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Is Stellenbosch The New Boulder?

With awesome training facilities, terrain and weather, Stellenbosch, South Africa, is quickly becoming the triathlon destination of choice.

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With awesome training facilities, terrain and weather, Stellenbosch, South Africa, is quickly becoming the triathlon destination of choice.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

What do 2010 ITU world champion Javier Gomez, 2006 ITU world champion Tim Don, reigning Olympic champions Emma Snowsill and Jan Frodeno, 2010 70.3 world champion Jodie Swallow and multiple iron-distance winner Ronnie Schildknecht have in common?

They all spent part or all of their pre-seasons training in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

South Africa’s popularity as a training destination has grown steadily in recent years, particularly among Europeans, for whom the time difference is one or two hours and flight time around 12 hours. But athletes living in America are beginning to take notice, as well—when reigning Ironman world champ and Boulder, Colo., resident Chrissie Wellington prepared for her record-breaking Ironman South Africa performance by training there for two months last winter, she peppered Twitter with posts such as “Stellenbosch is BEAUTIFUL!!”

Eager to find out what everyone was talking about, I spent five weeks in Stellenbosch during December and January, and I discovered that it’s a wonderful destination for an extended training camp or athletic vacation.

The Setting

Stellenbosch is in South Africa’s Western Cape province, less than a 45-minute drive from Cape Town International Airport. It was established in 1679, making it the second oldest European-founded city in the country after Cape Town. A popular dirt trail in town runs alongside the Eerste Rivier, or First River, so named because it was the first river that European explorers encountered on their westward journey from Cape Town.

Nestled against mountains that share its name, adjacent to four nature reserves and dotted with traditional Cape Dutch architecture, Stellenbosch’s beauty trumps that of Boulder; Flagstaff, Ariz.; San Diego; Clermont, Fla., and other hot U.S. training spots any day. And once you take in Stellenbosch’s vineyards, you’ll pooh-pooh the Napa and Sonoma valleys before even tasting a drop of wine.

Such luxury both belies and rewards the other, harsher assets Stellenbosch offers its athletes.

“The wind, the hills, the outdoor swimming, the heat—they make Stellenbosch such a good training venue,” Swallow said. “From 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. it’s light out. And hot.”

Swallow is no stranger to heat and adversity in training. As a former member of Brett Sutton’s Team TBB squad, she’s swum in murky 86-degree pools in the Philippines and outridden 5-meter-long pythons in Thailand. Her trips to these countries were for training camps, with all logistics arranged by Sutton.

Stellenbosch, on the other hand, is now home to Swallow, a native of England, and her boyfriend, James Cunnama, 2010 Ironman Florida and Rev3 Quassy champion. While Cunnama is South African, and being based in his home country was part of the appeal for the couple, they ultimately chose Stellenbosch because of its stellar training resources and venues. Cunnama and Swallow are responsible for arranging their own pool time, massages, gym access, housing, food and schedule.

From an athlete’s point of view the main factor that makes Stellenbosch’s idyllic setting a standout training locale is its resources: “To me,” Swallow said, “it’s everything I need.”

Indeed, after two months of training in Stellenbosch as she bounced back from a year lost to injury, Swallow won Ironman 70.3 South Africa in late January.

Training facilities and venues are mostly located on the University of Stellenbosch and the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS) campuses, which are conveniently located beside one another. There are three 25-meter pools, a rubberized track and stadium, a grass track, multiple gym facilities (the SAS gym includes an alter-G treadmill) and a variety of running trails and grass sports fields. The outdoor running venues are all free and open to the public, and pool and gym access can be arranged via SAS or the university (see sidebar at right).

“These are what I miss in Boulder,” reflected four-time Xterra world champion Conrad Stoltz, a South Africa native who also trains regularly in Boulder, after an early morning run on the university cricket pitches, where the grass is kept very short and the ground is flattened with steam-rollers, which makes it a great option for strides or recovery runs.

“Actually,” Stoltz said, “these grassy fields and the oxygen. I also miss the great single-track within riding distance of town.”

The facilities in Stellenbosch are designed for various types of athletes, which meant that in January alone the entire British track and field team, the German swim team and the South African water polo and rugby teams were all in residence. Town was teeming with athletes.

Besides ensuring the widespread availability of gluten-free foods and minimal triathlon talk, such a concentration of fitness-minded people raises the level of athletic support available. The SAS is a newly opened, private venture, and it houses state-of-the-art therapy facilities. It also has a splash pool of mysterious dimensions in its large courtyard—about 30m by 5m, surrounded by grass. It could have easily accommodated a training pool, but when I visited SAS and saw the national rugby team jumping and playing in the water I realized that maybe a central “fun” pool wasn’t such a bad thing. At the university, athletes make use of the renowned sports science department that boasts physiotherapy, massage and recovery facilities. Not only are these resources accessible, they are also affordable—a one-hour sports massage with the pro athletes’ go-to guy, Francois Retief, costs 300 rand per hour, or about $40, according to the most recent exchange rates.

Similar to Boulder and other training destinations, word has spread about Stellenbosch and the resources it has to offer. As more pros are choosing to train there, one of its selling points becomes its athletes.

“Good training partners are easy to find,” said Swiss long-course star Ronnie Schildknecht. “I’ve been here four times now, and I just love it.”

Living in Stellenbosch

“You can actually have a social life in Stellenbosch,” Schildknecht continued. “It’s just a nice place to hang out. Not so much in the Canary Islands, where you can only train. It gets boring there after 10 days.”

Stellenbosch also has an incredible restaurant and coffee-shop scene, offering visitors an array of cuisines, wine shops, artisanal bakeries and coffee roasteries, as well as a weekly farmers’ market with local and regional vendors.

When it comes to wine, Stellenbosch rivals anything the U.S. has to offer. There are nearly 200 wineries in Stellenbosch, and hundreds more in the greater Cape Winelands region. The University of Stellenbosch offers graduate and post-graduate degrees in viticulture (the study of grape growing) and oenology (the study of wine), and its students elevate the wine tasting experience at area wine farms. In the U.S., the strength of the California wine industry makes it difficult to find many South African wines. That alone should serve as an indicator of their quality—if they weren’t that good, California probably wouldn’t care as much.

But what truly separates Stellenbosch from popular U.S. training destinations is price. An 8-ounce double shot cappuccino from Hazz costs 16 rand, or about $2, while a similar item at a U.S. coffee shop will typically cost you at least $3 (and it won’t include the mini chocolate). Two double-flavor ice cream cones at Lecca il Gelato on Church Street will run about $6.50. At Nook Eatery on Ryneveld Street, a favorite of both Frodeno and Schildknecht, you’ll pay $5 for a free-range roast beef sandwich or a toasted panini, each with a side salad. Furthermore, in Stellenbosch the customary “good tip” is only 10 percent, which means you’ll spend 25 to 35 percent less in Stellenbosch than you would in coffee shops and restaurants in major U.S. metropolitan areas.

“Do you see why it’s hard for me not to leave a Boulder restaurant disappointed?” asked Xterra pro Dan Hugo, who splits his time between Stellenbosch and Boulder.

What it’s Missing

Before you book your trip to join the sport’s elite in Stellenbosch, consider a few factors.

Like Stoltz said, Stellenbosch is at sea level. So if you’re looking for a high-altitude environment in the Southern hemisphere, Stellenbosch isn’t for you. Hence the German triathlon team’s annual training camp is at 4,300 feet of elevation in the town of Potchefstroom in South Africa’s Northwest Province. (Yet Potchefstroom has little appeal for tourists. It is an old military town with minimal services and attractions—Germany’s Frodeno has joked that he eats cereal for dinner every night at that camp.)

The other factor that might be considered a training limitation is the lack of swim squads, and there isn’t a Masters swim program. If you happen to show up to the right lap swim session on the right day, you might luck into a workout with Frodeno as leader—the Olympic champ is gracious and efficient. But visitors should expect to bring their own swim workouts and their own motivation.

Also, Stellenbosch itself does not have an open-water swim venue or a 50-meter pool.

RELATED PHOTOS: Is Stellenbosch The New Boulder?

Systemic Factors

Other factors to consider before you head out to Stellenbosch are systemic ones, as opposed to geographical or functional. South Africa’s networking infrastructure is behind that of the Western world, so Internet is slower and much less widely available. For example, there is currently only one coffee shop that offers free Wi-Fi, which has a time and capacity limit. This can be a source of either liberation or frustration, depending on your perspective and those of the folks you didn’t bring along to Africa.

Safety and security are also fairly pressing concerns. Houses and apartment buildings are surrounded by high fences, security gates and even barbed or electrified wire in a style that’s usually reserved for prisons in the U.S.

Implications of this security culture for training in Stellenbosch range from the trivial (“Why aren’t there towels or shampoo or pull buoys here?” I asked. “People would steal them.”) to the more worrisome. I was chased and nipped by dogs three times while running during my five-week stay, triple the number of times I’ve been chased by a dog in Boulder, where I have lived for almost two years; South Africa’s culture of security means that watch-dog behavior and aggression are not only tolerated but encouraged.

Another implication is road safety: Drivers are not reliable. This problem increases when the university is in session from late February until late December. Unreliability combined with the paucity of bike lanes—which themselves are so narrow that the painted bike silhouette often spills over the edge of the lane—mean that cycling with headphones is ill-advised. On the other hand, the routes are so varied and often so breathtaking that you won’t want the distraction of headphones, anyway, and road quality in the Western Cape is generally very good.

As far as personal security is concerned, Stellenbosch is definitely safe for tourists. The types of crime that spark media frenzies happen mostly in Johannesburg, or Joburg, as the locals call it, and in nearby areas, and are not common in Stellenbosch. You don’t need to run with an armored vest. Or even a shirt—running with a sports bra as your top is not taboo. Yet the same prudence and sensibility you’d use in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park are appropriate here.

In that vein, what you don’t want to do is venture into any South African townships unaccompanied by a local guide.

South African Society

Security concerns can be traced to South Africa’s income inequality, which is the highest in the world, and understanding this and the country’s unique history will help potential triathlon tourists decide whether or not they want to visit.

Townships are vestiges of the apartheid era. Apartheid means “separate development” and resulted in physical and economic separation of whites (who comprise 10 percent of the country’s population) and non-whites (the remaining 90 percent). The Western Cape is home to descendants of the Cape Malay tribes (who are referred to as “colored” but still considered “non-white” in official censuses) who were also separated from whites under apartheid. Blacks and coloreds were required by law to live in townships, in homes that were owned by the government.

When apartheid ended in 1994, ownership of these homes was transferred to their residents, yet racial composition of the townships remains essentially the same. For example, Cape Town’s Guguletu township has about 300,000 residents, exactly three of whom are white. Economic variation within the townships is much greater than it used to be, reflective of post-apartheid economic and education incentives, and most townships also have informal settlements, with squatters who live in shacks that aren’t serviced by the government.

Stellenbosch’s primary township is called Kayamandi. Its population is somewhere around 30,000, although conditions make accurate census figures a challenge. Approximately 65 percent of its residents live informally, in shacks without plumbing. Unemployment is estimated at 40 percent. Many residents are migrants, coming from other provinces in South Africa or from Malawi, Zimbabwe and even as far away as Nigeria in search of work.

Poverty and Triathlon

What does South Africa’s inequality and poverty mean to triathletes on a training trip in Stellenbosch? On a day-to-day basis, you’ll be aware of it when you see the laborers who start heading into the central business district from the townships early in the morning, around the time you’ll be heading out to ride or run. Street cleaners, maintenance and construction workers, store clerks and produce weighers walk in to town or take “black taxis,” mini-buses infamous for aggressive driving tactics.

You’ll also see a non-white traffic attendant on virtually every city block, in a fluorescent vest, who will direct you in and out of parking spaces in the hope of receiving coins. These coins are for protection of your car, which isn’t always a necessity, and theoretically will be paid to parking police if they come to check the meter. It’s a custom that arose after apartheid—technically these attendants are not formally employed by municipalities—and paying them to help you park is not mandatory. Some people view it as job creation; others view it as perpetuating indigence. To me it was mostly just confusing and resulted in loads of extra kilometers on the odometer as I drove back and forth through town in search of a nice anonymous parking spot. (Never in my life did I think I’d actually wish for a shopping mall parking lot.)

Despite its inequalities, South Africa exudes hope and opportunity. There’s a sense of positivity and excitement about the future that you won’t find in more jaded Western societies. In Stellenbosch, one beautiful encapsulation of this promise is Songo.info. This organization teaches interested Kayamandi kids to ride and race bikes, and through this platform kids find a safe haven that’s a marked contrast to the vortex of unemployment, drugs and gang violence that plagues the township. The program was founded in 2008 and started with BMX training. Since then it’s grown to include mountain biking and road biking for more than 100 kids. The race program has offered children travel opportunities they’d never have otherwise. It also teaches practical skills—kids learn to maintain the communal bikes, and one member of the program was just hired as a full-time mechanic at a local bike shop—and promotes education; the kids have to finish their homework before riding each afternoon. And a clubhouse with computers equipped with language and learning software is set to be completed by year’s end.

What’s amazing for visiting athletes is that the kids love to have guests on their rides. You can coordinate with the Songo.info office, a quick 3K ride from central Stellenbosch, and see what hardships these kids are facing along with the talent that is going to make them succeed. You’ll want to give them everything you have, and the stuff that seemed like trash to you before your ride—last year’s helmet, the shoes with the Velcro that’s gotten loose, the glove with the grease stain—will seem like Gucci products compared to the hodgepodge gear the kid who beats you up the hill is wearing. (In fact, if you need to make room for wine and rooibos-buchu tea in your checked luggage, you can donate your gear at the end of your trip.)

The New Boulder?

Stellenbosch’s offerings—its beautiful setting, its training facilities and recovery resources, its culture—make it a worthy international travel destination for triathletes. Like Boulder and other training hot spots in the U.S., it will continue to attract professionals from triathlon and other sports—and for good reason.

But if you aren’t willing to be flexible and independent with your training, Stellenbosch may not be the place for you.

“The poverty rate here is high,” Swallow said. “That, not us, has to be their focus. As long as things are open, we can sort things out for ourselves. I’m not going to make a fuss if the pool isn’t clean or the flags go missing. I’m from England, where you can’t even swim without getting trampled by a granny!”

Those who don’t share Swallow’s perspective might be better off staying in the U.S. Those who do, however, will find Stellenbosch the perfect location for the training camp—and vacation—of a lifetime.

If you go, here’s what you need to know.

Weather:

• Stellenbosch sees 11-plus hours of daylight in December, January and February.

• It rains an average of three days per month in summer. Average daily highs are 26 degrees C/ 79 degrees F, but the sun is strong and temperatures regularly crest 32 degrees C/ 90 degrees F.

Local customs to note:

• “Colored” is not a derogatory term here. It refers to an ethnic group with a specific and distinct cultural heritage: descendants of the Cape Malay tribes.

• If you hire a car or scooter, keep one or two rand coins on hand to tip petrol station attendants (pumping your own petrol is not allowed) and to pay for parking.

• You’ll hear Afrikaans, the official language of South Africa that is similar to Dutch, and Xhosa, a local language similar to Swahili, being spoken, but everyone can speak English. Add a simple “dankie” in place of “thank you” to your English and you’ll be fine.

• Roadways tend to have a lot of walkers and hitchhikers, the latter usually holding money and a sign with the license plate code for where they want to go: “CEM” for Hermanus, “PE” for Port Elizabeth, etc. Do not pick them up.

Lodging:

• Stellenbosch has numerous guest houses and B&Bs.

• If you’re interested in a short-term home rental, contact Simon or Helena Kneel at Capeportfolios.com.

• The serious athlete should also consider the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport’s all-inclusive residence facilities, which housed Emma Snowsill’s training partner “Tim” for two months. Sastraining.co.za/lodging

Facilities membership:

• The University of Stellenbosch’s SUSPI gym offers short-term memberships that include university pool access, starting at about $45 for a one-month pass. Suspi.co.za

• The best outdoor swim option is the 25-meter pool at Paul Roos Academy, an all-boys high school adjacent to the university. Purchase a 20-punch pass for 140 rand from the school on your arrival. Paul Roos Gimnasium, Suidwal, Stellenbosch, 7600 Tel: 021 887 0017

• Information on the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport’s gym and recovery facilities can be found at Sastraining.co.za.

What to buy locally rather than lug with you:

• Kickboards, pull buoys and the like—you can get them locally for less than $10.

• Sunscreen—you’ll definitely need it, but because South Africa has an “extremely high” UV index (whereas the highest rating in the U.S. is only “moderate”) it’s better to trust South African brands to protect you.

• A cheap phone and pay-as-you-go SIM card.

What to bring:

• Mountain bike—if you have one, bring it. The mountain biking in Stellenbosch is clearly superior to Boulder in terms of trail accessibility, variety and quantity, and you can rent a road bike locally from Olympiccycles.co.za.

• All your clothing needs—protective tariffs make clothing, especially spandex, expensive and limited.

• Camera—people are quite happy to be in photos, especially children, and the landscape and light are inspiring.

Not-to-be-missed Activities:

• A guided township tour

• Wine tasting at the Waterford Estate

• Consider planning your trip around a race. The athletic community is tight-knit and very hospitable.

• As for wild animals, there are reputable game farms, such as Aquila Game Reserve, as close as 95 miles from Stellenbosch that house the “big five”—lions, African elephants, cape buffalo, leopards and rhinoceroses—but if you’re seeking authenticity you’ll want to fly to Johannesburg and go on safari in Kruger National Park. Elephants are the only big-five species indigenous to the Western Cape, but they’re in an area that’s still half a day’s drive from Stellenbosch.

Cycling:

• Hit the trails at Jonkershoek Nature Reserve. It’s six miles from Stellenbosch’s town center and has a wealth of trails for mountain biking and running. Admission is about $3 for a day pass or about $30 for an annual pass.

• If you have access to a car, head into Cape Town and ride Chapman’s Peak.