Cyclists take in the beautiful views around the peninsula on their way back to Cape Town. (Image: Cape Argus Cycle Tour)
There can’t be many races in the world that attract 35 000 riders each year, with bikers ranging in age from 13 years to 90-somethings. The Cape Argus Cycle Tour is held every year in Cape Town, when the city stops, pulls out its deck chairs, and watches the riders go flashing by.
The 109km Cape Argus Pick n Pay Momentum Cycle Tour starts and ends in the city’s CBD, with riders taking in some spectacular backdrops of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
Billed as “the world’s largest timed cycle race”, the 37-year-old race traces its history back to 1977, when Bill Mylrea and John Stegmann organised the Big Ride-In to draw attention to the need for cycle paths in the city. It attracted hundreds of cyclists, who met on the Grand Parade and rode down Adderley Street to the foreshore. The following year the Argus Cycle Tour was born, attracting 525 entrants, with 14 cyclists finishing under three hours and 30 minutes. It started outside the Castle in Strand Street, took in the peninsula, and finished in Camps Bay, a distance of 104km.
The 1979 race saw the record time drop to two hours, 52 minutes and 38 seconds, with the top woman coming in at three hours, 36 minutes and 46 seconds. By 1980 the race was attracting top riders, like Springbok cyclist Hennie Wentzel, who won in three hours, two minutes and 18 seconds.
Jump to 1994 and the entries passed the 20 000 mark, with 400 international riders. In near-perfect weather conditions in 1995 the records tumbled: Swede Michael Andersson set a new record of two hours, 22 minutes and 56 seconds. That year saw the number of entries jump to over 25 000, 21% of whom were women.
In 1997 the 20th tour attracted over 30 000 entrants, and by 2006 there were 500 entrants from the UK. The 30th tour attracted big Tour de France names – Jan Ullrich, Greg LeMond and Steven Rooks. By this stage international entries topped the 2 000 mark.
In 2011, on a windless day, Walter Hein, 87, finished in five hours, seven minutes and one second, with 75-year-old Marie-Louise Swoboda coming in in five hours, 32 minutes and 33 seconds.
In 2012 Tour de France legends – Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain and Eddy Merckx – returned to do the race, and were joined by several politicians – the minister of sport and recreation, Fikile Mbalula, and the Western Cape premier Helen Zille. Japie Malan, 92, reclaimed his title as the oldest participant, finishing on a tandem with his son in five hours, 50 minutes and 40 seconds. And the oldest woman to finish, 76-year-old Maisie Swoboda, finished her 28th tour with a sprained ankle. Her record has subsequently been surpassed by 84-year-old Clare Graaff.
In 2013 just over 3 000 international riders turned up in Cape Town for the race.
Cape Argus Legends
The race has its own legends too. Gareth Holmes, Neil Bramwell, Stephen Stefano, Steph du Toit, Louis de Wall, Alex Stewart, and Neville Yeo have completed all 37 Argus Cycle Races and are called the Magnificent Seven.
Bramwell, the oldest at 77 years, says his best time was two hours and 50 minutes, completed in 1985 when he was in his mid-40s. He only started the race at the age of 40. He says that the seven don’t train together, but about two weeks before the race, they get together for a braai, and discuss the past year of training and riding.
“We always start the race in the DD batch, at 7.40am,” he explains. But because the groups are made up of 1 000 riders each, they soon lose each other. His main challenge these days is to “keep out of trouble” during the ride. By that he means keep his distance from other riders, so that if an accident happens, he doesn’t crash into a tangle of riders on the tar. “I enjoy the ride very much. It is a magnificent circuit, with a lot of variety of views.” He says he has never had an accident and no mechanical problems except one puncture in 37 years.
His time in 2014 was six hours and three minutes. “I was disappointed at how slow I was.” But this won’t deter him – he doesn’t see himself giving up the race. “I will keep going as long as my health allows me.”
The Cape Argus Cycle Tour is one of a number of endurance races that South Africans are famous for. Others are the Comrades Marathon, the Dusi Canoe Marathon, the Freedom Challenge, the Midmar Mile, the Berg River Race, and the Cape Epic mountain bike race.