Let them know what you enjoy at a stage race here.
As mentioned in our earlier report from the race, this is not our first Lesotho Sky. This year there were significant changes to the route. For the first time, there were only two race stops: Roma Trading Post and Malealea Lodge. With an ample variety of routes on offer from these two venues, we didn’t feel at all short-changed when looking back at previous years. Less moving meant fewer hassles and more fun. It helps that Roma and Malealea are two of the most enjoyable stops in Lesotho.
The Lesotho trails are unlike anything you will find in South Africa. They are completely naturally formed over centuries of weather, humans, and donkeys, with every “trail head” opening to multiple lines to choose from. The riding options are endless. On top of this, the riding is truly free. Only once riding in Lesotho did it hit me how restricted riding is in South Africa. Riders don’t follow each other in single file down a strictly regulated path, in Lesotho, they can spread out and forge their own lines. The freedom to choose adds a whole new level of enjoyment to riding. Needless to say, congestion is never an issue.
Be warned, Lesotho Sky is rough and wild. The race director, Darol Howes is not scared to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in terms of trail difficulty at a marathon stage race. And as a rider looking for challenges beyond simply spewing distance and climbing stats (although there is this too), I really appreciate this aspect of Lesotho Sky. Darol sent us down sections of trail that would not be out of place at a tough enduro, like their own Kingdom Enduro.
I’m not trying to put you off. It really is a race for most riders but expectations need to set before embarking on this journey. Because Lesotho Sky really is a journey, albeit a timed one. The unmanicured terrain means that patience, a positive attitude, and an affinity for suffering will be required if you’re going to enjoy the event. And that means putting up with a fair bit of hiking with your bike.
Lesotho Sky draws a relatively small group of like-minded riders which produces a sense of comradery, bringing the mountain biking community together to share in the joy of riding bikes. By the end of the race, you’ve had at least one conversation with each rider and taken the time to understand their motivations and approach to riding bikes. It’s relatively rare at a race to sit at the finish line sharing the day’s war stories over a water or Maluti Lager while cheering for fellow riders by name as they come in after a challenging day on the bike.
The lives of the people in Lesotho revolve around farming, their livestock, and fetching water, which means that they spend much of their day working outside. This means countless interactions with locals as you ride through their communities, villages, rivers, and farms. Few mountain bike races bring you in such close contact with people, and it brings a special understanding of how the people of Lesotho live their lives. It’s also pretty helpful when you get lost, there is always a herdsman or group of kids to enthusiastically point you back on course.
You can see our report from the first three days of Lesotho Sky here.
After a relatively short and fast-paced Day 3, it was time to tackle the Malealea Monster. It is probably our favourite day of riding, with healthy doses of all the best elements of Lesotho Sky.
It’s always a fast start at the Malealea Monster: around six kilometres in there is a magnificently steep trail that drops down to the valley floor. It often catches people out, so we try to be as close to the front of the pack as our heart rate can handle. This means a six-kilometre sprint trailing the professional teams. It’s the only time during the event that we grit our teeth and hang behind the pros (I struggle to comprehend how they hold this pace for six days). And it didn’t disappoint. The local community had recently set to work on the trails (which they use daily) and the result is a slippery chute of smiles as we flung ourselves down the mountain seeking traction on the newly earthed trail.
With the fun stuff over, we dropped the pace, allowed the faster riders to overtake us and settled in for the long, steep climbs ahead. Steep being the keyword. The climb that greets you is two kilometres long at an average gradient of around 12% (and this isn’t even the Malealea Monster).
But this climb it is all worth it. On top is one of the best examples of the Lesotho supertubes: a natural rolling pump track with half pipe-like walls on either side. It’s closest I’ve felt to surfing on a bike. Once you have been spat out of the supertubes full of stoke, it’s straight into a tight donkey path switchback descent. As if the gradient and awkward angle of the turns aren’t enough, the path is strewn with watermelon sized rocks making front wheel traction unattainable. It’s a frightening experience best enjoyed through reflection at the bottom.
Then it’s onto the Monster. A 17-kilometre climb to an altitude over 2000 metres. The name might strike some fear but if you get into a rhythm and grind it out, it’s reasonably easy to conquer. From there it’s a wonderful single track descent back to the Malealea Lodge on possible the only purpose maintained mountain bike track in the race.
The fifth day was the big one we'd all been fearing with over 2,200 metres of climbing. A transition day back to Roma. It had all the makings of a regular marathon stage, lots of open jeep track and plenty of climbing (in thin air) with a smattering of Lesotho magic to catch out tired bodies at the end.
With a stiff headwind, our train of around seven riders (give or take a few welcome passengers along the way) decided to wave the white flag and work together against the wind. It was a strategy that saw us all starting and finishing together over the 86 kilometre route and hugely welcome against the strong gusts.
Most of the day was a jeep track slog up, around, through, and down mountains. It’s worth noting that Lesotho jeep tracks still throw a few surprises. We were reminded of this when three of our riders went down thanks to an awkwardly placed donga.
The last ten kilometres proved to one of the most engaging sections of trails in the event, as we climbed the final ridge to drop into Roma. The climb saw us losing the course in the head high shrubs but it was the descent that really had us smiling.
It started with a typical flowing Roma sandstone slab leading into a village path. The purpose-built path was constructed to assist in the transporting of the dead from a village at the top of the ridgeline down to the Roma below. It was also where I learnt something about path construction in Lesotho and the origin of all the soccer ball sized rocks that littered the paths we'd been riding over the week. The path builders gather the rocks and place them on the path as a foundation and then cover it with dirt and sand to smooth out the path. Obviously, rain comes along and washes away all the sand, leaving the loose rock foundations exposed and providing a challenging descent for mountain bikers.
Only 38 kilometres but with 950 metres of climbing and the steepest trails we’ve yet to experience, it was a brutal end to the race. Our average speed was a mere 14 km/h.
The Roma loop took us around the cliffs that form a bowl around the university town of Roma. Jokingly referred to as the Roma Arena as you get a full view of the town from most angles. The route included two unrideable death drops, and we got horribly lost on the second. Scrabbling on our bums to get to the bottom.
The route was a fitting end to the event. Including both the incredible highs and lows every rider can expect to experience more than once during the week. The highs come from the flowing natural descents and conquering a few truly sketchy sections. The lows from going off-course while in mid-flow following the GPS, losing both time and momentum. Rumour has it that next year the descents will be marked, making this a less likely scenario.
This event is impossible to do justice to with words, it is something you simply have to experience yourself to understand. Suffice to say it is not your run-of-the-mill stage race, and it offers something undeniably special.