Tip of Africa 600km, Stellenbosch 6th December 2014
(Paris-Brest-Paris 2015 qualifier)
by Rob Walker
It’s rather apt that the traditional ride report format starts with observations about the weather. As if the challenge of 600 kilometers weren’t enough, the final Cape Audax of 2014 had altogether too much weather of one particular kind – WIND! The first blasts started in the dogleg corners of the climb over Bains Kloof, at which point most riders were probably hoping the wind would calm down once over the top. It didn’t – in fact it was almost as troublesome on the descent as on the climb. Aside from a brief reprieve through Slanghoek, and coming back from McGregor, most of the 340km of the first leg was spent battling either a head wind or a cross wind. It was energy and time sapping stuff, and coupled with some especially evil rollers on the stretch from Bonnievale to Bredasdorp, the conditions robbed the majority of the field of any chance of meaningful sleep at L’Aghulas.
Thankfully the wind stayed ESE for the second leg, and the tail winds home were a great relief on both legs and spirit, not to mention average speed. The heat picked up across the middle and late afternoon of both days too, peaking in the mid to upper 30s. Most seemed to manage this aspect well though, several riders were seen dousing themselves under lawn sprinklers in Robertson, and regular ice cream stops were an even more popular strategy.
Routing worked well in general. The section of R44 through Wellington is much improved now the resurfacing is almost complete. The descent from Bains Kloof on the Ceres side was altogether less pleasant though than the reverse direction used on the October 300km – rough and bumpy for the whole route down. The Slanghoek section is just as scenic in reverse, and the R60 to Robertson although busy with traffic was not unpleasant due to the wide safety lane. Parts of the surface up to McGregor are rather broken, but traffic was generally light – a few vehicles did pass rather close and fast though.
The stretch out of Robertson towards Bonnievale is ridiculously picturesque – lined with numerous colours and types of flowering trees and plants. Even in the heat and wind it was delightful. The road surface once approaching Bonnievale though was very poor – horizontal gaps across the tar every few meters, some with significant sized holes that could easily cause a puncture or damage a wheel. Care and attention were needed for at least a couple of kilometers through the town.
And on leaving Bonnievale we come to the Overberg – which by rights, could really do with an entire report of its own. Starting with the positives, the Stop/Go section just after Bonnievale was not too bad, as had been confirmed for us a few weeks earlier by DC crews. The two climbs beyond were a bit of a test, but rewarded by a wonderful if slightly narrow descent to Stormsvlei.
And then the trouble started in earnest – it’s really better not to look across to the other side of the N2 at the sight of the R317 crawling up the first monstrous roller. And it is definitely not a good idea to look at the sign a few kilometers further on indicating Bredasdorp 50km. Because, almost all of that distance apart from the last stretch at the end is one long succession of big rollers. It’s hard to say how these would have been on a still day, but in the wind they were simply brutal. Some riders manage to push straight through to Aghulas once these had been overcome, but quite a few took refuge in the Bredasdorp Spur to stock up on fuel and regain their sanity.
The stretch down to Aghulas and back was very pleasant – slightly downhill on the way to the foot of the continent, and coming back the slight uphill being cancelled by the wind now more behind than across. Aghulas certainly made a great and very welcome resting spot in between. Huge thanks go to Nico Coetzee and his family for their hospitality and generosity, the pasta, beer, and coffee were particularly enjoyed.
Once back at Bredasdorp the rollers start again towards Napier and beyond. Fortunately with a tail wind they were far less punishing. The Akkedisberg Pass and its surrounding scenery is a real delight after the rolling Overberg pastures. Once across the pass, Stanford provided a welcome breakfast stop for some. Others chose to push on to Hermanus/Onrus before stopping to eat. The 20km section of road between these two was perhaps one of the worst in terms of narrowness and weight/speed of traffic.
The coast road back to Gordon’s Bay was always going to be one of the most scenic parts of the whole ride, during the middle of the day on Sunday though it was rather busy traffic wise. Although the majority has no safety lane, it is at least wide enough that most vehicles seemed to give plenty of room. For the tail group, the most dangerous section of the whole ride came in Strand itself along Beach Road. Choked with too many beach-seeking day trippers, there were numerous close calls with drivers looking for parking spaces rather than paying attention to where they were going. Depending on time of day, this section may be better avoided in favour of riding along the R44 and Broadway on future rides.
On a couple of occasions a number of riders were heard to comment on the sadist who had planned the route. Throwing in two extra hills to a final control 10km from the finish did nothing to lessen these voices. The proper Audax terminology for the ride would probably be ‘rather lumpy’. What can we say – if was too easy where would be the sense of satisfaction ;)
In general controls worked pretty well. The stretch from Bonnievale to Bredasdorp felt very long in terms of time because of the slower speed into the wind and hills. There is no obvious extra control that could be added along this stretch though. Future riders should definitely pack extra water and snacks on leaving Bonnievale. If the padstal in Stormsvlei is open it’s pretty much the last refuge, so may also be worth visiting. At least Bredasdorp at the end of this section has several places open in the evening to eat and restock. Only two riders were in time to get daylight selfies at Aghulas, the rest of the riders using the accommodation at nearby Stormsee as control instead. On the return leg, the Engen garage in the middle of Bredasdorp was open and welcoming at 3:30am, and after this every control had at least one or more options available.
The distance came out to 609.7km measured by GPS on the road, about 4km over calculations but pretty much spot on for what is needed. Peter Müller stepped in to drive safety car as far as McGregor, being unable to ride the event. The roadside control he laid on just outside Rawsonville was clearly inspired by Hendrik Vermaak’s excellent controls on the 400km. Peter had a whole spread of coffee, teas, snacks and even camp chairs waiting to greet riders as they arrived. Awesome stuff.
Henri Meier had been tracking our ride by SMS, and joined us to drive safety on his motorbike from just before Stormsvlei through until Bredasdorp. His was a very welcome and friendly face along this stretch, and his photos captured nicely the grimaces of riders battling the onslaught. Needless to say, riders chipped in to cover his portion of the supper bill at Spur, although this small token wasn’t really enough to say thanks for coming out and keeping a watching eye over us.
You know you’re in the company of the truly committed or truly insane when 11 riders, the biggest turnout of the series, ignore the forecast of strong winds and pitch up to ride anyway. Of these, 3 riders had picked this particular event as their first Audax experience. Two of the new Randonneurs had previous maximum distances of around 200km, and the third had clearly lost all sense and reason and chosen a full suspension mountain bike for this all-weekend endurance marathon.
Admiration is the only possible word to describe these brave newcomers, especially as they not only finished inside the prescribed 40 hour limit, but were barely heard to be moaning any more than the rest of the field by the end. Emmerentia Jacobs summed the ride up as possibly the toughest Audax she’s ever done, which as a past finisher of both PBP and LEL, certainly is saying something. Despite the tougher than expected route and weather though, 10 out of 11 riders finished, the only DNF being due to a bad stomach and not the arduous conditions.
It would be wrong though to focus solely on how challenging the brevet was – after all no one embarks on a 600km ride expecting it to be easy. In between the weather and the hills was a truly stunning ride, which took in some of the best scenery The Cape has to offer – spectacular mountain passes, vineyard clad valleys, a quaint Dorpie still retaining some character from centuries gone by, and winding dramatic rock strewn coastline.
There’s no doubt the 2015 600km could be made somewhat easier on its participants, but not without sacrificing a significant chunk of the adventure and magic.