Climbing a South African icon

7th November 2016

A faint trail of dust rises up behind the bakkie, depositing a fine coating on frames, saddles and bars of our bikes, before swirling across the arid landscape and fading out completely. It’s somewhere after 7am, and the morning air is fresh and crisp as I step out to open one of last gates as we leave the farm behind us and head back to civilization, family, jobs, and lives where something other than cycling takes centre stage. For the last couple of days though Nico, Theunis, Carinus and myself have been off the leash – free to talk bikes and rides without fear of reprimand. Our journey back to Somerset West is a long way from where we started though. The farm we are leaving (which may or may not be in the Moordenaars Karoo, depending on who you ask), will be a stage on future riding adventures being planned by Carinus and Nico as part of their emerging Cyclo-Tourism business, but it’s not the subject of this story. Our arrival here yesterday afternoon was an impromptu overnight detour on the way home when our original plans unravelled.

Two days earlier we were barrelling along the N2 heading towards Oudtshoorn for an Everesting attempt on Swartberg Pass. A bold challenge devised by Nico after his previous, successful, Everesting attempt on Helshoogte Pass. It’s hard to imagine a more iconic stretch of upwardly snaking gravel in all of South Africa to pick than Swartberg Pass, or a more daunting one. Our reccie drive up the pass merely served to underline both of these realities. As we wound upward on one of the most majestic feats of road engineering in the whole country any illusions about this simply being a case of riding up and down 14 or 16 times rapidly vanished. Theunis was the first to say what I suspect had been going through all of our minds on the way up:

“Just getting up this beast once is going to be hard enough”

He wasn’t wrong. For the first 6km or so, it was all fairly gradual – a steady and manageable climb of maybe 300 vertical meters. But the aptly named Skelm Draai (“sneaky corner”) put an end of that. The road cut back from the jutting outcrop to head back in to the mountainside and immediately rose sharply upward, from here on up the gradient was unrelenting, rising the remaining 350 meters to the summit in less than 3km. Even with mountain bike gearing this was not going to be easy – and Carinus didn’t even have that. He was on a recently acquired cross bike, with road gearing.

Looking at the pass from a distance didn’t help either. Sitting eating roosterkoek at Kobus se Gat close to the foot of the pass, we could clearly see the thin pale line snaking upwards, before finally disappearing across the top, high up, somewhere close to the clouds. What an earth had Nico signed us up for? We finished our food, and went to the nearby backpackers to try and get some sleep before we started our attempt in the evening. I knew there and then I’d be acting in a supporting role only. I’d never really imagined much else to be honest. I neither had the knees nor the climbing legs to really believe I’d make it up 14 times, but for my personal goals that didn’t really matter either. Based on repetitions of my local hills, I figured I’d be good for somewhere between perhaps 6 to 9 laps, and that would actually be fine. It would provide a decent simulation of a day’s worth of alpine climbing on TCR (5,000 to 6,000m) and would give me a great insight into my current fitness, strength, and recovery when faced with that. And Everesting Rules (unlike Audax) allows for supporters. So it would be fine for one or other of us to drop out from a couple of laps and then rejoin to support Nico in his bid. All of these thoughts and more rolled around my brain as I tried, and failed, to sleep through the late afternoon heat. That part at least didn’t worry me – lack of sleep is something I’ve become well adapted too on endurance cycling challenges.

We parked the bakkie at the very point the tar road gave way to gravel, and kitted up ready for the first lap. It was 6pm and still warm – at this point, the decision to start in the evening seemed like a good one. With his different gearing it was clearly impossible for Carinus to attempt to ride at the same pace as the mountain bikes. For the first gradual section of the first lap though, Theunis, Nico and myself largely rode together. Skelm Draai put an end to that though. Gradually Theunis, with his stronger climbing legs, pulled away from me, and with my preference for sitting and spinning,  the a gap slowly opened up between myself and Nico. The steepest section came just after the road tucked into a sheltered corner and then swung out again onto the mountain. With fresh legs, I powered up it – but also knew that as the laps wore on, I’d be very likely to end up dismounting and walking this piece. A fact check later confirmed my suspicion that this would disqualify me from any Everesting achievement even if by some miracle I did manage to complete the full 14 and a bit laps. For now though, it was a glorious climb which saw us all summit within no more than a few minutes of each other.

The sun dipped low on the horizon as we started the run down – fast, fun, and in a couple of places a little sketchy. Generally though, the road surface was excellent – plenty of firm patches for braking, and gravel which was never deep or loose enough to trouble our front wheels. All of that is, of course, viewed from the perspective of someone with their ass and hands on a plush, full suspension mountain bike. Carinus on his rigid frame cross bike was suffering an agonising descent, every tooth and joint rattled to destruction. The temperature was, of course, the same for all of us – and speeding down, with sweaty shirts from the climb, that temperature was on the chilly side of uncomfortable. Convening again at the bottom also confirmed a suspicion we had discussed earlier. Our idea of a 1.5 hour lap time might be a tad unrealistic. In fact, our first lap was well under 2 hours, but it was clear that as laps went on, bodies grew tired, and the need for longer stops to rest and refuel between laps, even a lap time of 2 hours might become difficult to maintain. Any idea of this being a 24 hour venture evaporated faster than the sweat off our shirts. This was going to be a long grind.

For both the 2nd and 3rd laps I tied a rather too bulky jacket around my waist on the way up. Cursing my kit selection did at least serve as a reminder that I need to acquire a better fitting, better quality jacket that does actually stash in my jersey pocket. My lightweight jacket is baggy to the point of adopting the qualities of a yacht sail on a windy day – not be an ideal attribute flapping around in a gale, high on a narrow mountain pass with steep drop offs waiting to punish a wavering line.

My main recollections of laps 2 and 3 are similar to the first – only darker, sweatier, and colder coming down. The bike performed flawlessly, and climbed as easily as any would have. My legs and body on the other hand steadily tired. On each lap that tucked away corner saw me dismounting for the worst of the short severely upward gradient, remounting again to take on the last, still steep section to the top. It didn’t really bother me to be honest – I’m under no illusions that I will actually pedal every alpine section on TCR, and measuring against that goal was more significant than against Everesting Rules for my ride. I wondered how an earth Nico managed that section though with his slower, big gear standing cadence. Manage it he did though – because on both of these laps we crossed around that point, me in the cold breeze flying down, and he battling up the punishing slope, still mounted and still grinding.

Nico later told me that when he saw the guys huddled in the car at the end of lap 3 he knew the night’s riding was over. He was a few minutes behind me though as I pulled up to the bakkie, the interior lights on, Theunis and Carinus inside, hiding from the cold. At that point the only thought going through my head was hop inside, warm up a bit, and grab a drink and some food. Oh, and also cursing myself for not packing a thermos flask of hot coffee. My cool bag had practically every other tasty treat and enticing drink imaginable – how on earth could I have missed something so obvious? Assumptions again … they’ll nail you every time. I was so busy worrying about it being too hot, and needing enough food for energy, the idea of needing something for the cold (other than a few clothing layers) had totally escaped me. So I sipped on a coke, which was at least some caffeine, and shivered as we waited for Nico to arrive.

It was past midnight, and we only had 3 laps in the bank. I was tired, but I figured good for 2 or 3 more before breakfast. But the guys debated taking a break and restarting in the morning. I could see Nico was disappointed, and offered to ride on in support if he wanted to push on through the night. The cold won over though, and eventually the decision was taken to go get some sleep and restart in the morning. I guess we all knew there and then what that meant. The required 14 or 16 laps (depending on whether aiming at Everest or High Rouleur status) would have been tough on time alone with our 6pm start. With a 6am re-start and 3 laps in the legs, it wasn’t going to be any easier. Tired, cold minds don’t always make the most logical of decisions though.

We did sleep, quiet well as it happens, and we did restart too (just after 7AM by the time our wheels got turning), and we put in a couple of solid, if fairly slow, laps before heading for breakfast. The temperature was much more conducive, low cloud and a cool day fairly ideal for climbing. The pass had become busy with traffic though towards the end of the 2nd morning lap. The previous night we’d seen exactly one car, that of the backpacker’s owner who came out to see how we were getting on. And he turned back at the bakkie – we didn’t encounter a single car on the pass itself. The morning laps met a growing volume of cars and vans and, on the last lap, a procession of of emergency vehicles with flashing lights and sirens. Although we never learned what incident they were heading too, the convey was a stark reminder of the danger lurking on these harsh, beautiful mountain roads. The increased traffic kicked up a layer of dust that hung above the trail long after each vehicle had passed, and only fully cleared as we rolled back onto the tarred road and headed for some very welcome hot food and coffee.

The breakfast served up at Kobus se Gat was both delicious, and final. Conversation over the steaming plates and mugs swung back and forth over a variety of cycling topics but inevitably reached the question of whether we’d resume. I definitely felt good for a couple more laps, and probably with a break for more food, a couple more after that. Which in way, was good for my personal goals – an Alpine day’s worth of climbing was somewhere not far off being present in my legs, at least on a day in such good spirits and company as these two had been anyhow. That would still only be a total of 9 laps though, and the break for sleep meant the daily tally would only be 4 at that stage. The decision took a while, but became inevitable. The attempt was abandoned, and plan B was hatched. Which is how we came to find ourselves braaiing, drinking beer and wine, and sharing stories on a farm on the other side of Swartberg Pass, in a location which may or may not be part of the Mordenaars Karoo. Speaking personally, it was a superbly enjoyable couple of days even if our goal remained incomplete. More importantly, some valuable lessons were learned for any future bid to Everest this South African icon.

 

The steep part
The road winds upward

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climbing through morning clouds
Climbing through morning clouds
Views from the top
Views from the top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 Replies to “Climbing a South African icon”

    1. Thanks Henri. Was a fun couple of days even though we fell short of the target.
      Still need to ride up and over and back – and also into Die Hel. So definitely a reason to go back sometime!

  1. Re-reading this ride, brigs back a flood of memories.
    Firstly when I hear Swartberg Pass, I always think of my late Dad who never stopped talking of the beauty of the pass, the views and the surrounding area.
    Secondly I think of what a great ride with great friends it was and then /
    Thirdly…, shit it was cold!!!!
    🙂

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