Tackling The Tankwa Trek – A Race Like No Other!
South Africa is the stage race capital of the world. Yes, you read that right. Our domestic race calendar has more stage races that any other country around the world. As mountain biking has seen phenomenal growth over the past 10 years, it has seen race organisers follow suit, and new events and stage races pop up every year. It’s fair to say, that if your event is going to survive in such a competitive climate, it needs to be good!
Having been fortunate enough to have done most of the big stage races out there in South Africa, the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek is one that had always eluded me. Twice I’ve had entries confirmed into the event, and twice I’ve fallen sick leading into the race. I kid you not! Needless to say, that when I managed to get my hands on an entry this year, I jumped at it.
The Tankwa Trek’s race village is situated just outside of Ceres on a neat little oasis of lush green lawns, and grand old oak trees called Kaleo Guest Farm. This is surrounded by an expanse of Tankwa Karoo –read: endless trail opportunities! The race village was a welcome difference to the norm.
A small-ish sized field of 650 riders, and a compact race village set on lush green grass, meant very little walking, and that your gear doesn’t get full of dust. It may sound silly, but most stage race villages out there are huge and require a lot of walking!
Now, to the riding… Day one’s 83km stage had a good dose of everything. Technical, rugged, rocky single track was the name of the game, with high-speed gravel sections breaking it up. As the route picked its way around the edges of the Witzenberg Valley, we were treated to some magnificent trails and views. This didn’t go unpunished though. The route wound its way through a pine plantation with the gradient kicking up steeply. This climb is dubbed “Sounds of Silence”, after the many riders who have been seen sitting on the side of the road finding some respite in the shade in complete silence.
The descent back down to the valley floor had a few surprises in store just to keep things real, before the route snaked its way back to the race village on some of the flowing granite single track we had ridden out on.
The rest of the day should have been spent relaxing in our tents under the shade of the oak trees, but somehow we managed to pick some of the only tents in the village that got no shade at all. You live and learn. Or should that be, live and burn?
Most stage races out there have its crowning jewel. For Sani, it’s the Umkomaas Valley, for Berg and Bush its Solly’s Folly, and for the Tankwa Trek, it’s the Merino Monster. What starts off as a gentle climb 45km into stage 2 for the first 10km, quickly turns into a climb that you only expect to see somewhere on TV. Gradients kick up steeply, and so does your heart rate as you fight to keep some kind of composure on the steep kicks the climb is famous for.
The summit seemed like it took forever to arrive. When it did, we were thrown down one helluva rocky descent, before storming a fast 10km of district roads to the finish. No messing about there.
Thankfully, I had spotted some empty tents in the shade the day before so we had somewhere sheltered to rest up after the queen stage of the race.
Again, the small field and compact race village made it easy to get around. Artisan coffee, craft beer and a free snack bar made it the perfect place to hang out with friends, make new ones and share war stories. The food was also good. That’s a long checklist to tick and so far Tankwa was nailing it!
The third and final stage, although the longest, is by far the easiest, on paper that is. We were in for 89km and only 1100m climbing. Easy peasy! The first 30km were to be all on rolling district road, and the organisers chose to let the whole race go off at the same time instead of the usual batch starts.
For some reason unknown to me, I decided to start really far back. By the time I had made it near the front, there had been a lead group split, and I was not in it! This lead to me chasing on my own for the better part of the 30km district road section. I eventually did manage to catch the lead group, but had burnt quite a few matches doing so.
The next 30km comprised of the best single track of the whole event. The Houdenbek trails! These trails are fast, flowy, and wind their way through the many rock formations of the landscape. It was such great fun ducking, weaving and trying to overtake fellow riders on the many dual track options as the trail split is certain sections.
Unfortunately, all good things do some to an end, and we were left with 30km of rolling gravel and jeep track, with not enough matches left to burn. Thankfully the water points were worth stopping at. The date balls they had were AMAZING! Thankfully, before I knew it I was rolling back onto the grassy lawns of Kaleo, where an ice cold beer, high fives and food awaited.
It’s not often that I find myself wanting to come back to an event year-on-year. I think this one just might find its way onto my yearly schedule, and I think it should find its way onto yours too. The guys at Dryland have put on an amazing show, and this is an event that definitely differentiates itself from the rest. This one is here to stay.
For more information, visit tankwatrek.co.za.