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.
I had been training with my wife for the Argus for months in midwinter Oklahoma. The 20-plus-mile wind heading south felt familiar, but the steep hill climbs followed by exhilarating downhill runs, the winding course and spectacularly diverting scenery did not.
We had familiarized ourselves with the length, variations and difficulty of the various segments of the Argus tour based on its website. The course, closed to all traffic, initially follows a four-lane highway up a long uphill climb out of central downtown before cresting at the foot of one the numerous headlands along the coast.
A large portion of the course follows a two-lane road on the west side that is carved out of a steep escarpment.
The Southern Indian and Atlantic Ocean bays that the racecourse follows include large seal populations and, as a direct result, one of the largest populations of Great White Sharks in the world.
Several are also home to the largest Southern Penguin rookeries in the world. It was breeding and nesting season, and the Argus riders rode by repeated signs warning them to “watch out for Penguins” wandering the roadway. Colorful rest stops and aid stations, manned by numerous volunteers, were spaced every five miles for those riders who needed to stop and refresh themselves.
State helps prepare
While our training in Oklahoma on the rolling hills of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and the flat Oklahoma City bike trails was not adequate for the steep elevation gain and climbs of the Argus tour, it was sufficiently adequate when combined with spinning classes to allow us to complete the race in a respectable time.
Cheering and enthusiastic crowds shouting encouragement lined the race throughout the city and suburban areas. The racial and cultural diversity of Africa, and, frankly, the world, was reflected in the spectators. Blaring rock ‘n' roll, reggae, hip hop music, “homemade” bands along with costumed spectators and characters acting out for the amusement of the passing riders provided a great human collage in addition to the beautiful geography.
The last long hill climbing out of the picturesque fishing village of Haut Bay, just eight miles from the end, almost forced me to stop and walk my bike, an ignominious conclusion that I wanted to avoid at all costs. Another rider struggled beside me up the hill. In our shared misery, we each encouraged the other not to stop and after cresting the hill we took turns drafting off each other in the long exhilarating downhill run that followed. Crossing the finish line in downtown Cape Town was one of those wonderful fleeting moments in life that we all want to experience, but that we all too often fail to seek.
Nelson Mandela observed, “If there are dreams of a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”
While facing all of the headwinds that modern Africa confronts, the Argus bike tour with its worldwide participation is a small showcase of South Africa's ongoing road to goodness, and one that I am grateful to have experienced