South Africa has plenty of stage races, but few are as stunningly tough as the Tankwa Trek. SAM ROBERTSON experienced his first Tankwa.
Pre-event – reputation, anticipation, training
As accessible MTB stage-races in South Africa go, you are probably not going to find a more impressive race than the Momentum Tankwa Trek, presented by Biogen. Or at least so they say.
It is billed as a must-ride for all aspiring ABSA Cape Epic riders and is said to serve as the perfect ‘formchecker’. It is that level of race and from a look around at the participants, it is clear that all the participants have ridden a mountain bike before.
The race has also long been touted as one of the best organized and most hospitality friendly stage-races,
held in an incredibly inhospitable environment. Heat, rock and a few unmentionable climbs and descents being par for the course, this is not a race to be undertaken by riders who are either unfit or not
comfortable riding over technical terrain.
There was never any doubt, Alistair and I were most certainly going to give Tankwa a go and make every
effort to survive.
Arrival at Kaleo Guest Farm
We drove up from Cape Town mid-morning. Opting for the scenic route via the Swartland rather than the
quicker N1 route via Rawsonville. Instead of eyespy- with-my-little-eye, it quickly became a game of “how long will the temperature gauge remain above 40 degrees” from Riebeek-Kasteel all the way to registration at Kaleo Farm in Ceres.
With a 15:00 start and without either one of us wanting to broach the subject, we realized that we were
Ride – Day One
15:00 in Ceres in February is unlikely to be cool. So, we were expecting something a little warmer than balmy, but nothing like the 42 degrees that my Garmin read on the start line!
Telling ourselves that we only had 29kms to do, the strategy was one of getting the day over with as quickly as possible. It seems most people had that idea, since the pace out of the blocks was quick.
High heat + fast pace = silly heart rate. I was sitting at threshold within the first km, and the heart rate just
would not come down! Our water bottles were hot after 15 minutes which made hydration unpleasant.
By the time we reached the waterpoint after about 12kms, the legs were wobbly and vision was blurred. It
was a very long 29kms spent dodging vomiting riders in crazy heat.
Ride – Day Two
The famed Merino Monster looms large over this race, and you are reminded of this regularly. However, only focusing on getting over that hill and disregarding the challenges that Day Two has to offer would be a
mistake. Henco Rademeyer hinted at the Day Two race briefing that this stage might be more of a challenge for some than Day Three…
On a personal level, this was our favourite day. The perfect combination of technical terrain mixed in with
flowing singletrack fun.
The gentle start to the race allows for a proper warm-up and the responsible pace in B-batch was a nod
as much to the respect being shown to this race as to the devastation sowed by the heat on the previous day.
For us in the middle of the pack, we were certainly exposed to some serious heat, but nothing like Day One, and those that had not been completely dehydrated the day before had a fabulous day.
The waterpoints were better stocked than most races that we have done and were all excellently manned. A big up to the organisers for that – especially since the vast majority of the field needed every one of those respites!
Upon completion of the stage, and after having fetched our bikes from the complimentary bike-wash, we were treated to the famous Tankwa dinner. As with the waterpoints, it is not easy to find a similar level of hospitality excellence in another stage race. It has always been a selling point of the Tankwa Trek and quite
clearly for very good reason.
Ride – Day Three
The Merino Monster. Yip, finally we get to meet this beast face to face. And yes, it is. Simply put, I have not
pedalled up anything even remotely close to what this thing has to offer. Insane. Approximately 25kms of near relentless climbing with certain sections as steep as you can expect on any climb.
Luckily we had a few stops along the way to allow for a proper appreciation of the genuinely breathtaking
beauty of this climb. Its name is possibly a touch unfair, it is definitely less Frankenstein and more Uma
Thurman in Kill Bill.
And of course, once you finally make it to the top and the high-fives have been handed out, there is only
one way home – down the other side. As crazy as the ascent was, that descent required serious concentration to make it down the other side unscathed. Day Three defines sufferfest. As a mountain biker,
this is an absolute must-ride day.
Ride – Day Four
Waking up to Day Four contained mixed emotions. Feeling rather broken by the Merino and apprehensive of what was to come only slightly mellowed by the fact that the worst was behind us.
With weary legs, this stage’s 32km district road start was quite welcome. Day Four is fast and flat, with some
spectacular smooth flowing singletrack tossed in as a ‘slaapdop’ (to quote trail builder Charl van der Merwe). The perfect ending to a great stage race. In conclusion, the Tankwa Trek has been for some time and remains, one of the absolute must-ride events for any mountain biker.
Whilst it is understood that the organisers required to add an extra day to the event to retain its UCI status,
a 15:00 start in Ceres is never going to be pleasant – perhaps it could be considered to delay Day One’s start to later in the day in 2020?
Top take-home positives for us from the 2019 Tankwa Trek were fantastic organization from catering to route-marking and course marshalling; the perfect balance between technical riding, smooth flowing
singletrack and fast hard-packed roads and the opportunity to ride the famed Merino Monster.
We will definitely make every effort to return in 2020, but only if we have had a strong January training
block. As enjoyable as Tankwa is when you’re fit, it will break you if you are not!