The first day saw Nick and I starting at Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West for the ride to Oak Valley in Grabouw, including the famed and much dreaded compulsory portage up the old wagon trail: Gantouw pass above Sir Lowry’s Pass. After a nibble at the Pronutro breakfast zone to settle the nerves, we lined up in our batch, pushing close the front in the hope of getting a good position for the single track after the first climb.
There was no need to worry- the 8 kilometer climb tore the field to shreds, and we were left with excellent company in the form of the iRide Africa team, complete with wigs, an excellent sombrero, a flask of whisky and some very good vibes. Despite their casual appearance, they set a blistering pace which soon had us struggling in their wake. The flow of the route and some of the trails had been improved from my memories of the previous year, and the first 20 kilometers flew by. Nick seemed to have been transformed into a powerhouse by his borrowed Specialized Epic, and I was stretched to the limit trying to stay on his wheel; even with the liberal use of his pocket where possible.
It is impossible to adequately describe the scenery: the views on this route are sublime, and it was hard to not appreciate the opportunity to be out riding on Monday morning, instead of at a desk.
After filling up at the second water point on Idiom farm we were onto a wonderful sketchy section of trail which popped us out at the bottom of the portage.
Mentally and physically, the portage is a huge challenge: the sudden drop in leg speed seizes everything up, and the effort of pushing 12 (or more) kilograms of bike uphill and over rocks sends the heart rate sky high. Getting back on at the top of the portage is for many a deciding moment in the development of the race.
Luckily for us our legs held and we wobbled onto the famed A-Z trails. From here the kilometers ticked by pretty quickly. A few changes from the previous year’s route meant the approach to Oak Valley was smoother and more fun, and one or two nasty kickers had been removed. With relief, we sprinted for the finish line and the waiting chocolate milks.
The second is referred to as “Play Day” due to the vast amount of single track on the route as it winds through the Oak Valley, Paul Cluver, and Thandi trails. In reality, this translated into a lot of hard work for us, as the whole of A-batch vied for prime position on the single track.
The first 12 kilometers were fairly flat farm roads, and the pace was blistering. It was all we could do to hang on the tail end of the group (Actually- Nick had to keep dropping back to fetch me as I dropped off and flailed in the wind). By the time we reached the Oak Valley singletrack, I was convinced that I was going to blow at any second and our race would be done.
The swooping descent temporarily revived me, and the race continued. We rode some exquisite trails high on the ridgeline above the farms, before dropping down to the waterpoint at the Paul Cluver amphitheatre. The built features are one of the many highlights of this race; as they allow one to ride in places otherwise inaccessible by bike. The new cliff trail on Oak Valley is an example of this: as are the many bridges traversing the valleys of Paul Cluver.
After the waterpoint, we were onto the signature Paul Cluver trails, including the play park’s suspension bridges, and the rollercoaster switchbacks of the Mamba trail. After an arduous sandy switchback climb, we were flying down more switchbacks, and yet more, followed in a field full of berms. On this stage, nearly every climb, however horrible, is rewarded with a fun descent, and this kept me coming motivated, even as my legs burned and my lungs threatened to explode.
The Kromco Peri playpark was larger than life- reaching nearly 5 meters above the ground, we wove our way through packing crates, swooping and diving up and down the ramps. It was another incredible, unique experience on the bike.
By this point, I was completely shattered, and after the fun in the play park it was a matter of dragging myself to the finish line as quickly as possible. Sadly, this was not very quickly: and the last couple of kilometers felt agonising, as we were passed by several teams, without any energy to respond.
After some very intensive recovery in the dining marquee, involving large quantities of chocolate mousse, we were feeling better, and ready to tackle the final stage from Oak Valley to Onrus Caravan Park.
The stage started fast, undulating through the vineyards of Oak Valley, onto Paul Cluver, and then the Houw Hoek Inn single track: another great trail only accessible during the event. This was followed by a hair-raising descent down the old Houw Hoek pass on very loose, sandy jeep track, ending in a furious sprint through Botrivier and passed the first waterpoint at the school.
We played it safe and tried not to go too hard, keeping in mind the climbs to come. A long flattish slog followed Botrivier- mitigated by some good fun on the Wildekrans singletrack.
After the second waterpoint at the Arthouse, things got serious, as we hit the main climb for the day, and what would likely be the deciding factor for those racing. Whoever was able to summit the climb first would most likely be able to hold off any attacks on the ensuing descent into Onrus. We flowed through the fun Gaf-se-Bos and continued to climb, through fields of spring flowers and Eucalyptus forest. A last effort on the Karwyderskraal dirt road saw us over the De Bos dam wall and onto the gorge descent.
With the river gorge on the left, and the Hemel en Aarde Valley spread out below, this is one of the most beautiful and rewarding descents in the race, especially with the lure of the finish line at the bottom.
A final push down the flowing Hermanus trails, under the highway and past the Curro school and we were on the famous boardwalk crossing Onrus beach, sweaty, dusty, exhausted, and headed for the finish line and the now-familiar reward of a chocolate milk and a Spur burger.
For me, this was an event in which the organisers have achieved the perfect distillation of work to reward, while managing to include the most scenic trails available. It is gruelling when raced, but still achievable, accessible, and enjoyable for all. The sheer variety of the scenery reminds you constantly to appreciate your surroundings, and enjoy the opportunity to ride your bike, and there is an incredible sense of accomplishment that goes with completing each stage.