Last Sunday saw the 35th edition of the Cape Argus PicknPay Cycle Tour, the planet’s biggest - and perhaps best - mass participation cycling event roll into Cape Town, South Africa. BikeRadar was there to ride it and witness all the action.
The Argus, as it’s popularly known, has long since expanded from its humble beginnings in 1977, now attracting over 35,000 riders in a frenzied race across some of the most scenic roads imaginable. Much like the London Marathon, it attracts riders across the spectrum, from elite men and women, veterans, racing tandems, amateurs and fun riders in fancy dress.
It’s one of South Africa’s biggest sporting events, reflected in the extensive television coverage, the star names it attracts (Lance Armstrong competed in 2010, while Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain and Eddy Merckx locked horns this year) and the degree to which locals train for it. One participant told us they viewed it as their world championships and it's easy to believe when you see the volume of cyclists out getting last minute miles in their legs as late as the day before. Every last one of them is eager to shave a few minutes or seconds off their personal bests, which makes for some rough and tumble action on race day.
The climb up Chapman's Peak shook the racing up throughout the day
The first thing that marks the Argus out from the rest are the mass starts. Riders are seeded according to ability and previous Argus experience, so it's vital to have as high a seeding as possible. Not only will you hurtle along in a lightning fast peloton but you'll avoid the worst of the oppressive afternoon sun (the mercury touched 42 degrees by 2pm). You need to be alert from the gun, as cycling in a bunch of hundreds riding only for themselves can - and did - result in spills that'll put an end to your day before it's begun.
Once you're off the short stretch of motorway (though even that is a novel and fun experience), riding down the coastal roads through Fish Hoek, Simon's Town and Millers Point is an out-of-this-world experience. Add the ascent up Chapman's Peak and the exhilarating passage up the spectator-lined Suikerbossie climb and you have yourself a stunning event, one every road cyclist should move to the top of their 'events to do before they die' list.
Hout Bay is one of scores of stunning views on the Argus's 109km route
The race - and it is a race for South Africans, not just a sportive - is just 109km, shorter than your typical sportive or gran fondo, and with a reasonably flat profile, the pace is furious throughout. This year's winner, Reinhardt Janse Van Rensburg, took the overall win with a sprint finish in a time of just 2hrs 36mins 17secs, so fresh legs and a big engine are vital ingredients to success in the Argus.
BikeRadar had, however, competed in the inaugural Cape Rouleur throughout the preceding week, racking up close to 800km in the process. While the engine had been well and truly revved up, the legs felt like dead weights in comparison to many of our competitors, who've had eyes focussed on Sunday for the last six months.
Speaking of the Cape Rouleur, we urge you to check it out. It's from HotChillee, the guys behind The London-Paris and The Alpine Challenge, transferring their unique format - a multi-stage sportive with three timed sections, motor biking outriders and support vehicles thrown into the mix - into the Western Cape region of South Africa. This year's test event was a huge success with cycling legend and triple crown (Tour de France, Giro d'Italia, World Championships) winner Stephen Roche taking part and will be opened to around 120 people from next year. Considering it was a first event, it has attracted considerable support from police, government and the public, and organisers can no doubt look at how the Argus has captured the public's imagination as it strives to move forward.
Stephen Roche, with HotChillee's Sven Thiele in the yellow lid, at The Cape Rouleur
The local population clearly embrace the Argus, and our passage through each town, village and climb was greeted with rapturous applause and support. They're way ahead of the curve compared to the UK when it comes to this sort of event and there's nothing that comes close. Perhaps the two-day London cycling festival, mooted for next summer, will address things.
We'll have more detailed reports of our experiences at both the Argus and Cape Rouleur in future issues of Cycling Plus magazine.