We have been visiting Cape Town for a good few years now and as I was making arrangements for this year’s trip, I was asked if I was not yet bored with Cape Town and the Cycle Tour. It is the same city which has not changed much in 5 years and it is the same Cycle Tour which still goes over the same route (with very minor modifications ) as it has done for years.

This question forced me to think and to actually question my participation in the 2019 Cape Town Cycle Tour. I did take part in this year’s event and the answer is an emphatic ‘no’, I am not yet bored with Cape Town and it’s famous Cycle Tour.
Here is why.

Cape Town itself

I took the earlier BA flight from Heathrow on the Thursday before the cycle Tour and mercifully, I slept almost as soon as the plane levelled off after climbing out of Heathrow. This has never happened to me before and it was a sign of the semi-sickness to come.
Just over 11 hrs later, the Boeing 747 touched down at Cape Town International airport and I was back in the Mother City.

Cape Town is a port city on South Africa’s southwest coast, on a peninsula beneath the imposing Table Mountain. It is in the Western Cape area of South Africa and make no mistake, this is one of the most beautiful areas on this or any planet. The beauty and grand splendour of the place still manages to take my breath away after 5 straight years. Some of the views of Table Mountain from the coastline and from the mountain itself still manage to captivate me.
I’ve always thought that if God lived on earth, he’d definitely have an apartment in Cape Town.

“If God lived on earth, he would have an apartment in Cape Town.”

Cape Town has everything, stunningly beautiful coastline and beaches, lush vineyards in the wine-producing areas of Stellenbosch, Frankschhoek and Paarl, all overlooked by the most famous Cape Town landmark, the flat-topped Table Mountain. I discovered there were fourteen different wine routes in the Western Cape region. I will just have to visit them all.

I spent the Friday settling in, working from home (WFH) or more accurately, working from Cape Town (WFCPT). I then went to pick up the new Sigma 24-70 ‘Art’ lens which was more expensive and unavailable in the UK.
I then lovingly assembled my bike and did a ‘bike check’ ride to Camps Bay for a late lunch.

It was a good first day.

The history of the place

“The area known today as Cape Town has no written history before it was first mentioned by Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias in 1488. The German anthropologist Theophilus Hahn recorded that the original name of the area was ‘||Hui !Gais’ – a toponym in the indigenous Khoe language meaning “where clouds gather.” A very apt toponym. The clouds gathered over Table Mountain are visible for miles.
I do not need to give you a lesson on Cape Town’s (and South Africa’s) more recent dark history. That history is evident almost everywhere you look, you just have to scratch the surface to reveal signs of it everywhere. It is physically present in the relics of a bygone era and in the psyche of the people.

Robben Island is just boat ride from the port behind the V & A center, and I dare anyone to visit the place and not be moved by the eerie beauty and the weight of history that is so palpable, you feel you can touch it.

“If you are not touched by the eerie beauty of Robben Island, you have no soul.”

The food

Have I mentioned the food, the glorious food? especially seafood? I ate at my favourite Seafood restaurant, and one of the best restaurants in Cape Town, Willoughby & Co, every single day. If you ever visit Cape Town and you happen to be in the V & A center, make sure you visit this restaurant and ask for one of their most popular dishes, so popular it is not even listed on the menu anymore: ‘Five by Five’.

There are so many fabulous restaurants serving the most sumptuous food and seafood platters. There is one particular beach bar and restaurant not too far from the V & A center, the ‘Grand Africa Cafe and Beach, where we all meet for the ‘after race’ nourishment and banter.
There is something quite special about eating with friends at this very spot after the race. I think the company, the occasion and the fact that the food is usually free courtesy of our ‘Elder’, make the food ‘sweeter’.

The social scene. The people

Cape Town also has a vibrant and amazingly diverse nightlife. The Cape Town social scene is worthy of a article on its own. Seriously, it does.

I will devote an entire article to the social and sporting activity scenes one of these days. There is always something to do in Cape Town, from the moment you get up all the way to the early hours is you so choose.
There are sports activities, adrenaline activities like shark cage-diving, hiking and of course, on-road and offroad cycling.

“The C60 is one of the best bikes ever made”

There are also the people you meet. I’ve met arguably the G.O.A.T, Eddy Merckx, Magnus Backstedt and the Eurosport commentator, Phil Liggett.
I’ve received so many different invitations to training camps and establishments run by ex-pros in Mallorca. Many of these meetings and invitations were simply because of the bike I was riding, an ‘Art Deco’ Colnago C60. A 2015 bike that still prompts appreciative horn toots from passing drivers and causes me to regularly engage in conversation with complete strangers.

This is partly why I consider it one of the best bikes ever made, the Specialised Tarmac and the Trek Madone are two of the best race-bred machines you can buy, and objectively, they are faster than the C60, but they cannot literally stop traffic like a Colnago C60 does.

The Cycle Tour

The Cape Town Cycle Tour, the reason many cyclists visit Cape Town, is the largest, timed bicycle ‘race’ in the world attracting over 30,000 cyclists at its peak. The one thing you can guarantee with this event is drama. This event has always proved to be an eventful race for all sorts of reasons including political and social unrest, natural disasters such as bush fires and the most consistent factor to affect this race: the wind, also known locally as the ‘Cape Doctor’.

“The Cycle Tour is as hard or as easy as you make it”

I often wondered why the strong, often persistent and dry south-easterly wind that blows on the South African coast from spring to late summer was known as the ‘Cape Doctor’. I found out it was because the locals believe it clears Cape Town of ‘pollution and pestilence’. It has often cleared Cape Town of cyclists too! The winds were well over 100 kph a few years ago when the organisers wisely decided to cancel the race that year. This year’s event was also threatened by the wind, where gusts of 75kph were expected. Yikes!

This year’s event was in doubt until the morning of the race itself. Many entrants had decided that ‘discretion was the better part of valour’ and refused to line up at the start because of the windy conditions. Some mocked such people as ‘scaredy cats’, that it was just a bit of wind and if kids and the elderly were brave enough to face the winds, surely they should be too?

There is another way to look at it: it takes a certain kind of courage to train for months, fly 6, 7, 11 hours and spend thousands on flights, bike equipment and accommodation and then decide NOT to take part.
I, personally, cannot mock anyone that DNS (did not start) the race.

The ‘Race’.

Many ‘race’ the 109km course, with a sub-4 hour time being the minimum requirement for us, but the holy-grail target time is sub 3 hours. My target for this year’s Tour was a sub 3:30 but that really was out of the question for me given the predicted gusty conditions.
Many do not ‘race’ the course and are just joining in the pageantry and frivolity of this event. Many do the race for charity wearing the most ridiculous costumes and add a certain charm to the event.
Everyone gets the same medal at the finish line.

“I say again, the Cycle Tour is as hard or as easy as you make it.”

The course starts in the city center past the Cape Town Castle for the first time in 35 years, up the motorway past UCT and Newlands Forest and on to the suburb of Simon’s Town. You then head to Smitswinkel and the entrance to the Cape Point Nature Reserve. The course then winds its way through Scarborough and Misty Cliffs where you are treated to gorgeous views of the ocean, then it is on to Fishhoek and South Easter before you climb Chapman’s Peak before descending into Hout Bay and then on to the last significant climb of the day: Sukerboisse. This section can make or break one’s hopes for a good time.
Once you have tackled Suikerboisse, you then hit the last 15km of fast downhills and flats all the way to the finish line in the city center.

On the morning of the race, as I emerged from my city center hotel to ride the few hundred meters to my allocated pen, I was hit by some strong gusts and I knew that it would be a tough day.
At 7:23 AM, after the customary shouts of ‘HOOPLA!!!’ from the annoucer and the riders, we set off.

“Everybody say HOOPLA!!!”

There is barely time to warm up before you hit the first climbs of the day on ‘Nelson Mandela Boulevard’, Hospital Bend and Edinburgh drive, the latter steeper than the former, but mercifully, both are less than 2km’s long. We then began the usually fast 25km to Simon’s Town. This is where the ‘Cape Doctor’ dealt us the first real body-blow after softening us on Mandela Boulevard. There are a few things you need to post a good time on this course, you need an early start time, so you can take advantage of fast groups coming behind if you cannot hang on to the fast groups you started with and you also need calm winds.
I had neither.

I was still pushing hard, hoping that somehow, I’d be able to achieve a time below 3hrs 30 mins. Ha! We pushed hard, through Simons Town, and then onto to the long drag to Smitswinkel which proved to be the toughest section so far. The headwinds here were absolutely merciless and relentless, and I often found myself alone, or at the head of the peloton and the alarm bells for my 3:30 time were ringing. I often saw my power figures above 300 watts on the flats and I was barely doing 25kph..

I continued pushing as we hit the 1.65km Smitswinkel climb and then plunged down the other side to tackle the short test of Red Hill, before the short respite of the descent into Misty Hill. We had now covered 60 tough kilometers, mostly into seemingly relentless headwinds. I now had to tackle about 20 ‘rolling’ kilometers to the foot of Chapman’s Peak. As I approached Chapman’s peak, I reappraised the situation. I had done as much as could be expected of a lone rider in such headwinds and I was now paying the price. The ‘Cape Doctor’, along with a lingering illness had ensured that my goal of a sub 3:30 time will remain unrealised for another year at least.

It was time to raise the white flag.

“It is all about the view”

I cruised up the twin peaks of ‘Little Chappies’ and ‘Chapman’s Peak’ and for once, I was able to enjoy the views. I’ve ridden this climb a few times now and the views are still as breathtaking as the first time I rode up Chapman’s peak. I can never become blase about such a view as it surely is one of the most beautiful roads anywhere. I somehow managed to post my second-fastest time up this famous 5km climb according to the information provided by the graceless strava ‘live segments’ function on my Garmin.

It is a very fast and tricky descent from Chapman’s Peak to Hout Bay and things were made far trickier by the powerful crosswinds. You had to give other riders a wide berth as the winds can cause a severe change of trajectory for you AND them. Crashing at those speeds would have severe consequences.

“Suikerbossie: The last climb”

The last real test of the route is the 1.5km Suikerbossie climb which can be a real test if you are really pushing but conversely, you know that the finish line is 15, very fast kilometers away from the top of the climb. I usually really enjoy this section as it fast and flowing and you can ’empty the tank’. This year, the headwinds made it a bit of a test, I remember pushing out 320 watts and I was only doing 28kph downhill! Luckily, I was able to latch on to a fast group (where were you when I needed you earlier?) and we took turns pulling the train through Camps Bay and all the way to the finish line.
What a ride! It was easily my toughest but slowest Cycle Tour.

So my dream of a sub 3:30 time remains unrealised and as I looked for my friends at the finish line, I thought to myself :
“I love this place, I’ll be back”

In Memoriam

There is one more personal, reason Cape Town is special to me. I was in Cape Town this time last year when I got the sad news that my mother had passed away. Cape Town is now intrinsically linked to her passing and I celebrate her life every time I visit this place.
May her soul rest in peace.

Till the next time.