The southern ridgelines of the Drakensberg reach into the Eastern Cape. Breaking the Karoo plains into high mountain slopes and deep valleys. In summer the veld comes alive, emerald green after the rains. While in winter the grass stands tall, brittle and yellow.

Nestled on one side of the dragon’s spine is Barkley East. On the other is Maclear. Motorists traveling between the two will likely choose the southern pass, an asphalt link across the vlakte and through a deep valley. Mountain bikers, and other such adventurers, choose the harder route. Visiting Rhodes and crossing one of the highest mountain pass in South Africa, Naude’s Nek, on a spectacular ride.

Naude’s Nek is the fourth highest pass in the country according to Mountain Passes South Africa. But Ben MacDhui (at 3 001m) is an out and back loop. Sani Pass’s summit (at 2 876m) meanwhile lies outside of South Africa, in Lesotho, while the Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse (at 2 720m) is a private road. Naude’s Nek (at 2 596m) is thus the highest pass open to public traffic, which falls entirely within South Africa. Interestingly Ben MacDhui, the TTT and the fifth highest pass in the county, Volunteershoek, are all within the same region as Naude’s Nek.

It is also a race. A challenging 100-miler. Complete with rugged gravel roads throughout and 2 999-meters of climbing, across the 160-kilometre course. The 2020 Maloti 100 is no roll down the promenade. But completing it, after a brutal day on the bike, is thus all the sweater.

A gravel race across the mighty Naude’s Nek Pass. Photos by Maloti 100.

Due to Covid-19 mountain bikers, and the few intrepid souls who will no doubt undertake the challenge on gravel bikes, nearly did not get the chance to do so in 2020. “We were fortunate in that we are still a relatively small event, only going into our second year”, race founder, George Stroebel Junior confessed. “But having seen how the other events in the 100-Miler Series did, in terms of entries and the speed at which entries came in, we are obviously disappointed that we couldn’t ride that wave of gravel racing enthusiasm from the South African public. Still, unlike Around the Pot and Trans Elands we are able to host and event in 2020. So, there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud.”

With Cycling South Africa having fought the case for cycling events to host races, where the total number of riders and crew members do not exceed 300 people, 2020 Maloti 100 is able to go ahead. “The numbers for the second edition of the Maloti 100 are below that limit and understandably so” Stroebel elaborated. “While entries for the race were open for a while, I think the uncertainty of the global and national situation made it nearly impossible for people to enter. That tied in with the lack of long, outdoor, training rides in April and May have made people hesitant to take on the significant challenge that is the Maloti 100-Miler.”

Relatively small entry numbers make hosting the Maloti 100 possible in 2020.

“While our numbers are roughly the same as in the inaugural year, we do have a few big names lining up for 2020” Stroebel hinted. “I can’t reveal who they are yet but we’re very excited at the level of racing they will bring to this year’s event.”

Stroebel would not have been able to host the Maloti 100 if it were not for the local municipalities and the communities of Barkley East, Rhodes and Maclear. “The municipalities have really helped us out in a big way” he confirmed. “They’re eager to get tourism kick-started. That in addition to the fact that we’re riding through rural areas which are far from any hotspots makes it possible to stage the race. We will however be doing everything possible to ensure that the race doesn’t bring Covid-19 into the area. To do so we’ll be relying upon each rider to act responsibly, not travel if they are showing any symptoms and to adhere to the government regulations; regarding masks, hand washing and social distancing.”

The hamlet of Rhodes is one of the highlights of the Maloti 100 route.

“Eastern Cape Cycling have been exceptionally helpful too” Stroebel continued. “They’ve helped with the paper work every step of the way and even offered to promote the event. I think they, like most people in the cycling industry, are eager to get races back up and running again.”

“The community is also super excited by the prospect of hosting the race” he added. “We have so many water point volunteers and unlike last year, when we shared Barkley with the South African Fly-Fishing Championships, we have the town to ourselves this year. That means there are more accommodation options for the riders to choose from too.”

There is more good news for riders of this year’s race. “The road surfaces are looking a lot better this year” Stroebel highlighted. “A lot of work has been done on the roads recently and it looks like there will be quite a number of riders taking part on gravel bikes. By the sounds of it the hard-core guys are keen to bring their gravel bikes and race it flat-out.”

There will by all accounts be a few more riders taking on the route on gravel bikes in 2020.

“Naude’s Nek is a beautiful area and the veld is looking fantastic this year” Stroebel enthused. “The snowmelt has been good for the rivers and as I said, the roads are in a better condition than they were last year. We did a bikepacking trip along the route a month ago and after that recce ride, I can confirm that the times should be faster this year. Of course; it depends on the weather, on race day, but I expect it to be easier rolling.”

“We’re also adding a more water points for this year’s race, because the advanced weather prediction is for warm weather” Stroebel promised. “The Naude family, whose fore-fathers built the pass, are hosting a water point at the summit of Naude’s Nek. We’ll have selfie photo frames up there, for riders to claim their conquering of the climb, and will be creating a lekker vibe.”

Selfie frames will help riders stopping atop Naude’s Nek Pass to celebrate conquering the climb.

“The plan is to help as many riders as possible finish ahead of the cut-off, which is at 21:00 in Maclear” he pointed out. “For the riders who haven’t ridden it before, they may think they know what to expect; but they could be in for a rude awakening. While those that rode last year will undoubtedly be better prepared than they were first time out.”

“I’d warn riders not to start too fast, obviously” Stroebel advised. “The climb to 2 596 meters above sea level, at the summit of Naude’s Nek is the main challenge of the route. But riders will do well not to underestimate the Pot River Pass. Located just inside the final 30 kilometres it is relatively steep, at 6%, and a tough slog on exhausted legs. Fortunately, from the summit of the Pot River Pass it’s largely downhill, barring some rolling hills to the finish in Maclear.”

Don’t underestimate the other climbs, it’s not just Naude’s Nek which makes the Maloti 100 tough.

“We’re looking forward to hosting the 2020 entrants on the 26th of September” he concluded. “And following what we trust will be a successful event we’re looking ahead to 2021 already too. The 100-Miler Series didn’t get a chance to really get going this year, because of Covid, but we’re sure it is going to attract big numbers next year and we’re all looking forward to the Maloti 100 Miler being the bad boy of the group. The toughest race that riders really measure themselves by.”

2020 Maloti 100 Advice

If you are taking on the Maloti 100 for the first time you can find out more about the race on the official race website: For a personal reflection on the 2019 race, which Seamus Allardice rode on a Canyon Grail CF SLX 8.0 Di2, click here. Further insights can be gleaned from Jason Peach’s winning effort on Strava.

George Stroebel Junior (left), on his bikepacking trip along the Maloti 100 route.