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Is Stellenbosch The New Boulder?

  • By Courtenay Brown
  • Published Jul 17, 2012

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?

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