Is there a more Eastern Cape phrase than “Hell’s Teeth”? It also happens to accurately describe the inaugural Maloti 100. It was without a doubt the toughest day I’ve ever spent on a bike. But it was still incredible and I’ll definitely be back in 2020.
What makes the Maloti 100 so special is the region. It’s virtually in the middle of nowhere. Or as close to nowhere as you can get from a race starting and finishing in towns. Rural Eastern Cape is not exactly an economic hot-spot anymore and even though its an adventure seekers playground the tourist numbers have dwindled too. Events like the Maloti 100, Sky Run and the National Fly-Fishing Championships (which were taking place over the same weekend) are thus essential in breathing life into the backwater towns like Barkly East.
For cyclists, trail runners, hikers, birders, fishing enthusiasts and horse riders the landscape is ideal. The mountains stack up into the distance, each peak rising higher and higher into the cobalt blue sky. In winter the fields are a rich yellow, after months of dry cold. But in summer the mountainsides come alive in a riot of greens.
It is a land of harsh beauties in spring, when the Maloti 100 takes place. This year the first summer rains were late, the first drops only fell in the week after the event. The rivers were low, after a winter of unusually light snow. But nonetheless the Maloti region of the Eastern Cape is certainly worth a visit. It is a landscape like no other in South Africa.
Crisis, I’m riding a 100 Miler this weekend, I wrote a few days before the Maloti 100. I’d written that half joking, asking how hard could it be – putting forward that it was going to be challenging. But not believing it myself. I was wrong. The Maloti Mountains humbled me.
Starting in Barkly East at 6am, in the morning, it was rather crisp. The weather prediction had suggested a nearly balmy 9 degrees Celsius. Reality’s 3 degrees was a lot colder. Fingertips struggled for feeling and riders pulled their buffs up to over their noses.
Fortunately, the Canyon Grail was equipped with Di2 shifting. So, I didn’t really need full use of my fingers. That was not the last time during the day I’d be grateful for Shimano’s electric gear changers. Or my final appreciation of the Canyon engineers’ specification choices on the range topping Grail CF SLX 8.0 Di2.
The early kilometres between Barkly East and the fly-fishing getaway of Rhodes had looked easy on the route profile. Race director George Stroeble had warned that they were anything but. Again, I hadn’t really believed.
Starting with the race snakes I went off relatively fast. The road was smooth and the Grail was flying along. If anything, the rest of the group on their mountain bikes were setting a pace which was just a little too slow to be comfortable on the gravel bike. That changed just 6 kilometres into the 162-kilometre-long route.
It should be pointed out that the only tar in the route is the first 300 metres from the Hotel to the turn-off to Rhodes. The next 5.7 kilometres, on gravel, were among the smoothest of the race. Ideal for gravel bikes. Then it changed, to what would be the norm.
Corrugations, loose iron-stone rocks littering the road and scarlessly a smooth line in sight. Climbing was fine. But had to be undertaken seated at all times to maintain grip through the Grail’s Schwalbe G-ONE Allround tyres. Descending was hell. Initially, on that first sweeping descent I only drifted back through the lead group. On the next, having only got half-way up the group on the following climb, I drifted to the back. By the third descent I was off the back.
Warning lights started flickering. This was going to be hard. I could fight my way back for a second time, but there was no sign of any flat stretches where sitting in the group would provide real benefit. The ribbon of dusty gravel road stretched across the yellow Eastern Cape hillocks in a seemingly endless series of peaks and troughs. Like a band of grey foam across a yellow ocean of swell-lines.
Crisis number one. Tap back. Reassess. Establish a comfortable rhythm. Ride within yourself, you fool. Don’t do anything silly. Manage your energy and look after the bike. Concern number one, given the proliferation of sharp iron-stone rocks on the road surface was puncturing. This was not the type of gravel to piece a tiny hole; that Squirt’s Bead Block tubeless sealant would plug. No, this was the type of surface to rip great chunks from sidewalls.
Impressively the Schwalbe tyres survived without a hint of an issue. Not so my body. By the time I had reached the first water point at the 34-kilometre mark I was contemplating what a long day it would be. My lower back was already taking strain from the constant bumping.
The next section of the route was particularly pretty though and briefly took my mind off the road surface. After leaving the water point the route crossed a stream on an old steel girder bridge and started to climb the pass to Rhodes. The first 34 kilometres had been undulating, with a gradual uphill trend but after the water point the climbing began in earnest. Rising from 1 500 metres above sea level to close to 2 000 metres the pass was the first of the race’s challenges that was actually visible on the route profile.
It was on that climb that I first began to feel the effects of the altitude too. Having only a few short rides in Johannesburg and a few runs in the Swiss Alps as a point of reference I wasn’t sure how my body would react to hours above 2 000m. I still can’t say if it reacted well or not. My heart rate didn’t really rise in keeping with my perceived rate of exertion. It felt like my breathing was more laboured than my heart-rate, which was hovering at the 175 beats per minute mark. I would have expected to see it closer to 190; such was the effort I felt I was putting in.
None-the-less the climb provided spectacular views, with the Maloti Mountains rising up to the right and the foothills falling away to the left. From the summit the hamlet of Rhodes was not quite visible, nestled at the foot of Naude’s Nek Pass. But a well-trained eye would know where to look for it, hoping for a fugitive glimpse.
The descent towards Rhodes shook me up thoroughly. It was around the 40-kilometre mark when I started to harbour serious doubts as to whether or not I’d be able to finish. I was sure I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Initially the bumps had provided sharp stabs of pain. By the time the second hour of racing had ticked by I could hardly feel anything. My body was one aching mess.
I had made the wrong bike choice. A mountain bike would have been a more comfortable option. And probably as faster option too. There was little opportunity to spin the Grail up to speed, running down the 11-speed cassette with the chain in the big ring. The harsh terrain necessitated staying mid-block, dropping from the big to the inner ring and spending vastly more time in the granny gear than the fastest.
My dreams of suspension were briefly halted by the picturesque town of Rhodes. Though Hogsback, to the south-west in the Amathole mountains, is often credited as an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien; Rhodes has a similar Tolkienesque quality. Perhaps not the Shire, but somewhere on a more dangerous edge of Middle Earth.
My reverie did not last long however. Even on a bicycle it doesn’t take long to traverse Rhodes’ Main Road. 4 kilometres beyond Rhodes the second water point awaited, at the 64-kilometre mark. The Alpine Swift trailhead, on Grace Hill farm, where the famous Rhodes Trail Run starts and finishes provided the second water point.
A couple of mince jaffles later and I was on my way again, the warning that the real climbing started in 8 kilometres ringing in my ears. Almost exactly 8 kilometres later I rounded a bend in the road and there it was, the sign signalling the start of Naude’s Nek Pass…
Rhodes is situated at 1 890 odd meters above sea level. The top of Naude’s Nek tops out at 2 596 meters. While the foot of the pass is located at just over 2 000 metres. According to my Strava data; the main part of the climb is just 7.8 kilometres long, gains just 576 metres of elevation at an average gradient of 7.4%. It would thus be fairly easy, if it were not for the breath-stealing altitude it starts at.
I’ve ridden the Merino Monster, in the Tankwa Trek. And the Swartberg Pass in To Hell and Back. I’ve hike-a-biked up the Matroosberg in a snow storm. But those climbs pale in comparison to Naude’s Nek. It is nothing short of brutal.
Every pedal stroke makes the next breath you take harder. The thin air forces your heart rate down, limiting the power you have at your disposal to propel yourself upwards. After about 4 kilometres of climbing my oxygen starved legs started cramping. I dismounted and walked to a switchback where the gradient was gentler.
I rode the next 2 kilometres or so until the cramps returned and the process had to be repeated. After an hour and 10 minutes of suffering I rounded a bend, expecting the summit I was about to crest to be another false one. But no. That was the top. Apparently, there was a sign; signalling Naude’s Nek as the third highest pass in the country. My vision was too focused on the gravel just in front of my wheel to notice.
Having subsequently researched the fact, it transpires that Naude’s Nek has been bumped from the podium positions on the country’s highest passes list. The honour of South Africa’s highest pass has just been awarded to the Ben MacDhui Pass. Located above the ski slopes of Tiffindell, it is a 4×4 track up to 3 001 metres above sea level; to the highest peak in the Eastern Cape.
Ben MacDhui Pass doesn’t really go anywhere though; unlike Naude’s Nek, the Tiffendell-Tenahead Traverse and, the original record holder, Sani Pass. What makes the Rhodes region of the Maloti Mountains even more unique though is that three of the four highest passes in the country are located within a 50-kilometre radius.
All Downhill to Maclear
From the summit of Naude’s Nek the Maloti 100 route descended and then climbed again to the 91-kilometre mark. There at the turn-off to the Tenahead Mountain Lodge, water point three awaited. Situated on the cusp of the sweeping 11-kilometre descent, on a north facing slope, it was not the spot to spend time faffing about. I refilled bottles, ate a handful of Aromat spiced boiled potatoes and hit the road again.
The first two hairpin bends were littered with the, at that point, bane of my existence – iron-stone rocks. But thereafter, as local Andre Bredell had promised at the water point, the road surfaced improved. The next 10 kilometres were easily my favourites of the entire route.
Smooth gravel road allowed the Grail to come into its own. For the first time I could fully absorb the beauty of the surroundings, rather than staring with absolute focus at the road ahead. And it was the perfect time for sight seeing too.
From the dizzy heights of 2 300 odd meters above the Eastern Cape’s rolling hills the landscape to the south stretched out to the horizon. In contrast to the Barkly East side of the pass the Maclear side receives significantly more rain. Even in winter the mountainsides are green and PG Bison’s plantations grow in neat emerald bocks, highlighted against the paler green of the grasslands around.
Sadly, the bliss did not last. By the foot of the descent the surface had deteriorated again. The next 60 kilometres were punctuated by dreams of withdrawal. In fact, at times the dreams became fantasies. My body was sore. My energy levels were low. And both my legs, in their entirety, were on the constant verge of cramping. The Eland’s Nek water point, at the 113-kilometre mark, offered much needed respite. But the Coke induced high lasted less than a kilometre.
Somehow, despite having descended from an incredible height, it was not all downhill to the finish in Maclear! I should have known better, but logic has no place in your mind when 6 hours of brutal rattling has switched off the rational part of your brain. I was functioning in reptile mode. Pedal, drink, pedal, eat, pedal, pedal, pedal… Crisis.
Eventually the final water point loomed into view, atop a significant hill. The last 50 metres to the water point were savagely steep. Too steep for my exhausted legs and the Grail’s road bike gearing. I was reduced to my third walk of the day.
At that point Andre pulled up alongside me. He had left the Tenahead aid station and driven down the pass, checking on riders along the way. After a brief, but unsuccessful, stop to cast for trout in one of the rivers he caught up to me. Now, it should be explained that I’ve known Andre all my life. His father and mine were in Round Table together back in the days before the Rinderpest.
Seeing a friendly face when you’re in the red is always great. Having that face tell you, straight out that he won’t let you get into his vehicle to quit is less great. His pulling away in a cloud of dust as the tyres of the Toyota fought for traction, on the loose surface, completed my misery.
Fortunately, a friendly PG Bison employee trotted down the hill from the water point to push my bike the last few meters up the hill. While he found a spot to lean it up against the embankment, I collapsed into a camp chair in the shade. Through a coughing fit, brought on by the dust and the altitude, I worked my way through what felt like a litre of Coke.
“What lies ahead?” I asked a local. “A very rocky descent and 30 kilometres of rolling roads to Maclear” came the answer. Equipped with what transpired to be accurate information I set off on the final leg of the journey.
Within 30 seconds I was off the bike. A band of jagged ironstone on the steepest section of the descent had forced me to brake hard. But having gone into the ironstone at an angle I was unable to correct and straighten out. Instead I came to a juddering stop in the even rougher gravel on the side of the road. Putting a foot down to arrest my fall I immediately cramped up.
There was no going back though. The water point was 100 metres up hill. The only way was to carry on down and brave the final 30 kilometres. So, I saddled up and carried on. My hands were blistering by this point. And my brain was fried. Everything seemed to be happening too quickly. Even 20 kilometres per hour was too fast. I crawled down the rest of the descent, trying to nurse my overloaded senses back to a point where they could regain a semblance of control.
Eventually I reached the foot of the descent and could start to rebuild a bit of a rhythm. It was easier said than done – given my mental, physical and by that point emotionally frazzled state – but somehow, I managed to tap out something resembling a tempo. Looking back at the Stava file for this section of the race, which happens to be a separate file because I had to switch my watch on after my bike computer’s battery died, I was amazed to see I manged to maintain a pace of over 20 kilometres per hour.
That had more to do with the Grail and the smoother roads though. Aside from the 11 kilometres from the Tenahead water point the final 20 were the most gravel bike friendly of the entire route. They almost tricked me into thinking I was finishing strong.
After 9 and a half hours I crossed the finish line at the Maclear Country Club. I was broken. Taking my cycling shoes off I cramped so badly a fellow rider had to come to my aid and stretch out my calf. I then also needed help getting up to retrieve my post-race burger. But it was totally worth it.
Hell’s teeth boet, that was the toughest bike ride I’ve ever done. But I’ll be back next year. Fitter, hopefully. Wiser, in terms of knowing what to expect, definitely. And probably not on a gravel bike… but that’s not a guaranteed. Gravel bikes make every ride an adventure and even if nearly every inch of me ached afterwards it was certainly an adventure. A memorable Maloti 100 adventure which I can highly recommend, but only if you are a little bit of a masochist too.
If you don’t like hurting yourself by making bad life choices ride a mountain bike. It’ll allow you to enjoy the Maloti 100 on the day and not just in hindsight.
The Maloti 100 is part of the 100 Miler Series which launches in 2020. Here are the events and the dates for the series’ inaugural season.
- 22 February: Ride the Karoo (Eastern Cape)
- 25 April: Swartberg 100 Grand Fondo (Western Cape)
- 25 May: Race to the Sun (North West Province)
- 6 June: Trans Elands (Eastern Cape)
- 18 July: Around the Pot (Western Cape)
- 26 Sep: Maloti 100 Miler (Eastern Cape)
- 17 Oct: Race to the Sea (Western Cape)
More details can be found at www.100milerseries.co.za.
Saved by Apex
While I was rattled into cramps by the rough Eastern Cape roads; I had no saddle sores. This I can only put down to the amazing Ciovita Apex bibshorts. I’ve written a review on them before, which you can read here. But after the Maloti 100 I can reaffirm that they are absolutely incredible.