A 20-mile cycle tour on a sweltering day outside South Africa's Cape Town was the ultimate test
I admit it – I am a cycling snob. Fair-weather joyriders, eat my dust. I’ve cycled solo halfway around the world, with just a tent and a sleeping bag, I’ve hauled panniers and a trailer over the Rockies, the Alps and across Arctic tundra. On ghastly winter day-rides, I get a masochistic thrill out of my calves and quadriceps cramping with lactic acid.
While I’ve not quite reached Mamil (middle-aged man in Lycra) status just yet – you won’t find me balancing on a £10,000 carbon-fibre frame at a set of east London traffic lights – cycling, for me, should prove painfully gruelling, for a few hours at least. So imagine my bemused apprehension at the start of a 20-mile e-bike tour just outside Cape Town, when I was presented with a Dutch-style steed with a wide, squidgy saddle, broad handlebars sporting horizontal lever brakes and a throttle hooked up to a weighty battery.
“Start in first gear and you’ll be on a nice, gentle ride,” said my guide, Sele, as I slapped sunscreen on to every patch of exposed flesh, before strapping on a helmet. “Move into fifth gear,” he went on, cracking a smile. “And you’ll fly!”
The e-bike craze has boomed rapidly from just a few eccentric devotees a decade or so ago, to a £15 billion global industry. In the UK, 60,000 electric bicycles are now sold each year, but in the cycling-obsessed Netherlands, that number stands at more than 400,000 – representing 68 per cent of all new bike sales. While I’d previously resisted the temptation to ride one of these “cheat bikes” elsewhere, I have to admit, the experience was immediately exciting, albeit a tad lethargy inducing.
As my eight-strong group pootled out of the blustery seaside town of Kommetjie, the tacky asphalt baked in the thick, soupy heat. The eddying South Atlantic was shimmering so bright it hurt my eyes to look at it directly – even with sunglasses. If anything, it felt like I was moving too fast, but, presented with gears one to five, it was too tempting to travel at full throttle. Moreover, my body and brain were struggling to catch up. I was on a bicycle, travelling at 15-20mph in stifling South African heat, but without emitting a single globule of perspiration.
For the first 10 miles, giant roadside signs had warned of “dangerous WILD animals” – and I’d fobbed them off as hyperbole. But when we reached the gates to Cape Point National Park, we were faced with more primates than Homo sapiens. A troop of bolshie chacma baboons was marauding busily between the bins and the public loos. “Can you shut the cubicle window?” shouted the park permit vendor, from the safety of her kiosk. But there was no way I, or anyone else in my group, was brave enough to take them on.
The two dozen or so mothers and babies were undeniably cute, but the alpha male must have weighed 80 intimidating pounds and had canine teeth like ice picks. “A few years ago I had to punch a baboon that was about to attack me,” said Sele. “But as long as you’re not cycling with a banana in your hand, you should be pretty safe.”
We weren’t in the mood for a fight – and luckily our bikes had a battery-powered turn of pace. But the sun was burning hotter than before and I had a sunburnt T-shirt neckline that was raw to the touch. I was eager to get to the finish line at the Cape of Good Hope. But instead of a victorious last hurrah – BANG! – my back tyre was rendered flat and lifeless in a dramatic instant.
My battery was still fully charged, but it was the old tech that had let me down. I limped the final mile on foot rather than two wheels, feeling significantly more Eddie the Eagle than Chris Froome.
Daytrippers.co.za offers a variety of cycling and e-bike adventures, from a few hours to multi-day trips. The Cape Point day trip, including e-bike hire and national park entry fee costs 1,370 rand (£63) per person. Our writer travelled before the pandemic; tours are currently being run for private groups only. South Africa will reopen to select countries from Oct 1, but these will not include the UK, and the FCDO currently advises against all but essential travel there. For advice, see gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/south-africa.