The Rocks, Climbs & Challenges Of The Tankwa Trek
South Africa is the stage-race capital of the world. Yes, you read that right.
Our domestic race calendar has more stage races than any other country. As mountain biking has seen phenomenal growth over the past 10 years, so race organisers have followed suit; and new events pop up every year.
And it’s fair to say that if your event is going to survive in such a competitive climate, it needs to be good!
Though I’d been fortunate enough to do most of the big South African stage races out there, the Momentum Health Tankwa Trek had always eluded me. Twice I’ve had entries confirmed into the event, and twice I’ve fallen sick just before the race. I kid you not. Needless to say, when I managed to get my hands on an entry this year, I jumped at the chance.
The Tankwa Trek’s race village is situated just outside of Ceres, on a neat little oasis of lush green lawn and grand old oak trees called Kaleo Guest Farm. Which is surrounded by an expanse of Tankwa Karoo – read: endless trail opportunities!
The race village was a welcome change from the norm. A smallish field of 650 riders and a compact race village on lush green grass means very little walking, and your gear doesn’t get covered in dust. This may sound minor, but most stage-race villages out there are huge, and require a lot of walking.
Day One – Learn & Burn
Now, to the event itself… Friday’s 83km stage had a good dose of everything. Technical, rugged, rocky singletrack 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.
These positives couldn’t go unpunished, though. The route also winds 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, not saying a word, just finding a little respite in the forest shade.
The descent back down to the valley floor had a few surprises in store too, just to keep things real; then our route snaked its way back to the race village, on some of the flowing granite singletrack we’d 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 received no shade at all. You live and learn. Or should that be live and burn?
Day Two – No Messing About
Most stage races out there have a ‘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.
Forty-five kilometres into stage 2, what starts off as a gentle ascent for the first 10km quickly turns into a climb you’d expect to see only on TV. The gradient shoots 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 to take forever to arrive. And when it did, we were immediately thrown down one helluva rocky descent, before storming a fast 10km of district road 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. And again, the small field and compact race village made it easy to get around.
Artisanal 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. And the food was good. That’s a long checklist to tick, and so far, Tankwa was nailing it!
Day Three – Highs & Lows
The third and final stage, although the longest, is by far the easiest – on paper, that is. We were in for 89km and only 1 250m of climbing. Easy peasy! The first 30 kays were all to be on rolling district road, and the organisers chose to let the whole race leave at the same time, instead of the usual batch starts.
For some reason I can’t explain, I decided to start really far back. By the time I had made it to near the front, there had been a lead group split – and I wasn’t in it!
This led to me chasing, on my own, for the better part of the 30km district road section. Eventually I did manage to catch the lead group, but I’d burned quite a few matches getting there.
The next 30km was the best singletrack of the whole event. The Houdenbek trails! They’re fast, flowy, and wind their way through the many spectacular rock formations that make up the landscape. It was really good fun ducking and weaving, and trying to overtake fellow riders on the many dual-track options, as the trail splits in certain sections.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end; and we were left with 30km of rolling gravel and jeep track, with not a lot of matches left to burn. Thankfully, the water points were worth stopping at. (The date balls were AMAZING!)
Before I knew it, I was rolling back onto the grassy lawns of Kaleo, where an ice-cold beer, high-fives and food awaited.
The Bottom Line
It’s not often I find myself wanting to come back to an event year on year. I think this one just might find its way onto my annual schedule.
And I think it should find its way onto yours, too. The guys at Dryland have put on an amazing show – it’s an event that definitely differentiates itself from the rest.
This one is here to stay.
NEED TO KNOW:
Next event: 7-10 February 2019
Where: Kaleo Manor, near Ceres, Western Cape
Terrain: singletrack, gravel, rock, jeep track, district roads
Stage 1: 83km, 1 900m
Stage 2: 87km, 2 200m
Stage 3: 89km, 1 250m
More info tankwatrek.co.za