In the heart of the Northern Cape, about 90km from Kimberley, a small mining community hosts a very unique and exciting mountain bike stage race. And with mountain bike stage races being hosted all over the country, getting it right has become essential.
These guys are in their 11th year – surely they are doing something right – and I had to go find out; never could I have imagined what lay in store for me.
First you drive to Ulco, 67 km outside Kimberley, where you then register and receive your goodie bag and further instructions on the weekend’s proceedings. Then you leave your bike behind – this would also be tomorrow’s start – and travel to the farm where the race village is located.
After another 35km of dirt road you end up on the farm where you set up camp. Camping spots are neatly marked out and riders turn this in a family affair setting up camp with their whole family.
The festive atmosphere is the first thing you notice with the braaivleis fires burning and kids running around; a typical platteland setting. The stiffness of the typical corporate races is nowhere to be found.
After a good night’s rest you get onto the bus at 08:30, tracking back to Ulco for the start at 10:00. Once you arrive there you collect your bike and gather with your fellow riders at the starting line. With most of the day running on dirt road and jeep track, one could only expect a hard and fast race.
Mostly route planners put a lot of effort in designing technical single track and trying to outdo themselves on the next turn, but this was however not the case here. The Tour de Ghaap is a hard and tough as nails race, for the pure reason that it’s you and your bike against hard rocky gravel roads in 30 – 35 degrees Celsius heat for 68km.
And what a hard day. With only a couple of riders out to race and the rest the 160 riders there to enjoy the experience, I decided to go hard and test my limits with this fairly flat stage. But, after a nice winter rest, my body had other ideas. Battling into a huge head wind alone for most of the day, all I got was dehydrated and cramped up.
When I got to the finished my fellow riders realised that the best way to deal with me was to stay a safe distance and throw energy bars at me till I stopped growling. Not the ideal way to enjoy mountain biking.
The second day I was invited to join a group of riders who have made the race an annual break-away, all off them over 40, some even hitting the 50 mark – and all successful businessmen. Dressed in our Nedbank gear and fuelled with last night’s braaivleis and boerewors, we started the day as one unit hitting the first climbed.
As we got to the top the stronger riders waited for the other to catch up. This was a strange and new experience for me, since I am not used to seeing the other slower riders (which you’d just passed) disappear in the distance while waiting for your fellow riders.
But riding with these guys made me realise how much you tend to miss on the bike, which unfortunately happens with a Strava driven community. You go through some of the most beautiful parts of South Africa, and how much do you really remember? The one guy noted that he does this for fun, he already has a job.
The rest of the day ended up to be one of the best days I’ve ever had on a mountain bike. This 40km stage had everything you wanted: steep climbs, exciting single track, and some thrilling down hills. And at the pace the boys from Nedbank were doing it, you had time to enjoy every single pedal stroke.
With 6km to the end I was treated to another annual tradition, the beer stop. This water point, manned by the same gentleman who runs the bar at the basecamp, offers an ice cold beer which was a non-negotiable 10 min stop.
As I travel back to Bloemfontein after a brilliant weekend, I realised that if you are not having fun, you are doing it wrong – lesson learned!