Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Cape Town cycle tour

Racing over 100km around Table Mountain in the heat – and wearing super-tight Lycra – James Henderson pedals furiously after his youth.

January 02 2012
James Henderson

A year ago, an old mucker pointed out to me, apropos of nothing – “James, mate, ye’re a tub of lard.”

It’s true, despite the best sense of the modern world, that I’m never quite convinced where my next meal’s coming from. But what if, for my 50th year, I was to fight back for a weekend? To take on a physical challenge and stop the slippage. It would burn the blubber and reclaim the muscle.

My cousin has been recommending Cape Argus, a cycling event in South Africa, for years. So, at the risk of becoming a Mamil (to be explained later), I commit to it.

It’s a good day out for any cyclist, but particularly for… well... a bloke of a certain age. One-hundred-and-eight kilometres in the heat, with around 1,500m of ascent, requires commitment and some endurance. Unexpectedly though, it is manageable in a weekend.

FRIDAY 1800

Terminal 5 is heaving. I meet a few others wheeling bicycle boxes to the outsize luggage drop-off; the blokish joshing begins.

FRIDAY 1930

South Africa’s geography is ideal; you get a night’s sleep en route both ways. But before I settle down, I turn my mind to the event ahead. The Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour is the largest (timed) cycling event in the world – 35,000 people enter, including a few famous names in years past: Matt Damon, Lance Armstrong, Gabriela Sabatini. Basically, the course encircles Table Mountain clockwise and ends back in Cape Town.

SATURDAY 0855

In the startling southern African sunlight, winter is suddenly thousands of miles away. We register in a convention centre in central Cape Town, and collect our race numbers and time devices and stock up on energy powder and gels. There is already a buzz. This is familiar territory and the blood begins to run.

But first it’s off to Hout Bay for calamari, on the ocean-facing terrace of the Chapmans Peak hotel. Someone jokes that we will pass this point, probably in pain, in about 20 hours’ time.

SATURDAY 1900

After a short interlude (poolside, prostrate) at our guest house, The Bishopscourt, the group is brought together. Evidently, this is the year that everyone else said yes too. There are 14 of us, mostly business-people who have come for the race and some sun.

In fact it’s like a CEO’s knocking shop around Cape Town. De Beers (recently retired) joins us for lunch, Finsbury PR drops onto the next lounger. Later, Sainsbury’s appears, remarkably fresh from the race. And one member of the party has bought a Tour de France cycling team. Zdenek Bakala, lead investor of BXR, has just purchased Quick Step. He announces that he has team strips for us.

And so we turn into Mamils (Middle Age Men In Lycra). For me it was a close-run thing; just picture a 20-year-old professional cyclist… Even an XXXXL suit would have been a struggle. Luckily, it is a very stretchy material.

SUNDAY 0530

It’s too early for that excited, slightly forced humour that accompanies groups of men under stress. Instead, there is the silence of the condemned. We take a light breakfast and lots of bananas.

The centre of Cape Town is a sea of brightly coloured Lycra and expensive kit. Finally, after weeks of training, it is upon us. I feel a delicious rush of natural chemicals. The body knows what it’s in for. It is daunted, nervous (mostly good nerves waiting to explode) and, above all, keen to get moving. In combination these all translate into a sense of adventure. We shuffle forward in groups of 500 to be released at four-minute intervals.

SUNDAY 0753

After an obligatory group countdown we move off, the nervous energy now powering the legs. It’s a lively affair. Crowds line the roadside as we pass through suburbs, particularly the hill at Edinburgh Drive. There is cheering and laughter ahead as I reach the crest. Lycra leaves little to the imagination, but is that a bloke in a lime-green man-kini..? He’s riding a 1970s chopper, so to speak.

Moments later we cruise down through Constantia on a closed carriageway of the M3 motorway, with the wind behind. We are doing 50kph, just dabbing the pedals to maintain momentum. The kilometres fly by. Hey, I think, if this keeps up… But then I remember. Events have their rhythm and morale goes up and down inversely with the terrain – and the surprises that lurk in wait. Then there is race discipline – I remind myself to drink and take carbohydrate gels.

SUNDAY 0841

We hit the coast and turn south, climbing and descending through countryside, scooting down esplanades and through towns: Fish Hoek, Glencairn, Simon’s Town. And then the course swings inland, and uphill. Our first major climb, just over 100m. Here the graft begins. Straining, we scatter around the road, drawn to momentary shade, passing one another, being passed. Around a corner a baboon looks up at me doubtfully. Part of me thinks he may have a point.

SUNDAY 0938

The back straight. And the mesmerising hum of the chain gang. It’s a strangely sensuous pleasure – silent, working hard, enveloped in the murmur of rubber on Tarmac and the whir of spokes slicing the air. With each revolution the kilometres fade away. That’s 53 down. Suddenly a roar builds up behind us and a peloton streams through – the leading riders from a later start group. I tag along, slipstreaming them for a few hundred yards. It’s a moment of trust, this, 40kph and wheels within a few inches of one another.

Later, momentarily, I am completely alone. I steal a look at the scenery – dry, remorseless and scrubby. Suddenly, over the crest of a hill and we come into mountain shade and Atlantic mist. The temperature drops five degrees.

Determination is often tagged as grim, and it’s true. The race is too long if you’re not up for a challenge. Highlights pass – resupply stations flash by, crowds cheering us along, a band, even – but now it’s sustained effort, grinding the pedals again and again and again.

Chapman’s Peak – 140m of climbing. Grim becomes teeth-gritting, grinding. Twenty minutes of sweat and desperation…

SUNDAY 1041

…and then five of breezy freewheeling back down. Yesterday’s hotel flashes by, breakfasters cheering us on. But then comes Suikerbossie, two measly kilometres long, but 150 remorselessly steep metres to climb, and it’s appallingly hot. I am down to my last couple of gears and uncomfortable, shifting position to vary the strain. Now I get angry. It helps. But still it goes on. For a second I want, more than anything, for this to end. I don’t look up; you shouldn’t. I grind on.

Eventually it is behind me. The route emerges onto a wind-buffeted cliffside, high above the ocean. Energy and a bull attitude return. The kilometres roll away; this is the home straight. Signs flash by, telling us 12km to go, then 10. The thighs are cranking now, lungs working hard. For the body this is pure joy. I attack slopes and push hard downhill. Houses blur past either side and we descend to the ocean, the dazzling sunlight glancing off the chop ahead. Round the bend and we are on Beach Road, Cape Town’s front. With 3km left, I step it up a tiny bit. With the finish approaching, the body happily calls on anything it can find.

SUNDAY 1152

Done. Bullish energy subsides into relief. A physical challenge brings immediate rewards and a shot of endorphins fires into the arteries. I hug a man I have never seen before.

After four hours in the same position, I experience difficulty with the walking thing, but so what? I have hounded down the challenge and defeated it. Life feels good; and yes, that little bit more youthfully, spontaneously, alive. Then other chemicals – carbohydrate and alcohol – suffuse the blood too.

SUNDAY 2050

We lift off for London. Physical exhaustion has its own chemical signature, from depleted muscles. But it feels good – now the body enjoys the regeneration – so I stuff it full… I sleep the sleep of the dehydrated.

MONDAY 0625

Terminal 5. Bleary-eyed people walk around the luggage carousel like cowboys, but in hefting our bike boxes there is a momentary sense of belonging and mutual achievement. Soon, we’re lost in the crowd.

It was a few days later that I met my friend again. “Just broke the four hours, then? OK, James, not bad for an old lardbucket.”

There are some blokish things you’ll never be allowed to escape.