The Hotchillee Cape Rouleur is a five-day endurance road event, totalling over 600km with 6 000m of climbing. Perfect, then, for a busy mum of three?

Words: Kerry Anley Photos: Craig Colesky

This feature first appeared in the May/June issue of Ride magazine.

Forget the ominous numbers in that intro – the event itself was the easy part. As a mother of three kids, all under the age of eight, getting a sports pass was possibly the biggest hurdle of all.

‘Before Family’, I was a regular triathlete but I hung up my swimming goggles, helmet and running shoes when my concentration and patience levels were depleted and I was getting fed up with the guilt associated with ‘my’ training.

Little did I know I had become lost and consumed in the family circle, each day had become ‘groundhog day’.

The Rouleur would make that more than apparent.

It all started when I was sitting having a mid-ride coffee, contemplating a journey home through the fearsome Cape wind with no inspiration, no goal and worst of all, no company. I see a fellow female cyclist who had also decided to stop for coffee mid ride, and we start chatting. Her name is Nouschka. We swap numbers with the plan to meet and cycle together. Companionship. That’s what I was looking for.

Fast-forward to a lazy Sunday afternoon some weeks later; I receive a message from my new yet-to-be cycling buddy, Nouschka: ‘Do you want to take part in the HotChillee Cape Rouleur in a team of ladies?” My heart jumped, blood coursed through my body and I was consumed with excitement. There it was… a goal, my goal, a team goal; I was human again.
Then the cold shower of reality hit me.
How would I fit in the training for such an event and look after my children? Long rides starting at 05h30 due to the heat Cape Town endures in February? Who would take care of the children? Who would take them to school during the race?
My husband is a partner at a large accountancy firm and travels extensively, so I fully expected a “no I can’t take time off work to help with the kids”. But, the answer was “yes, you need a break”.

It had been some years since I had been away on my own, without family.

I grasped the opportunity with all my might.

We needed another two team members, to make this work. The criteria were tough and we only had five weeks. We had to build the team, bond and train. No matter how fit you are, events of this distance with consecutive days in the saddle play havoc with your mind, your body – and your backside.

1. Similar mindset. We needed strong minds (and if you want to complain do it quietly).
2. Sense of humour. Laughter is fuel for our team.
3. Bike colours must co-ordinate (Okay, willing to let that one drop, but we did get matching cycling glasses.)
4. All female Not willing to let that one drop.

Finding females with the ability to ride the Cape Rouleur at an average pace of 28km/h was, surprisingly, not our hurdle. The ride is not for the faint of heart. Between us, we already knew of numerous female cyclists who were more than capable to fit the bill. Our stumbling block was finding a female who could manage her ‘baggage’.
It’s scary using that term, and I had hoped to avoid it. By baggage, I mean all that comes with managing a family. Planning a simple ride for females (with families) is far more complicated than for our male counterparts. If the cycle shoe were on the other foot; to find a male only team we would have had endless choices. Why are women so restricted when it comes to taking part in these events? Are women their own worst enemies? Is it South African society?

One of the aims of this challenge, and this is from the HotChillee folk themselves, was to change the general perception of women in cycling. We wanted to make it seem a more accessible sport, to encourage more women to make the time and participate in rides and to change the perception that events are only for experienced riders.

Nouschka – Our downhill champ. She glides round corners like she is floating on air. On descents she looks like a bird of prey swooping on its victim. In some cases, this could well be an egotistic male. Whoops, sorry guys. Minus 4 points.

Mel – Our in-house dietician/comedienne who is a little whippet when it comes to climbing the hills and is willing to burst a blood vessel when she sees any competition.

Nouschka and Mel are not married, have no children and have a flexible work environment. So the option to join our team was somewhat less complicated.

Yolanda – Our mountain biker, mother of two and full-time career woman. She decided to use the Rouleur as a training ride and helped one of the team captains pull the 3rd group. Her next race is the HotChillee London to Paris.

Me (Kerry) – I am the cart-horse. My years of endurance racing equipped me with the mental capacity to keep going no matter what the pain. My legs and power tend to kick in after a good 60km warm up. I will pull our train when the going gets tough, as I always like to keep some fuel in the tank.

Different cycling strengths play well for a strong and efficient team, and that’s what we had.

A collection of road rides, split into three groups according to speed, with each day a communal group ride interspersed with short, intense timed sections that decide who wins what. The emphasis is on the ride, not the racing bits, and making new cycling friends in spectacular surroundings.

The riders are seeded from the result of a prologue time trial, with an average of 50 riders per group:
GROUP 1: Rolling course average speed 29km/h+ for 150km
GROUP 2: Average 27‒28km/h for a rolling 150km
GROUP 3: Average 25‒26km/h for a rolling 150km

And yet, this was not just a social ride with some silly bits: we got to accomplish goals, challenge mental barriers, face our demons and, most importantly, keep a smile on our faces.

We were lucky to experience the Cape Rouleur with a healthy female participation. In 2013, there were only 2.5% ladies, but by 2018, it has increased to 25%. Well done HotChillee. Long may it continue to grow.

Females who had participated in previous years commented on how much more enjoyable it had become in 2018 with more women taking part. The race sections became more competitive, the prologues were more gruelling and, of course, more rewarding. The girls were a power to be reckoned with and the men got to learn a few funny home truths.

Race day arrived, a gorgeous Sunday in Franschhoek. Nerves got the better of us, obviously, and we made a few rookie errors when prepping our bikes:
1. Race numbers do not go on front of a road bike.
2. Do not hook the timing chip with the cable tie to the front fork and the spokes.
3. Acknowledge some lack of knowledge to repair a puncture.

Thank goodness for Frenchy the mechanic. Who was, of course, French. He was soon to be our trusty friend before the start of each stage. A basic knowledge of bike mechanics was not one of our strong points. This is most probably the case with many females. It’s not that we don’t have the competency to learn. But do we need to? How many rides have we all been on only to discover there is no male in sight and immediately cross your fingers and toes you don’t have to change a puncture? Adding the knowledge of bike mechanics to our cycling repertoire would instil greater confidence in most female riders.

The Cape Rouleur is one of the most organised bike races in the world; the closest an amateur can get to feeling like a Tour de France rider. There are rolling road closures, medics, motorbike outriders, back-up vehicles and experienced ride captains who provide a constant stream of amusing little sarcastic chirps.

7.6km Prologue

A bit short, hard and fast for my old legs to get kick-started. Nouschka and Mel did amazingly well working together, Nouschka taking the Yellow Jersey, with Yolanda just behind.

150km with 1 244m of climbing

Riders trying to find their feet and wheels. The ride captains were doing a fantastic job keeping those testy testosterone Rapha kings and queens riding in an orderly manner. “Choose your wheel”.

By now we were getting to grips with the rules of drafting in large pelotons and most importantly learning to avoid the ‘snot drop’. (clearing your nose, but not always checking for possible victims behind). Our backsides were now so sore where possible we hovered above our saddles for some respite. Every little stone and bump felt like someone was shooting a pellet gun at your butt.

Suddenly out of nowhere your mind switches and you find yourself in the most spectacular space enjoying the scenery, the solidarity and camaraderie.

It made the pain all that more worthwhile. A ‘good-bad’ pain.

131km and 1 934m climbing

Some more hills thrown in for good measure; Helshoogte Pass, Viljoens Pass and, to finish off, a nice little jaunt up Franschhoek Pass. The heat got to a few on the last pass, and even the strongest started to struggle.

The guys were desperately trying to cling on to Nouschka’s wheel on the descents – not quite realising the expertise of this talented lady. There were quite a few dented egos, but it was all taken in good sportsmanship, of course.

162km and 2 065m climbing

This was by far our favourite day. We climbed Franschhoek Pass for the second time earlier in the day. The 40km coastal route from Betty’s Bay to Gordon’s Bay was breathtaking. Feeling tired and beaten, it was time for affirmative thoughts – everyone was hurting. Just keep turning the pedals.

By this time the girls were really working well together and getting to know the other riders. We soon noticed the testosterone levels were diminishing and everyone had a quiet level of respect for each other. For both male and female riders, the time in the saddle was getting tough.
Mel threw in her last burst of power to charge up the final race section of the day. A cruel climb at the 140km mark. She kicked quite a few butts on the way. Deal with it, guys. We promised not to tell.

This was the last hard day – in our hearts we knew, now, we have achieved our goal.

Festival Ride – 88km and 784 climbing

Our final day was with a police escort taking us from Somerset West to Cape Town Waterfront, via Khayelitsha to visit the legendary Velokhaya Life Cycling Academy. This was certainly an eye-opener. It’s a cycling academy for the local community sponsored by Pick n Pay and HotChillee. A place where many lives will be changed for the better.
The Velokhaya Life Cycling Academy was founded with the intention of using the cycling to involve children living in under-resourced communities in a positive after-school activity and to give them the life skills they need to deal with the challenges they face.

Cycling donations are crucial to help these youngsters get the best start in life, and hopefully some of them will ride events like the Rouleur in the future.

How do we get more women cycling?

• My team and I had not realised the huge discrepancy in numbers between men and women in the cycling fraternity. I never imagined struggling to find four females to join a five-day event.
• There are plenty of women who do cycle, even on the scariest of roads or the most technical MTB trail – but when it comes to an event women are more likely to be busy holding the fort at home and, in many cases, holding down their day job at the same time.
• To solve this, women themselves must make the decision to make time. Learn to share family responsibility on a more equal level with your partner. Allow for both to enjoy the sport and the events it comes with.
• The PPA have published some quite alarming numbers. Last year the percentage of women participating in a PPA road event was just 14.8%. This is somewhat better in mountain bike events where the ratio is 22:78.
• The percentage of women taking part in Cape Town Cycle Tour has stagnated in the last 10 years. In 2008 22% were ladies and in 2018 it has actually decreased to 21%.
• Fear of riding in groups could be a key factor. This could easily be addressed by introducing a female-only section for those who do not wish to race in the mixed ride. We still want the main race mixed. After all there is nothing better than the battle of the sexes.
• Another option is female-only cycling groups. Learning to cycle in groups will offer opportunities for women to cycle with confidence. Women generally are more cautious riders and actually have fewer accidents than men.
• Female-only rides seem to be more common for the mountain biker but not the roadie. Skills clinics are key not just for the MTB but for the roadie too.
• Bike mechanic clinics, could be set up by local cycling shops or cycling organisations. Only a morning is needed. This would be a welcoming product for roadies and MTB enthusiasts alike, no matter what cycling experience you have.
• Please cut out the gender stereotyping. Do we really want to do a race called ‘Heels on Wheels’? It sounds derogatory and patronising. Where are the women-only road races? There are a few MTB ones but why not road?
• Let women see other women on the bike. This is by far the best way to get women cycling. Whether you are riding to work, whizzing through the roads in your co-ordinated lycra or hiring an electric bike cruising through Cape Town in your Sunday best. The more females we see on the road, the more it will become the norm and empower women to cycle.
• The City of Cape Town is already doing some amazing work to improve safety on our roads by introducing cycle lanes. Little things can go a long way to change the future of cycling for women and men alike. Give them more reason to continue improving road safety.
• L astly, women’s cycling kit. Now come on?Women do not want to wear size small men’s cycling tops. Give us more choice and some elegant designs and fabric. Again something the local cycling shops and designers should consider more. I know I had major kit envy when riding the Rouleur with our UK friends, although our Anatomic kit was a hit with them, in turn.

All the above would in turn have a big impact on female cycling participation
Both HotChillee and Ride magazine are on the right path to grow awareness of this short-fall of women in cycling by inviting our team to take part in the Rouleur. It was a privilege and honour to take part as a female-only team. We had a true bond, which made for fantastic days in and out the saddle.

Thanks to the Rouleur I am starting new goals in my life.

My husband has realised how important targets are for me. We have agreed time will continue to be allotted with joint effort so we can both enjoy our sport and events without compromise.

I am already planning my next HotChillee event.

I am me.