One of the coolest things about living in a developing country is having endless kilometers of dirt/gravel roads—and that is what we have in abundance In South Africa. Endless kilometers of dirt roads, amazingly beautiful ones, particularly in the Western Cape.
Nestled deep among these dirt roads is the beautiful old town of Montagu, the home of Eroica South Africa. Montagu is a charming little place, filled with historical Cape Dutch buildings, it’s surrounded by large, warped, rocky cliffs and vineyards, and just beyond these winefarms lies the Karoo Desert.
My good friend / business partner / strava nemesis Carl and I had been waiting for Eroica to roll around for a long time. We are big fans of all races put on by the Eroica South Africa Race Director Stan Englebrecht. Stan used to put on a vintage six-day gravel stage race completed on vintage steel bicycles through the Karoo Desert, The Tour of Ara. This guy knows the Cape's gravel roads better than anyone; he also knows how to organize a freaking cool event. So to say that we were really looking forward to it, is to say nothing.
Carl and I had been itching to go on a bikepacking trip for a while, and the +/-250 km trip from Cape Town to Montagu seemed like the perfect opportunity to load up the old steeds and hit the road. We decided to take it chill with a three-day ride from Cape town to Montagu.
The plan was to ride to a campsite in Bainskloof mountain pass, chill there for a day, do some hiking and swimming and then continue onto Montagu on day three. We would ride our vintage, South African built, steel frames—Carl on his Peter Allen and me on my Hansom. Both bikes had already clocked in many miles on South African gravel roads and were to be trusted.
Cape Town to Bainskloof.
Carl and I are pretty inexperienced when it comes to bikepacking, and by "pretty inexperienced" I mean this was going to be our first bikepacking trip. I was planning on borrowing a friend's fancy bikepacking bags, but Carl beat me to it. So I ended up just strapping all my stuff onto my bike with a mix of bunjee cords, shoe laces and cable ties. It was a pretty dodgey looking setup, but somehow everything managed to stay put. Success!
We were ready to hit the road. Getting out of Cape Town was like getting out of most big cities: city, suburbs, industrial area, more suburbs...beautiful open roads. This part of the country has some really beautiful old roads. This is largely thanks to legendary road builders Andrew Gedes Bain and his son Thomas Bain. Cheers, guys.
One of Bain's most famous passes is Bainskloof. Built in the 1850's, it's around 20km long, a windy old mountain pass that links Wellington to Ceres. The Bainskloof region is pretty breathtaking as the road winds up along the side of a mountain through pockets of forest, then descends into a rocky river gorge. We filled up our bottles with fresh spring water running off some rocks at the top of the climb and then cruised down on the super scenic descent to the campsite. We ended up getting there around 5pm.
The place was completely deserted as it was off season and midweek. The only other person there was the extremely bored guy at the reception who checked us in. He told us where we could set up our tent and warned us about the thieving baboons.
We ended up in an enclosed camping spot with a private bathroom and cooking area, there was a wooden platform for our tent. It was a little more comfortable than we were anticipating, stripping us of a possibility to look like those cool hardcore bikepacking guys you see on the internet, but we were both just stoked to be out there.
There wasn't any electricity or mobile signal in the valley.
We started the morning off with a ride down to an idyllic little spot on the side of the river, found a suitable boulder to chill on, whipped out the old moka pot and made some coffee. The place was teeming with nature—birds singing songs, fish and frogs darting around in the water.
After returning to the campsite for breakfast, we realized almost instantly that we had packed nowhere near enough food. Like I mentioned earlier, we were complete rookies when it came to bikepacking. We rationed out our remaining food, a mix of instant noodles, nuts and biltong (South African beef jerky) and spent the rest of the day swimming in the river and hiking up to a waterfall.
It was a good day off the bike, we got to soak up some solid nature, after a run-in with a troop of baboons and a close encounter with a bright, unidentified snake, we decided to head back to our empty campsite.
We spent a good two hours stargazing that night—it's incredibly clear out there.
We packed up our stuff and headed east for Montagu. The morning ride out of Bainskloof and into the valley was perfect: a gentle tailwind, clear roads and the freshest air you will ever inhale.
Before leaving Cape Town, we organised a rendezvous with some friends who were driving up to Eroica from Cape Town. We met up with them at an olive farm after about 25km of riding. They took all our camping/bike packing stuff in their car so we could travel light over the gravel roads on our old steel racers. We were expecting pretty bad bumps and corrugation, but the dirt roads we found were way better than we had imagined—a mix of super smooth red and white gravel that wound its way through wine and olive farms along the base of the Langeberg mountain range.
It must've been a combination of feeling free from all of our bags, the smooth hard gravel and still being hyped after watching the Strada Bianche the week before as we ended up racing each other the whole way to Montagu.
We arrived caked in dried sweat and dust. The Eroica registration was in a courtyard in the middle of an old brandy distillery that had been converted into a museum/gallery. The place was already buzzing with riders and their vintage bikes. Cyclists were doing the rounds inspecting and admiring everyone else's bikes. There were some real old beauts out there.
The quiet town of Montagu had turned into a little bike village. That night, the handful of local restaurants were filled with excited riders, and clusters of bikes were parked all along the walls of each establishment..
We got down to the start with enough time to check out some of the other bikes and vintage kits before the race briefing. There were three classic routes: 45km, 90km and 135km.
We decided to go for the 90km ride (aka the Kogman, aka the party route). Friends that had done both before advised that we do the 90km one as you can take your time on the road and at the food stops.
We set off at 8:30am. There were about 2km of tar before the gravel roads took us into the winelands. About 20km in, we came up to the first food stop. It was setup at another old brandy distillery. The vibe at the stop was really cool—riders were relaxing on the grass, taking in the sun and fresh air, the brandy was flowing and the bacon+egg roosterbroods were delicious. Roosterbrood is a local bread that is cooked over a grill in a braai (South African BBQ).
The 90km route was made up of two separate 45km loops out of Montagu. After completing the first 45km loop and heading back out of town it quickly became evident that the second loop would be way harder than the first. The first section of gravel was rocky with lots of corrugation, and it was hard to find a line. The temperature was also out of control—a proper scorcher. The field had broken up, and we were riding in a loose group of about six.
We ran out of water almost instantly, but we knew there was a little oasis of a food stop about 10 kilometers away with a small farm dam we could swim in. I have ridden in pretty terrible conditions before, but this had to have been my hottest day on the bike. There was a horrible roughly 5km climb that completely finished us. Eyes were stinging from the sweat, arms were getting roasted and my body was overheating.
Finally, at the bottom of a long bumpy descent (that we would later have to climb again) we made it to the food stop. The stop was basically an old VW van with a patchy assortment of tarps and umbrellas. The VW was perched on a bank next to the small farm dam. There were clusters of riders gathered in the small amounts of available shade with a few taking a dip in the dam. I headed straight for the dam, jumped in and cooled off instantly.
The refreshments at this stop hit the spot. The old VW was fully loaded with a solid selection of ice cold drinks. Tannie Poppie (Aunty Poppy), famous in these parts for her roosterbrood, was also on the scene serving up some delicious bread with a selection of delicious local jams and cheeses.
We ended up chilling at this stop for a few hours. The idea was to wait for it to get a bit cooler before we would have to get back onto that gravelly frying pan of a road. We had just over 20km to go.
On the way back, we passed a few exhausted looking Nova riders heading in the opposite direction to the food stop with the dam we had just been to. The first thing all of them asked was "How far to the waterpoint!?" One dude nearly started crying when I responded "ummmmm, about 3km..?" I gave him the rest of my water and encouraged him to push on. He didn't.
Most of the Nova riders didn't complete the 145km route due to the brutal heat, but also Stan, the race director, is a bit of a sadist when it comes to plotting these routes out.
The ride back to the finish was slow and enjoyable. It had cooled down a bit and there was a nice tailwind taking us back. At the finish, the courtyard was filled with pockets of exhausted but happy finishers drinking wine and sharing stories from the ride. Riders continued to trickle through the finish throughout the afternoon. Each time someone came in, they were greeted with a round of applause.
The dinner that evening was the perfect ending to a great event. We were treated to a three-course Italian dinner that went down extremely well. We spent the rest of the night drinking local wine, making new friends and talking about bikes.
Definitely looking forward to the next one.