Riders are supplied with two full sets of tour cycling kit, and a warm jacket. The event is not timed, which means you can amble along at your own pace and enjoy the scenery, although there is a daily Strava segment for those wanting to race Erik Kleinhans for the Yellow jersey.
In addition to the joy of not having to stay in tents, and use portable toilets, the ‘start’ time is 9 AM, which means no scrabbling in the dark trying to find socks, or squirming into bibs hunched over in a tent. In fact, the only real rule at Tour de Braai is that no lycra is allowed at breakfast, saving us all from the usual sausage fest over coffee.
After suffering from pretty serious envy when Matt joined the November edition of the Tour de Braai last year, I was lucky enough to crack the nod for this round and experienced what I think might just be the future of ‘stage riding’ in South Africa.
Day 1: Fancourt, George to Surval Lodge, Oudtshoorn
Distance: 77 km
Elevation: 1110 metres
We spent the first night at the luxurious Fancourt Lodge in George. After being shown to our rooms (I’m pretty sure the room was bigger than my apartment) riders were welcomed with sundowners and snacks, overlooking the golf course and Outeniqua mountains. As the last rays of the sun disappeared, the braai got going, and the team cooked the biggest steaks I have ever seen. These were served up with braaibroodjies and salads while the wine flowed.
The sun rose the following day, accompanied by a hot, dry wind, which followed us around in the form of a headwind the entire day, leaving our mouths and throats feeling like sandpaper. Luckily the food and scenery were so spectacular that it was possible to forget about the wind and enjoy the experience.
After gorging ourselves at the breakfast buffet we assembled at the start point for a “briefing” and Bootlegger espresso before the Tour de Braai was officially unleashed on the roads and gravel of the Western Cape.
A few kilometres into the ride we hit the Montagu Pass climb, possibly my favourite of the whole event (you might hear this more than once). This was the Strava segment for the day, and the pack quickly split as the joust commenced.
After the red mist cleared, we all reassembled at the summit and rolled down to the first Braai stop at Herold Wines where we were treated to a spread of chops, salads, and the exceptional Herold Pinot Noir.
The remainder of the ride was a brutal slog into the bone-dry headwind through Oudtshoorn to the green oasis and cool swimming pool of the Surval Boutique Olive Estate.
Day 2: Surval Lodge to The Queen of Calitzdorp
Distance: 88 km
Elevation: 1341 metres
Once again we set off in a strong headwind. Fortunately it was no longer hot and dry: instead, it was just a cooling gale. The first 38 kilometres were on tar, which took us over a series of rollers along the base of the Swartberg Mountain range. This was familiar territory after the Swartberg 100 Gran Fondo the previous weekend and I was grateful we were not tackling the looming Swartberg Pass. Our first braai stop was at Swartberg Country Manor where we enjoyed the best boerie rolls I have ever tasted: served on fresh homemade rolls with a tomato and onion smoor. I had to be prised away from the table and shoved reluctantly back onto the bike.
This soon became a pattern, and the hardest part of many days for me was getting back on the bike after a particularly restful or tasty braai stop.
The route remained undulating, and the headwind brisk, so we made our way slowly and steadily to Calitzdorp through a mixture of farmland and aloe dotted kloofs.
We spent the afternoon at Boplaas Cellars, sampling their world renown port with a late lunch of lamb burgers and potato wedges, and shortly thereafter headed to Karoo Life for a supper of braai pizzas.
Day 3: The Queen of Calitzdorp to Rooiberg Lodge, Van Wyksdorp
Distance: 45 km
Elevation: 1142 metres
After a comfortable night at the Queen of Calitzdorp, we started our day a little differently. We headed to Calitzdorp High School where the team from Qhubeka handed 60 brand new bicycles to learners. It was interesting to see the handover process and understand a little more about what Qhubeka do. We helped as many learners as possible with getting set up, and adjusting loose or rubbing brakes before regrouping and heading out towards the main climb and Strava segment of the day: Rooiberg Pass.
The pass climbs about 480 metres in 6.6 kilometres. At last, we had no wind to contend with, and the gradient is steady and comfortable, although the rocky terrain adds to the challenge. The views are absolutely breathtaking, making it another one for the bucket list.
At the top, we were treated to Lamb sosaties on the braai while soaking up the sun and incredible views of the valley below. The descent was definitely a highlight (I can’t keep saying my favourite, but it definitely was): it was fast, rutted and sketchy, and provoked many sound effects (and about five dropped bottles), which I suppose is a good measure of entertainment value.
A few more rollers took us to the turnoff for the Tour de Braai’s best-kept secret, Rooiberg Lodge. An unexpected sanctuary of green in the dusty grey of the Karoo landscape, with a verandah overlooking a rolling lawn, swimming pool, and farm dam.
The ideal spot for a soothing post ride gin and tonic, with a slice of the best chocolate cake I have ever tasted.
Day 4: Rooiberg Lodge to De Doornkraal Boutique Hotel, Riversdale
Distance: 77 km
Elevation: 1038 metres
Leaving Rooiberg Lodge was heartbreaking: I could happily have spent the next three days on the verandah with a book. We were soon on the rolling gravel roads that would characterise the majority of the ride. The Strava segment for the day was a power test: Utah se Bult, a fairly flat 1.9 kilometre stretch with 58 metres of climbing, and this emptied what was left in my legs for the rest of the day.
Luckily there was very little wind, and the riding was faster than previous days. Soon the terrain began to change from the flat dry plains of the Karoo, to the signature green fynbos of the Overberg and we hit the tar towards the spectacular Garcia’s Pass which winds through the Langeberg Mountains to Riversdale.
At the top of the pass, fresh lamb pies from Delish Heidelberg were waiting for us. I can't do justice to these pies with words, but know that they were, as the name suggests, delicious.
The descent down Garcia’s was another for the “best ever” list. Fast and flowing tar, with a flat run through farmlands into Riversdale to our overnight accommodation at De Doornkraal Boutique Hotel.
Day 5: De Doornkraal, Riversdale to Suurbrak
Distance: 77 km
Elevation: 1212 metres
Our final ride took us from Riversdale to Suurbrak just outside Swellendam. Another day characterised by rolling gravel roads, this time through lush fields, with the Langeberg Mountain range towering to the right. The Strava segment was a killer kicker, creatively named the N2 climb, with 110 metres of ascent over 1.8 kilometres on some fairly slippery gravel.
After about 38 kilometres we stopped for a braai next to the Duivenshoks Rivier, and again it was with great reluctance that I left my comfy camping chair to get back on the bike. Once again the headwind had picked up, and we made our way slowly, and for me, painfully towards the finish at Suurbrak where curried mince Roostekoek was waiting.
We were then shuttled to our final overnight stop: the spectacular A Hilltop Country Retreat in Swellendam. This was the perfect venue for a final braai and kuier, giving us a chance to make sure that not a single bottle of the Klein Constantia MCC was left behind.
I have not experienced an event quite like the Tour de Braai and I can’t think of a better way to spend time with a good crew, on a bike exploring the Western Cape.
The riding is perfectly balanced: it is by no means a walk in the park and you need to be fit to properly enjoy it, but it will not leave you too broken to appreciate your surroundings or enjoy each evening. The gravel format is very inclusive, as there is no technical terrain to negotiate, so roadies and mountain bikers alike will enjoy it: especially with a gravel bike, which really is the perfect tool for the job.
In short: if you enjoy good food, great wine, excellent company, and riding your bike, put the Tour de Braai on your to-do list. I'm not sure if I can look a stage race tent village in the eye again.