IN ASSOCIATION WITH VOLVO – ADIDAS – TOMTOM – THULE
The colossal mountains that border the small town of Grabouw are known to strike fear into the legs of mountain bikers from all over the world. Groenlandberg and Nuweberg are two such peaks – riders of the Absa Cape Epic will know them well; but today, we’re headed to a lesser-known but equally difficult climb: Hans se Kop.
Hans se Kop is the only accessible summit in the Western Cape that provides 360-degree vistas of the greater Cape Town area and the Overberg region. The views from the top are unlike anything you’ve ever seen in this country, and it could easily pass for one of the monolithic Hors catégorie climbs of the Tour de France. Again, Europe springs to mind – is this France? Or Switzerland? The distant view of Table Mountain reaffirms that in actual fact, we’re in Africa.
Joining me today is Lance Stephenson. I’ve known Lance for years. We first met when I was a student, helping with deliveries at Omnico (Importers of various bike brands and parts). Lance was a pro mountain biker for the GT Team at the time, and we quickly became friends, partly due to our shared (and twisted) sense of humour. He’s done it all – including running the highly successful Epic Bike Shop, before deciding to take up coaching for Daisyway Coaching Systems. He’s also a trail guide. There isn’t anyone more at home in this region than Mr Stephenson himself; he knows every rock, stone and bush. And rightfully so – this his back yard and his playground, after all. This morning we’re headed for an amazing adventure that will take in more than 1000m of vertical gain, before dropping into the singletrack network of the A-Z trails.
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Hans se Kop has to be one of the Cape’s best-kept secrets. A lot of riders reckon the Tokai Mast climb is one of the toughest and most rewarding ascents in the country, but I beg to differ. There are many variables that make Hans tougher – such as the extreme fluctuations in temperature and wind velocity. Today the weatherman has predicted a maximum of 33°C, but right now it’s freezing outside. Well; for me, that is – Lance doesn’t look the least bit perturbed. His Game of Thrones-like appearance, complete with flowing locks and rugged beard, is obviously geared to these conditions: it’s 6°C and the chill from the thick blanket of mist rolling through the valley is quite… intense. But our lensman Desmond Louw is ready to roll, and we’ll soon meet the warmth of the sun. I hope.
The singletrack that leads to the start of the climb was once covered in pine trees, but all that remains is a lunar-like landscape. The scent of pine needles that once filled the air is long gone, replaced instead by the thick aroma of charred bush and tree stumps – the aftermath of a fire that rampaged through the region just a few months ago. While the pine trees were never going to be here forever (they were due for harvesting, after all), they added a sense of drama to the singletrack fun. But despite the desolation, the landscape remains majestic, offset by grey soil and blackened vegetation. A dirt road climb quickly becomes tarmac, a harbinger of the steepness that awaits us. It’s not just any tarmac, however – the billiard-smooth surface lures you into putting down more power, and prematurely exhausting your energy reserves. I’m riding the new Specialized Camber Comp trail bike. Not your typical climber’s bike, but what it lacks in lightness it makes up for in trail-slaying finesse – the slack head angle and dropper post should provide a treat a little later, when we hit the downhill sections. Desmond’s Levo is humming like a swarm of bees, and we’re all smiling at the lack of pedal assistance this electric beast requires to propel itself up a gradient; it’s incredible. But ol’ Des needs it, with all the equipment he’s lugging about.
The Hans se Kop climb spirals up the mountain before switching back on itself a couple times, all the while kicking up in gradient the closer you get to the summit. Coming in at a length of 6.2km, it’s not the longest climb around; but the average 10 per cent gradient rises 619m, taking you to a maximum altitude of 1151m. Once at the top Lance points out the damage inflicted by the recent fires, stretching from Lourensford to the far corners of Grabouw. Hans would have been forced to watch the carnage, unable to help, as the flames obliterated everything in their path. But what the region has lost in vegetation (most of which was alien) it will now gain in natural fynbos.
“Hans se Kop isn’t just a climb; it’s a battle. But when you reach the summit, it doesn’t matter how long you took – you always feel like a winner. She’s a tough old peak to conquer, but the views are so worth it.” – Lance Stephenson, trail guide and coach.
I put my jacket back on for the descent – it’s going to be cold. And fast. I let Lance and Desmond dart ahead, and watch as they follow each at speed, like a synchronized Olympic act. They’re pretty quick; a lot faster than me. Maybe they’re braver than me – seeing 79km/h on my computer brings me to my senses, and I scrub off most of the speed. A few more beauty shots, and we’re off to the fun stuff.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for the trails of Grabouw. It’s a pity most of the forest is gone, but the fun remains – flowing singletrack, with enough technicality to suit all types of riders. What I like about the place is the diversity it offers: you can do a long, tough climb, and then head straight into more technical rocky trails. And then there are the exquisite views…” – Aaron Borrill, Bicycling Online Editor.
It’s easy to see why this region is considered the most diverse place to ride a mountain bike. We’ve just climbed an out-of-category mountain, descended it like rabid monkeys, and now find ourselves on some of the best singletrack in the country. While it’s made up largely of flowing trails, there are rockier, more technical sections higher up, such as the infamous Hole in the Wall and Xterra pathways. Again, I’m blown away by this picturesque setting. Desmond pipes up: “Wow! Look there. We were just at the top of that climb, and now it looks so far away. This is crazy!” He’s an animated chap, but he speaks the truth here. In the distance Hans presides over his playground, and watches us closely as we dance through the sandy tracks of the alphabet trails.
“A-Z is an incredible trail. Each letter is a different block of trail, with its own signature terrain. ‘B’, for example, has more sand than ‘A’, and also has the famous Hole in the Wall rock ride. ‘M’ and ‘N’ are flat-out fast-flowing sandy bits, with compacted sections littered with roots. ‘S’ and ‘T’ roll with laterite and rock trail, among ferns as big as cars. This is what makes riding out here so special; it’s the diversity.” – Lance Stephenson.
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As we make our way down the last section of fun, rolling around the Eikenhof Dam and back onto the tar – the notion of Peregrine Farm Stall pies and coffee filling our minds – I realise this truly is my favourite place to ride a bicycle. Like Jonkershoek, it teleports you to another place, untouched and ungoverned by man. This is nature in its purest form, a gift from God. It’s places like Grabouw that remind me why I fell in love with this ‘hobby’ in the first place. Not only is it one of the most diverse places to ride a mountain bike – it’s undoubtedly the most spiritual, too. – By Aaron Borrill
Special thanks goes to Revolution Cycles for the use of their Specialized Camber and Levo.
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