Once the line popped into my head, I became determined to start a story by saying, “I see monkeys,” so I figured out how to structure the whole thing just so I could use the opener I wanted. Monkeys are always funny. If a story ever gets boring, put a monkey in it.

I see monkeys.

“I see monkeys,” I say, because I see monkeys. I am racing and I see monkeys slouching beside the road, and, well, just try not to talk about that the next time it happens to you. The monkeys jump and screech and yowl. They bare their teeth. They clap. They display their genitals. These monkeys, they are race fans.

“I see monkeys!” I say again. Maybe this time, a little, I am shouting. The racers race. They surge forward, and fade away, and push and rub and shove and I do it all back to them, and the sound of our snicking chains and ratcheting freewheels is loud and constant and everywhere, like riding in a train with the windows open. And that moment, right there, 30 miles in, when nobody in the world’s largest bike race shares my simian joy, is when I start to fall apart.

Because maybe there are no monkeys. Or maybe the monkeys really are race fans: family and friends and local roadside spectators that my head—whacked out by the 5,000 bike racers between me and the finish line, and the 34,000 others trying to ride over my back—has transmogrified into primates. I babble it again: “I see monkeys! Does anybody else see monkeys?”

“Shut up, you sod!” yells someone two or three bikes ahead of me. “They’re baboons.”

“And,” hisses another voice, “we see them all the time.”

I shut up. I race. I am not a raving, wasted piece of meat pedaling a bike. I am a racer passing baboons in South Africa. My life is simple and clear. Then I hear one more voice, soft, just off my drivetrain, whispering, “They’re spectators, ain’t they now?”

I’m here in Cape Town, South Africa, to test myself in the Cape Argus Pick ‘n’ Pay Cycle Tour. Each March, somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000 cyclists migrate to this city floating on the country’s southwestern coast between the Indian and Atlantic oceans. The draw is the 67-mile race that starts downtown, rolls over some minor climbs and winds along two coasts before circling back into town.

Other bike events can claim similar size. I’ve ridden in New York City’s Five Boro Bike Tour, with 30,000 cyclists taking over the streets of Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The Tour de l’Ile pours 40,000 cyclists onto Montreal’s streets each June. But the Pick ‘n’ Pay (named for the South African grocery that sponsors it) is not a ride. It’s a race. Everyone is timed. There are winners, and losers, and although most of the entrants know they’re not racing to see their name atop any category, and although some of them ride in costumes or play musical instruments as they pedal, all of us will be ranked against each other when we’re done.

The winners average about 27 mph and finish in less than two and half hours. The slowest riders pedal for seven hours, or about 9.5 mph. The race is televised live. A master control room in downtown Cape Town operates every stop light along the route, tracks ambulances and support vehicles by GPS, and oversees the delivery of more than 63,000 gallons of water, energy drink and soda to the race course.

Neither numbers nor logistics are the best way to describe the Pick ‘n’ Pay, which occupies a special place in the South African culture. It’s not just the country’s largest one-day race; it’s the epitome of their cycling mania. In America, organized group rides fit into two categories: Racing (which very few of us do —fewer than 50,000 riders hold USCF licenese) and recreational rides such as centuries, fun rides and festivals. In South Africa, recreation and racing are one. Nearly every event is timed, and nearly every pro race is open to everyday riders. Imagine Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie and Alison Dunlap showing up to blaze through your local century. Imagine starting just behind the pro field at the San Francisco Grand Prix, with your 80-year-old mother or 12-year-old son beside you.

Even though I’d have to submit to an insane schedule to taste that combination of comradeship and competitiveness—leave for South Africa from New York on Wednesday, arrive on Thursday, race on Sunday—I knew from the first time I heard about the race that I had to do it.

At 6:10 a.m., the 628 cyclists in my start group, “I,” filed into a chain-link holding pen. Every 5 minutes, a gate swung open and we shuffled one chute closer to the start. The first group—the invitational pack filled with ex-pros, current pros and other hammers with a shot at the overall title—left the start banner behind at 6:15. The throng runs from group A to Z, then AA to LL and 28 more lettered designations. South Africans qualify for start groups by riding seed races throughout the year. The 1,600 international entries, like me, were placed according to race or century times from our homelands.

Forget 39,000: I’d never raced in a field bigger than my start group. The buzz was that same exhilirating, unnerving anxiety and hope you feel on any start line, magnified beyond imagination. It was as if every race I’d ever done had been experienced through headphones, and now I was in the front row of the live concert.

There was no warm-up. The pack combusted, flat-out trying to escape itself and chase down the 554 racers five minutes ahead of us, and stay away from the 586 racers five minutes behind us. Any group of riders moves like a Slinky. This was tsunami Slinky. Every twitch gained amplitude as it traveled through the pack; move an inch up front and the last rider veered 10 feet. I’d never been in a shakier pack with a greater number of skilled riders. We were like a dextrous elephant: More precise than anyone has a right to expect, but still inadvertently punishing.

The sensation was unlike any bike ride, bike race or dream of biking I’d ever had. It was too fast when it was fast, and too slow when it was slow and somehow beautiful for its relentlessness. There was no break. Never a safe second to grab a waterbottle, or chomp off a piece of energy bar. We stacattoed over small climbs and squeezed each other through streets packed with spectators who not only lined the curb but also hung off balconies, thrust drinks at us, shouted deafening encouragment, clapped our backs as we pirouetted around each other.

Once, on a coastal road domed by the spray of crashing waves, where the water and we juxtaposed our speed in such a way that each droplet seemed fixed in space, the group came apart. But I looked back and we were not apart; I’d just somehowmanaged to get myself into the front ten or so. Behind us, there was a dense knot of color and sound, and sweat and movement, legs churning in synchronicity like a thousand grasshoppers playing an instinctive song, and behind that knot, the same thing, and behind that the same, and the same and the same and the same and the same. And in front of us the same.

And I realized I’d never do a more wondrous ride. And I saw monkeys.

I am bonking. Just before I succumb to my folly, I understand it: I’ve been racing as if I’m in a race: I’ve imagined there will be a crucial break, or that, as in other races, if I can just fight my way close to the front and hang on, something might happen. But in group I there is no front or back. Riders will never stop fading into us, and stronger riders will never stop overtaking us.

And, oh yeah, I should have had some energy drink. With that, I am on Ou Kaapse Weg.

The big climb of the race is not a big climb at all. It rises maybe 1,000 feet over four miles. It winds and rises and winds more before rising more, but, really, the whole ascent is something you’d barely mention when you were showing the slides back home.

I am bonking.You expect enlightenment or darkness but what you really get is freedom. You live only in each instant; your past no longer dominates you and your future cannot determine you. You don’t need to make it to the top of the hill. You just need to pedal one more stroke. My life is a thorough and smashing success, over and over, 40 times a minute. I’m done musing about the nature of racing 39,000 people. I’m finished with baboons. There’s just this primordial urge for motion, this slow firing of my slow-twitch muscles, and I am happy. Hundreds of people pass me. Maybe thousands. I suffer, and pedal one stroke, and suffer and pedal one stroke. Inside my suffering, I realize this is some kind of important feeling. I haven’t just bonked. I have become a better person. I have mined down into deep new levels of my being. I —

I see cheerleaders.

I am bonking and I see cheerleaders springing around the road, and, well, just try not to talk about that the next time it happens to you. The cheerleaders leap and squeal and arch. They flash their teeth. They clap. These cheerleaders, they are my fans.

To celebrate my arrival they cavort across the pavement and shout their adoration for me in rhythmic a capellas. It takes enormous, heroic effort for me to keep my mouth shut as I plod toward the hallucination. Finally the last of my willpower drains away, and I say, “I see cheerleaders.”

My mouth is pasty and dry. My legs are seizing up. My back muscles twist me sideways on the bike. “Are those baboons?” I ask, and my cadence drops another 10 rpm. No riders answer—they’re passing me too fast to hear the entirety of my mumble. I drag myself toward the bright, jiggly, perky cluster with something more primitive than lust. What I feel is more elemental: I want their soda.

For, yes, just as I understood that monkeys were baboons and my life could be one pedal stroke, I discern the third great truth: that there is Coca-Cola in each cheerleader’s hand (sometimes two!), and they are passing the icy sweetness to racers. And I am a racer.

I will drink. After that I will descend like a mindless fiend, passing 300 people by the time I stop counting, and maybe 600 all told on the 4-mile descent. I will finish 6,572nd in the strangest race or ride I’ll ever do.

But right now, just at this moment, the rest of that is still ahead of me. I am close to the peak now, deliciously and deliriously close to the summit and I find that I almost don’t want to cross over.


Originally published in Bicycling magazine, December, 2003