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.