There is no better way to explore the many Swartberg gravel roads than during the annual Gran Fondo Gravel Biking Challenge. Jacques Marais was on hand to check out the action (and route options).
WORDS AND IMAGES: JACQUES MARAIS
If you (and your bike) are in search of a perfect Karoo village, chances are you won’t find a better riding spot than Prince Albert. Imagine a tree-lined main street, brimming with a range of imposing old homesteads and historic hotels, and with just enough funky coffee shops and delis to complement the authentic rural Karoo atmosphere. This laid-back dorp is set in the foothills of the rugged Swartberg range, with olive estates, cheese farms, wineries and bakeries to feed your needs out of the saddle. And as this is a gravel nirvana of note – with endless back roads time-lining via alluvial plains and amidst craggy peaks – it’s no wonder that the gravel-bike crowd has discovered Prince Albert. Gravel-biking is a whole new ballgame, and the annual Gran Fondo is reliving this cycling genre in the style of the Tour de France of old.
Competitors borrow a bit from the cyclo-cross feel, but contemporary” gravel bike” frames simulate sturdy road frames, with 40C tyres added to handle the sand, gravel and corrugations. ‘Big John’ Swanepoel is the man at the forefront of the local gravel cycling scene, and his 170km Gran Fondo has zoomed right to the top of the gravel-grinding pops. The gruelling 3000m of total ascent, challenging terrain variations and intricate choice of velo weapons certainly makes for a brutish day out in the saddle.
Once you’ve shed the layers of Karoo dust and are comfortably ensconced in one of the many accommodation establishments, you can be sure Prince Albert will seduce you in a dozen different ways. Winter and summer both deliver on extreme temperatures, but all you need to do is plan accordingly, and you’re good to go.
For more info check out www.princealbert.org.za or www.mtbafrica.com
The 170km Gran Fondo route will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. You set off down the main street and then turn east along the R407 into Prince Albert valley, before a steep 300m climb booms you up Kredouws Pass. Just before the R407 hits the N12, a few kilometres before Klaarstroom you hit the first gravel sector along the Middelwater Road for more gradual ascending, then join the N12 at the spectacular entry into Meiringspoort, a 25km tarmac strip cutting through the rugged heart of the Swartberg. This high cadence meander eventually spits you out into the Klein Karoo proper, with De Rust popping into view across the bars a couple of kays later.
Half of the distance is now done, but the battle on the bike is far from done, with a second gravel sector along the Oude Muragie road looming(first gravel road right after De Rust). A climb up to Spitzkop finally relents as you descend past the Koos Raubenheimer Dam, before powering into the next climb up past Cango Caves. The final – and by far most challenging – section of the Gran Fondo route now awaits: gear down and duel it out with gravity as you go head to head with an ascent of nearly 1100m over the next 28km. This is the infamous Swartberg Pass, a tortuous and winding gravel road that eventually reconnects you to the R407, and a downhill cruise into Prince Albert.
For those of you who got tired just reading that, there are dozens of dirt roads to point your front wheel at. The Weltevrede Road makes for a kickass MTB outing, heading due west along the Swartberg foothills to Weltevreden Fig Farm, just on 25km from town. The undulating ride chucks a few climbs at you, but the pedalling is generally along gentle inclines, with superb scenery all round. Crank off into a gentle climb out of Prince Albert main street, then turn right on the edge of town into a gentle 6km climb. From here, you gradually drop towards Vrisgewaagd apricot farm.
Next up is a steepish climb with spectacular views towards Fonteinskop, and a spectacular gravel road snaking into the groves of fig trees down below. The surface is mostly smooth gravel and the scenic route make for an easy out-and-back ride for those with an average level of fitness on the bike.
WELTEVREDE ROAD ROUTE FAST FACTS
+ GRADING: Easy
+ DURATION: 3hrs Return
+ CONFIGURATION: Out and back
+ START POINT: Prince Albert
+ TERRAIN: Gravel
+ POST-RIDE BEER: Lazy Lizard (try the Leiwater Ale)
+ MUST-DO EVENT: Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo – www.mtbafrica.co.za
+ ACCESS: Public Roads
+ CELL RECEPTION: None once you are a few kays out of town
+ STAY HERE: The Weltevrede Fig and Guest Farm nestles within the remote Swartberg foothills, just on 25km from Prince Albert. It is a place where time seemingly stands still, and where cell phone signal and electricity has become inconsequential. Explore into the deep gorges where leopard still roam in search of Bushman paintings or wander amidst the orchards to pick pomegranates and figs from gnarled trees. Various accommodation options are available – check out www.figfarm.co.za
+ GPS (PRINCE ALBERT): 33°13’31.7”S / 22°01’47.2”E
HOW TOGET THERE
Follow the N1 from Cape Town for 345km then turn right onto the R407. From here it is approximately 40km to Prince Albert. Travel time is 4.5hrs from Cape Town.