Cape Crusade: Cycling in South Africa

Rebecca Newman whizzes through the South African city in a cycle race with a view

A city flanked by Table Mountain and the rolling Atlantic, with an enviable restaurant and party scene; a currency that’s weak against the pound; an overnight flight away… There’s a lot to recommend a trip to Cape Town. The city has an array of cultural attractions to complement its topographical splendour and is this year’s World Design Capital. The thing that swung it for us, however, was a cycle race.

In a moment of — optimism? Madness? Denial of recent parenthood? — my husband signed us up for the Cape Argus Pick’n Pay Cycle Tour. At 109km it is not the longest cycle event, but with 35,000 entrants it is massive (just shy of the number of runners in the London Marathon). The route winds its way around some gruesome ascents. But it also takes in many of the most beautiful stretches of coast and parkland around Cape Town, and with roads shut for the day, gives you a singular opportunity to enjoy them.

To offset the physical discomfort of the race, we booked into the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel, a glorious pink edifice painted in honour of the end of the First World War and picked out with white-painted balconies and balustrades. Something of a grande dame, since its beginnings in 1899 the hotel has hosted a range of exciting guests. Lord Kitchener used it as a base during the Second Boer War (from 1899), with a young war correspondent named Winston Churchill remarking it was ‘a most excellent and well-appointed establishment, which may be thoroughly appreciated after a sea voyage’. Later luminaries to stay there range from John Lennon and the Dalai Lama to Charlize Theron and Kate Moss — and notably Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who surprised staff by holding seances in his bedroom.

Despite its central location, it has capacious gardens filled with bougainvillea, birdsong and, referencing the city’s status as Design Capital, colourful sculpture by local artists. Our room looked on to the twin sandstone peaks of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. A great view — however, the night before the race this passage between the two peaks proved a wind tunnel, the gale keeping us nervously awake. As we pulled on cycle shorts in the morning the radio announced force 9 winds.

At the start the dawn was grey and, yes, blowy. But the sheer scale of the event was inspiring. At 7.58am we were waved over the line, a pack of international cyclists heading off south down the Cape Peninsula toward Muizenberg, a long beach that is catnip to surfers, and on to Kalk Bay. This latter is an atmospheric seafront town well worth discovering for Polana, a great seafood restaurant — think sushi, fresh angel fish, lobster — set so close to the rocks that from its floor-to-ceiling windows you can almost taste the salt of the spray (and where a round of oysters and champagne costs about £5).

Then, in a welcome long descent, we turned inland through the ‘fynbos’ (diverse shrubs and wild flowers, such as orchids and protea — whose white flowers are guarded by pink spikes) of the National Park, past the turn to the Cape of Good Hope across to the wild Atlantic coastline where the waves smash on to great smooth boulders and two lone kite surfers danced on the water. Along the route there were hordes of spectators: boom boxes ringing out ‘Happy’, ‘My Head is Spinning’, ‘I Need a Hero’; a scent of barbecued steak hung in the air; the official water stations were interspersed with groups offering more alcoholic refreshment.

Up two long and painful ascents the road at last passed the Twelve Apostles, the towering mounds of sandstone that overlook the road into the western part of Cape Town, and ushered us into Camps Bay. The party atmosphere of this oceanfront strip, whose bars and restaurants mark the start of many a Capetonian night out, was irresistible. We shakily descended from our bikes to the white bar and open-fronted windows of prime posing joint Café Caprice for a mid-race mojito.

By the time we crossed (wobbled over) the finish line, at the stadium built for the 2010 World Cup, our legs were mulch but we were exuberant, exultant. The whole city seemed to be celebrating.

It only seemed right to head back to the ‘Nelly’ for its famous tea. A kingly spread of angel cake, Sachertorte and chocolate éclairs; smoked salmon and cucumber finger sandwiches and teeny chicken pies; mini treacle tarts, millefeuilles and handmade marshmallows (as much as you can eat, for less than £25) where my slice of chocolate and mint mousse sponge cake was bigger than my bike saddle.

After a few laps in the outdoor pool, a soak in the tub and an expert Swedish massage, the city beckoned. At Long Street the party was in full flow. The nucleus for flâneurs, Long Street’s charms may not be subtle, but with music blaring out of happy-hour joints and clubs on every block its mood matched ours. Late night, at Marvel Bar, the R&B was as dirty as hell, crammed and sweaty. Around us the moves would have put Shakira to shame. The dancers spilled on to the street. While we point-blank failed to contribute to the booty bonanza in Marvel, much like

Cape Town as a whole, we couldn’t bear to leave.


Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel from £220 per night for two people B&B ( Atlantic flights from £553 plus tax (

Original article published in ES Magazine, in May, 2014

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