Rad Rides: Long Tom Pass

It was famous in the Anglo-Boer War for housing a moerse big gun. To enjoy its beauty, your legs might need to be even bigger. 


BY TIM BRINK |

You can’t call yourself a cyclist in Mpumalanga – local or visitor – until you’ve made the pilgrimage up and down the Long Tom Pass.

At the right time of year, you can expect to see the who’s who of South African cycling; mild weather and high altitude (it’s all well above 1 500m) make for ideal altitude training. Parts of it have also welcomed racing cyclists to the annual Jock Classic and Panorama Tour events, both famed for unrelenting vert and a warm Mpumalanga welcome. For locals it’s a well-loved longer ride – often broken into shorter rides, but always
including mystical South African names such as Kaapsehoop, Kaapmuiden, Spitskop, Boulders and Merry Pebbles…

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The History of Long Tom Pass

The pass is on the Great Escarpment, and takes travellers along the R37 regional route between Lydenburg and Sabie. The cannon it was named after was a beast. The Boers imported four from France in 1897; built by Schneider-Creusot, the barrel of each was 4.2m long and weighed 2 500kg. The rolling stock required to move one around weighed 3 000kg, excluding oxen. The shell most often used weighed 43kg, was 42cm long and had a range of almost 10km.

All four Long Toms were destroyed once they had run out of ammunition, so the British couldn’t capture them; but there are replicas at Fort Klapperkop (in Pretoria, and another favourite climbing challenge for cyclists, if a little shorter), the Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, and in Ladysmith. There is also a monument in the pass, about 21km from Sabie, commemorating the last use of the Long Tom during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

The monument at Long Tom Pass

The Details

START/FINISH: LongTom Cycle & Sport, Lydenburg (013 235 2355)
DISTANCE: 112km
ALTITUDE GAIN: 2 642m
LONG TOM KOM (UP, 30.48km) 1h09 (26.5km/h) – Daryl Impey
LONG TOM KOM (DOWN, 33.70km) 46:13 (43.8km/h) – Marc Pritzen

The Ride

To say it’s all climbing would be a lie – obviously, there’s an addictive amount of smooth, flowing descending too.

The pass itself is about 36km long, and climbs 1 581m – through myriad twists and turns, at an average gradient of 12.3% – to take you to a high point of 2 150m. But Long Tom lies in isolation along the R37, meaning you also have to start somewhere and finish somewhere. The ‘proper’ ride is Lydenburg to Sabie and back, not just the pass (see ‘The Details’ above). To say it’s all climbing would be a lie – obviously, there’s an addictive amount of smooth, flowing descending too. On the way down, just beware of very, very slow-moving trucks – they will be doing 20km/h, and you might be doing 90km/h! But it’s true that there is very little flat, in between the sweat and the sweet.

Riding Long Tom Pass

Taking a look at the stats, it’s only a smidgen longer than the Cape Town Cycle Tour; but there’s a full 1 500m more to climb, in that extra two kays! The good news is the climbing is steady, almost all of it; designed for heavily-loaded wagons (and now trucks) that prefer the long, slightly flatter way round to the steep grind up and over. That’s good news for most of us: keeping a flowing and steady heart rate not only makes the ride a trifle easier, but also means the never-ending Mpumalanga vistas are viewed through normal eyes, not blood-shot ones!

Sustenance

The locals tell us the place for a break is Petena Pancakes in Sabie, which has been a must-stop for bikers of both the motorised and normally-aspirated varieties since 1988. There isn’t really any need to find food or
drink along the route. Refuelling at the Engen near the pancake house should be more than enough, with two water bottles, for the 60km trip back – unless it’s one of those summer scorchers, in which case there are a few guest houses and similar along the route where you can scrounge some emergency water. Or just stash a third bottle in a back pocket, unless it really is sweltering.

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