Sunday, March 8, 2009

Riding the Cape Argus

Friends: From the very moment I slipped in amongst the Cape Argus riders a couple blocks beyond the official start line in downtown Cape Town I could tell this was being treated as a race and not a recreational ride by its participants. Everyone was hauling ass, trying to get out to a quick start. All focus was on pushing the pedals, not having a chat with friends or strangers.

Rather than one huge mass start, groups of about 500 cyclists each were released every couple of minutes, enabling them to settle into manageable mini-pelotons. The first group set out at 6:15, even before the sun had risen. I lingered at the start area for an hour letting myself be boggled by the amassing thousands of cyclists, all seeking out their designated, high fenced-in starting pen. Each looked like a corral in a huge stockyard crammed with animals awaiting the slaughterhouse.

There was consternation on the faces of many, as the Cape's legendary gale force winds had blown in during the night and were whipping about with a vengeance. Gusts of up to 55 miles per hour were recorded. As I talked to a helicopter rescue worker at the start line, we had to brace ourselves against the fencing to remain upright. I knew such winds, known as the Cape Doctor for their cleansing effect on the air, are a fact of life in Cape Town, near where the Indian and Atlantic oceans converge, coming up from the Antarctic, but these seemed extreme. These winds would make it nearly impossible to hold a line when coming from the side.

I wondered what it would take to cancel or delay this event, if this wasn't enough to do it. The director of the event later admitted that these conditions were his worst nightmare, and there were those who advised him it was too dangerous to ride. He did send out some early test riders. As luck would have it, the first few miles of the course were directly into the wind, so it would just drastically slow down and spread out the field. By the time riders reached portions of the course where the wind came from the side, they would be spread out enough that they weren't so likely to be blown into each other.

Even if riders wished to be sociable and get off to a relaxed start, it was impossible in such conditions. It took an all-out effort to push into the wind. At the finish line the announcer kept congratulating the riders passing by for completing "the hardest Argus in history." The winning time was two hours and 46 minutes. Its usually around two hours and twenty minutes.

The wind was like a wall of air, blowing through and around the riders. Drafting hardly made a difference. I was having a helluva time keeping anyone's wheel. My heavy touring bike with fenders and racks and handlebar bag and extra durable wheels and tires was like being astride an oxen compared to all the super light-weight stallions all around me. I was a most blatant interloper riding such a beast and without a number on my back or Lycra for shorts or jersey. It was over an hour before I saw another "bandit", a guy wearing a pink T-Mobile jersey who blended in much better than I did. The rescue worker warned that I'd be evicted from the course, so I was under pressure to keep up with and blend in with my fellow riders, as there were marshals all along the course and on the course patrolling it on motorcycles.

But bandits such as me were so uncommon, the marshals must not have been on the alert for them. It would be inconceivable for most South Africans to unofficially ride the Argus, as they wouldn't receive an official time or have their name listed in the newspaper. Only three or four riders gave me a tsk-tsk and just one along the course, who observed, "Uh-oh, no number." I received many more passing comments of "I like your bike," not only from riders, but from people along the route. Someone even blurted, "I love your bike."

There were assorted announcers along the route, entertaining the riders and the spectators. I provided fodder for them, as my handlebar bag and attire captured their attention as I approached. I was in my usual touring uniform of button-down, long-sleeve, cotton/polyester shirt with the sleeves rolled up and somewhat baggy polyester shorts. One jokester asked, "Where's your riding outfit?" Another quipped, "He's on his way to work, that guy." Someone else commented, "Great power on that old bike." My bike is only four years old, but with over 40,000 miles on it, it is aging fast. The owner of the Revolutionary Cycles bike shop in Cape Town, who sells shop t-shirts with the image of Che, also commented that it looked like I needed a new bike.

The Cape Argus newspaper posted a set of signs along the route offering encouragement to the riders and also emphasizing that this was a race and not a recreational ride. "Feel the Burn" was posted on the climbs and elsewhere. "No pain, no gain," was another. And "Let your legs do the talking" was a sharp reminder to shut up and ride.

It wasn't until two-thirds through the ride that I had more than a two or three word exchange with another rider. When someone directed a comment towards me, such as, "That's the first rack I've seen," I thought it might be an invitation to a conversation, but each rider just sped on by, intent on having a respectable enough time to put them in the upper 10 or 25 per cent of riders, or whatever their goal might be. Everyone has a year to stew over their time, knowing that if they had just ridden two or three or ten or twelve minutes faster, they would have finished ahead of another 500 or 1,000 riders.

When a guy on a mountain bike with slick tires asked, "Where's your panniers?," I replied, "I nearly brought them, but I feared they'd make riding in this wind even more dangerous." "You're right about that," he said, and suddenly I was engaged in a conversation. He said he mostly rides off road and that this is about his only ride on pavement or with a group all year. He added that he didn't share or care for the gung-ho attitude of just about everyone else on the ride. This was his fifteenth Argus. He was the first rider to tell me these were the worst conditions he had ever ridden in on the Argus, worse even than 2002 when the race was halted at two p.m. with the temperature over 100 degrees. There were times when the wind was so strong we were nearly brought to a standstill or were forced off our bikes because it threatened to blow us over. There was no faking it or coasting along on this ride. Either your legs had it in them or they didn't. He said he saw quite a few petite women riders at the start who decided to bow out. Usually about 15% of the starters fail to finish. He expected it could be twice that today.
One of the reasons I contemplated bringing a pannier, even though it would have made me even more conspicuous and could have been enough of an insult to all these serious riders to rally them against me, was to harvest water bottles. I could have easily filled all four of my panniers with discarded water bottles along the route. It was overcast and cool, so people who started out with two bottles weren't reluctant to toss one aside after they'd drunk enough from it, rather than refilling it at one of the many refueling stations. Many bottles jar out of a rider's holder and others end up along the road when riders too hastily return them to their cage and miss. The road is generally too congested with riders for anyone to safely stop and retrieve their bottle. But with the riders spread out in groups, I could ride at the back of a group and stop for a bottle if I wished. The temperatures were mild enough that hardly anyone was stopping for drink at the 18 aid stations. There was so much drink to spare, riders could fill their bottles from the two-liter jugs of Coke, Orange Fanta or a blue Powerade drink that lined the tables rather than just grabbing an already filled paper cup.

Many kids along the route were scavenging water bottles. I had room for just four, one in my third cage on my frame and three in my handlebar bag. I succeeded in finding bottles from South African bike shops or companies as I was hoping for, including the Absa Bank, the largest in South Africa, and the Ryder bicycle part company. They could well be my favorite souvenirs of this trip.

On the final two mile climb, the Suikerboissie, ten miles from the finish, my conditioning from riding 3,000 miles this past month-and-a-half let me shine. On all the climbs I more than kept up with the flow, unlike on the flats or descents, but on this one I was passing literally everyone and without really trying, just maintaining a comfortable tempo. It was in an urban area, unlike the previous climb, Chapman's Peak along a rugged cliff side that had such a strong danger of falling rocks that it was otherwise closed. This climb was thickly lined with picnicking and partying spectators, as if it were the Tour de France. I had been receiving extra attention and hoots all along the way, but even more pronounced here, making my legs spin even easier.

I still had a touring cyclist's mentality on the descents, pretty much coasting down, conserving my energy for when it mattered, while everyone else attacked, putting it in their biggest gear, pushing hard. I was proving that I am more of a climber than a rouleur.

As we neared the finish, through affluent suburban seaside towns, a new set of signs emerged--"Come On--You're Almost There." All day long people along the road shouted out "Well done" and "Keep Going." After the finish line there were "Well Done"signs posted just about anywhere a sign could be strung up. It is a popular South African refrain as an expression of respect accorded those who have accomplished something out of the ordinary similar to the "Bravo" of the French and "Good on ya' mate" of the Australians. Being told "Well done" has been one of the highlights of my time in South Africa. South Africans are not wimps. One has to be tough and brave to live in this country. They like challenges and admire anyone who does something that takes guts or fortitude and are not bashful in congratulating them with a "Well Done."

Beside all the pre-printed signs there were a few home-made signs along the route as well, encouraging a friend and also several directed to Matt Damon asking "Matt Damon Stop" of "Matt Will You Marry Me?" He's in town starring in a Clint Eastwood movie about a legendary South African rugby team. He rode the Argus on a tandem with his brother.

I diverted from the course shortly before the finish line to avoid a clash with officialdom. I pulled through just after noon, less than five hours after setting out, shooting half a roll of film along the way. I hung out by the lively announcer at the finish for nearly an hour, listening to him congratulate the passing parade of cyclists and interview people involved with the event. He'd acknowledge certain club and significant jerseys and odd bikes (a lone fold-up and a couple of recumbents). There were quite a few tandems. He observed the hand clasp between a man and a woman on a tandem just as they passed the finish line, adding that he thought he saw a tear in the woman's eye. When he had nothing else to say he'd once again congratulate those passing for completing "the hardest Argus in history" and telling them not to be concerned about their times.

It was two miles back to the start line and another mile to where I'm staying into the still strong wind that hadn't let up in the least. I overheard a few people suggest, "Let's go to the start and ride it again." On a day of less severe conditions that would have been very very tempting.

Later, George

1 comment:

T.C. O'Rourke said...

Perhaps you should use the same tactics in this years Tour de France.

You could strike up a conversation with Lance!