At 600km long, the multi-stage Cape Rouleur in South Africa is the Grand Tour of the sportive world. Where else can you race against Stephen Roche and Maurizio Fondriest?

Have you heard the one about the South African zoo?’ I ask. ‘No,’ replies Stephen Roche. ‘OK,’ I say, ‘so there’s this South African zookeeper cleaning out the aviary at Cape Town zoo. Halfway through he spots a dead bird in the corner. Muttering his usual “waste not, want not” mantra, he scoops the deceased bird into a sack and sets off to clean out the monkeys. When he opens the door to the monkeys’ enclosure he finds two chimpanzees have also kicked the bucket. Again he mutters “waste not, want not”, and bundles the corpses into the sack along with the dead bird.

‘Later that afternoon it’s feeding time for the lions, so the keeper strolls over to their cage and tips the contents of his sack over the wall. “Here you go,” he says to a giant South African lion, “dinner time.”

‘“Oh, hell!” roars the lion in reply. “Not finch and chimps again!”’

Roche looks sideways at me and for a split second a wry smile traces across his face. He tells me I need to work on my South African accent. Then his smile turns to a look of sympathy. Over the past three days our legs have accumulated 476km of riding and nearly 5,500m of ascent and, at 35°C in the shade with the prospect of another 8km climb before today’s finish, he’s seen straight through my chirpy facade and into my aching core. I shrink back onto my seat. It’s no use trying to distract myself with inane chat, so I follow his lead and try my best to pedal a rhythm to the top.

Prologue

This is the first proper running of HotChillee’s Cape Rouleur, a 600km, five-day event running in and out of Franschhoek in South Africa’s Western Cape. Having perfected the route with a test version last year, HotChillee’s owner, Sven Thiele, has thrown open the event to 125 participants from all corners of the globe. The standard ranges from enthusiastic amateurs through to fully fledged pros and ex-pros, including German outfit Team Bulls, ex-Milan-San Remo and World Cup champ Maurizio Fondriest and, of course, the legendary
Triple Crown winner Stephen Roche.

The format is somewhere between sportive and race. While the bulk of each stage is ridden at a relatively controlled pace, with designated ‘ride captains’ working to keep each of the three seeded groups together, there are timed sections along the way where riders vie for the green (sprinters), red (climbers) and yellow (general classification) jerseys. There’s nothing like a bit of healthy competition, and so it is that I find myself poised alongside four other riders, about to contest the 7.6km time-trial that will seed us for the coming days.

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At the official’s command we set off up a long false flat that quickly strings out our bunch. At the race briefing we were told we were allowed to draft so, finding myself heading up our group, my ‘no-one gets a free ride on me’ mental switch flips and I push hard to drop those behind in a bid to make contact with the faster group ahead.

Mind and body well and truly buried, the rest of the time-trial is a blur of rushing blood and tarmac. I cross the line 12 minutes 8 seconds later, saturated and breathless. I’m not sure if that’s a good time or not, so the next half hour is spent in nervous chatter with other riders as we wait for the results to come in. When they do, I’m surprised to see my name on the first page, 15th, which gives me a solid placing in group one. But that’s not all. By some strange miracle I’ve finished ahead of Roche and Fondriest! Sure, I know they’re long since retired, but I still can’t help feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Stage 1: Game on

The first stage is a relatively flat 128km towards Paarl Mountain, but any personal back patting over yesterday’s performance evaporates as quickly as the dew on the roadside verge. Today’s going to be hot, explains a South African called Tim. ‘However much sunscreen you have on already, put on more,’ he says. ‘It’s not like your sun at home – there’s no ozone layer here, my friend.’ With that he heads off to the front of the group, leaving me to become fixated on the temperature readout on my Garmin.

By 60km in, any doubts I had over Tim’s meteorological credentials have been banished. With the digital mercury nudging the high 30s, we ramp up the pace for the first timed section of the day, a rolling 10km straight marked by a set of yellow flags. With Team Bulls driving at the front, we reach 48kmh before the half of the group I’m in loses touch but, far from easing up, we forge on, with things culminating in a 60kmh sprint to the finish. By now I’m pretty much spent, so it’s a relief to see the support car pull up for our first stop. Another 20km more and it’s time to stop for lunch at the Ridgeback Winery. With 45km still to go, I reluctantly give  the recommended Sauvignon Blanc a miss.

Back on the road the stage end looms, but not before a 2km timed sprint. Once again it’s hell for leather, with the pros showing their class as they shoot off the front, but even we are able to peak just shy of 70kmh. It’s easily the fastest
I’ve ever ridden on the flat, and enough to keep us smiling all the way back to base.

Stage two: Into the fire

If yesterday was a baptism then today’s a confirmation – that however hot you think South Africa can get, it can go one better. Our group sets off at a civil 9.30am to embark upon the slightly less sociable 8km, 7% average gradient Franschhoek Pass. Yesterday I was warned by local bike shop owner Geddan Ruddock to watch out for this one, so I try to stay tucked into the middle of the group. With the prospect of 140km and 2,200m of climbing to go, this approach pays off. I reach the top with legs that feel nicely warmed up and ready to take on the descent below, a 13km stretch of car-less, marble smooth tarmac. Our ride captains, Flash and Eddy, warn us not to go stupid with the overtaking, but inevitably the descent turns into a free-for-all. Messrs Fondriest and Roche lead the way, with the latter carving through the turns with more grace than a vicar’s Sunday lunch. I do my best to follow their lines but, try as I might, they slowly slip away.

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Most of the next 30km is lumpy, but we press on at a comfortable pace before setting upon the first timed climb. As we approach I check my Garmin. It’s 40°C. Best take this one slow.

We continue east along the N2 road, and I’m just musing to myself how vibrantly green South Africa is when I spot two yellow flags in the treeline, signalling the start of a timed stage.

Yesterday’s stage plus my prologue result has put me 19 seconds ahead of Roche, so when a group of four forms around him I’m keen to make sure I’m in it. We take our turns on the front, until in a move reminiscent of Simon Gerrans’ wheelsucking in last year’s Milan-San Remo, I sit doggedly on Roche’s wheel, refusing to come through until the last 100m.

Crossing the line three seconds ahead of Roche I feel like a real champion, but my triumph is short-lived as Roche rolls up next to me with barely a drop of sweat on his face. I feel like the son whose dad’s just let him win.

Stage three: Dressed in the dark

Today’s the big one: 208km with 2,375m of climbing that will see us head 50 clicks south-west until we hit one of the most beautiful roads in the Western Cape, Clarence Drive. But at 4.30am I don’t care how beautiful the day is going to be – I just want to go back to bed.

Despite the fact that even the birds are still tucked up in their twigs, the race village is already humming with activity. Officials hand out hi-vis tabards while an announcer kindly points out that one of our number has put his bib-shorts on inside out. The offending rider darts off to change, while shouted jokes about baboons’ backsides ring in his ears.

At 5.15am we set off. Illuminated by the blue lights of our police motorcade we look more like workmen commuting to a disco than highly tuned cycling machines, but before the party atmosphere can take hold a rider goes down at the hands of a piece of two-by-four in the road. Luckily he gets back up with just a few scrapes, but I’m reminded to guard against complacency.

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Dawn breaks and we join the road to Gordon’s Bay, regrouping into our seeded pelotons. With hills on one side and the vast expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean on the other, this is one of those moments where the sheer joy of cycling completely outstrips any fatigue. As if he can read my mind, a French rider named Manny shouts across to me, ‘This is why we ride, hey!’

Soon nerves wash over the peloton. We’re nearing the final GC section and, having dispensed with Roche, who I’ve decided is racing (at least that’s what I’m going to tell them back home), I’m tied in 15th with Fondriest. He’s still in superb shape – lean and tanned – but bolstered by my progress I feel I’ve got a shot.

I want to be ready so this time I make sure I’m into the front third of the pack when the big guys drop the hammer. Fondriest is two bikes over to the left with some heavy traffic up the inside, so I figure that if I can pop out to the clearer right I’ve got every chance of pipping the wiry Italian.

With 50 metres to go I make my move, and I’m just in sight of the line when something catches my eye. There’s been a clash of wheels and a rider in black has gone down across the path of four others. I hear the wince-inducing sound of flesh hitting gravel and, as I cross the line, the joy I should be feeling at seeing only three riders ahead of me (of which Fondriest is not one) is tempered by my worries about the carnage that has taken place behind.

Within minutes help arrives, and while a couple of mechanics check bikes for damage (funny how riders are always more concerned about wheels than bones), paramedics assess the human fallout. My Franschhoek Pass advisor, Geddan, looks pretty beaten up, but it’s nothing in comparison to two other riders, who are hastily carted off in an ambulance.

The final sprint and climb sections are annulled, and it’s not until we return to the race village that spirits pick up. We’re told the hospitalised riders are OK save for broken collarbones. Jack-knifing at 65kmh could have been a hell of a lot worse.

Stage four: Festival ride

Just like the Tour’s Champs-Élysées finish, the Cape Rouleur has its own celebratory leg – a 112km procession into Cape Town. Flanked once more by a police escort, we roll out of Franschhoek mid-morning with big grins and sore heads (last night was a group dinner followed by some all-night hotel bar propping).

Our sedate ride is punctuated by a leisurely lunch at the Nitida wine farm, after which our three groups merge into one for the final stretch towards Table Bay. As we approach, Table Mountain comes into view, a 3km long, startlingly flat plateau. Above it hang clouds or, as fellow rider David explains, what the locals refer to as ‘the tablecloth’.

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‘There once was a Dutch pirate who used to go up to the top of Table Mountain to smoke his pipe,’ David tells me. ‘One day he came across a stranger, also smoking. The stranger claimed to be able to smoke the most, so the pirate challenged him to a competition. Soon the stranger could smoke no more, and as he fell to his knees his cloak came off and he was revealed to be the Devil. Angry that he’d lost, the Devil took himself and the pirate to hell, leaving the clouds of smoke as a memorial to the contest. So whenever the tablecloth forms, it’s said that the Devil and the pirate are at it again.’

I tell him the tale is pretty unbelievable. David smiles and says, ‘So it’s a bit like this ride then.’ And he’s not wrong. Arriving to a champagne reception on Cape Town’s waterfront, the sun beating down and the waves crashing below, I know this has been just about the most memorable ride of my life. Unbelievable indeed.

The details

How to get an entry, when to go, where to stay

What: Cape Rouleur

Where: Western Cape, South Africa. Each day sees a return to base in Franschhoek, save for the final leg that culminates in Cape Town. The HotChillee crew is on hand to ferry non-riding companions and luggage to this final stop.

When: The 2015 event runs from 1st to 8th March.

Distance: 600km with 6,132m of climbing.

Entry: HotChillee offers a range of packages, with four nights’ accommodation, airport transfers and race entry starting at $2,000. Handily,
this can be paid in three instalments.

Travel and accommodation: Flights to South Africa start from around $1,900 during March. Once you’re there, HotChillee’s all-in packages take care of everything bar evening meals and accommodation in Cape Town.

Contact: All information including training tips, course profiles and details of pre-ride meets can be found at caperouleur.com.

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