Xterra pro Dan Hugo moved to Stellenbosch, South Africa, in his early triathlon days and found it to be quite the triathlon hot spot, drawing big-name triathletes, cyclists and runners. He gives us his take on the local triathlon scene, the best spots for training and where to find the best lunch buffet in town, just in time for this weekend’s Xterra South Africa race.
Triathlete.com: What would you say your town is known for?
Hugo: Stellenbosch is very similar to Boulder in Colorado. A university town, very affluent, small, artsy, incredibly active, nestled against mountains, excellent outdoor climate, and has too, like Boulder, become a small triathlete micro-community.
Triathlete.com: What’s the local triathlon scene like?
Hugo: During the summer we get many of Europe’s “A list” training in town to escape their winter. Simon Lessing used to have the British federation host camps in town, and I believe that really put Stellenbosch on the triathlete map. Since then, Tim Don has owned property here; Jan Frodeno is currently in town for four months; [ITU stars Javier] Gomez and [Alistair] Brownlee have been here; Andreas Raelert and countless other German Ironman athletes—and that’s just the triathlete list. Class runners and cyclists base in the little town center too, which has embraced their visits by restructuring short-term rentals to suit athlete needs.
The one unfortunate Stellenbosch attribute is no 50-meter swimming pool, but that is set to change before next summer. In the meantime, numerous outdoor pools, excellent running trails alongside grass sports fields and varied bike riding keep it a triathlete hot spot.
Triathlete.com: What are your favorite local races?
Hugo: The Xterra South Africa event is less than 40 minutes outside of Stellenbosch, and with 1200 entrants last year had a fantastic vibe. There will be pressure for 1500 entries, and as a home race, that has me excited. It’s a breathtaking race location.
Triathlete.com: Favorite places for swim, bike or run training?
Hugo: Currently my favorite swim is in Grabouw, the venue for the Xterra mentioned above. The water is drinkable and has a tea color to it from pine tree root stains. The views while breathing are sensational—it’s easy to feel more connected to nature while bobbing in the center of it.
The running variation around Stellenbosch is golden even from the doorstep. It’s complemented by a mountainous nature reserve some 8 kilometers away called Jonkershoek, which is a gem for longer runs and the hub for 70 percent of the technical mountain biking in town. Although town is very level ground, it’s nestled up again a hillside that’s a busy walk/run trail network. Between 5 and 6 p.m. countless students are up on the “begpad” (mountain road) and I’d have to note this as my favorite running, especially toward dusk. The elevation offers unreal sunset views out towards Cape Town in the distance.
My favorite mountain biking is in Jonkershoek for certain. There are some classy, super fun trails. I’d put the Canary trail as my favorite. It’s about a 16-minute descent across three levels of the forestry plantations and each section has a different feel to it. Tight rocky at the top, smooth and flowing at the bottom.
Best road biking is against Franschhoek Pass. It’s an hour and 15 minutes to the small town from Stellenbosch, before going up for 25 minutes, over the other side and return up a 30-minute climb. Great road riding. And the coffee in Franschhoek is top draw.
Triathlete.com: The best tri/bike shop?
Hugo: Mason’s Bike Inn has been the store of support for numerous years. I used to steal race wheels and even complete bikes from Mason. And if not for Mason, I’d have struggled to get into mountain biking as I have. He is in the center of town, known by all and a great character.
Triathlete.com: Best place for a meal?
Hugo: Greengate Deli and Eatery is a small passion of mine. The lunchtime buffet is a self-serve and weigh, so there is no wait, and the spread is often 12-15 different home-cooked dishes. They’re all very nutritious and from premium produce. During any given lunch there will be a few icons floating among the locals who frequent Greengate. Seating can be at long wooden communal tables and often arriving alone turns into a fun social meal with unexpected company.
Triathlete.com: What word or phrase will make me sound like a local?
Hugo: Ah, there are many. Stellenbosch is more Afrikaans than English in its culture and heritage. Many Afrikaans words and expressions are now accepted into spoken English and add a color and twist to dialect here. My favorite is the “yes-no” response in Afrikaans that’s now common in English too. Somehow it makes sense here. So too the dangerous “just-now” which might take foreigners a while to grasp as it takes intuition and experience to interpret.
Triathlete.com: If I’m only there one day or night, what do I have to do or see?
Hugo: You should see your travel agent and change your plans.