Routes to ride: The Winelands’ four passes

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The Winelands’ four passes are a fine collection of mountain passes, that beg to be linked into a big weekend ride. (Photo: Ashley Oldfield)
The Winelands’ four passes are a fine collection of mountain passes, that beg to be linked into a big weekend ride. (Photo: Ashley Oldfield)
  • One of South Africa’s most scenic and challenging road riding routes.
  • Prepare for 130km and nearly 2000m of elevation.
  • It can be a brutally hot ride in summer.


If you are seeking a bucket list road ride to complete in the Western Cape, then the four passes ride is certainly one you’ll want to tick off. It takes in some of the province’s best scenery, roads and longest climbs. 

Traditionally the route starts in Stellenbosch and heads out in an anti-clockwise direction, but it can be done clockwise as well. Ideally, you would want to get Sir Lowry’s pass done as early as possible due to the high winds later in the day. Heavier traffic flows can also make things tricky on the narrow descent without a yellow lane for comfort.

Heading out of Stellenbosch, you will ride in a south-easterly direction towards Somerset West. Try and take it easy, warming-up those legs as there will be plenty of time later to test your resolve on the climbs to come. 

Using the calmer backroads

Rather than connecting with the N2 and fighting the hustle of cars and pedestrians, take an earlier turn on the Old Sir Lowry’s Pass Road. This is a much quieter road and runs parallel to the N2. It is more scenic too with tree-lined roads and views of the mountains on your left. Carry on with this road as it crosses the railway line and connects with the modern Sir Lowry’s Pass road/N2. 

A quick skip over the traffic barrier and your first pass of the day awaits: 3.88km and 265m of ascent, at an average gradient of 6.8%. After cresting the Sir Lowry’s climb you roll along the N2 for about 7km before turning off at the Orchard Farm Stall and navigating through the town of Grabouw. Shortly after the town, you make another left and begin the trek towards Viljoen’s pass. This is the easiest pass on route and flies by as you meander through the MTO forests and natural fynbos covered mountains. 

As the pass comes to an end you are met with a tricky hairpin bend on the descent. There is a generous allocation of of run-off area if you need to use it, but it has certainly caught its fair share of riders and drivers out.

From the base of Viljoen’s pass an undulating section of road rolls you to Theewaterskloof dam. A few years ago, during the Cape drought, this part of the ride could be crushingly depressing, but great rainfall over the last two years has meant the dam is now full, even towards the end of summer.

Be cautious on your approach to the turn-off for Franschhoek Pass. Beware of the bridge gap connection points, as they are big enough to drop a road tyre into. 

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Cycling
Prepare for 130km and nearly 2000m of elevation. (Photo: Ashley Oldfield)
Cycling
If you are seeking a bucket list road ride to complete in the Western Cape, then the four passes ride is certainly one you’ll want to tick off. (Photo: Ashley Oldfield)

Number three is the biggie 

After crossing the Theewaterskloof dam, you’ll turn left to Franschhoek and be humbled by the sight of those big mountains, looming in the distance. This part of the four passes ride can often also be the hottest. In summer it can be scorching, and you don’t want to be stuck on the 10km long climb, which totals 420m of ascent, riding with empty bottles. 

If you have used all your water on this climb, there is a freshwater dispensary if you need, a short distance of after the peak – and it pours straight out of the mountain. It also happens to be some of the freshest and cleanest water you are likely to get in the Western Cape.

Franschhoek is the ideal refueling stop if you are running on schedule, with its main road listing a multitude of coffee shops that cater to cyclists.

After exiting South Africa’s most Francophone town, you ride on flat roads for 14km before the final pass of the day. The aptly named Helshoogte pass rises gradually from the town of Pniel before kicking up steeply as you head out of neighbouring Kylemore. The whole pass is 8.5km at 190m of elevation, but the steeper section accounts for 2km and 109m of climbing.

Helshoogte guides you back into Stellenbosch having completed 130km and very nearly 2000m of climbing. Before embarking on the four passes ride, make sure you pack plenty to eat, carry an adequate volume of hydration and remember the sunscreen. 

The four passes ride demands a very early start, but it is one of the world’s great road rides and inarguably worth the sacrifice. 

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