- Franschoek to Hermanus in a day? That’s guaranteed to be a very picturesque ride
- The Race To The Sea organisers delivered an event with terrific riding and catering
- If you want to get that first ‘100-miler’ done, this is a great way to do it
It was third time lucky for the Race To The Sea organisers, and from a rider’s perspective, this 100-mile gravel event was well worth the wait.
After being cancelled on three previous occasions – a rock fall across Franschhoek Pass in 2019, and twice for Covid in 2020 and early 2021 – the inaugural King PriceRace To The Sea saw riders finally rolling off the start line from Franschhoek’s Huguenot Monument on 4 September.
It was a now-familiar start format with nobody hanging about in pens (besides the small group seeded elite riders). Your batch was allocated a 10-minute time slot between 7:00 and 8:00, and you could start at any time during that slot.
A big day out
The 164km journey to Hermanus kicked off with a 7km climb up the Franschhoek Pass – not ideal for cold legs made even chillier by early spring dawn temperatures.
From the town side, the pass isn’t as intimidating as you may think. The initial drag up past the Haute Cabriere wine estate is probably the steepest bit, but once around the first big left-hand hairpin, it flattens out more. I was riding with my brother Gavin – it was Smith The Younger’s first-ever 100-miler, so our conservative approach meant tackling the climb at a gentle pace to get some heat into our legs.
I had also learned something from the very first time I took him mountain biking. It must’ve been 15 years ago, and I made that fundamental error of taking a rookie on too technical a ride. Cajoling him into tackling a pretty hairy drop-off, unfortunately, ended in a cloud of dust, the loss of a few centimetres of skin and a large amount of trust in both the sport and his brother. It took ten years before he rode a bike again.
Into the yellow Overberg
From the top of the pass, we descended and followed the joyfully full Theewaterskloof dam before turning right on the R321 and then leaving off the tar and onto some gravel for the first time. This, the Van Der Stel Pass road, is one of Cape Town’s dirt-road gems, meandering through a lush green valley and ending in Bot River.
From there, the organisers had secured access through the Beaumont Family Wines estate, where we followed the railway service road toward Caledon. I’d ridden much of this section before on a bike-packing trip from Grabouw to Greyton and if you’re sceptical about riding on a service road, don’t be.
Save for the odd muddy patch, the tracks were smooth. At this time of the year, you’ll be treated to beautiful Overberg vistas of green wheatfields and swathes of bright yellow canola.
Waterpoints so good - you don't want to leave
The halfway mark was waterpoint three, at Wolwekraal farm outside of Caledon. We were greeted by a very enthusiastic and friendly crew with plenty of varied and delicious food on offer. My bike was kindly hosed clean of the mud and lubed while I helped myself to a few savoury pancakes and some small cheese-and-jam vetkoek.
Like many of our fellow entrants, we hung about there for a while to catch our breath, and revel in what has been a very rare occurrence over the last 18 pandemic-flavoured months: an actual cycling event.
Leaving Caledon, we turned east to the small village of Bovenplaats, before looping back to the R320 through the ever spectacular Hemel-en-Aarde valley down toward the coast. Among the wine estates we pedalled past was Ataraxia - do yourself a favour and try their Serenity red, that’s a top tip right there.
Grinding to the finish
With a cold Cape winter wind blowing in our faces and fatigue starting to set in, the last 50km required a steady, manageable pace and some brotherly banter to get through. But get through it we did, crossing the finish Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine Estate outside of Hermanus in a bit more than 8 hours, ending up midway through the pack in a time about double that of winner Matt Beers.
Matt was on a mountain bike – as I estimate half the field was – but the route was more suited to a gravel bike. Much of it was smooth gravel, some tar, and a few sections of singletrack that were very easily manageable without the need for suspension. Matt’s win speaks more to his talent than his choice of steed and I’ve no doubt his winning margin of 20 minutes, would have at least been double that in a gravel machine.
Finishing some four hours later than Matt on a Storck GRIX Pro gravel bike, also speaks more to my talent than the choice of bike, though with a decidedly different emphasis. On this point of choice, I’m beginning to think bigger volume rubber on 650b wheels is the real gravel sweet spot.
Go gravel bike, with big tyres
Like more and more gravel frames these days, the Storck has clearance for big-volume 2.1-inch wide mountain bike tyres on 650b wheels, allowing for plenty of grip and just the right amount of cushioning.
And for the riding I’m doing on a gravel bike – bike packing and mountain bike trails – I’m enjoying the comfort and extra grip bigger volume rubber offers.
I was very excited to be doing an event again. My last one was Eroica 2020 – the last event held in South Africa before Covid threw a grenade over its shoulder and walked out the room. To be part of that unique vibe that humans generate when they’re collectively doing something they all love, is always pretty special.
Should you do it?
I was always going to enjoy the Race To The Sea, but despite that bias, I can hand-on-heart recommend you pencil this in on your calendar for 2022.
It was well organised – from the entry mechanism to managing Covid requirements at the start and finish. The water points were fantastic, with a huge variety of sweet, savoury and fresh options. And, above all, the route was brilliant – varied, scenic and just the right amount of challenging.
Hit that trifecta, and you’ve got yourself a winner that makes the solo entry fee of R1 150 (or R1 500 per team of two) well worth it. Yes, you can choose to bleed from the lungs if you race the 164 km, but if you’re out for a bit of a challenge at a manageable pace, then you’re going to love this.