CAPE TOWN, South Africa — March 10: The baboon's loud sharp bark from the hillside to my right as we flew down hill from the crest of Simon's Hoek did not alter or distract from my focus. Prior near-crashes with other riders had taught me that inattention to the narrow curving two-lane roadway, now falling away to the blue green Atlantic Ocean's edge far below, would not be forgiven.
My primary goal, the same as the thousands of bicyclists in front and behind me, was to complete this race. The route we were riding along the sharp edges of the Table Mountain range at the southernmost end of Africa has great ocean waves almost always in sight and long steep hills and provides a spectacular backdrop for the world's largest timed bicycle event.
The Argus bicycle tour, with more than 35,000 bicyclists, begins and ends in downtown Cape Town. With its great curving bay, overlooked by Table Mountain and Lion's Head, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The Argus, started in 1978 to foster support and development of local bicycle trails, now attracts bicyclists from all over the world. The timing of the ride in the late fall of southern Africa, which is early spring in the United States, generally means mild weather in the low 70s and 80s but is no guarantee. Extreme winds in 2009 blew riders to the ground at the start of the race.
Matt Damon, in town to begin the filming of “Invictus” the following week, rode the tour over the objection of director Clint Eastwood, and the high brutal winds caused a poor showing for the action star and most riders that year. This year's riders rode headlong into a high, southern U.S. Great Plains' type of wind from the south as soon as they passed out of the densely populated portion of the city onto a broad plain.
It added a real challenge as we followed the winding road around a series of great bays to the end of the continent before turning back north, with the wind now at our back on the far southwest corner of Africa.
Professional riders through the years, which have included Lance Armstrong (before his fall from grace), and all the great names from the Tour de France, start at 7 a.m. and complete the 66-mile course in slightly more than 2½ hours. Other riders who have qualified for starting positions through timed rides begin in groups of 800 to 1,000 riders every 5 minutes thereafter.
The bike riders in the “charity” groups that begin at 9 a.m. require no prequalification and also start off in groups of 800 to 1,000 riders.
The charity group we rode with provides college scholarships to underprivileged children and consisted of the usual odd lot of serious and not-so-serious amateur riders. Regardless of their degree of seriousness in completing the race, all riders are subject to being picked up by trailing vans if they do not reach certain milestones in the ride within prescribed time frames. While the best riders completed the race within 2½ hours, the slowest riders took as much as eight hours to finish. The youngest rider to complete the ride was 12 and the oldest rider, who finished his 14th Argus tour in a very respectable time, was 89 years old.
My wife and I started the race riding with my son-in-law and two grandsons who reside in Cape Town and had ridden the race previously. We were constantly bunching and spreading out from the large number of riders, and the concentration required soon separated us.