In only its second year, the Swartberg100 has already built a reputation worthy of its historic name. Nic Lamond tripped out to Prince Albert and grovelled the gravel.
The dry-stone retaining walls that support the serpentine Swartberg Pass were built by convict labour over 130 years ago. To stare at the steep switchbacks halfway up the rocky gravel surface invites the sweeping nostalgia of a bygone era. You can almost hear the sound of chisels rebounding off the sheer quartzite cliffs as gangs of workmen tamed the mountain with blood, sweat and primitive tools. The crack of a thousand bull whips and shouts of hardy men seem to linger in the air as teams of oxen heave their heavy loads into the country’s interior. History oozes out from under damp rocks like seeping mountain springs.
And yet the Swartberg Pass remains deathly quiet on a bike. Only my mind was painting the vivid pictures as my muscles scream silently against the slope. It was a worthy setting for wrestling with your own demons, a true battle of will power on wheels.
In 2016, the inaugural 170km tar and gravel odyssey that is the Swartberg100 grabbed the attention of cycling’s hard men and women. Set against the backdrop of one of the toughest unsealed roads in South Africa it’s not hard to see why. That kind of distance through Klein Karoo terrain and unpredictable weather cannot be underestimated.
After the first tar section up to the Kredouw Pass is completed in a barrelling peloton, 150km of lonely contemplation remains if you get dropped. The three gravel sections, incorporating three of the four mountain passes, is a stern test of body and bike. The final climb over the Swartberg itself is over 1 000 vertical metres and 28km long, on fatigued legs. The descent from the icy summit will rattle your dentures out and the last flat slog home to Prince Albert is no cake walk.
Incredibly, the Swartberg Pass isn’t the oldest road on the 100-mile route the race explores. That honour belongs to the 160-year-old Meiringspoort which, at 65km into the race, weaves a smooth, tarred, mostly downhill 25km course along the banks of the Groot Rivier and through the Swartberg mountain range. Again, you can’t help but contemplate the history of the more than 25 drifts the sweeping road now carries you over, or wonder at the secrets the vertiginous sandstone cliffs contain, as you scoot past. It is glorious. Unless you are being pelted by rain, which we were. And then the tar highway dumps you outside De Rust and the merciless gravel of the next pass: Oudemuragie Road. That leads you to the Cango Caves and onto the ascent to Swartberg.
In 2016 it was the racing that had caused eyebrows across the country to arc in interest. Seventy-odd riders assembled at the start line, on a charming assortment of bikes: only a few were true gravel or cyclocross (CX) machines. The rest were modified road or mountain bikes. Dr Mike Posthumus, a Cape Town-based sports-scientist and cycling coach, tackled the inaugural event on a road bike he had equipped with slightly fatter tyres, and won. Mike had beaten one of the country’s top mountain bikers – Matthys Beukes, a local hero from Oudtshoorn – home to Prince Albert in a shade over six hours. It was a victory for the everyman. Mike is one of us, juggling a young family and the pressures of a day job. He is an amateur, admittedly in incredibly good cycling form, but an amateur nonetheless.
News of the good doctor’s success on the slopes of the notorious Swartberg Pass against stiff competition and over a hellish distance filtered through the cycling community. South Africans love an underdog. And we are obsessed by colossal tests of endurance. So we love seeing an underdog succeed by gritting their teeth and grinding it out against the odds. The Swartberg Pass’ legendary status had been transferred effortlessly to the race itself. In its first year it had provided a story for the ages.
Race organiser and avid cyclist John Swanepoel had created exactly what he wanted. Pairing an imposing geographical obstacle with a bygone era in cycling, and watching the magic happen. John is nostalgic. He believes road cycling has forgotten its heritage, which was forged on rough roads and heavy equipment, when cyclists were tougher and capable of handling anything. It wasn’t about the bike. It was about mental toughness and grit.
John is a semi-retired business intelligence analyst, who now lives in Prince Albert. “I started to look at the early days of the TdF and I’ve always loved the old stories. Two gears. Guys would have to stop to shift. Rocks on the passes. These days, except for the European Spring Classics, it’s all thin tyres and tarmac,” he laments.
“We moved out here and I wanted to create a race but didn’t want to create another singletrack mountain-bike event. I loved the Dirty Kanza [one of the first ‘modern’ 200-mile gravel races, held in Kansas, USA] and the Strade Bianche [another modern gravel classic, held in Tuscany, Italy]. The Strade is such a grungy, amazing race. So I thought gravel bikes, tar and gravel sectors. Something that will blow off all the mountain bikers.”
“Initially I rode the route backwards, over the Swartberg first, and I nearly got crushed in Meiringspoort by trucks. Then I realised I need to do it the other way round… It means a hard finish. A 28km climb from Cango to the top. You’re tired, it gets emotional, it gets steeper. It’s a classic route! It gelled.”
“Current roadies are a bunch of pussies,” John laughs. “They need to get their asses here and race gravel.”
For the equipment-obsessed cycling enthusiast, unanswerable questions emerged in 2016, adding to the intrigue. How much of the victory was down to Mike Posthumus’s training and form? Did luck play a part in the battle against the elements? How much skill was required to hold off a hard-charging Beukes down the north side of the Swartberg, on a mountain bike nogal?! The doc’s use of fatter tyres on a road bike was a bold roll of the dice. Buekes was on a mountain bike. But was his victory all down to equipment? What was the real gamechanger?
The story sparked genuine interest, and entries for the 2017 event rolled in on the back of it. The Swartberg100 was expertly timed. South African roadies and mountain bikers were getting swept along in a fast-growing cycling category, a global fascination with ‘gravel grinders’. The locals needed answers to a few training and equipment questions that only half a dozen hours or so at the mercy of this new event could answer.
John picked up the underlying sentiment quickly. “The debate will rage on: mountain bike versus gravel bike? And then what type of tech and variations on the gravel bike? Drop bars versus flat bars? Suspension? Tyre size? Which is why I coined the phrase: Choose your weapon.”
Another 100-mile showdown in 2017 was eagerly anticipated. But a mere week before the race, as Prince Albert prepared itself for an onslaught of hardened cyclists, Mother Nature intervened in all her spectacular fury, ensuring the race’s reputation would be etched even deeper into the South African sports psyche. The northern section of the Swartberg Pass, before it joins the R407 and returns to Prince Albert, was literally washed away in a one-in-a-hundred-year storm. Thomas Bain’s engineering marvel had withstood heat, rain, sleet and snow since it opened in 1888 but the lower ramps of the famed pass were no match for the 2017 deluge. John Swanepoel was forced to cancel.
“It was a huge blow! We were watering the start line and setting up tents and this particularly large dark cloud came over and I thought, here comes kak. I ran inside when the lightning crashed. Within an hour, the rivers came through here like a wave. The whole town was flooded. We went up [to the pass] and I looked at the gorge and there was nothing. This gorge has survived for 130 years and the week I decide to organise a race…” John muses. “Hopefully it won’t happen again!”
The 2018 event was held in late April and lived up to the expectations of not just the core riders lining the start. When John Swanepoel finally slowed down to catch his breath – four or five days after the race – he had won over the hearts and minds of Prince Albert locals. “This year was confirmation the Swartberg100 is here to stay,” he says. “The town was always a bit sceptical. They don’t understand until they’ve seen it and it was very difficult to motivate for help.”
No cataclismic storms rolled in but heavy skies at the start brought freezing temperatures. Thankfully only pockets of rain attacked us on course and added to the long-running equipment debate was now a pressing apparel gamble. Too much cold or wet-weather gear could weigh you down if the sun came out. Too little insulation against the cold and the top of the Swartberg Pass could literally freeze you in your tracks… I settled on a vest, jersey and arm warmers with a Buff under my helmet and never thought about it again.
The 2018 start line accommodated 235 riders, with 197 finding their way back to Prince Albert before sunset and the 11-hour cut-off. Most noticeable was the significant increase in gravel bikes gracing the start line. The bug had well and truly bitten. A casual start made for a peloton with a couple of hundred riders in tow and a chance to discuss equipment choices for the impending battle. The Kredouw Pass loomed at 25km, and promptly blew the race to pieces as a motivated group of eight riders snuck over the top of the only tar summit. Only one of them was on a mountain bike, admittedly with a skinny gravel wheelset.
Somehow I found myself among the first eight. At this stage of the ride I was still captivated by the novelty of my capable gravel steed, a slightly-too-big Ridley X-Trail. I managed to stay with the escapees for 100km, before waving the white flag, limping up the Swartberg, then puncturing on the descent and falling back through the field to finish in 20th. This is the closest I’ve ever acually come to throwing in the towel at a bike race. I’ve suffered some pretty spectacular mechanical and physical trauma that meant soldiering on simply wasn’t possible. But I’ve never actually taken a long sip of a sugary drink at a waterpoint and started looking for a kindly farmer with an empty bakkie.
Up front, the fight for 2018 race honours was an epic clash and not surprisingly came down to the Swartberg ascent. Capetonian Richard Simpson crested the mountain first, offering a first-class lesson in technical climbing to his elders, David George and Armand du Randt, before dropping down to Prince Albert to claim a slender minute over second-placed Du Randt, with George rounding out the podium. It was a highlight of race orginiser John Swanepoel’s otherwise frenetic day. He had positioned himself a few kilometres from the summit at Skelmdraai. “Seeing Richard take on David and Armand, that tussle was good to see. The youngster wasn’t having any of it!” he remembers.
Another highlight of John’s? “One oke came in on a 26-inch mountain bike. It wasn’t long before cut-off. The bike must have been a 1991-model: rigid frame, caliper brakes. Lekker route, he says to me at the finish line. There must be so much more to his journey!”
The success of the first two Swartberg100s means planning for the 2019 race is already in full swing. Lock it in your diary: Saturday, 27 April 2019 (enter at www.mtbafrica.com). Tented accommodation is being added to cater for the influx. A pre-ride on Friday afternoon and food (there’s a rumour of a potjie competition) and live entertainment after the race on Saturday are also on the cards. The Medio Fondo (50-mile gravel ride) will also be held again, and a Piccolo Fondo for kids will be added.
Pack a spare spare tube, scoop an extra helping of chamois cream and carboload on vasbyt; I’ll see you on the Swartberg next year.
Find out more on www.mtbafrica.com