The 2015 Argus, or how I learned to like road biking

When I moved to Cape Town, almost the first thing everybody said to me after learning that I like to mountain bike is “Oh, but you must do the Argus”. The Argus [now renamed to the Cape Town Cycle Tour] is the largest timed cycling event in the world, attracting 30,000+ riders every year.  My initial response to this was “It’s a road race, and I only ride a road bike when I absolutely have to”, but after repeatedly hearing about it, I figured it couldn’t hurt to cross it off my Cape Town bucket list, and I signed up for it.

Now there was only the small matter of training for it, because the most I’d ever ridden at one time on a road bike was 27 miles, and the Argus is a solid 68 miles. Since I was also training for the Cycle Tour MTB Challenge, I figured I’d stick with doing the MTB training and then just hop on the road bike when it was time for the Argus. Thankfully, I was rescued from this foolish plan by dint of my friend Iulian, who ramped up my road riding pretty aggressively: our first ride was billed as “just a gentle spin around the Peninsula” and ended up being 53 miles [albeit with a coffee break in the middle]; our second ride, which was supposed to be “only about 10k [6 miles] more than last week”, was 70 miles, into a headwind the entire time. In other words: Iulian is a damn liar, and now I don’t trust anything he says about length/intensity of rides 🙂 But what made these rides hurt less was the sheer scenic beauty of the routes we rode, which mimicked the Argus route, and wound along the coast for a large part of it, with views like this:

(Photographic credit goes here, here, and one other page I can’t find anymore.)

That sort of scenery, coupled with the speed you can get up to with a tailwind at your back made me realize that there might be something to this road biking thing after all. So, after putting in more road miles than I originally anticipated, I was ready to tackle the Argus. Unfortunately, disaster intervened: there was a huge wildfire that burned for several days along large parts of the Argus route, which was barely contained before the race. The fire resulted in some parts of the race course being unsafe, and closed off, and so the race was shortened from 69 miles of beautiful scenery with a route map like so:

to a 29 mile out-and-back along the freeway, with a route map like so:

In other words, it changed from a reasonably long race, with a fair bit of climbing, to a sprint race with very little climbing.

That must have been a very tough call for the organizers, given the number of participants, many of whom were international entrants, but I give them credit for making the call. I initially had my doubts about whether I should even ride the shortened version, because I was concerned about the mayhem that would result from 30,000+ people doing what had essentially become a sprint race. But then I figured it was a unique experience either way, and something I shouldn’t miss, and that the shorter route would actually play more to my strengths, because I’ve always been better at sprints than long distances. It also meant that my race strategy was pretty simple: pedal to the metal.

Race day dawned and I made my way down to the start. I’d been wondering what 35,000 cyclists converging on a single point would look like and now I had my answer: at 6am, there were cyclists swarming out of every nook and cranny of the city, on road bikes, mountain bikes, tandems, some in costume etc. It was sort of like a cyclist flash mob, albeit with a higher average fitness level than your usual flash mob.

2015 Argus start

Given the number of entrants, the Argus does staggered starts, with a number of seeding events that can help entrants get better start times – faster riders get earlier starts, which in turn generally leads to faster times overall, because a pack can travel faster than a single rider. Since I hadn’t done any seeding races, I’d been placed in group 5C, which was shorthand for “International entrants that we have no clue about, so let’s throw them into a big pile and give them a start time that’s in the middle of the window” – our start time was 8:14am, whereas the first/fastest group of riders had started out at 6:15am, and the last group of riders left at 10am. An 8:14am start meant that my group entered our start chute at 7:49am, and then stood around for 25 minutes, so there was no way to warm up.

2015 Argus staging area

… and then we were off. The course started out with a climb into a strong headwind, which was a bit of a rough intro, especially with no prior warmup.. The first 20 minutes were spent sorting out what was going on – how people were distributing themselves over the road, the best way to get past, the extent to which everybody was holding their line etc, and trying to get  into a rhythm of some sort. By the time we got to the biggest climb on the outbound leg of the trip [Edinburgh Drive in the route profile above], I’d found a pack that had a significantly higher pace than the majority of the rest of the riders, so I glommed onto the back of this pack, and we started to slice our way through the throng of people on the course. I hung with this pack for basically the entire middle third of the race, from Edinburgh Drive outbound back to Edinburgh Drive inbound. When we hit the Edinburgh Drive climb on the way back, the entire pack faded but I was still feeling pretty good, so I was able to break away from them on the climb, and didn’t see them again for the rest of the race. After that, it was just a question of holding on through the other 2 small climbs that remained and then going flat-out to the finish.

The end result was a 1:26:40 finish time, which put me 11th out of 533 in my start group, 552/3460 in my age group, and 3537/31966 overall. All in all, given that my goal before the race was to do sub 1:30, I’ve only been “seriously” riding a road bike for 3 months, and that this was my first road race, that’s a result I’m pretty happy with. [And, once again, a big thanks to Coach Ben for getting me ready for this.]

Hopefully next year I’ll get to do the full Argus and aim for the Holy Grail [for non-pro riders] of a sub 3-hr time. Lots of miles, sweat, and time to be spent in the Pain Cave between now and then, though.

Internet of Biology Lab Things

Part of the reason I dropped out of my PhD program was that though synthetic biology was fascinating, I just hated the vagaries of the associated bench work, like once wasting an entire week trying to get a PCR amplification to work because I consistently happened to pick a tube of polymerase that simply didn’t work. Things might have turned out very differently if I’d been able to write code to control robots to do this sort of stuff for me. Super cool idea.

Race report: 2015 Cape Town Cycle Tour MTB Challenge

Yesterday, I rode the Cape Town Cycle Tour MTB Challenge, a 55km mountain bike race that kicks off a week of bike-related stuff leading up to the Cape Town Cycle Tour aka “The Argus”,  which is the biggest bike race in  the world (30,000 participants). I’d mostly signed up for it on a whim as my first race in South Africa, because I knew nothing about any of the other races on the calendar and this one at least had a name I’d heard of before.

My first inkling that it was a fairly big race was when I got an email telling me what my seeding, and start group was – group AG, 8:00am start time. A bit of research later, I realized that this put me into the last group to start, with the AA group starting at 7:00am. Given that it was supposed to be hot on race day, I figured it was worth seeing whether I could get my start time changed to be earlier, so when I picked up my registration a couple of days before the race, I took along a printout of my NW Epic Stottlemeyer 30-miler race results, to show that I’d done a similar race before. After squinting at it for a bit, the nice lady at registration changed me to start with the AC group, at 7:20am.

Race day started early for me, at 4am, because Coach Ben wanted me to eat an ungodly amount of food before the race, with a couple of hours for digestion. Also, the race site was 45 minutes’ drive away, and I wanted to give myself a fair bit of time to get set up before the race, so I woke up, shoved food down my gullet as fast as I could, and then headed out the door. The drive itself was enlivened a bit by having to take a detour through a sketchy part of town because of a road closure, but I still got to the site around 5:30am, and so had a bunch of time to hang out.

After a quick warm up, I went to see the AA group start, which was a stacked group this year, including names like Christoph Sauser, Conrad Stoltz, Erik Kleinhans, and Arianne Kleinhans. Pretty insane to think that I was nominally racing “with” them. A few minutes later, it was time to get into the start chute for my group; there were about 200 people in my start group, with a total of about 1200 people racing the 55km race (there was also a 38km race), so my start chute looked something like this:

2015 MTB Challenge start chute 2

While in my start chute, I also ran into an acquaintance, Danian, I’d seen riding a mountain bike around our neighborhood soon after we moved and with whom I’d meant to go riding, but then never got around to organizing a ride with. We chatted a bit and then he said the following words: “Yeah, I haven’t been riding much, so I’m just going to take it easy”. 90% of the time when somebody says that, they are a damn liar – it means they’re pretty damn fast and have only two settings: “stop” and “go!”. Which turned out to be the case here as well: I didn’t see him again after the start and he beat me by 40 minutes.

The race started out relatively tamely, with mostly flat and rolling terrain, but then got progressively tougher, so my race plan was to stay in Z2 as much as possible on the downhills and flats, and then ride the hills reasonably hard, but still stay below 170bpm heart rate.

Cycle Tour MTB Challenge route

… and so off we went. Things were going pretty well for the first 2.5 hours of the race; I was sticking to the race strategy, eating and drinking appropriately, and even had time to notice a few of the riders that I kept seeing over and over again:

“Toolbox guy”: I kept playing leapfrog with one rider who sounded like he’d packed a bunch of wrenches into his backpack; every time we went over bumps, there was a bunch of metallic clanging.
“Annoying race-you-up-the-hill guy”: this gentleman would blow by me on the uphills and then get to the top of the hill and be totally spent, I’d pass him, and then on the next hill he would come by again, huffing and puffing.
“Chicken Chainring tattoo guy”: wearing a helmet with a big yellow chicken crest, with a big tattoo of a chainring on the back of his calf. Decoding the unspoken lingo, this meant: I ride bikes a lot, but I’m not really taking this seriously.

Also, for the first time in a race, I got passed by a few riders and was actually happy about it: 4 black teenagers, on hardtail bikes, some on flat pedals and wearing sneakers, passed me. Given the overall demographic make-up of the race participants (mostly 30+ years old, and I saw only one other person of color in my start chute), and the general socioeconomic climate in SA, that made me happy because it meant these kids were getting a chance to do something that was probably utterly foreign to most of their peers, and were kicking ass at it.

And then, 37km in, a Bad Thing happened: my rear tire went flat. I’d had inklings it might be low earlier on when the bike didn’t quite track the way I expected in some tight stuff, but hadn’t taken the time to check it. However, as we were grinding up a hill, one of the other racers told me that my tire was almost flat, and so I figured there was enough of the race left that I should try to fix it. So, off the bike, dig out the pump and try to pump up the rear. Argh, it’s one of those damn pumps where you have to muck around with the valve on the pump to accommodate either Schrader or Presta valves and I have no idea which of the pump configurations fits my valve. Try it one way, doesn’t work, try the other way, doesn’t seem to work either. Hrrmm. Maybe I need this doohicky screwed on ? Ok, that seems to sort of work … pump, pump, pump, tire is not getting any harder. Take off the pump and realize that it’s now pulled the entire valve head out of the tube. $^%$W^%W#@!. Dig the spare tube out of my backpack, spend time struggling with getting rear wheel off the bike, put in new tube, start pumping again. No dice, tire stays flat. Double $^%$W^%W#@!

At this point, one of the guys riding by offered me a Co2 cartridge, which I gladly accepted and it got the tire back up to what seemed like a reasonable pressure, so I hurriedly got the wheel back on the bike (in record time, for me – it usually takes me at least 15 minutes and lots of swearing and jammed fingers to get a back wheel back on), and started riding again. 50 meters up the hill it was clear there was still not enough pressure in the tire, so I got off and started the whole try-to-get-the-pump-to-work rigmarole again. And, after a few minutes of frantic pumping, I got the same result: the $#%$@# pump pulled the valve head right out of the tube. Luckily, there was still enough of the valve left that the tube retained the air it had in it. At this point I didn’t have another tube, my pump was clearly not cooperating, and I still had 18km to go. In retrospect, I should maybe have tried to beg another Co2 canister off somebody, but I was so flustered that I didn’t really consider that option. So I decided to just ride the rest of the race, about 18km, with a half-inflated tire.

The net result of this was predictable: my pedalling efficiency was pretty impaired, and I took a few tumbles in places where rear tire grip was important, Combined with the fatigue that was setting in, and the 600m of climbing that still remained, that meant that I started to cramp – after my last fall, which was only 1-2km from the finish line, I got such painful cramps in both legs that all I could do was stand there on legs that refused to bend and yell swearwords for a couple of minutes, much to the amusement of the riders coming by. After that final episode, I nursed it across the finish line with no more incidents, and was pretty happy when it was done:

2015 MTB Challenge finish

At the finish, I ran into Danian again, and hung out with him for a bit. And it turned out that “Chicken Chainring tattoo guy” was actually a friend of his, Max, who was indeed a pretty serious biker, doing tons of stage races all over the place, but primarily for fun.They gave me some ideas for fun stage races to think about, like Wines2Whales, with a view to maybe working up to something insane like the Cape Epic.

As far as the trails themselves went, they were a mix between gravel roads, dirt roads  primarily winding through vineyards, and some (not very technical) singletrack, including some cool segments that had us basically riding inside a tunnel of trees. Overall, it was pretty warm as well, with the temperatures going up to 28/29C, so the bits of shade were very much appreciated.

My goal for the race had been a sub 4-hour finish, and while my official finish time was 4:18, I’m going to claim I achieved my goal, because my total moving time was 3:56 (per Strava), and the only times I stopped were to deal with my tire. I also felt like I rode about as well as I could, so, all in all, I’m pretty happy with how the race went.

And so, in keeping with “sponsored racer” post-race press conferences, I’d like to say that the Project 529 team worked really hard to put together a good package for me for this event: my Santa Cruz Tallboy worked very well, allowing me to finish the race even on a semi-flat tire, my Maxxis tires were hooking up about as well as they could, my SRAM drivetrain gave me the necessary gearing to get up even the toughest hills, and my Project 529 clothing kept me comfortable, and I just put my head down and tried to get a good result for the team. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t challenge for the win, but I’m sure next time I’ll be right up there at the sharp end of the field, mixing it up with the winners and fighting for a podium spot 😉