at the southwestern tip of the continent. Travelling southwards the land gets narrower and narrower until it disappears into the ocean, with only Antarctica beyond.

At its tip are Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, feared by sailors and said to be where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet (although this is not strictly true – that’s actually at Cape Agulhas 170km to the east).

The climb is 3km long, and just hard enough to hurt, but with the waters of False Bay lashing the shoreline below to my left it’s a stunning, if painful, ascent. The National Park covers 10,928 acres and is home to 2,256 species. It also contains a protected area of natural scrubland, named fynbos, which is unique to the Western Cape. A permit is required to access the park and so we are privileged to be able to cross it for free. 

Turning west at the top of Smitswinkel we turn for home with 58km of the route left to ride. The gallop for the finish starts with a spectacular downhill, albeit into a headwind, towards Misty Cliffs. It keeps me digging deep, despite my flagging enthusiasm for riding fast. 

Misty Cliffs is a vast, arc-shaped bay where the waves from the cold Atlantic hit the shore, creating a fine spray that coats my skin and hugs the road. It’s a wild, beautiful place where cliffs tumble down to a pan-flat road. The kilometres are ticking by now, but ahead are two of the Cape Cycle Tour’s hardest challenges – Chapman’s Peak and Suikerbossie. 

The road from Hout Bay to Noordhoek is widely considered to be one of the most scenic in the world. The sinewy, 9km sliver of Chapman’s Peak Drive is cut into sandstone cliffs, and as we climb the whir of our pedal revolutions is just audible over the noise of the ocean crashing onto the rocks hundreds of metres below. The road is in the shade, which comes as a relief, given that the emperature is now hitting the high 20s and it’s not yet 9am. 

The wonderful descent into Hout Bay is pretty close to perfection as a race track of a road leads to the bottom of the final climb. Suikerbossie is not only hard to say, it’s hard to climb, especially after 89km of fast riding. And while it’s only 1.8km long, it averages 6.7%, but it’s here where we begin to experience the spirit of the Cape Cycle Tour. Despite being breakfast time for your average Capetonian, the road is lined with spectators, some with sound systems, some in fancy dress, some taking a nap in the deckchairs they’ve set up for the day. The joy and goodwill is infectious and energising.

In the last 15km my race face returns. The road is a series of spikes and troughs through Llandudno past the Twelve Apostles, the southern end of the sandstone mountain range that starts with Table Mountain and continues towards Cape Point. We pass through the affluent Camps Bay with its alfresco cafes and through the narrow streets of suburban Cape Town, until we dip back down to sea level. 

By now we’re 2km from the finish and the atmosphere is tense once more. The very last obstacle to negotiate is a sharp right-hander off a roundabout lined with straw bales. It’s too much for one competitor, who over-cooks it and carries straight on into the barriers. This is a proper run-in, the stuff of pro races where the lead out trains would be in full flow, and it’s an exhilarating way to finish. 

Instead of heading straight for the hospitality tent, a few friends and I decide to ride another lap – well, half a lap. It turns into a rescue mission as we push weary riders up the hills, repair punctures at the roadside and help to dish out water and food. In many ways this lap is more special than the first. These are the people who ride once a year at the Cape Cycle Tour, the people who raise thousands of rands for charity, who rise to the challenge, who push their disabled children the full 109km of the route, and who enjoy every second of this carnival of cycling. 

Whether it’s a race or a sportive doesn’t matter. This is sport for all.

Rider’s ride

Cervélo S5, £7,299, derby-cycle.com

The S series of bikes started life 16 years ago with the Cervélo Soloist, which lays claim to being the world’s first true aero road bike. In the following years, Cervélo spent a lot of time locked in a wind-tunnel and the result is the current S5, which in my opinion is in a league of its own. Cervélo claims its attention to aero detail will save you an extra five watts of power at 40kmh. I can’t confirm that, but the ride is stable and intuitive, cornering is a dream and the bike is very, very fast.

There’s a small price to pay in terms of comfort. British potholes can shudder your bones on the S5, but on the smooth tarmac of Cape Town this bike was perfect. I used a set of Edco Umbrial wheels (£1,999), which proved to be light, stiff and a perfect accompaniment for the S5 frame. 

Do it yourself

Travel and accommodation 

Cape Town International Airport is a 20-minute transfer from the city centre. BA offers direct flights to Cape Town from London Heathrow, while Virgin and South African Airlines fly via Johannesburg. Taxis and transfers are available from the airport.

Cyclist travelled with HotChillee (hotchillee.com), whose event The Cape Rouleur takes place the week before the Cape Cycle Tour. Entry into the The Cape Rouleur guarantees entry to CCT.

We stayed at Southern Sun The Cullinan (tsogosun.com/the-cullinan) in Cape Town’s Waterfront. The hotel group is an official sponsor of the event and provides bike racks, a mechanic and early breakfast on the day. Best of all, the hotel is around 500m from the start. 

Thanks

Many thanks to Jane and Charlotte at HotChillee for organising our entry, and to Nicole Felix at Phoenix Partnership (phoenixpartnership.co.za) for all her assistance. Thanks also to Phil Liggett and his wife Trish. Phil is patron of Helping Rhinos (helpingrhinos.org), a conservation and anti-poaching charity working in Southern Africa. For more info on the Velokhaya charity, go to velokhaya.com.

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