The world’s largest timed cycle race, now called the Cape Town Cycle Tour, where riders from all around the world come to enjoy this annual event in March. Formally known as the ‘Argus’, Fiona McIntosh has ridden the iconic event seven times, and also enjoyed the race from the sidelines too at some choice spectator hotspots.
Pictures: Shaen Adey and Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust
I rode my first ‘Argus’, as the cycle race was affectionately known, when it was 20 years old, in 1997. Cape Town had been shortlisted to be the host city for the 2004 Olympic Games but, as a recent immigrant from the UK (and an Olympian), I thought the bid was laughable. With its limited infrastructure, high crime and other social issues, South Africa for me was just not in the running to hold an Olympics.
Then I rode the Cycle Tour. As I pedalled to the start, the music was pumping, the crowds were cheering and the atmosphere was electric. Throngs of excited cyclists were herded into the starting pens by cheery and efficient marshals, strangers chatted happily with one another as they made their final preparations, and I had to admit that the organisation was world-class.
An unbelievable spirit bound the competitors. Here we were, 30 000 people from all walks of life, united by a dream, a unique opportunity – the chance to ride around one of the most beautiful places in the world without having to worry about traffic. Incredible. Any doubts I’d held about the Mother City’s ability to hold major sporting events were immediately dispelled.
The Cycle Tour was somewhat different then, mind you; there was less lycra, most of the back markers were wearing takkies rather than cleated cycling shoes and we had bottles rather than hydration packs. I was riding my cousin’s ‘sit-up-and-beg’ three-speed bike – complete with a basket and bell – and had never ridden more than 20km, but I was elated by the sense of occasion. I’ve rarely felt so buoyant in my life.
The countdown began. “Group OA. Make your way to the start line. Are you ready?” Three, two, one and we were off on a great adventure.
I’ll never forget it. From the start the route was lined with spectators sitting out on the roadsides in their fold-up chairs cheering, braaing, drinking and making merry. For 109km there was barely a square of pavement that wasn’t occupied by locals from all walks of life, many in elaborate fancy dress, singing, dancing and loving every minute of Africa’s premier cycling event.
Despite the euphoria it wasn’t all plain sailing for us riders. The first casualties were evident by the time we hit the N2 out of the city centre – some hapless souls squatted by their bikes changing inner tubes, while others had been derailed by stray water bottles or gusting wind.
By the time we struggled up Edinburgh Drive to the top of Wynberg Hill, I was saddle sore – and the marker boards indicated that there were still nearly 100km to go. It should have been a fast downhill on the M3 but the south-easter was pumping and we had to push hard, glad of the constant boost from smiling faces along the way.
Reaching Muizenberg and the ocean lifted our spirits; so did the clapping crowds that lined the narrow coastal road. A group of amused elderly supporters sat outside the elegant St James Retirement Hotel while scantily clad, tanned beach-goers sipped cappuccinos in the cafés of Dalebrook,
St James and Kalk Bay, sporadically leaping up from their breakfast to cheer on mates, family, tandems, and semi-naked and bizarrely dressed riders. The climb to the entrance of Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve was the next stern stretch before a fast freewheel down to Scarborough, followed by a glorious section of Atlantic Seaboard and on to Chapman’s Peak. The view from the top of the famous pass certainly made the effort worthwhile – on my first couple of tours I actually abandoned my bicycle to enjoy a free abseil off the famous cliffs.
But the highlight of the day was Suikerbossie. We’d heard that the sustained climb from Hout Bay to the top of the hill above Llandudno was the crux, and the incline looked daunting in the sweltering heat of the early afternoon. But the spectators were at their most vociferous and supportive, with several homeowners liberally spraying their garden hoses on valiant cyclists to cool them down.
Suddenly two women dressed in full-length raincoats, stepped into the road in front of us, opening up their ‘macs’ to reveal bikini pants and huge false bosoms. The resulting laughter carried us to the top and on to the finish.
The Cape Town Cycle Tour may be the largest timed road cycle race in the world, but for all its history and tradition it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s primarily a fun event for competitors and spectators alike. Something you should ride or watch at least once in your life.
Be a Responsible Spectator
- The Cape Town Cycle Tour was the first cycling event in South Africa to incorporate a comprehensive Environmental Management Plan (EMP).
- Two-thirds of the Cycle Tour route runs through a National Park and World Heritage Site and the EMP considers any environmental impact the tour might have, including helicopter flight paths, noise pollution, fire risks, traffic management and structural safety on route. The plan ensures that everybody working on the Cycle Tour route is properly briefed.
- Every year after the race, about 150 individuals from disadvantaged communities ensure that the Cycle Tour route is returned to its former pristine condition. They aim to clear the 65m³ metres of rubbish generated by the tour’s 35 000 riders and its supporters within 36 hours, in order to comply with the EMP.
- This multi-faceted plan ensures that every measure is taken to take care of the environment and to ensure the safety of cyclists, and makes Cycle Tour one of the most environmentally friendly events in the country.
- Your contribution can really make a difference: don’t litter, throw away cigarette butts, or make fires along the route. The Cape’s hot, dry weather provides the perfect conditions for fires.
- Do not remove or break rocks, pick plants or feed any of the wildlife. Watch out for foraging baboons and keep food out of sight.
- Be mindful of fynbos. When you drive out to support cyclists along the route, be careful where you park your car so as not to damage the indigenous flora.
I asked David Bellairs, director of the Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust, to help identify the best vantage spots to catch the riders in action and join in the fun of the tour. So if you’re not one of the lucky 35 000 riding the Cape Town Cycle Tour on Sunday 6 March 2016 (and since the places sold out within eight hours there will be lots of disappointed riders out there), pack a picnic, slap on a hat and some sunblock and head for one of these viewpoints along the 109km route.
Top 10 Action Hotspots
- The Start, Hertzog Boulevard – If you live in the city bowl there’s no better way to get in to the swing of things than by walking, hopping on your bike or catching a MyCiTi bus to the start in Hertzog Boulevard. The top riders go under the gun at about 06h00 with the last flight leaving around 10h00 – managing 35 000 cyclists is quite something.
- Edinburgh Drive – Suikerbossie is the one the cyclists dread, but Edinburgh Drive is actually the steepest hill of the Cycle Tour and the resultant slow pace means that this is one of the best places to spot ‘your’ rider. According to David Bellairs, “If they’ve done enough training, the riders should still be beaming broadly at this stage of the race…” Mmm. I must have missed that instruction.
- Muizenberg to Fish Hoek – This is my favourite section to catch the action as the road is narrow, the riders are fairly well-spaced by the time they arrive at the coast and if you don’t want to stake your spot for the day you can flit between the roadside cafés, art and craft shops, beaches and tidal pools, taking in the sea air. Access from the city or southern suburbs is easy by train so that’s a fun way to make a day of it. A word of warning – park your car strategically if you’re planning on escaping the action for a round of golf or whatever that day. I’ve known many a frustrated local ‘trapped’ for the whole morning.
- Simon’s Town Main Road – You can take the train to Simon’s Town, otherwise access is only on foot or bike. Jubilee Square has been a firm spectator favourite for years. It always has a great vibe and there are some great bars and restaurants on the main road and at the quayside.
- Scarborough – With more than half the race under their belt, the riders are grateful for any support on this long, lonely stretch. It’s not the easiest place to access unless you’re a local, but some good pubs and restaurants along the road are reward for your effort and patience.
- Hout Bay – The two flashers that I experienced on my first tour had clearly taken David Bellairs’ advice to heart. “If you live in Hout Bay and haven’t managed to escape the madness early on, take a stroll down to Main Road (corner of Princess and Main, Champan’s Peak Drive) and give the cyclists that much-needed morale and energy boost before they tackle the infamous Suikerbossie…”
- Suikerbossie – By the time the second half of the field comes through, the braais are sizzling and the supporters are hoarse from cheering on the valiant riders. For me, Suikerbossie has the best vibe along the route.
- Camps Bay Beachfront – The spectators along the glamorous Camps Bay beachfront are a bit more refined; this is the place for a lazy lunch or cocktails at one of the strip’s trendy restaurants and bars. But thanks to a temporary pedestrian bridge for the race this is one point on the route where you don’t need to dodge oncoming riders if you want to hit the beach.
- Sea Point – If you want to see the thrills and spills just before the finish line, the sharp left turn from Sea Point’s Victoria Road into Queens Road is ideal. A pedestrian bridge allows you to cross the road here and cheer on the riders as they wind up for the final push.
- Promenade and Finish Line – Despite their exhaustion, most riders manage a sprint finish so the Prom is always a favourite spot to cheer on the heroes and heroines of the day. Expect plenty of emotion, drama and tears from the participants. And when the action is over, hop on the free MyCiTi shuttle service back to the city centre.