When you are told to “choose your weapon” carefully when entering the Swartberg100 Gran Fondo, you know you’re in for a special challenge.
The third edition of South Africa’s premier gravel Gran Fondo, which takes place on April 27 from the Karoo town of Prince Albert, draws on two different race cultures.
The first is that of the grungy gravel-grinder events in the United States – think the Dirty Kanza, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, Michigan Mountain Mayhem and Barry Roubaix.
Then there are the European Spring Classic races such as the Strade Bianche and Paris Roubaix with their cobbled and gravel sectors – with the Swartberg100 taking place during the height of these in Africa’s autumn.
Loosely translated from Italian, the term Gran Fondo means “big ride” or “big challenge” and these events always involve long distances with tough climbs and difficult terrain that includes cobblestones or gravel sectors.
The Swartberg100 starts and ends in Prince Albert, arguably one of the most attractive towns in South Africa. It covers 171km, including three large gravel sectors.
The final climb is over the untarred Swartberg Pass, a relentless ascent of 28km. The final 9.8km are on gravel with gradients of 16 per cent in places.
The route is spectacular and takes riders through the Prince Albert Valley, the northern foothills of the Swartberg, Meiringspoort (a narrow defile that cuts through the mountains) and the southern foothills of the Swartberg as it doubles back towards the Cango Caves and finally the epic Swartberg Pass.
In true South African tradition, the Swartberg100 is one of the toughest Gran Fondos in the world. The organisers have created a course that goes back to the days of old when mountain passes were gravel and brave cyclists climbed them on single-speed bikes weighing in at 16kg.
It is a course that allows riders to pit their modern training knowledge and technology against an old foe – a road surface that isn’t always friendly.
Shorter race options
Prince Albert is relatively remote and has become a long weekend destination for race participants. The organisers therefore lay on a few shorter races for family members and spouses.
The Staffetta – Italian for relay – follows the route of the Gran Fondo and is divided into the Rouleur and the Grimpeur sectors.
Rouleurs are riders who go well on flat and rolling terrain and the stretch to the town of De Rust – exactly halfway on the Gran Fondo route – will suit them.
With ascents of the Oudemuragie and Swartberg Pass climbs, the second half of the route is for Grimpeurs, otherwise known as climbing specialists.
Riders will “pass the baton” at a specified, marshalled point in De Rust.
The 55km Medio Fondo is a Great Karoo experience. Riders head towards the east of Prince Albert on a combination of gravel roads and remote farm tracks.
They re-enter the town for a little exploration and then head west on a gently downward sloping and remote gravel road with spectacular views of the Swartberg mountain range and Groot Karoo basin.
At 29km they pause for a water stop before turning left onto Vrisgewaagd farm, where large-scale farming in almost desert-like conditions can be witnessed.
The farm route takes riders back into the Swartberg foothills where it connects with the Weltevrede road, which meanders back into town through some stunning scenery.
There is another water stop at the 43km mark before riders finish 11.5km further down the road.
The 65km E-Fondo incorporates Swartberg Pass and, with 1 900m of spectacular climbing, provides a great challenge for e-bike riders.
If you race it, you will need to conserve battery power and plan your tactics well. Otherwise, just ride it and enjoy the scenery in a safe environment with medics, marshals and water points to help you on your way.
Due to the increased interest and expected turnout the organisers have provided more than 300 luxury and standard tents in the race village for riders and their families.
This content was sponsored by MTB Africa.