South Africa’s oldest mountain bike stage race, To Hell and Back, celebrates its 29th edition this year. On the 11th of November 2023 riders will race up the Swartberg Pass and down the road to hell. Then on the 12th they will turn around and climb back out of Gamkaskloof along a route which is now 15 kilometres longer than it was way back in 1995…
Not because the road has miraculously grown in the nearly 30 years since the inaugural event. Rather the race village has moved deeper into Die Hel, showcasing the wild beauty of the kloof which inspired fiction. “We always believed Adam and Eve must have lived down here. I mean, before God got angry with them,” André Brink wrote of Die Hel in his Devil’s Valley novel.
It’s hard to argue with that assessment, when the weather is mild and benign. It seldom remains that way for long deep in the heart of the Swartberg however. The winters are icy cold. The summers are swelteringly hot. Wild swings in the weather make it a challenging place to live and to race mountain bikes. During the 28 previous editions of To Hell and Back event organisers EcoBound and the riders who take part frequently have experienced some pretty extreme conditions.
There have been editions held in pouring rain, in 40 degree heat waves and, once, it even snowed on the road to hell, while riders traversed the undulating road to the west. Recent years have been more trying however. “We’ve had devastating fires in the kloof, Covid and storms over the last couple of years,” race director Zane Schmahl noted. “Currently the road is probably the worst it has been in many, many, years – after this winter’s flooding – so it will be another logistically tricky edition. That being said, the challenges of hosting To Hell and Back are part of what we at EcoBound look forward to most. You can’t bring people to truly remote places and expect it to be easy!”
“For the first time ever, we will be taking riders all the way down to the western end of Gamkaskloof,” Schmahl stated. “The race village is now located at the lush oasis which is the Boplaas Private Farm, at the far end of the kloof. This means the stages are each 15 kilometres longer, up from 60 kilometres to 75. But the riding is more rewarding too, the western parts of Gamkaskloof was spared from the fires a few years ago and are beautifully green. The race now crosses the low-water bridge over the Gamaka River and the new campsite’s proximity to the river means more space to relax, a forest of trees to hide from the harsh sun under and cool pools to plunge into.”
“Stage 2 will also now boast a bit of a warm-up before the infamous Elands Pass ascent,” Schmahl laughed. “The gradual climb from Boplaas to the foot of Elands Pass will help get your legs going again after over-indulging in the beers on Saturday night.”
Along with a more luxurious race village, even for those camping in standard rather than luxury tents, the 2023 edition will also feature catering by Carmen Schmahl’s Trail Kiosk. SPUR Steak Ranches will also be continuing their long-standing partnership with To Hell and Back by supplying pre- and post-event burgers to each rider from the De Hoek Mountain Resort start and finish venue. Apparel partners CIOVITA have created another stunning race t-shirt and will be hosting a small pop-up shop at registration.
Entries to the 29th edition of South Africa’s oldest stage race close on 31 October 2023. To enter visit www.tohellandback.co.za. To share in the excitement in the build-up to the race follow @ridetohellandback on Instagram or like the To Hell and Back Facebook page.