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It’s one of the most iconic pieces of commentary in cycling. Pedro Delgado, in yellow during the 21st stage of the ’87 Tour, had slipped nearest rival Stephen Roche on the ascent of La Plagne.
With cameras focused on events at the front, viewers were given the impression that the Irishman had blown his hopes of victory. It certainly fooled Phil Liggett, as Roche appeared from nowhere to within seconds of the Spaniard on the line.
“Just who is that rider coming up from behind, because that looks like Roche. That looks like Stephen Roche. It’s Stephen Roche who’s come over the line!”
Almost 25 years later, and Roche and Liggett are recalling their memories of that day at a reception in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The evening is primarily to celebrate the end of the Cape Rouleur, event organiser HotChillee’s latest three-stage sportive in the Western Cape, but the anniversary of Roche’s feat is also high on the agenda.
The commentator takes to the stage to offer his view of events, followed by Roche who, after thanking Liggett for his words, wants to correct one small detail. “Delgado didn’t drop me, Phil. I let him go.” The room erupts into laughter, and it’s telling of the Irishman’s competitiveness that he should point it out.
Later that evening and I’m sat with the pair in our hotel bar, along with four-time Cape Epic winner Karl Platt, enjoying some downtime after the muscle-busting 326-mile tour. A raconteur to the last, Liggett is holding court, while Roche is still taking issue with his recollection of La Plagne.
It’s all in good jest though, and typical of what you can expect from the firm that dreamt up the London-Paris and Alpine Challenge rides; legends of the sport mixing with Joe Bloggs enthusiasts in what for many will be the cycling experience of a lifetime.
Sven Thiele flashed a grin from ear to ear. The charismatic South African boss of HotChillee was in buoyant mood as we neared the end of the first edition of his new baby, and it appeared he’d struck gold yet again.
Sven Thiele celebrates at the climax of the the event on the sea front in Cape Town
Since the first London-Paris in 2003, when his team first used their multi-staged format – timed racing sections, motorbike outriders and extensive support crew – his events have become famed for bringing the professional experience into the reach of amateurs.
In 2010, the formula was successfully lifted to the mountains surrounding Annecy, France and now he’s returned home for the Cape Rouleur. With endorsements from politicians and police ringing in his ears, three years hard graft has paid off to a degree that surpasses even his expectations.
Our triumphant return to Cape Town explains his satisfaction. Four days earlier, we’d left the city by car for our tour base 47 miles east of the city. Now, with the event at an end and almost 400 miles in our legs, we’d made the journey back by bike, flanked by the crew that had faithfully shadowed us all week.
Even city police had got in on the act, tearing up ground at madcap speeds to block onrushing traffic. All week the 30 riders had been split into two ability groups. Not today. Our march towards the city had been as one. Sure we were worn out, but it was a moment to savour.
Sitting up with hands off the bars, euphoria washed over me as we hit the straight towards the finish on the sea front, the kind reserved for when I’ve had to push beyond my limits. We’d made it, and soon after, champagne in hand, it was time to reflect on an epic week of cycling.
To The Max
My adventure began in Franschhoek. Our home for the week translates to French Corner, and with its myriad vineyards and street names, it has many echoes of our neighbour across the Channel. After sign-on it was straight to my lodgings, Le Franschhoek, before settling down to priority number one before any long tour: food.
Franschhoek sits in a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains
Joining me was Platt and fellow pro Max Knox, whose name perhaps made him destined to race mountain bikes for a living. I was anxious I wouldn’t have the legs to match them, suffering from the combined effects of a long flight and an English winter.
Searing heat and high winds were forecast, so riding with the more sedate pace of group two looked to be my best bet. Arriving for stage one, it was clear the organiser’s ‘pro experience’ claim was no exaggeration.
With support vehicles packed with mechanics, masseurs and paramedics, the 30 riders on the start line were almost outnumbered by crew. It felt special as they led us out amid a whirr of horns and cheers.
If the crew is the heart of their events, the racing sections are the brains. Yellow, green and red flags, corresponding to overall, sprint and climbing sections, are like red rags to a bull in the way they flip serene riding into adrenaline-charged racing.
The lead rider of each section gets to wear the corresponding jersey the next day, so competition is fierce. But the clever part is these sections are short – up to 10 miles – which means you race knowing once you cross the finish line you can ease off, sit in the bunch and recharge your batteries.
The timed sections bring racing instincts and urges to the surface
These frenetic intermissions provided moments that’ll live long in the memory – some more fondly than others! My favourite was the yellow section of stage three. I’d hitched a lift in the minibus with group two to the start at Gordon’s Bay.
After a near- catastrophic day the day before, I’d willed my ailing body into life again. It was a theme of my week; no matter how badly it appeared to be failing, as soon as I swung my leg over the bike, all was well again.
The ride started by hooking up with Liggett, a long-time resident in the region. In enviable shape at 69, the ‘voice of cycling’ joined us for 10 miles on what he called his favourite stretch of road on the planet.
For an hour or so, as the lumpy road snaked its way along the craggy, wave-battered coastline, it was as close to cycling perfection as it gets. We’d become well acquainted with the region’s menacing winds by now, the ferocious south westerly at times threatening to sweep our wheels away.
As luck would have it, the first flag of the day, a 10-mile pelt through Betty’s Bay, put the wind at our backs – and fire in my belly. Both groups had a ride captain, whose job was to act as mentor and motivator.
Steve Jackson had it down to a fine art, never more so than at flagged sections where his racing instinct kicked in. I initially hesitated at this attack, but I was soon on his wheel thanks to my own competitive streak. I’m glad I followed him too, because for 20 minutes we tore up the tarmac and had an absolute blast. Not previously a racing cyclist, my 2012 licence is already in the post.
My thinking was different 24 hours earlier, when consecutive green and yellow flags put me through the wringer to such an extent I’d have given this licence the ‘return to sender’ treatment.
We’d been climbing for half an hour through the Houwhoek Nature Reserve when the sprint flag prompted all hell to break loose. I was soon alone in no man’s land between the front and back groups and despite several efforts, I decided the best course of action was to sit up and wait for reinforcements.
There was just one problem: I’d put myself too far into the red during the green section, so when the echeloning started to bridge the gap to the front, I was in danger of being spat out the back. It would have been a lonely drag to the finish had a lorry not shed its cargo of grapes all over the road, cutting short the section. I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful of this unexpected bonus to spending time in wine country.
No more red light jumping
If there’s one downside to the ‘pro’ experience, it’s surely the fall back to earth when the party’s over. Like an evening of fine dining in the swankiest restaurant in town, it’s hard to accept that pie and mash will be back on the menu tomorrow. After a week of being ushered straight through red lights, stopping at them on my first ride back in England was a similarly deflating experience.
Our support was first class, no more so than the work put in by the outriders. Like worker bees gathering honey, the team, led by Tom Morton of Britain’s National Escort Group, would swarm over every junction, shut out the traffic, regroup behind and do it all again, time after time.
Their work was just the tip of the iceberg. Ahead of us was the support car, always in close liaison with the ride captains and laden with our food andwater supplies. Trailing us were the mechanics that, with a waft of your arm, would be straight onto any problem needing attention. Also in the mix were the masseurs, increasingly in demand as the gruelling riding took its toll, and the paramedics, with whom I’d become acquainted later…
Getting the cold shoulder
After going hard on stage one, the thought of moving up groups for stage two filled me with dread. The question was whether I could live with the shame of coming halfway across the world and leaving without pitting my wits against Roche and co. It would be my best chance of sticking with them, shorter at 90 miles but with more climbing.
The 109 miles covered 24 hours earlier was comfortably my biggest ride of the winter, so I was in two minds whether I could follow it up with another punishing day in the saddle. The Irishman didn’t help either, talking up the day’s high winds, heat and mountains at the breakfast table. He may be 52, but old habits, it seems, die hard.
I refused to let my apprehension get the better of me and to my surprise reached lunch in fine fettle. The bunch, much larger than group two, rattled along at an energetic pace but sitting anonymously in the middle spared me the work I’d put in the day before.
The timed sections, as ever, ignited the action – until that grape spill – but I still felt strong, until a shuddering impact with a cat’s eye left me in a spot of bother.
Cat’s eyes are everywhere in South Africa – often down the sides of roads. It makes bunch riding hard, and you’re forever trying to avoid them. It’s tricky but if you are going to hit one, make sure you’ve got both arms on the handlebar or you might just pop a shoulder out of joint, as I did 30 miles from home.
The next hour was a blur. Intense pain allied to a ferocious tempo left me hanging on to the bunch by my fingertips and it was only several pushes from Knox that stopped me doing so. A toilet break at the foot of Franschhoek Pass allowed the paramedics to give me something for the pain, but no drug could hide the fact I still had a five-mile climb –and descent – ahead.
The restart saw me dropped and despite the appeal of the motorbike tow I was determined to see it out. Platt, who would go on to win the yellow jersey, didn’t help my mood, hurtling back past me to begin a second ascent when I was scarcely halfway up the first.
Karl Platt held the yellow jersey from start to finish. Well, he is a pro
My shoulder pain eased, but the altitude and baking sun had wrought havoc on the rest of my body. After what seemed an age I arrived, a broken man, at the summit. I could barely stand and the thought of descending gave me an uneasy feeling. Exhausted, I loaded the bike into the van and brought an early end to a breathless day.
End of the Road
Camaraderie is forged on a cycle tour and it was never more evident than at the end of the Rouleur. Riders and crew united in a haze of high fives, hugs and handshakes. I was shattered but would I have wanted it any other way? Spectacular weather, epic landscapes, new friendships and a huge sense of achievement; you can only leave with a smile on your face, no matter how much it hurt at times.
Our week wasn’t about to end on that sea front, though. Perhaps the masterstroke of the event is its scheduling: the beginning of ‘Argus’ week. As the planet’s biggest amateur cycling event, the Cape Argus Cycle Tour sees over 35,000 people gather for a titanic tussle along the breathtakingly beautiful Cape Peninsula. There’s no hotter ticket in town and as a Rouleur rider your name is on the VIP list. It would prove an exhilarating way to end a week to remember.
The Cape Rouleur 2013
- 3-7 March
- Estimated price £1,200
- Includes: airport transfers, four nights accommodation (3-6 March), the three-day tour plus the escorted ride to Cape Town, all lunchtime meals, VIP Cape Argus entry (10 March). An entry-only option will be available, without accommodation, at a reduced price
- Doesn’t include: Flights (current prices start from £900 return), evening meals, accommodation between the end of Cape Rouleur and Cape Argus.
Entries to next year's event will open on the Cape Rouleur website very soon.
2012 route details
- Stage 1: 176km, 1,448m ascent, max gradient 7.9%
- Stage 2: 144km, 2,513m, 10.4%
- Stage 3: 205km, 2,504m, 8.8%
- Ride to Cape Town: 105km