Personal Odyssey Sweat, gears, and tears - an account of riding Cape Town's annual 109-kilometre cycle race.

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Many people say they enjoy cycling. By that, most of them mean they enjoy taking their single-speed bicycle around the block on a mild, sunny day, with the wind running through their hair and their arms stretched out on either side of them – free, careless. With all due respect, that is not cycling. That is riding.

Other people say they enjoy cycling when what they are referring to is spinning at their local gym. The air conditioner is set to its highest setting, ten metres away is a 72-inch flat-screen plasma playing the latest MTV videos, six metres away is the water fountain, three metres away is the gym instructor and less than 30 centimetres from you is the magic red button that brings the sweating to an end. The odometer says you have travelled 20 kilometres even though you have not moved anywhere.

That is not cycling. That is spinning. Spinning and riding are not the same as cycling.

Cycling is something else entirely. Cycling, as I have come to discover, is what happens when you are 50 kilometres away from home, with two deadly peaks between you and the finish line. Cycling is what happens when your sweat and your tears become one mingled concoction, running into your cycling jersey that became a salt pan two hours ago. Cycling is what happens when you realise that you have come too far to turn back and the only way out, sadly and painfully, is through.

Quite simply, if you happen to be the sweltering Cape Town heat, with the threat of passing out from heatstroke or dehydration along with 20 000 other people on Chapmans Peak, then you are most probably cycling.

Riding is a hobby. Spinning is merely an exercise. Cycling is a sport.

And like all sports, cycling is gruelling, life-changing and with every revolution of the pedals, the bicycle takes you out of your comfort zone, away from your soft pillow and your fully stocked fridge. Every time that the wheels spin you are leaving the safe and shady place where everything makes sense, where there is water on tap, where you can nap until the crows come home. Every kilometre covered exposes a different side of you; the enthusiastic beginner, the courageous fighter, the cramping idiot, and the tired, silent victor. There is only one certainty: after a serious ride, you will not come home the same.

I didn’t.

All respectable sports send you home bruised, broken, crying and ultimately, triumphant. Cycling does all of these, and then some.

I learned about the distinct differences between riding, spinning and cycling when I crossed the Cape Argus finish line in Green Point, six hours after departing from Hertzog Street in the Cape Town CBD. For the past six months I had been telling all and sundry that come 11 March 2012, I would cycle the Argus, the most famous bicycle race in South Africa.

Approximately 30 000 cyclists, 110 kilometres around the Cape Peninsula; young, old, professional, semi-pro, seeded and unseeded; all of the different kinds of cyclists you could think of would be there. I planned on being one of them.

Originally, the plan was to do it on my unicycle. But that was back in 2010 when I was foolish and eager. Fast forward two years and my tune had dramatically changed; I chose life. Choosing life meant getting home in some kind of shape and form to continue living it. The decision to ride a bicycle was quite easy after that. With a mountain bike in the bag, the next issue was actually entering the race.

My participation in the 2012 Argus Cycle Tour was not sure from the start; I missed the entry date, meaning that I would have to wait a couple of months for someone to drop out and hopefully, acquire their entry. Nonetheless, I was confident that I would be on the tarmac when the due date arrived.

By some strange coincidence, in January, I wound up getting an entry from someone I would not have expected: the nephew of a lecturer who had failed me for one of my Law courses. I know, tell me about it. Some would have paged to “coincidence” in the English dictionary to find out its meaning, I simply deemed it to be another part of TMKA (Thou Must Kick Ass), the 2012 motto. It was a sign. This strangely begotten entry was the Universe’s way of telling me it had heard my call.

My entry was secured. I was in the Argus. And that meant one thing: training.

In early January, 2012, my training began. Never having ridden more than 50 kilometres before, I knew I would be up against it in the Argus. 110 kilometres is no laughing matter. In high school I was a sprinter and a basketball player, endurance was never one of my biggest strengths. I was the Flash; quick and effective, on and then off. I do remember once running – or sprinting, if my memory serves me right – the 400 metres at a high school athletics meeting. At the finish line I vomited out my breakfast. Then the supper. Then some chromosomes. That was when I knew endurance and I were not on the same page.

As the days to the Argus started peeling off the calendar, I had to confront my endurance, or lack thereof. I had to find some way to overcome it. I would have to modify my formula. That meant increasing my strength training, modifying my diet and facing early morning incline training up and down Rhodes Memorial. It meant putting an end to the riding and the spinning – it was time to start cycling.

For two months I battled resistance ropes and my heavy mountain bike, gradually increasing the distances I would ride each week and weekend. As the day drew nearer and nearer, the training became more frantic and less organised.

Two days before the race, I decided to leave the cycling and just enjoy the calm before the storm. The Argus was coming. I was pretty sure I was in shape to finish the race. I was not going to clock the best time, but goddammit I was going to finish it!

On 11 March 2012, the alarm buzzed at 06h00. I do not think an alarm clock has ever been more ominous. It seemed to say one thing, “Today is the day, Rémy. Today is the day! Hey Rémy, have I told you that today is the day?”

Oh! It was the day indeed. I had spent the past month tweeting incessantly about cycling the Argus, if I chickened out now I would pass the quitting gene to my children. I could not have that. I stopped the alarm and scrambled into my cycling shorts (which really grip your junk nicely if you really want to know) and into my new cycling jersey (which made me feel like a hero if you also want to know) scuttled around the house and made a quick breakfast. I was only starting at 09h12 but I wanted to get to Cape Town as early as possible. I wanted to soak in the atmosphere.

After a quick breakfast of muesli, plain yoghurt, a banana and some grapes, I packed my bicycle into my girlfriend’s car before we began the drive from Century City to Hertzog Street.

It was the most surreal drive ever. Having been up earlier than most of the world on quite a few occasions, I fully expected the Cape Town streets to be deserted. I was pleasantly surprised once we were on the N1 though.

There were more vehicles on the road on that clear Sunday than I had anticipated. All of them were angling towards one destination: the Cape Town city centre. On every car, and sometimes in every car, there was a bicycle. Some cars had as many as six bikes racked together on their roofs. All of them, just like me, were making the annual cycling pilgrimage to the starting line of the Argus.

As we passed a small, green Fiat Uno, with a bike squashed into the back seat, the driver looked out at me and noticed the bicycle in our back seat too. He smiled and threw me a thumbs-up. I smiled and threw one back at him. We were all headed to the Argus, all going to ride the same 110 kilometres – the thumbs-up was just our way of wishing each other the best of luck. It was an unspoken sign of camaraderie; we were all going to take part in the largest timed race in the world.

Arriving at the CTICC, my breath stalled; I had never seen so many cyclists in my life. All along Hertzog and Heerengracht, there were cyclists – some in the starting blocks and some milling around, waiting for their groups to be loaded. There were cyclists everywhere. To modify a popular Terry Pratchett saying, “It was so crowded with cyclists that the space in between two cyclists was in fact, another cyclist.”

After scouting for some parking and failing to find any, we decided to do what everyone else was doing: DIY parking. We mounted the nearest curb, unloaded and set up my bicycle. With my helmet and my riding gloves on, all that was left was to head down to the starting line.

I was in the PA group, scheduled to start at 09h12. Since I was two hours early, all I could do was stand, wait and have nervous conversations with my girlfriend. All around, cyclists stood or sat where they could find an unoccupied curb. Old cyclists, young cyclists, charity teams, school teams, cyclists with fairy wings, cyclists with tutus, cyclists with face paint, half-naked cyclists: cyclists everywhere. The variety of the bicycles assembled at the starting line was mindboggling too: Cannondales, Treks, Raleighs, Giants, Bianchis, Cervelos, Specialiseds, GTs, Scotts and other brands that I cannot remember. They ranged from the newest of the shining new, to the oldest rust buckets people could find in their grandfather’s garages. All of them were oiled, serviced and assembled for this morning.

It was beautiful.

As the starting time ticked its way towards us, I became more and more edgy; the nerves were starting to settle in. The furthest I had ridden prior to this was 70 kilometres and that was by accident. On a training ride from Newlands to Camps Bay I had decided to see what lay around the bend, wound up going to Hout Bay, gotten lost and then found myself in Noordehook. From there I managed to find my way back to Fish Hoek and eventually pedalled home via the Main Road. It had been a fun ride, more than anything else. It was not timed. It was not competitive. It was just a ride out in Cape Town. This was a different beast entirely; 110 kilometres in some of Cape Town’s hottest weather. Was I ready? Would I finish? What shape would I be in if I finished the race?

Even before the start of the race, I was already fighting demons. I did not have too much time to psych myself out though. One minute it was 07h20 and the next it was 09h00. Our group was called up and after some last minute clicking of gears and whirring of wheels, we prepared to go to our starting pen. After kissing my girlfriend goodbye, I wheeled my bicycle to the starting line and waited for the siren to go off. As we lined up, the DJ on duty who had been motivating us and cheering us on calmly mentioned that the leader was coming around the Camps Bay bend. He was clocking 2 hours and 20 minutes.

2 hours and 20 minutes. Jesus Christ.

That meant he got to the halfway beacon at Partridge Point in under an hour, or thereabouts. What the heck was the guy made of? 50 kilometres in one hour!

With less than 20 seconds left to the start, it was time to shed all fear I had about the Argus. I knew I could do 60-70 kilometres easy. The remaining 30 kilometres would just have to take care of themselves somehow. And with that thought, the ten-second countdown began.

10…

Fuck!

…9…

Fuck!

…8…

Jesus! Fuck!

…7…

Fuck! Fuck!

…6…

Hold on, Rémy! This could be fun!

…5…

Or not! Fuck!

…4…

I wonder, is it-

…3…

…Too late to-

…2…

…To turn back?

…1…

Yes. Now go!

As soon as we exited Hertzog, we were on the M3. Once my wheels were on the tarmac, I relaxed a little. The standing around had been giving me pre-race jitters. Once I was on the open road my nerves settled and my muscles got to the work of driving my bicycle along the M3. I had been on the highway plenty of times before, but on all previous occasions I was in a car. Being on a highway on a bicycle at 09h20 in the morning offers you a different perspective about Cape Town’s roads.

For one thing, in a car, the road is deceptively smooth. It feels as though you are on one smooth conveyor belt from the centre or Cape Town to the Southern Suburbs. On a bicycle though, things are quite different. The road is pitted and cracked in places, and the wind, howling in from the Muizenberg side of the sea, gives your thighs a taste of what is to come. Our PA group started stretching behind me in one long multi-coloured snake.

The wind around Devil’s Peak was feisty that day. I started suddenly remembered the strangest lessons from Physics. The lesson in aerodynamics came back to me: “Cut the wind, get behind a cyclist, Rémy.” Latching onto another cyclist’s wheel sheltered me from the wind for the majority of the start and by the time I topped Hospital Bend, I had already covered four kilometres. My pedalling was smooth and even; I had an inner tempo I wanted to maintain throughout the ride so as not to max my heart out. I was not out to compete, I was out to finish this race.

After Hospital Bend came a straight plummet down the M3, passing the UCT Med School on the left, and soon, Rhodes Memorial on the right. In another few minutes, I was past UCT, climbing towards Newlands. As we started climbing Edinburgh Drive, the pool stretched out some more. By the time we had climbed to the top of Edinburgh Drive the majority of the PA pool had been left behind.

Most of what I can remember about the stretch between Cape Town and Edinburgh consists of people parked alongside the road, blasting music and cheering on the cyclists. There were families holding up posters about their son or daughter cycling the Argus; radio stations broadcasting from the side lines and an assortment of other supporters who had just come to enjoy Cape Town’s biggest sporting event. The magic of the Argus is infectious; for years I had watched it from the outside, but this year I was on the other side of the pavement – I was cycling the Argus.

“Give us a smile! Give us a smile! You’re doing it! You’re doing well!” everyone shouted. It was exhilarating. Inspiring stuff.

Slowly, the signposts along the road started ticking off the kilometres. By the time I had reached the third cut-off point just before Ladies Mile, there were only 86 kilometres to go. The sprinkling of cyclists I was with slowly made its way down the Mile, passing Constantia and Steenberg, on its way to the first climb of the day: Boyes Drive.

I was still maintaining my inner tempo, I was doing well.

Personally, the Argus started at Boyes Drive. Everything else before it was just a warm-up. The long, flat stretch between Edinburgh Drive and Muizenberg had lulled many cyclists’ muscles to sleep and the change in gradient was a rude awakening. I was no exception. I had been on Boyes Drive once before, but that was from the other side. This time I would be taking it head on – quite a different prospect all together.

All I can say about Boyes Drive is that it was no joke. Quite literally. The cyclists suddenly became serious as the road began winding above Muizenberg; there were no more jokes passing between us, no more laughing. All I could hear was the clicking of derailleurs as cyclists geared down when approaching the sharp inclines, the clanking of chains as bicycles slowly made their way up the hills and the rush of the wind as we descended. By some miracle, Boyes Drive, was pretty uneventful (Thank you, Rhodes Memorial incline training!) and after conquering it, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek, Simonstown and Glencairn awaited us.

The road from Kalk Bay to Glencairn was another relatively effortless ride. Having ridden it numerous times over the past six months I was not intimidated by it. What I was scared of was what awaited us at the very end of the first stretch: Millers Point and the turn at Partridge Point which represented unexplored territory for me. I had never been around that bend before so all of it would be new to me. It would also herald the start of what I now call the Graveyard Shift; a long and winding road over the Cape Horn which is excellent for anyone on a road bicycle and just taxing for mountain bikes. In addition, the road would be littered with small inclines that push up your heart rate and false declines that suck up your energy.

And then there was the small problem of the sun.

When I had started out at 09h12, the sun had already been tickling me. By the time I reached Boyes Drive, my armpits were having fully fledged conversations with the heat. Partridge Point and the ensuing ride over the hills would give me a Perfect 10 on the Sweat-o-Metre. I was worried about the heat. There was not a cloud in the sky, and in Cape Town that meant only one thing: I was going to be a mobile tanning bed unless I got myself home as quickly as possible.

That was when I started peddling faster; I broke my inner tempo. I started maxing out early. My first mistake. It would not be the last one of the ride. The second one came soon after.

As we neared Partridge Point, I decided to have a pull on my Gu, and a swig of electrolyte water. I had been told that the stuff would be useful on such a long ride. It was absolute rubbish. The water tasted like overly diluted juice and the caffeine in the Gu almost made me vomit. It also gave me a ferocious thirst which meant drinking more of the flat electrolyte water. I had expected it to be like Getafix’s magic potion. Visions of me pedalling the way Obelix rows in the comic books had been running through my head. Instead I found my energy dissipating in the heat and from the so-called advancements of nutritional science which were draining my body of my energy reserves.

I do not regret anything from the Argus other than the Gu. My stomach was fighting with itself. I contemplated stopping and sticking a finger down my throat to bring it back up. Anything was better than riding with whatever chemicals were in the mixture. As soon as I finished one tube of the junk, I started feeling dizzy. I pedalled on, determined that I would have my revenge upon the soul that recommended Gu to me.

No sooner had I rounded Partridge Point than the Cape Town sun flipped the switch to its Fry Rémy setting. My black cycling shorts were turning white with salt as my sweat slowly dried on them. My arms acquired a slave sheen the likes of which I have only seen in films like Amistad. As I headed towards Perdekloof, my pedalling became more uncoordinated than a drunken white girl dancing to Kwasa Kwasa music. Try as I might I could not find a gear or a rhythm that was comfortable and efficient. I was either pedalling too fast on the inclines or pedalling too slowly on the flats. I was in trouble.

As the kilometres started stretching out, I started sweating my resolve away. The road itself was not bad, but the sun – which had reached 33 degrees Celsius then – was the spawn of everything that is malevolent and anti-Rémy in this world. My body was leaking moisture at an alarming rate – no matter how much I hydrated I could not keep my body temperature or my heart rate down. That was when I started slowing down.

Slowing down was the easy part though. Carrying on was much harder. It is pretty unnerving to pedal out into the wild, knowing that every metre takes you further from home and closer to the toughest part of the Argus. As I inched my way across the Cape Horn, I had more than enough time to consider all the moments of my life that had led me to this point. None of them made any sense. All I was looking for were the other moments that would get me out of it.

By first-timer standards, I had been doing pretty well before I went past Partridge Point. I had reached the halfway point, I was still on my bike, I had overtaken a couple of people and I was still, as many of my friends put it, “doing the damn thaaaang”. But that was as good as I was going to do. By the time I descended into Ocean View and finally into Noordehook, all competitiveness had evaporated out of me. I just wanted to finish the damn thing and go home.

But home was in Newlands. On the other side of the mountain.

As hard as it is to believe, I had been riding until then. The cycling only started once I realised that I had come too far to turn back. For good or ill, I would have to push my body beyond its limits to the finish line. I was dizzy from the heat and the horrible Gu and I was dehydrated too. I was not in a happy space.

As I wheeled out of Noordehook, my mind was plagued with every reason to give up that I could conjure up. I was a cyclist made of left shoulders; there were no comforting angels on my right to urge me on. All I had was my aching back which had a bitch of a monkey jumping on it in the shape of the Cape Town sun. My arms, despite all of the strength training I had done, were becoming stiff from gripping the handlebars for so long, and my legs were in danger of caving in. But that did not compare to the two words which were drumming incessantly in my head: Chapmans Peak.

With every pedal stroke, I battled one demon or another; the heat, the fatigue, my aching muscles and cyclists who were in danger of knocking into you. Soon, my bicycle and I found ourselves at the feet of Chapmans Peak. It was time for Rémy’s finest hour.

The Chapmans Peak drive is a breath-taking drive if you are in a car. It is also exquisite when you are on a bicycle. But only if you are going down it. If you are going up, it is a bitch. A steep, winding, testing, bitch.

That was the first time I cried.

At first I thought I was sweating into my glasses, but when I wiped my forehead and my glasses did not clear up, I realised I was leaking moisture from another place: my eyes. I do not cry often, but when I arrived at the foot of Chapmans Peak I could not hold my emotions back. I was tired and I was dizzy; I was sore, my stomach was boiling from whatever ungodly chemicals were in it, I was being roasted alive by the sun, I did not have a teammate and my mountain bike was heavy.

I was well and truly alone. That was the first time the “loneliness in a crowd” saying made sense to me. I was surrounded by thousands of cyclists, and yet, I was still alone.

And I had to get up Chapmans Peak.

As my wheels braced to face the incline I blinked away the tears and silenced the torrent of noise in my head and steeled my nerves. I prayed to any gods that were not hiding in shade somewhere to keep my stomach still for the climb. I prayed in ways that would shock people who know me and my atheist ways.

Up Chapmans Peak I went.

One metre; two metres; three metres.

Ten, twenty and then thirty; forty and  then fifty.

I was in the small gears. It was the best I could do. My body was screaming at me, every fibre of my being wanted to abort me. And still I clung on. Pushing, pulling, panting and pedalling, I slowly made my way up Chapmans Peak. As I rounded the successive bends, I passed hundreds of cyclists who had given up the ride and were slowly wheeling their bicycles to the top of the climb. I willed myself to make this climb. I willed myself to stay on the bicycle. I willed myself to make it.

Every centimetre, was drenched in energy-sapping sunlight. On an ordinary day, it would have been enjoyable to have such warmth on me. On that day, I would have fellated a bull moose just to be in the shade. And still I pedalled on.

Slowly, ever so slowly I progressed up the winding drive. I was conscious of being in a big mass of cyclists, but such was my tunnel vision that all I could see was the two metres in front of my wheel. All I could feel were the rivulets of sweat as they ran down my neck, my shoulders and my arms. My legs strained with every crank of the pedals. And still I pedalled.

Chapmans Peak, if you happen to be cycling the Argus, is a paradox. On the left-hand side, the water is smooth and flawless, so blue it hurts the eyes to look at it. On the right-hand side there is only the sweating and grunting of cyclists as they battle the road, their machines and ultimately, themselves.

And fight myself I did. At the start of Chapmans Peak I think I was on my last limbs. Halfway through the climb, I was fuelled by every epic line that has ever been said in Braveheart, Remember the Titans, Gladiator, Troy and 300. By the time I reached the top, I was on my last instinct: finish this fucking race and then go home and pass out into a non-cycling oblivion.

200 metres from the top of Chapmans Peak, all I could see was the blue sky which meant that there was no more incline to climb. Something primal inside me took over. I stood out of my saddle and started giving the pedals a serious hammering, wiggling my bicycle from side to side to make the motion easier. I pedalled, and I pedalled and I pedalled. I pedalled so hard I am quite sure there are traces of Rémy still floating on that stretch to the top.

And then, I was at the top.

At the top of Chapmans Peak, I cried for the second time. Not the tears of a fighter but the tears of a nine-year-old who just wanted to go home and hold his Mommy. I was beaten. I had made it to the top of Chapmans Peak, but I felt like I was back at the bottom.

But for the quick descent into Hout Bay, I would have stopped at that very moment, gotten off my bike and waited for someone to take me home. Thank God, it ended when it did. If I had had to climb any further, I would have given birth to something. As soon as I crested Chappies, my momentum carried me over and down to Hout Bay.

During the descent to Hout Bay, I came to the sudden conclusion that the Chapmans Peak climb would be the best performance I would put in during the Argus. That was going to be my finest moment and I had not even enjoyed or celebrated it properly. I remember regretting not enjoying climbing Chapmans because I knew what was coming next.

Suikerbossie.

Every sporting tale would be incomplete without the final twenty minutes where the underdog takes on the big team in a winner-takes-all matchup. There has to be that slow motion moment right at the end where the impossible becomes the very possible and the fat guy who we do not believe can do it gets the ball and oh look he has scored the winning goal.

This was not that moment for me. Like I said, my finest moment was making it up Chappies. What was coming was something else. What was coming was a systematic attack on my physical and mental character.

Suikerbossie.

As I mentioned earlier, by my standards, I had trained for the Argus. With my limited means and my time constraints, there was nothing much else I could have done. I had prepared as well as I could. All of that preparation had gotten me through the majority of the Argus. But, and this is what I need you to understand, I had not prepared to be punished in the way that was about to come.

Suikerbossie.

As I wheeled through Hout Bay, there were two cyclists with me, one grey-haired man on a rusty Avalanche road bicycle and another younger athletic looking woman on a slick Cannondale Tiagra. While we headed towards Suikerbossie, we passed a group of cheerleaders, who were chanting something in Afrikaans I could not properly decipher.

“Suikerbossie wil jou hê! Suikerbossie wil jou hê! Suikerbossie wil jou hê!” they sang.

As someone who proudly failed Afrikaans until fifth grade, I could not understand what it is that they were saying. I turned to the grey-haired man and asked for a translation. He laughed and did not answer. I turned to the younger cyclist and asked her what it meant.

“They are saying Suikerbossie is waiting for you” she said.

Those weren’t cheerleaders. Those were the Soothsayers of the Apocalypse. As I found out much later, they were singing the chorus line of a song about the climb I was about to face. From what I can gather it is quite popular in Hout Bay when the Argus comes around.

Suikerbossie.

It is a two kilometre stretch of downhill pleasure and uphill madness. It is unrelenting; there are no pockets of rest. Every centimetre is a battle. Every metre is a war. Two kilometres is WWIII and the Battle of Heaven tossed into the mix.

On a normal day, I do not think Suikerbossie is a bad climb. Challenging, yes. But not bad. But after 90 kilometres on a bicycle, in a 33-degree inferno, your nerves shredded and your body broken, Suikerbossie is the offspring of Lucifer and the monster hiding under the bed. It is unholy in its duration and cruel in its location.

Call it premonition, or call it the lack of resolve. Call me a coward, call me whatever you want. But for some reason I knew I was not going to make it up Suikerbossie on my bike. By the time my wheel aligned with the incline, more than 70 percent of the field was walking their bicycles up the incline rather than attempt to tackle it. I, to my credit, valiantly attempted to climb it.

Suikerbossie was having none of it.

30 metres into the climb my left leg cramped. I forced it to pedal another 20 metres before my right leg cramped. Then I tumbled off my bicycle.

I fleetingly remember thanking my BMX helmet for being where it was when I fell off my bike. I can tell you that even if you have never experienced a cramp before or seen what it looks like you will instinctively know what it is the first time it happens to you. My legs looked like they had snakes writhing in them; the muscles were tensed and folded painfully. They were vibrating too. At that moment in time, I was not in control of my body; I was merely renting it…even though I wished I was not.

Two physiotherapists who were working the bottom of Suikerbossie quickly pulled me and my bicycle off the road and started rubbing my legs with ice packs. I could not feel whatever medicinal effects the ice possessed but one of the physiotherapists said that it would help. Perhaps it did. Five minutes later, they let me go. I mounted my bike again.

I made it ten metres this time before my legs went into lockdown again.

You can tell I was one of those children who gave my mother a headache while I was growing up. Despite the threat and certainty of punishment, I would always do certain things I was forbidden to do even though the outcome was guaranteed. Now that we are older, my Mom and I can laugh about the beatings I had when I was younger. They were legendary. Suikerbossie brought back all of those memories for some reason. I’m a sucker for punishment, you see, and Suikerbossie was the meanest spanking I have had in my life so far.

This wasn’t Chapmans Peak though. There is only so much fight in a person, once it goes it is gone and then there is no more. There is no shame in it. It is a fact of life. Some people have more fight than others; most or all of them have acquired it from years of experience. This was my first time facing Suikerbossie. I had already expended all of the fight I had in me on Chappies. By the time I arrived at Suikerbossie, the best of me was already behind me.

Shit! You cannot imagine how desperately I wanted the credits to roll up as I lay on the road after cramping for the second time. Suikerbossie had the measure of me. The movie could end now.

But it did not.

After a few more ice packs and the same physiotherapists chastising me, I decided I would rather walk my bike to the top of the climb and have a story to tell.

So that is what I did. I picked up my bicycle and walked it up Suikerbossie.

The thing that will surprise you though, is that there were a number of people who were still cranking out the gears and powering up the hill. Men, women, boys, girls; they were just lapping up the metres. In 33 degrees Celsius of punishing weather. They were going pedal for pedal with a climb I cannot even surmount in my most fanciful daydreams a week after completing the Argus. As I wheeled my bike up, with a thousand other riders, all I could do was applaud them in my mind. To do it physically would have taken too much energy.

As soon as we crested Suikerbossie, it was downhill all the way to the finish line at the Greenpoint Stadium. With 20 kilometres of the Argus left, it was as merciful a finish as anyone could hope for. There was a slight breeze blowing in from the sea, and only a small incline in Camps Bay before you were in the clear and out of the sun. The rest of the ride was spent in quiet contemplation.

19 kilometres to go: Why ride the Argus?

Why not? It is not the most expensive thing in the world to participate in the Cape Argus. All you need is any bicycle that is roadworthy, a helmet and you can do it. It is not impossible.

17 kilometres to go: Can you make it?

I’m 23. I am pretty athletic by any standards. I can hold my own in most sports. I am as competitive as they come. I hate losing and one of my worst fears is not trying. Despite all of my athletic abilities and all of my fighting spirit, there were moments where I thought I was done and dusted.

But I can tell you one thing: I was beaten to the finish line by people much older and younger than me. Whether you can make it is something only you can answer. I, for one, know I made it.

14 kilometres to go: Was it fun?

No, it was not fun. Fun is what happens when you can still see home. Fun is riding. Fun is not cycling.

12 kilometres to go: Was it an experience?

That is a diplomatic way of putting it. But yeah, we can call it an experience.

10 kilometres to go: Did you learn something?

Yes. Gu is shit. Electrolyte water is shit. Stick with natural foods next time. Ride your own race and stick to the game plan. Plan better, train harder. You can train your body to quit or you can train it continue. The choice is always yours.

Oh, and don’t feel too bad about Suikerbossie. That is the graveyard of all inexperienced cyclists.

8 kilometres to go: Weren’t you afraid you wouldn’t make it?

Of course. Every kilometre of the way. I’m still not sure I will make it to the finish line. But I’m here aren’t I?

6 kilometres to go: What would you change if you could go back?

I’d find the mother of the person who thought it was a good idea to build a road like Suikerbossie and tell her to use protection in the years to come. Her son will create a monster. I’d also find whoever operates the Cape Town weather and feed him to a herd of voracious pubic hairs. I hear that’s a nasty way to die.

4 kilometres to go: Why do this kind of thing?

Because I can. Because I must. Because being ordinary, being average, hurts. Sometimes it is about not being in the same bracket as the guy sitting at home watching the Argus. It’s not always about being the best, not always. Sure, sometimes it is about winning. Sometimes it is about being first and winning the medal. But not always. Winning isn’t a sustainable concept. Sometimes you have to do things just because they are there, because you will regret never having done them. You have to do them so you don’t grow into a bitter old man with memories of the things he could have done when he was younger. You have to do things like this to push yourself to the limit.

2 kilometres to go: The limit?

Yes, the limit. The point of no return. That stage where everything is new because you have never been there. That stage where you’re crying yourself up Chapmans Peak because you know you are in over your head. When you know the little energy bar floating above your head is red, empty and flashing dangerously. The limit.

Finish line: And when you’ve reached the limit?

Then you have to see what lies beyond then.

Argus 2013, here I come.

Authors note: My 2012 Argus experience could not have happened without the help of some truly generous and patient people. Firstly, I’d like to thank Francois Fagan who hooked me up with my Argus entry. Without him, the Argus would still be on my bucket list. Technically it still is, but now it is one of those “let’s do that again” kind of thing.

I also have to thank Allyson Petersen (@AllyPete) who was patient and understanding with my training. Also, thanks for driving me to the Argus, picking me up and generally making sure that I did not pass out in an undignified manner after the race.

Many thanks also have to go to Oneile Slave (@wapaboggie – who rode the Argus for the first time as well) and Mikhail Botha who trained with me and beat me in the Argus. Next year, it is on.

Oh, and thanks have to go to Team Fufu, Team THESE Nuts and Team Manstitution. Next year, we have to do it together. “Which nuts? THESE NUTS!”

  • @sarah_koopman

    I have the greatest amount of respect for you. This was incredible. I can only hope to write something that makes people feel what I did when I read this. It hit me right in my gut. Respect, Sir. Too much respect.

    • First of all, thanks for reading. It is always appreciated.

      Secondly, it is easy to write things when you have been through them. Everyone has their personal battles. At this very moment in my life, the Argus was mine. For some people it is the Two Ocean’s Marathon, for others it is the run around Rondebosch Commons. Everyone comes face to face with their limits sooner or later. Watch how your writing improves when you realise that you have very little to lose. 🙂

  • mtb

    Nice write-up man. Respect on gutting it out.

    Next year should be better, yes?

    • Yep, next year will be much better. No doubt about that.

      • mtb

        I plan to do it on a 36er. I just need to get a 36er. 😛

  • You have gotten me to finally write about my 24 hour karate gasshuku.

    But my meanderings aside, this is as darkly funny as it is inspirational and there is much to be said about not being the guy watching the Argus. I know its nothing to do with me, but I’m proud of and for you. What a mighty achievement, and one you should never allow anyone to diminish.

    Maybe one day I’ll do it. But first: learning to ride in a straight line.

    • I laugh about it now. Like most things that we go through that challenge us, we only understand the lesson much later. I am glad that I did it. This will, hopefully, be the first of many Argus rides.

      I look forward to reading your piece on the 24-hour karate training. It sounds crazy.

  • Ride Til I Die

    What an interesting story. I have heard of the Cape Argus, and from the conditions that you have detailed, I can tell that it was a tough race. But I hope that you liked it and that you are going to do it again.

  • James May

    Good luck for next year. This was such a good story.

  • Jeezus Juice

    Sounds like a harrowing experience. Much respect for finishing the ride.

  • The Ridge Runner

    Respect on completing the Argus. Expecting another story next year.

  • Amélie

    I felt like a slob reading this. You have inspired me (nay, spurred) to stay committed to any projects that I undertake, physical or otherwise. Anyone can begin something but the real victors are the ones that finish.

    This was great writing and even better reading!