Saturday, March 7, 2009

Cape Town, South Africa

Friends: If Cape Town's airport weren't so distant from the city and out a slow-flowing, clogged commercial road, I would have biked out just to watch the spectacle of thousands of cyclists and their bikes pouring in for tomorrow's Cape Argus bike ride. An estimated 10,000 cyclists and bikes were expected to pass through the airport Friday and Saturday. Special provisions are in place to accommodate them all.

This is the 32nd staging of the event, so the city and the airport are well experienced at handling this huge influx. Only about one-third of the 36,000 participants are from Cape Town. Many drive in from all parts of the country, many from Johannesburg, about 1,000 miles away. There are 2,000 "Internationals," half from other African nations and about 600 from the U.K. Matt Damon and I will be among the handful of Americans, though I will not be an official registrant. The number of participants has been capped at 36,000 for quite a few years, though there is always room for another International. The registration fee of $50, however, is a bit out of my budget. It means I won't be encumbered by a computer chip that will give me an official time nor will I have to puncture my shirt with pins for a number on my back or paste a sticker to the front of my helmet, nor earn a certificate of accomplishment if I complete the race. This is considered the world's largest timed event. The elites set out on the 110 kilometer course at 6:15 a.m. They will finish in less than two-and-a-half hours, well before many have set out. There is a huge corral in downtown Cape Town for the thousands of cyclists to funnel through, each with their specific starting time, some not until after ten a.m.

The course heads out of Cape Town around Table Mountain and then south down one side of the semi-mountainous Cape Peninsula and then back up the other side, following the coastline much of the way. It is said to be as spectacular a route as it is large. The ocean will be very enticing, as Cape Town has been experiencing an extreme heat wave. It was over 100 degrees when I arrived two days ago, hotter even than the Kalahari with all the concrete retaining the heat. The temperature has been subsiding somewhat and it's possible the temperature might cap out at 90 on Sunday. There are 18 refreshment and support points along the route.

Rather than making a two-hour, mind-numbing ride out to the airport Friday for my final training, I opted for a preview of the first third of the route and a visit to the U.S. Consulate, located 18 miles from the city center on the other side of Table Mountain. My host, Charlie, business partner of my friend Ian, who arrives today from Colorado, plotted a fabulous route for me along the shoulder of Table Mountain, the 3,000 foot high mountain that forms the backdrop of Cape Town and is as much its emblem as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris. I'm staying in the guest room of their business, just a few blocks below the last row of houses before Table Mountain turns too steep to build on--a great location less than a mile from the race start. Charlie is another of the many South Africans who have showered me with unrestrained goodwill. When I'm with such people, it is easy to forget how much I have to be on guard otherwise.

His route took me through Cape Town University and past the botanical gardens along Rhodes Street through a thick shady forest full of baboons that occasionally break into people's homes. There were a few other cyclists out on this narrow, winding road, getting a last few miles into their legs before Sunday's ride. As I closed in on the suburb where the U.S. Consulate moved to a few years ago, I came upon a couple of cyclists stopped alongside the road. They were fiddling with one's cyclometer that was malfunctioning. I asked them if they knew where Redden Road was. They said they were from Durban, 500 miles away, so had no idea. When I mentioned I was looking for the U.S. Consulate, one of them had been there and could tell me how to find it. It was another three miles away, just beyond a Pick n Pay, the supermarket chain that is a co-sponsor of the Cape Argus along with the "Cape Argus" newspaper.

The Consulate was a huge, several story complex standing on its own with lush green grass and fence all around. With all my border crossings in and out of South Africa and into three other countries in the past month I had nearly filled my passport with stamps. Only one of its 24 pages remained empty. My passport was valid for another three years. I didn't want to get a new one, but knew that I could have pages added. I hoped it would be a simple operation and could be performed on the spot, and figured it would be a lot easier to do it here than in Chicago. When I arrived, a security guard told me the Consulate is closed to normal business on Fridays, but she picked up a phone to check to see if they might handle this. Fortunately they would. It took less than ten minutes for someone to sew 24 more pages into the middle of the passport.

I was two-thirds the way around Table Mountain. I continued on around, but after eight miles I was stopped by a road block. A section of the road along the coast had been suffering from fallen rocks and was closed. It was fully blocked by a high fence that I couldn't get around. I had gotten by an earlier barrier and nervously continued on, realizing it would be a perfect place for an ambush. I kept hoping I might come upon another Argus cyclist out training. As I came upon the final fence there was a lone black guy. I had passed another a quarter mile before just below the road with a mountain bike. Such is the trauma of biking in South Africa. One always has to be worried. If either of them had looked friendly I would have stopped to ask what the situation was, but my only choice was to get out of there quick and hope they didn't have accomplices. When I got back to the main road I encountered a young woman. She said that the only way back to Cape Town was back around Table Mountain, including back up a several mile climb that I had just descended. She offered to give me a ride, but I wasn't minding riding my pannierless bike, even though the temperature was near 100.

My route back to the city took me right past the Good Hope Center, the huge convention center that was the headquarters for the Cape Argus. I joined the parade of thousands of cyclists flocking in, picking up their race numbers and attending the Expo of sponsors. There were over 300 exhibitors on three floors. Most were bike-related including Specialized and Trek and Cannondale, but there were also several wineries from the nearby region and a travel agency for Namibia and other regions. There was an excess number of companies selling eye wear and energy supplements, but only one that was giving out samples. It was close to 100% white. I've barely felt that I've been in South Africa my two days here in Cape Town.

My token Saturday ride was with 150 others on a memorial ride for cyclists who have been killed the past year. There have been four recent deaths in Cape Town of cyclists training for the Argus. We rode single file through the downtown of Cape Town ending up at the race start. There we hung four wreaths. I rode along with a Dutch guy who has lived in Cape Town for six years. He carries a bullet embedded in his shoulder from a robbery here.

I rested my legs at the library for three hours, reading a book on the history of the Argus. The inaugural race was in 1978. It was meant as a protest to gain more rights, respect and better facilities for cyclists. There were 550 people on that first tide. Until 1990 the race was held on Saturdays, observing the "Never-on-Sundays" prohibition of organized sports in South Africa. It was moved to Sunday so it would have a less of an impact on Saturday's commercial interests. Phil Liggett, the famed English race announcer, rode in the event in 1996 and said, "I suffered all the way round." A young Alexandre Vinokourou, the Kazathan who was a force in the Tour de France until he was caught blood-doping the year after Floyd Landis was caught for using testosterone, finished second in 1995, the first year a non-South Africa won the race.

The library had another book I hope to be able to read before I leave--a 700-page book published two years ago by a South African who spent two years bicycling the perimeter of Africa. There are a handful of museums to see as well as Robben Island, a World Heritage site where Mandela was incarcerated.

Later, George

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