Helshoogte is the biggest climb on the 102km circular route and comes well after halfway, rather than at the start of the race. This will necessitate a slightly different riding strategy. We quizzed a few locals on how they would attack it.
“It is crucial to eat and drink enough in the first 65kms,” advises marathon-distance specialist Ariane Lüthi, a long-time Stellenbosch resident who does much of her training on the climb. She suggests cyclists start fueling after about an hour. “At the latest,” she says, “not after two hours, which is what a lot of people do because that’s when they start feeling hungry. Then it is usually too late.”
As predominantly a mountain biker, she is also all-too aware of the benefits a rider can get from riding cleverly in a bunch. “Ride smart and draft as much as you can – while taking your turn at the front of course – to conserve as much energy as possible.”
Men’s elite racer Max Sullivan, who also trains on the pass almost daily with his team, Mad Macs presented by Häzz, echoed Lüthi’s sentiments.
“Ride smart and then be ready for the climb,” he says. According to Sullivan, whether a climb is at the start or the end of a race, it always helps knowing how long they are, both in distance and in time. “Strava has the pass set as a category three climb, although a European mountain goat would refer to it as a speed bump,” he jokes adding that the official Strava segment is 4.6km long at an average gradient of 5%, with the first 500m or so are at around 10%, whilst the rest of the climb meanders between a gentle 1 and 5 percent. “Gert Heyns, the South African XCM champ, has the fastest time at just under nine-and-a-half minutes, whilst the elite bunch is likely to go just over 10 minutes on a good day. Most riders will spend anywhere between 14 and 25 minutes getting up the climb,” he says.
Sullivan advises riding the first steep section as steady as possible. “Keep a rhythm spinning through the pedals as the gradient is very consistent. Find that rhythm that you can hold for the first five minutes or so and stick to it, the rest of the climb will be a breeze once you've crested the first rise,” he says.
“From there on you can shift up into the big ring or down on the cassette, for the racing bunch this is where the speed picks up and the fun starts. There are a couple little ramps around some of the corners, so I suggest building up speed on the flatter sections and carry momentum whilst shifting up the gears as you hit the kickers.”
Upon cresting Helshoogte, cyclist will be treated to a spectacular view of the Winelands and the Franschhoek Valley, followed by the pedal-free descent into Pniel, which will allow some recovery before tackling the last, fast 30kms to the finish.
“For the elite racers, the new route will change the game somewhat, with more fatigue and tactics at play, there's no telling how the race will unfold,” Sullivan says of the sharp end. “Personally, I expect fireworks and explosions on the climb, with a small group going clear to the line, it is close enough to the finish to have a crack and really give it some. The new venue, route and event date is a change for the good, I'm looking forward to lining up on the start line on Sunday and kicking 2019 off with a race to remember,” he says.