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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Half of the fun with the Swartberg 100 is the debate over bike choice. With roughly 90 kilometres of tar, the extra weight and squish of a mountain bike is not ideal. But the rough and rutted descent off the Swartberg pass down to Prince Albert is agonizing on a rigid bike, and sketchy on skinny tyres. Most don’t have the luxury of choice, but for those looking to fight it out at the front, the efficiency of a gravel bike or endurance road bike with fat tekkies makes a lot of sense.
Nick and I were fortunate to get our hands on two suitable weapons.
Thanks to the crew at Bike Mob, I was lucky enough to be entrusted with a Niner BSB 9 RDO, complete with a Lauf fork, and beefy Vittoria Terreno Dry 40c tyres: a setup which I was indescribably thankful for throughout the day.
Without much experience riding, let alone racing, on gravel, I was very grateful for the smoothing effect of the Lauf fork, and the extra confidence that the big tyres gave me. On the first two gravel sectors I hardly even noticed that I wasn’t on a mountain bike, the ride was so smooth, and my hands and shoulders held up, even on the Swartberg descent. Looking back I wouldn't change a thing with the setup.
Nick rode a Cannondale Synapse, an endurance road bike which he kitted out with 32 mm Vittoria Zaffiro tyres. Watch out for the full review of this bike coming shortly.
The Swartberg Pass ascent, after 140kms in the legs, had me grinding in the easiest gear (34/32) but I managed to get to the top without setting a foot on the ground (which was a relief as I had elected to ride with road shoes). The descent, however, was incredibly uncomfortable with the corrugations and loose gravel proving too much for my 'skinny' tyres. I did manage to get down unscathed and huge respect for Shimano's Ultegra disc brakes. I did envy the mountain biker that came hurtling past without a worry in the world. My mind boggles when I consider Mike Posthumus's Strava KOM on the same section using much the same setup. Nicholas Webb
To diverge (forgive the pun) further along the path of gravel versus mountain bike: the speed and efficiency of the gravel bike on the tar makes a huge difference in ticking off the kilometres. The multiple hand positions provided by the drop bars also help in warding off fatigue. That said, mountain bikes did make up the majority of the field so don't let that excuse stop you from taking part.
See you there next year!