The Argus (or Cape Town Cycle Tour, its official name), is one of the world’s great bicycle rides. A spectacular 109 km loop south of Cape Town, it skirts the Indian & Atlantic Oceans and finishes at the foot of the majestic Table Mountain. From humble beginnings almost 40 years ago, it has grown to become the largest community ride in the world, with entries capped for the last few years at 35,000. It is a race that caters for all. At the pointy end, it is a prestigious race to win – a must on the South African professionals’ calendar, the best local riders were joined this year by Mark Renshaw, Mark Cavendish and a number of other high-class international riders. Its not just the world’s best, however, that are attracted to the ride. For amateur racers, it offers a unique opportunity to push the boundaries with the luxury of full road closures. Unlike other community rides, which can be quite chaotic at the start, strictly enforced seeding criteria ensures that non-elite riders who wish to race the route are guaranteed to start in a competitive group. Casual riders (fancy dress, BMX bikes, you name it, they are there) are also well catered for, with thousands of spectators turning up to cheer them along the route.
Mark de Castro, ex Cape Townian & a ten times Argus finisher (eleven if you count the year he did it twice) had been hankering for a bike trip back home for ages. He finally put up a notice on the SPR blog late last year & four of us signed up to join him. As a five year club member, I was the newbie of the group – Jerry Ghossein, Mark Schneider, Mike Coote & Mark de C were all riding with the club even before it became SPR. 8,700 kilometres seemed like a long way to go for a day ride so we also signed up for the Tour de Boland, a 5 day race in the week leading up to the Argus.
The Boland race has been on the satellite pro calendar for a few years (Drapac sent a team across this year) but it also has a large amateur section for mugs like us. Monday morning saw us signing on with 500 other riders at Paarl, about an hour east of Cape Town. We were sent off in four groups at 10 minute intervals. Leading out were Jerry & Mike in the 40’s division (starting at the same time as the 30’s and the juniors). Next away were the over 50’s masters, including Mark de C, Mark S & I, grouped each day with the elite women. Last but not least was a mixed bag of open riders, with Mark de C’s brother Bruno, in the pack. A very strong rider, Bruno had only limited training because of a back injury, so elected to take it (relatively) easy in the open (untimed) group. The pro’s followed about an hour later.
The 114 km first stage headed out of Paarl in the direction of Franschoek, home to some of South Africa’s best vineyards & finest restaurants. After a ten kilometre neutral start the pace picked up, so I had only fleeting glimpses of the beautiful township as we hurtled through to the major challenge of the day, the 7 km / 7% climb up the Franschoek pass. Unsure of how my legs would cope with 5 days of hard racing, I took it easy on the ascent, even finding time to take a quick snap of the view en-route. A quick but challenging descent (the road was still open to traffic) led us to an open plain into a horrendous, hot, dry, gusty head wind. It was hard, draining work but our group of three gradually grew to a pack of 10 and we worked well together. The road turned north after 20 km and the wind became kind, blowing us to the finishing line at Worcester, where we crossed five minutes behind the leaders.
Day 2, Worcester to Op-die-Berg, looked like it was designed for me – a few rolling hills to start with then 2 solid climbs, including the Gydo pass @ 80 km for a total of 1,278 m climbing over 111 km. The wind that had tormented us the day before abated during the night. There was no relief, however – our reward was furnace-like conditions. The temperature at Cape Town that day reached 42C, the highest in recorded history. I am not sure what it got to inland but it was certainly a few degrees higher. It was a tough day for riding.
I was determined to keep the leaders in sight for as long as possible so stayed close to the front for the first half of the stage. An attack was launched at 60 km, near the top of Mitchells Pass (a similar climb to Welshpool) and I managed to get onto it and was with a leading group of about 10 riders when we passed through Ceres. Enthusiasm to push the pace in the heat was limited, however, so we slowed down at an improvised feeding / fluid zone (much appreciated fluids from a couple of the escort vehicles) & were caught shortly after by the 2nd group, who rode with us to the base of the Gydo Pass. Two riders (including Paul Kraus, the eventual winner in our age group) got away early on the Pass (10 km /5 %). About ¼ way up the hill I was about 20 metres off a small group of chasers but felt OK and mustered up the energy to bridge across to them. Five of us got to the top together. We had a hot, flat 20 km to go into a breeze. One of the riders, Anton Duvenage, a short, stocky rider with legs like tree-trunks drove the group. I reckon he did 15 of the kilometres at the front, he was like a machine. I managed a few turns to give him a break but the rest of the group sat on wheels. Anton just ploughed on regardless. I felt bad not contributing more, but didn’t feel quite as guilty when I discovered after the ride that he is the current South African champion in both the road & the TT for our age group! I finished the stage strongly and eased off, only to discover that what I thought was the finishing line was just the turn leading to the finish – this mistake cost me a position but I had no complaints about my 5th place, the closest I have ever got to a podium.
Day 3 was the individual time trial, 30km, back down the Mitchell Pass to the delightful town of Tulbagh. I knew I would struggle on this course – I am not a strong time trialer & am a worse than average descender. In addition, my fancy flat-profile handlebars could not take clip-on bars, leaving me sitting up into the (inevitable) headwind. The two leaders, both on dedicated TT bikes, flew past me like I was standing still. Clunk, clunk, down the leader board I fell.
The most prestigious stage of the race, Day 4, Tulbagh to Riebeek-kasteel, was also the longest @ 138km. There was over a kilometre of vertical but this consisted of rolling hills only. I was feeling strong enough to try and push the pace up the biggest bump, a 3 km long rise at the 80 km mark, but it was not enough to split the pack. A strong move 10 km from the finish by Gary Beneke (entitled to rainbow stripes on his jersey courtesy of a 2012 victory in the 50 – 55’s category at the UWCT World Championships at Pietermaritzberg) was enough to give him stage honours. I sprinted for what I thought was 4th spot, only to discover that another rider had snuck away, so ended up with another 5th placing. It was also, I discovered, my position in the GC in my age category at that stage.
The 5th & final stage was a short 72 km back to Paarl, finishing at the Taal Monument (the only monument to a language [Africaans] in the world??). There was no chance of me making up eight minutes on the 4th place getter so I focused on marking the two riders in our group who were just over a minute behind me. The three of us got to the bottom of the final climb together. The monument is on a short, steep hill, only 2.8 km long but at an average gradient of 8% with pitches up to 12%. It was a tough way to finish. I worked hard to hold a wheel, was just beaten to the summit by Jose (in 6th position) but did enough to hold onto my 5th position in GC. I was exhausted but happy.
I wasn’t the only tired Aussie at the finish. Jerard had crossed the line before me, 12th in GC in his category, an amazing effort given he was riding solo against some pretty strong teams. Mark de Castro was next up the hill. Unquestionably the most fearless descender in the club, the highlight of his Tour was a scintillating time on Wednesday’s downhill TT. He also rode strongly on Day 4 and, like Jerry, finished not far off a top 10 position. Mike Cootes, a relative newcomer to the racing game, relished in the conditions. His big frame meant he couldn’t survive the aggressive attacks that featured in his group’s climbs but he seemed to get stronger as the week progressed and recorded a very fast time on the final hill. Mark Schneider was out of form coming into the ride courtesy of an inflamed tendon. He suffered on the 2nd day in particular and was very close to withdrawing but fought on and, like Mike, became stronger on the final stages. Bruno’s back gave him curry and he, too, contemplated quitting but that ain’t the de Castro way and he, too, finished the race proud and satisfied.
Saturday, our rest day, found us at Convention Centre, registering for the Argus. Unfortunately fire had broken out on the Cape and the hot, windy conditions made it difficult for the firefighters to control. Significant property & road damage ensued. The iconic Argus route was inaccessible, so the organisers decided to send us on a shortened, 47km out & back route on the M3, a glorified ‘Freeway Bike Hike’, rebadged as a solidarity ride in honour of the fire crews who had worked tirelessly all week. Given the devastation, there was no place for complaints.
The registration, starting pens, route marshalling & finishing areas were superbly organised. Despite the thousands of participants I didn’t feel crowded or in danger. A couple of minor climbs saw a few riders spat out the back but I managed to stay with most of the group (we started in batches of about 150) till the 2nd last corner leading to the finish. Cav came 6th in the sprint behind Nolan Hoffman. My time (1 hr 10 min) saw me 337th out of just over 32,000 finishers. I was ‘only’ 9 minutes behind Cav. For the 1st time in my life, this gave me the opportunity to directly compare my performance to an elite rider – same road, same conditions, his group left 10 minutes before ours. Initially I was a bit chuffed, as the time gap sounded pretty close to me. Unfortunately I made the mistake of setting my timer to see just how long 9 min really was. It was sobering to realise how far away from the top boys I was, the gap is a long, long, time, particularly given such a short route – I think the chances of a pro team wanting to sign me up are pretty slim!!
After the race Mike, Mark de C and I headed around through Sea Point to ride one of the really pretty sections of the traditional route. Mike was on a mission to make it a 600 km week and he was only 49 km off his target. We had a coffee at Camps Bay and finished with a cruise up to Signal Hill to soak in the views of Cape Town harbour and Table Mountain. We were a little disappointed not to ride the full classic route but this was a pretty good 2nd prize. It was, in fact, even better in some ways, as we had the opportunity to enjoy the coastal views at our leisure, instead of the alternative, race view of a piece of tarmac, a wheel & a lycra-clad butt.
We were also fortunate to have ridden the most spectacular part of the traditional circuit on a recce ride the previous weekend – the 20 km stretch around Chapman’s Peak should be on all cyclists Must Ride Before I Die list, a truly magnificent piece of road carved through a cliff high above the ocean.
It was a fantastic 10 day trip.
Special thanks to Mark de Castro for organising the expedition. He sorted out all the logistics issues, it was almost like being on a guided tour. In terms of ways to improve, I did point out to him that on our Procycling.com trip to Europe last year our bikes were cleaned for us on a daily basis, but Mark unfortunately failed to take the hint and provide a similar service – maybe next trip, Mark?? Seriously, he did a fantastic job. His cousin Patrick kindly provided us with a van and bike trailer – thanks heaps, Patrick.
Thanks also to my wife Robyn & son Brendan for affording me the luxury of the trip, and also to Anthony Giocoppo from Hall Cycle Training, who managed to facilitate a three month program for me that carefully took into account my rotating shifts, let me continue to do my favourite rides and still managed to push me enough to get me fit enough to survive the distances intact.
The Argus has been ticked. Sort of. I got to experience the beauty of Cape Town, the skills and efficiency of the organisers, but I didn’t hop on the plane feeling I had truly ridden the true Argus.
Maybe team SPR will have another expedition in 2016???