Words: Tim Brink | Images: Peter Kirk Media
Around three kilometres from the top of Swartberg Pass is a fabulous lookout point, where TIM BRINK and his fellow travellers gathered for an ubiquitous selfie in late April.
With the Southern Cape stretching as far as the eye can see, and the sinuous Pass slightly further than that down into the Oudtshoorn valley, for the riders of the Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo this soon becomes a bitter-sweet spot. They have been climbing, non stop, for around 23km, gaining nearly a thousand metres. Finally, they are at the top of the signature slog of this 170km sufferfest. But are they?
No cigar. The guru behind this successful event, now in its fifth year, is John Swanepoel, and he will happily warn anyone who listens to beware the false top, and the next one a kay-and-a-half later. If you are lucky, or stand still long enough, he will also warn you about the secret little ‘false flat’ on the mad-cap descent back to Prince Albert, the Karoo town that hosts the event so warmly. With a disarming smile, he might just tell you that the 1 000m of ascent the Swartberg Pass dishes up (from the Cango Caves turn-off, you will be chanting his name, pinning with his imaginary voodoo likeness) is nothing, wait until you have discovered the thousand hidden in the other-worldly beauty of the never-flat Oude Muragie road, which links the half-way point to the foot of the day’s Magnum Opus. Combined, that is 2 000m gained in 85km… which does point to the relative kindness of the start of his race; you only scale a single Table Mountain in the first half. Kind John has his moments.
The Swartberg 100 is South Africa’s first dedicated gravel-bike race, the one that wrote the rules for those that have followed. Five years in (this was the fourth event, after Mother Nature conspired to wash the pass away a week before the event in 2017), it still has the pioneering feel of the early Epic, with the who’s-who of the exploding gravel world lining up, curly-barred, bearded and only slightly jittery after that third breakfast cortado, with more than its fair share of fat-tyred scoundrels and the odd road biker taking the
“choose your weapon” motto of the event just a little too far. 2019 saw the first dozen finishers on gravel
grinders, after which the Stats Committee stopped counting, and sought beer.
After an aberration in year one, where Mike Postumus dominated proceedings on his road machine, albeit with slightly fatter (but still slick) tekkies, the Gran Fondo has, rightly, become a race for the gravelistas. The first 50-odd kilometres are tar, and fast, with a SOB climb slap-bang in the middle that gives the mountain bikers a bit of respite from spinning their legs off. The Flat Bar Societists then get to enjoy the short-cut past Klaarstroom to Meiringspoort; a twisty hardpack series of sharp climbs and whoopy descents, including a dedicated Strava-segmented downhill that was cunningly taken by Charles Keey, winning back the Panaracer tyres he had sponsored as the prize… And then the highlight of the entire ride, for me anyway: Meiringspoort on a bicycle is sublime. We had a tailwind this year, so it was even better, as the opportunity to absorb the enormity of the mountains it carves through (try not to remember you have to get back over them) is matched by a high level of how-the, as you criss-cross the Grootrivier 25 times… We have the Bain family to thank for so many of our fabulous cycling passes in the Cape.
At the South end of Meiringspoort lies De Rust, half-way point of the Gran Fondo and the hand-over spot for the riders of the Stafetta – the two-person relay version. Rider one – usually decided by weight – covers
the first half, before rider two tackles the rest, and its crazy climbing.
Along with the 55km Medio Fondo, in and around Prince Albert, but without a sniff of the Pass, John also introduced an E-bike race in 2019, a 65km/1 900m challenge over the pass and back that was designed to test battery life to the limit. It was well subscribed, as were all the races, with Erik Kleynhans and Christie Hearder leading 275 hard men and women home, in course records, on the 171km route.
In perfect weather conditions, Team Full Sus made the most of the day interacting with the front of the field for the first half (playing on the tar is fun when you know you don’t have to do it for the whole race) and freewheeling Meiringspoort, solo, with only the baboons checking for licences for company. A civilized sit-down espresso in De Rust was followed by a slight scramble, as the agreement to do so seemed to be forgotten by the rest of the party… but no harm done as the Oude Muragie road soon allowed amends to be made before the joy of accompanying a mini-peloton of Swartberg Pass virgins. False-top Syndrome struck them all, possibly out of necessity as the gradient gets ever steeper, but make it they all did, and the delight of the slippery, bumpy, fast 20km descent back to Prince Albert capped one of the most remarkable days you will ever have on a bike.