Written by: Teresa Coetzee
When I crossed the finish line right in front of the Queen’s Hotel in Oudtshoorn during the final stage of this year’s Cape Pioneer Trek last Saturday, I felt like a complete superheroine. Not only because we were applauded by crowds of people and welcomed with sparkling wine, but also because I rode through the entire Karoo on my mountain bike over mountains and valleys for seven consecutive days.
Look, let’s just say it to each other right from the start, the Cape Pioneer Trek mountain bike marathon is certainly not for sissies. It’s a full-fledged marathon that tests any mountain biker’s fitness, endurance and technical skills to the limit, but when you hang that medal around your neck, all the trials are forgotten and you know that you are one of a select group of cyclists who have reached the finish line has.
The Cape Pioneer Trek mountain bike marathon has a long history and this year was the thirteenth time that this event took place in the heart of the Little Karoo. A total of 190 participants from all over the world, including countries such as Belgium, Holland, America and Namibia, took part this year.
This was my ninth time participating, and while it still doesn’t get any easier, there are so many reasons why I’m excited to return each year and experience the beauty and challenges of the trails again.
The first stage started and ended on Monday 4 September at Glenwood in George and although the distance was only 55 km, one should not underestimate the 1,750 m vertical climb. Riders who know the area, their eyes naturally widen when you start talking about Tierkop and we spent quality time there in the Jonkersberg nature reserve. The route is technically challenging and the short, steep climbs are unapproachable. Fortunately, there are also plenty of rewards with the fast-flowing downhills in the dense pine forests.
Stage two is characterized by the famous old Montagu Pass and although I have ridden this pass countless times, the wonderful view still takes my breath away every time. This stage of about 73 km involved just as much of the 1,750 m vertical climb and riders should know that the Montagu Pass is not the only challenge for the day.
After we drove past the Herholdt wine estate, there were still some ugly climbs ahead and we even had to get off our bikes a few times and walk. But at least the beautiful surroundings helped to distract and the end at the beautiful Louvain wedding estate quickly made us forget about the trauma of walking and mountain climbing. If you haven’t been to Louvain yet, it’s definitely worth spending a night or weekend there. It’s the most beautiful guest farm and the owners go out of their way to make guests feel welcome.
The third stage starts and ends at Louvain and although the organizers promised that it is the easiest stage of the event (63 km and 1,400 m of climbing), it also involved a few walking sessions and challenges. However, I must mention that this year this area is covered with a blanket of flowers and I have never experienced the field so green and full of flowers there. There are literally rags full of flowers in all colors everywhere you look and we couldn’t help but stop often for photos and videos. And of course the steaks with which Carel Herholdt awaited us at the finish line were one of the many highlights at Louvain.
Over the years, the Kammanassie conservation area has become one of the features of the Cape Pioneer Trek and although there were times when we drove through the difficult part of the Kammanassie, the organizers at least began to show mercy and this year we rode on the side drove from the Kammanassie to Oudtshoorn. The world obviously starts to change as you drive into the Karoo and the 90 km on the way to Oudtshoorn was very diverse. Fortunately, the climate also started to change, because at first it was freezing cold in George and Louvain and we had to start every morning with jackets.
The fifth stage of the Cape Pioneer Trek is usually the queen stage, the biggest challenge of the race where after 84 km and a 2 300 m climb we end right at the top of the iconic Swartberg Pass. The challenge is of course that you ride almost a full race with loads of climbs, rocks, sand and difficult terrain, long before you arrive at the bottom of the Swartberg Pass, and then you still have to ride the full 9 km while you still have almost 1,000 m climb. (I’m telling you, it’s not a race for sissies!) When we arrived at the top of the Swartberg Pass after almost 7:40 hours on the bikes, we were greeted with as much enthusiasm by the announcers as the winners, and it was another one of the features that really makes this race so special. Here all the riders are equally important, and even the rear steers are treated like winners.
The last stage was a quarter-length 64 km and by this time the 1,200 m climb actually felt little, although no one should underestimate this stage! Before you arrive at the Queen’s Hotel, there are still quite a few bumps to be driven out and even during this shift your technical skills are tested to the limit.
We were a group of friends who rode together from the beginning (the rear oxen) and the jokes and camaraderie made me realize right from the start that you don’t always have to rush to the finish line. After each shift we were treated to delicious meals and a “chill zone” where we could help ourselves to snacks; there was also a wonderful photo and video show every evening where everyone could watch the day’s adventures together.
The Cape Pioneer Trek is a full-fledged UCI event, it therefore meets the International Cycling Union’s standards and you can earn points to participate in the Olympic Games. What makes this race so special is that, despite the rating, it is still accessible to ordinary riders and that every dear participant feels like an international sports star.
- Apart from the six-day marathon, there is also a shorter four-day event in which electric bikes can also participate.