As the field of intrepid cyclists gathered on the Glengarry lawn under gloomy skies for the pre-ride briefing, I swear I could hear teeth chattering and knees knocking together.
It was another bracingly cold Midlands morning in late May.
Much of the talk around the braai fire the night before was around the weather conditions. How cold it would be compared to last year (there wasn’t any frost this year), how many layers you’d be wearing, buff under the helmet or not. Slight chance of rain . . .
But all that “cold” talk mattered little as we set off on this year’s new 78km route. We were on our way. A mixed field of die-hard riders pedalling their classic steel bicycles out of the gates of the resort and into the rolling hills of the Kamberg.
For the uninitiated, the Gravel Giro is an organised non-competitive ride where classic steel cycling enthusiasts from around South Africa congregate to celebrate the cycling of yesteryear.
It’s an event that brings together cyclists of varying degrees of fitness, united by one thing. Their love of vintage steel bikes.
A chance to reminisce about the good old days . . . the days when “carbon” and “bike” were scarcely used in the same breath and something like Strava was simply inconceivable.
This ride is a goodie
The ride echoes the heroic spirit of L’Eroica, where cyclists “rediscover the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of conquest”. And this year’s route certainly provided both these elements, with some lung-busting climbs on the region’s district gravel roads.
This was the third year running that the event was hosted at Glengarry Holiday Farm, set against the backdrop of the magnificent Drakensberg and overlooking the Little Mooi River.
Previous editions of the ride that started in 2019 were held at Ballito, Assagay and Nottingham Road. The ride at Notties was the first time “outsiders” were invited. And it’s just grown from there.
For example, this year the Gravel Giro could proudly name Squirt Cycling Products, Lassen Sportswear, Aquelle, Everyday Cycle Supply Co, Mari’s with Love and Select Web as event sponsors.
Having participated in the Berg 100 and Tour Durban this year where the goodie bags were, well, not that good, this year’s Gravel Giro offering was something to behold.
Hand stamped in true vintage style, each participant received an old-school brown craft paper goodie bag containing a Gravel Giro “SA Steel” t-shirt emblazoned with logos from manufacturers such as Zini, Le Turbo, Peugeot and Alpina.
We also got Squirt bike wash and bum cream, fudge, an event poster, Gravel Giro and Kamberg 2023 frame stickers and, best of all, a printed route map with spaces for collecting a stamp at each waypoint. A passport of sorts. Such a nice touch.
Further, but better
The first point of departure from previous editions was the distance. Race organisers Eric Prinsloo and Rolf Henriksen added almost 20km onto the long ride from last year. They also dispensed with the shorter 35km altogether.
There was a move away from the gnarly jeep tracks that had mixed reviews in the past to wider, more traditional gravel district roads where, funnily enough, the steel frame bikes really come into their own if they’re running with 28c tyres – or wider if their frames could handle them.
The opening 30km to the first water point was a mix of tar (watch those potholes!) and gravel, reaching 1 547m with some stiff climbs with gradients up to 11% in some places. The higher elevation brought with it some icy conditions thanks to the savage wind that proved challenging for all of the riders.
In one of the lower sections en route to the first stop Rolf, a local farmer, pointed out the extra woolly coat on the young horse standing at the fence as we pedalled by.
An energetic staffie, wearing what resembled a fitted blanket, came out of nowhere, running alongside us for a while as we started preparing for the short climb to the first stop.
The refreshment tables – always so well stocked – were a chance to refuel (biltong, salted potatoes, eggs, sweets and sponsored drinks). One part of my brain was saying “eat” and the other was saying “keep moving” just to stay warm, with temps plummeting to around 5℃ at the first hilltop stop.
Some riders bailed at this point, the warmth of a sweeper bakkie too good to resist. Others headed back to the start for what amounted to a 53km ride.
For the rest, it was the beginning of a 10km descent into the calm of the valley, sheltered from the wind by the surrounding hills. Preparing us for the climb that would take us up and, ultimately, out of the valley after 50km.
The ride through the valley was magical. Out of the buffeting wind, gaining momentum and just taking in the beauty of the wintry farmlands as the kilometres clicked by.
I rode with Danie van Jaarsveld and Costa Toulouras, our vintage Peugeots purring up the steep climbs. Just kidding. This was tough riding, the shield of the mountains slowly giving way to a biting cold wind as we ascended. We climbed from 1423m at 50km, gaining 168m of elevation in only 6km en route to the second water table at 60km.
As every new climb loomed in the distance, Danie hit his Suntour Accushift downtube shifters searching for a lower gear that he never found. “I need a word with Rolf,” he joked. At least I think he was joking.
With the second stamp inked in my “passport” and the mercury hitting 13℃, I took off my puffer jacket and hit the road with Danie. We climbed steadily, the barren landscape stretching out to our left and right. After about three and a half hours of riding, we were relieved to be on the last section after turning left onto the tar of the Highmoor Road.
But any thoughts of a hot shower and a cold beer were put on hold as we negotiated the final steep tar section that went up, up and up some more. Elevation topped out at 1674m (the highest point of the ride) with a 14% gradient close to the top.
With some welcome support from the “fans” cheering from the bakkie that travelled slowly behind us, we reached the summit. Behind us, some of the other riders took a well-earned rest at the top waiting for their fellow riders that had run out of gears.
As the final descent back to Glengarry began, Rolf’s early morning warning about the “sketchy” conditions of the tar road put to rest any thoughts of an easy coast to the finish. The potholes kept you on high alert on this white-knuckle descent, testing your handling skills as well as those old rim brakes.
As the proud finishers rolled across the line and received their medals (another first for this year’s ride!), there was a palpable sense of achievement. They had conquered the Gravel Giro.
Tired but happy, the riders and their families gathered at the water’s edge a while later for drinks and snacks as the sun set on another successful event. We traded war stories, made new friends and reflected on an amazing day on the bike.
We drank and chatted in the bar while watching the Stormers lose the final against Munster as Rolf and Toni Pedro went about judging the best vintage bikes at the Concourse.
As we said our good nights, tummies warmed by the hearty curry served in the dining room at the prize-giving dinner, there was some chatter about the scheduled coffee recovery ride in the morning. I could already hear the teeth chattering and the knees knocking.
See you next year for Gravel Giro # 7. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
By Gregory Rule