Ride Report: Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo

My initial response when hearing about the Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo was a strong “Never!”. 170 kilometres of tar and gravel roads with 3000 metres of climbing, including the monstrous Swartberg pass thrown in at the end. It sounded arduous, and lacking in trail endorphins. But the lure of a challenge is irresistible to me, and after Nick and a couple of friends signed up, there was no way I was missing out on the action.

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The race starts in the tranquil Karoo town of Prince Albert and takes riders on an epic journey through the Meiringspoort, on to De Rust at the base of the Swartberg mountain range, and up and over the towering Swartberg Pass back to Prince Albert. The route includes 79 kilometres of gravel in three sectors, with the final two kilometres of the climb up the Swartberg Pass, which comes a cracking 146 kilometres into the race, is at an average gradient of 12%. Not for ants.

 

The Ride


Our crew (or maybe just me) spent most of breakfast agonizing over clothing choice. Gilet? Long sleeve or short sleeve base layer? Arm warmers? The distance is so vast, and the mountain range ends up creating its own microclimates, so there is no way of getting it perfect. After making ourselves late with this dithering. We rolled up to the start line coffee cups in hand with three minutes to go.

 

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A picture is worth a thousand words when it comes to capturing the Karoo landscape at sunrise.

 

Rolling through the magnificent Prince Albert Valley at sunrise with a peloton of like-minded people is just plain rad. And even though we were met with a stiff headwind (which at times became a crosswind, and later a crossrain) I couldn’t shake the stoke of being out on a bike in a beautiful place, with several hours of adventure lying in wait.

 

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The bunch splintered as we hit the first climb, the Kredouw Pass. Exposed to the full force of the wind I quickly realized that I needed to find a group and hang on for as long as possible, or it was going to be a very long day out. I duly huffed and puffed my way onto a train, and we cruised onto the first gravel sector, the Middelwater Road, which after a 260-metre climb dropped us down onto the Meiringspoort tar descent.

 

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Riding through the end of a rainbow was just one of a variety of meteorlogical experiences in store for the day.

 

This was a highlight of the route for me, and probably one of the most spectacular routes I have ridden. Even though we were experiencing one of the many climate changes in store for the day, and it was freezing cold and raining sideways, it was simply incredible. The road cuts through the Swartberg mountain range, with towering cliffs on either side. It snakes down endlessly at a gentle gradient, with each sweeping bend revealing more epic scenery.

 

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The dramatic Meiringspoort slices through the Swartberg mountain range. It has shot straight to the top of my rad roads list.

 

We emerged with frozen fingers and big grins in the quiet town of De Rust, and the rain reduced to a light drizzle. A right turn took us on the second gravel sector, the Oudemuragie road. Undulating climbs, trending upwards took us through a picturesque mixture of olive groves and green fields. Here my legs started to weaken, and knowing what was still to come, I had to drop off the group and meander along at an easy pace or risk a catastrophic mushroom cloud. Fortunately, the headwinds had dissipated along with the drizzle, and conditions were perfect for enjoying the scenery.

 


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From the third waterpoint, things got serious. The Swartberg Pass loomed above, ominously draped in clouds, as I crawled my way slowly up the foothills.

 

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The sheer scale of the Swartberg Pass dwarfs riders as the wind their way up.

 

It was a relief to finally hit the third and final gravel sector and know that all I needed to do was keep the pedals turning and ascend another 800 metres. Although I had tackled the pass during the queen stage of Cape Pioneer Trek last year, I had clearly blocked out the memory: it is the most jaw-droppingly spectacular climb and watching the valley floor drop away as you inch around each switchback is incredibly satisfying. On the flip side, the pass really is endless, around each corner a new and steeper section of road is revealed. I saw more than one casualty stopping for a quick power stretch on my way up.

 

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Die Top.

 

The last hurdle was the bone-crushing descent to Prince Albert. If you hit the corrugations wrong you can literally bounce yourself to a standstill, and for a tired body, this jarring is intense. But when you find a smooth line and let go the brakes it is exhilarating. It is the cherry on the top of a beautiful, challenging, and enthralling route.

 

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The most epic descent. Worth every second on the bike just for the views and the sweeping corners.

 

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The gravel does bite.

 

Halfway up the Swartberg, I swore I would never do it again, but halfway down the other side, I was already wondering whether we could book for 2019.

 

 

See you there next year!




11 Comments

Farrnus, May 02 2018 09:07

wow - awesome photos and report - serious FOMO!!!

DJR, May 02 2018 09:28

Great report & pictyres

milky4130, May 02 2018 10:32

Brilliant Report, Glad to have been part of this event for a 2nd time. Would love to return in 2019 to settle a score.

DirtyDan, May 03 2018 06:11

Nice stuff Kylie! Felt privileged to have spent the weekend with you, lovely couple.

Kylie, May 03 2018 07:37

Nice stuff Kylie! Felt privileged to have spent the weekend with you, lovely couple.

 

Thanks Dan! Best camp vibes :)

myth125, May 03 2018 01:03

I'm there next year!

milky4130, May 03 2018 01:38

Nice stuff Kylie! Felt privileged to have spent the weekend with you, lovely couple.

 

Thanks Dan! Best camp vibes :)

Now I'm having Post Race-FOMO for not taking the camping option.

Kylie, May 03 2018 03:40

Now I'm having Post Race-FOMO for not taking the camping option.

Hopefully next year we're more organised and can camp at the start!

daniemare, May 07 2018 11:19

To the author (and others participating).

 

The Synapse is basically a road bike (endurance bike) with good clearance for up to 32mm tyres. From your review it was, compared to a true gravel grinder that can take upwards of 40mm tyres, capable enough except for the Swartberg Pass decent.

 

Now would it be possible to do a bike swap at the top of the pass to something like a Hard Tail MTB to take care of the final decent.  Ala 2017 World Time Trial champs where a lot in the field swapped over to a normal bike for the final climb.

 

See, I have a 33mm tyre clearance endurance road bike and a hard tail, so an option like this will be far lighter on the wallet than buying another bike (gravel bike).

 

This race looks fantastic, and I would love to do it next year.

 

Thanks

Nick, May 07 2018 11:42

To the author (and others participating).

 

The Synapse is basically a road bike (endurance bike) with good clearance for up to 32mm tyres. From your review it was, compared to a true gravel grinder that can take upwards of 40mm tyres, capable enough except for the Swartberg Pass decent.

 

Now would it be possible to do a bike swap at the top of the pass to something like a Hard Tail MTB to take care of the final decent.  Ala 2017 World Time Trial champs where a lot in the field swapped over to a normal bike for the final climb.

 

See, I have a 33mm tyre clearance endurance road bike and a hard tail, so an option like this will be far lighter on the wallet than buying another bike (gravel bike).

 

This race looks fantastic, and I would love to do it next year.

 

Thanks

 

I've never seen the rulebook for the race, so you'd have to ask the organisers about your hardtail idea. But it would probably save you some time and numb hands. Granted you can persuade someone to stand up there in the cold with your bike.

 

I did put the 32mm tyres on right before the race and didn't have much time to work out the best pressure. I suspect I had them a bit too hard. Perhaps letting out some air for the descent and run into town might help. The race was won in 2016 on much the same set up that I had. Perhaps it's not about the bike ;-) 

 

If my options were between a hardtail and an endurance road bike, (assuming the road conditions are still good) I'd take the road bike for the efficiency over the 140 km before the pass and the drop bars. I'd maybe try to find a tyre with some small side knobs for the sandy descents on the first two gravel sectors, if they exist.

arendoog, May 08 2018 11:31

I rode it this year with a HT with Vredenstein Spotted cat tire in front and Panther at the back ,both  at 2,2 bar pressure for my 100kg .I felt i had a distinct advantage over the gravel bikes on the gravel sections .I turned at greater speed and could keep my momentum much better over the rolling hills .Going up and down Swartberg pass on a gravel bike is not in my immediate future .I might change my gearing slightly ,but as far as bike choice goes ,i will keep it the same for next year .The wind was a bigger factor than bike choice .This is a great event and thou the route looks daunting ,the flow of the climbs followed by a long descent made it so that there was plenty of time to rest the legs before the next hard section