Ride the Western Cape

This feature appeared in the March/April issue of Ride magazine

The current water crisis aside, Cape Town is South Africa’s cycling Mecca. It is the only region where road riding is drawing big numbers, in part thanks to the annual Cape Town Cycle Tour and the 20 000-plus locals who pedal dawn’s highways in preparation for the world’s biggest bike race, but also because the road infrastructure and scenery makes battling the traffic worth it. And the mountain bike trails are both plentiful and superb.

The Cycle Tour is obviously the big drawcard, but Cape Town also has a busy event calendar, both on and off-road, that lets enthusiasts channel their competitiveness every weekend of the year. The Pedal Power Association, which started the Cape Town Cycle Tour way back in 1978, runs to over 12 000 members and organises events for both road and mountain cyclists, including a 12-hour road endurance test at the Killarney motor racing track in early April. In 2017, the lead rider rode 129 laps, for a total of 419km, without even getting dizzy.

Killarney is a regular on both the PPA calendar and with the elite end of the road racing fraternity. Each Thursday evening, between October and March, it hosts an hour-plus-a-lap suffer fest that is the hardest racing you will find, and has attracted the biggest names in pro cycling over the years. PPA uses the track on Wednesday evenings for a more genteel version, where members and visitors can race, a little, but more importantly learn about bunch riding, and train together without fear of traffic and security challenges.

The CSA racing scene is quite strong in Cape Town, with the Western Province Cycling Association hosting regular league races under the auspices of the national body, with help from PPA in many instances. Away from the racing, Cape Town spoils its riders with comparatively safe training routes, hundreds of kilometres of decent bike lanes and a driver awareness that is noticeably better than elsewhere in the country. PPA and local government continue to run campaigns for road safety in the province, and the Stay Wider of the Rider campaign has had a marked effect on drivers, with that little extra room making road riding a tiny bit less intimidating. There are obviously still myriad idiot road users who either don’t care or won’t share, but the tide is turning and rider safety is better than it has been in decades.

Security is a different story, unfortunately, with a couple of no-go areas in the metropole where bike-jacking is common. If you are worried, start by getting hold of the PPA and asking their advice on whether your planned route has any hotspots. Always ride in a group – this is not fail-safe, but is generally a deterrent to the opportunist jacker. And just be alert. There are sensible places for pedestrians, and places that seem wrong. Turn back and ride a different route if your intuition tells you something is up, it isn’t worth it.

Off-road riders in the Western Cape are spoiled rotten, with many kilometres of trails, many of them easily linked for longer rides, and more events on the calendar than you can shake a timing chip at. Mountain biking first got off the ground, from a South African perspective, here in the early 80s. ROMP (Responsible Organised Mountain Pedallers) and the PPA formalised it as a sport as that decade died, and by the mid-’90s PPA was coordinating 40 or more events each year.

The first big MTB event was the fabled Sedgefield Fat Tyre Festival, which the Fat Trax club from Port Elizabeth organised from 1990–1993… every mountain biker in the land, bar those whose cars broke down on the way, would attend, sometimes more than 100. Small beginnings have morphed into a sport that lets you race every weekend, and often through the week, as events companies like Dryland, Stillwater, the Epic organisers and more cater for all levels of mountain biker in events that range from one-day classics to the king of them all, the eight-day Absa Cape Epic in March.
For most mountain bikers, though, events are not where it is at. New trails with buddies, old trails with buddies – it is all about getting out into nature on two wheels. Did we mention how spoilt Capetonians are? The choice is bewildering, sometimes, with Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Wellington and Durbanville all offering a ridiculous amount of very, very good riding in the form of well-maintained and secure trails.

The city itself offers so much riding that many locals never venture furhter out on their bikes. The front of Table Mountain, from Tafelberg Road or Deer Park, has a network of loose, rocky fun trails – single and jeep track that is perfect for an after-work burn. Head south from there, through Rhodes Memorial (where you need to ride in a group, as it is a jacking hotspot) and you can now link through the top of the Kirstenbosch Gardens, down the Constantia green belts and into Tokai, where a wonderland of trails awaits. All these routes are marked and maintained through PPA funding, and the trail fairies do an amazing job.

The most exciting growth in cycling in the Western Cape is in the touring arena. There is such a tantalising network of backroads and hidden routes, and the rise of the gravel bike and bikepacking equipment has made touring a viable and enticing option. The region is already so geared up for tourism, with accommodation and refuelling options around every corner, that all you have to do is find a map, and a friend, and you can create an adventure, for a day or longer, that costs considerably less than you would think.

The Cross Cape is a local government initiative that has mapped a route from Stellenbosch to Plettenberg Bay, a total of over 700km if you do the whole thing. But it is modular in design, so you can tailor portions of it for your time and fitness restrictions. It takes in Knysna, George, Oudtshoorn, Riversdale, Swellendam and most settlements in between, following the valley between the N2 and the N1, with 99% gravel roads and little or no traffic to contend with. Pack a bag and a credit card, and go exploring!

The best source for where to ride (and where not to, if you are riding alone) is the PEDAL POWER ASSOCIATION. Find them on www.pedalpower.org.za, or call them on 021 671 6340.
There are a number of cycling clubs, across the Peninsula. CLUB 100 is probably the biggest, and is linked to the national club of the same name. Find it on www.club100.co.za/cape-town-branch.html. They have regular club rides and get-togethers, and a wide range of experience and ability within the membership, so you will always find a riding partner of similar ability and ambition. CYCLELAB’S SUPERCYCLING CLUB is also big, and popular – find them at http://cyclelabclub.co.za.

If racing is your thing, get on to the helpful folk at WESTERN PROVINCE CYCLING:
www.wpcycling.com. They organise road races, track meetings, training rides and more, for all age groups.
The best way to find places to ride, and people to ride with, is to hook up with the local bike shops. Everyone who works in a bike shop is a keen cyclist (the only explanation for not having a real job, we keep kidding ourselves. Living the dream, etc…) and will have intimate knowledge of local riding conditions and no-go zones. They love to talk bikes and cycling, and often have excellent coffee.

Our go-to guy for mountain bike routes is JACQUES MARAIS, and his comprehensive website www.mtbroutes.co.za. As the South African MTB landscape changes almost daily, it is worth your while to make contact with whoever manages the trails before you make a trip, just to make sure they are open and rideable.
The best place to find out what is happening in the Cape Town mountain biking scene is www. tablemountainbikers.co.za, the driving force behind much of the success we have seen with the opening of trails above Kirstenbosch and Tokai.

PEDAL POWER ASSOCIATION, www.pedalpower.org.za, is also very involved in trail develop-ment and management, as well as events.
Need a guide? Make www. daytrippers.co.za your first stop (they do cracking road tour options as well) if you want tailored, more social riding, and multi-day options. Daniel Dobinson at IRIDE AFRICA (www.irideafrica.com) can tailor tours from beginner to crazy downhiller level, and has quality rental bikes if you only brought a road machine on holiday.

Victoria and Coffee
START AND FINISH: Bootleggers, Victoria Road, Camps Bay
ASCENT: 1 050m
ROUTE: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/26875809

HIGHLIGHTS: Chapman’s Peak, both ways; More coffee than you can shake a bike pump at
This is the classic Cape Town road ride and you will never ride alone, rain or shine. On weekends, in particular, there are so many riders on the road you will think you are in an organised event. Starting with the reverse of the final stretch of the Cycle Tour, the route takes in Suikerbossie and Chappies the wrong way, before turning at Noordhoek Farm Village for coffee, either at the farm village, or on your way back through Hout Bay. Enjoy the world-class view from Chapman’s Peak – we tend to miss it in the Cycle Tour, in the heat of battle – and have a bash at a Strava PB up Suikerbossie on your way back to more coffee in Camps Bay.

Round the point
START AND FINISH: Constantia Village, Constantia
ASCENT: 930m
ROUTE: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/26875809
HIGHLIGHTS: Quiet roads after Simonstown, Misty Cliffs, Boyes Drive
If you are after a little climbing, and a lot of sight-seeing, a trip around the South Peninsula is just the trick. From CV head down Spaanschemat, through Tokai, before sneaking across to the Main Road past the golf course – there are bike lanes all the way here. Then it is all along the Main Road, ala the Cycle Tour, through Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and Simonstown before you leave civilisation and climb up to the Cape Point Nature Reserve gate. A fast stretch takes you to the first coffee stop, at the Hub Café in Scarborough. Caffeined up, head through Kommetjie for some extra views and to avoid potential undesirables in Ocean View. Back through Fish Hoek, then turn left up the steep side of Boyes Drive for a final kick in the pants before heading into the leafy bike lanes once more.

START AND FINISH: Dirtopia, Delvera, Stellenbosch
ASCENT: 1 936m
ROUTE: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/26875803
HIGHLIGHTS: Plenty of countryside, quiet roads, alpine climbs
Make a day of it and tackle two of the Western Cape’s greatest passes. Start nice and early, so that you miss the rush on Dutoitskloof, a 14km climb that, while it is not particularly steep, drags on somewhat. The view from almost all of it is worth the sweat, though. Take it easy through the tunnel on the descent, and then stay in the yellow line all the way through to the Rawsonville turn-off – this is a national road (not a freeway, so we are a lowed to ride on it), and it is busy, but quite safe. The Slanghoek valley never disappoints, with little traffic and ever-changing views and a couple of coffee/croissant options if you aren’t too early. Then you turn left and head up Bainskloof, an absolute classic; steep and twisty, narrow and rough. The descent is worth being cautious on – the lower corners are sharper than they look. Then it is a short battle into the southeaster to get back to Delvera for burgers and beer.

Mountain Bike Routes
The Kirstenbosch Cracker
DISTANCE: 16km, out and back
DIFFICULTY: Intermediate to advanced
MORE INFORMATION: www.tablemoutainbikers.co.za
HIGHLIGHTS: Proper mountain biking in the heart of the city, insane views

Park at Constantia Nek and head up the short tar road that takes you into the Table Mountain National Park. You will soon be on gravel, with a longish climb to get you up to the high point of the route, at the lookout over the Southern Suburbs and the Cape Flats. Stopping to have a look is both encouraged, and necessary. Enjoy the descent, but at a sensible pace – there will be dog walkers and hikers everywhere – before the second long climb, which takes you into the custom-built single tracks above the Kirstenbosch National Gardens. Here be many ups and downs – this is a taxing route, physically, but manageable with a can-do mindset. Dropping out of Kirstenbosch, take it easy on the descent down to the Newlands Forest section, before deciding whether you want to extend your ride to Kirstenbosch, or come back the way you came. Out-and-back is a great two to two-and-a-half-hour adventure ride, in the heart of the city, finishing with refreshments at one of the food trucks in the Constantia Nek parking lot, or with the pretty people at La Parada. If you have more time, drop down into the Constantia green belts, and enjoy the sublime singletrack network that Cape Town mountain biking cut its teeth on in the ‘80s.

CLOSEST TOWN: Melkbosstrand
DISTANCE: 7, 21 or 25km
DIFFICULTY: Beginner/easy
MORE INFORMATION: www.mtbroutes.co.za
HIGHLIGHTS: The perfect place to learn to mountain bike; flat, with postcard views of the mountain.
The Koeberg Nature Reserve was officially proclaimed a private nature reserve in 1991, and Eskom has built and now maintains a fantastic network of hiking and mountain-bike trails on the land. As an MTB venue it is strictly a ‘beginners and family affair’, with no singletrack at all. Rather, trails are wide and perfectly maintained gravel roads. The main attraction of Koeberg is the scenery and vast abundance of wildlife, including grysbok, steenbok, bontebok, springbok and duiker. If you’re really lucky, you might spot caracal (rooikat), an African wild cat or even a genet. Many angulated tortoises cross the trails; beware of them in the early morning or late afternoon. There are two official trails: a 7km loop and a 21km route (plus a road down to the beach which adds 4km). Trails are well marked and direction markers include the distance to avoid any nasty surprises.

CLOSEST TOWN: Stellenbosch
DISTANCE: You choose – from 10km to 50km
DIFFICULTY: Moderate to advanced
MORE INFORMATION: www.mtbroutes.co.za
HIGHLIGHTS: Mountain biking in real mountains, with plenty of trail stoke
Check with the locals re trail status before you saddle up to ride here… in short, let’s just say that the Jonkershoek MTB Trail is based around a 10km gravel road loop traversing the valley floor in an anti-clockwise direction. It is a good idea to stick to this flow because of the dangerous combo of speed and blind corners on some sections. From the gate, follow the gravel road for 400m until you see a building on your left side, turn left towards this and almost immediately you will see the Lower Canary trail on the right. This is the start of your climb, but fortunately it is a rather fun ascent starting on smooth single-track before passing through a few rock garden sections. Pedal higher and higher, crossing two jeep-tracks on the way; the third jeep-track signals the top. Turn right here and continue on the gravel road, fork right at 7.5km and continue around. Hang a left at 8.3km and ride till you can go no further, and turn back. After 400m, take the fork to the right and keep straight. Keep right at the junction you find at 11km and continue the gentle ascent along the contour path. At 17.5km, turn left onto the main jeep-track and continue until almost exactly 20km, where you’ll find yourself back at the top of the Canary trails. You don’t need us to tell you what to do from here, let alone what to expect. So, deep breaths, eyes open, attack! See you back at the start.

Gravel travel
Bikepacking is the next big thing in cycling, and for once this is a ‘fad’ that might last. We have the ideal conditions for it – long open roads, interesting places to discover, great weather and a pioneering spirit ingrained in our national psyche.

The good news is that you don’t need a gravel bike to get into this level of adventure. Bikepacking baggage (it does away with all those rattly panniers and racks, strapping onto your saddle and frame with Velcro, not bolts) is now readily available in South Africa.

Even the Western Cape Government has got involved, creating and promoting a network of roads and links that will get you from Plettenberg Bay, in the far east of the province all the way through to Stellenbosch, in the West, with little in the way of tarred roads. The full route covers 740km, and includes over 10 000m of ascent as it takes in the Seven Passes road between Knysna and George, Montagu Pass, Rooiberg Pass, Garcia Pass Franschhoek Pass and Helshoogte as it wanders through the back roads and farmlands sandwiched between the N1 and N2. The route is set up in 40km (roughly) blocks, with accommodation, nutrition and bike repair opportunities clearly marked. To do it on one go is quite an ask – eight days for the pros, fully-supported, or a more sensible fortnight if you want to actually enjoy the scenery. But you don’t need to do it all in one go… break in at any point, and leave again when you have run out of time.

In the same vein, the second of the Cross Cape routes will be launched in May 2018. Based around the Cederberg, it will be a 250km loop (also broken down into bite-sized 40km chunks) and will take riders through Citrusdal, Clanwilliam and the Tankwa Karoo. On the way, expect plenty of heat, lots of gravel-road emptiness and plenty of climbing: 3 500m in total, including some of the famous passes of the area, like Pakhuis, Cederberg and Ouberg, while taking in the Cederberg classic attractions of Lot’s Wife, Wolfberg Arch and Cracks, and the Maltese Cross.

So there are two ‘pre-arranged’ routes. There is no need to restrict yourself to them, though. The joy of cycling, one of the joys anyway, is that you can just park your car and go exploring. Pack some clean kit in a bag, and a credit card in your pocket, and ride until you find something interesting.

THE CROSS CAPE website has it all, and more:
To get kitted out, check out gravel bikes from www.specialized.com, www.santacruzbicycles.com or www.momsenbikes.com. Then, visit www.cycletouring.co.za for the widest range of bags, packs, racks and more.
For mapping, either use www.ridewithgps.com, or buy the six-DVD government 1:50 000 map set from www.mapstudio.co.za