Gravel Grinders: Trek’ing through the Karoo

It’s been long overdue; the second instalment of our Gravel Grinders “series”. Unfortunately, like what happens often, life and other things got in the way and it took us just over two years to set off on another epic gravel ride. The idea for this one came after our review of Trek’s Checkpoint SL6 and a discussion we had with Trek SA. It didn’t take much to convince us that we need to take the SL6 and ALR4 on an adventure.

 

The Bikes and Riders


Gravel Grinders Trek Karoo-11.jpgMynhardt Van Pletsen.
Gravel Grinders Trek Karoo-3.jpgThe Trek Checkpoint ALR4.

 

The Trek Checkpoint ALR 4 is a perfect example of the growing stable of crossover gravel bikes currently being delivered to an eager cycling market. At first sight, it ticks all the right boxes: sturdy aluminium frame, relaxed geometry, hydraulic disc brakes, 700x35 gravel specific tyres and those all-important through axles.

 

Looking the part in blazing bright orange with stylish black accents, the bike also punches above its weight as far as performance is concerned. Not wincing at loose gravel, rocky descents or sandy climbs, it is as at home galloping along dusty farm roads as it is comfortably cruising the blacktop. For veteran gravel connoisseurs, you might want to consider fitting broader rubber for extra traction and comfort on long rides and replacing the handlebar with a flared gravel specific bar. However, if you’re looking for something that is the best of all worlds, the Trek Checkpoint ALR 4 will deliver you safely and soundly, with a big grin on your face to boot. Mynhardt Van Pletsen

 

Gravel Grinders Trek Karoo-4.jpgThe Trek Checkpoint SL6.
Gravel Grinders Trek Karoo-13.jpgJaco Pelser.

 

“If I like a bike, I’m going to ride it a lot. That’s what I’ve been doing lately but the N+1 calculation has once again got me at the point of confusion. I need one to do it all, one to check the box for the next adventure. The point being, I need a Checkpoint. I’ve raced a lot of bikes across a few disciplines. I've done an Audax 600km unsupported so distance isn’t a hassle, but terrain definitely always affects that.

 

I had the opportunity to cruise through the desert-like Karoo on the Checkpoint SL6, Trek’s flagship do-it-all gravel carbon bike. Numerous adjustments, IsoSpeed in the rear and the ability to extend or shorten the wheelbase to accommodate wider tyres. Not once did I feel like I was on a “hardtail” bike. I’ve raced the Madone road bike with IsoSpeed but feeling the gravel beneath that checkpoint really put into perspective just how well it works. I rode Panaracer GravelKing SK 43c tyres, tubeless and C-Sixx’s foam protectors, a combination that works ideal for more gnarly roads. The wider tyres made the ride a lot more comfortable and I’d recommend it be a first “adjustment” to any new gravel grinder. I also rode a one-by groupset and realized that it works, it’s simple and the range is just perfect for the speed at which we’re exploring these types of roads and climbs. I did, however, run out of gears on Ouberg Pass which tops out at a 22% gradient. Overall, this bike was comfortable, responsive and pure fun to ride.” Jaco Pelser

 

The Ride


The Karoo is always a firm favourite and (having done this route many a time in a 4x4 or on a motorbike) we decided this time to tackle it on bicycles. My first call went to Mynhardt van Pletsen. I’ve known him for a while and one evening around a braai he mentioned to me that he’d like to do a gravel outride. I reached out and the “Yes” came without any hesitation. Mynhardt suggested Jaco Pelser as a riding partner. Little did I know they have been dreaming of the exact type of adventure ride we were planning.

 

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“What started off as a “like” here and a “like” there on Instagram soon developed into the idea of a bike ride with Mynhardt,” said Jaco. “Numerous times one of us had the time and the other one was busy or either training. Through the photos, I wanted the part. I was hunting for the same views, the same bliss and fresh air portrayed by his photos.”

 

“Then a text came stating that someone will give me a call and a minute later a call with a meeting and a location. It was planning time. We were finally going to ride bikes, not road or mountain bikes, but gravel bikes on rad South African Karoo dust roads.”

 

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The Route: From the Tankwa Padstal to Blesfontein Guest Farm over the Ouberg Pass.

 

I have worked with Dimitri Vaindirlis on a couple of shoots and asked him to join us to document the ride. After our first meeting, we decided to take on the mighty Karoo with a ride from the Tankwa Padstal to Blesfontein Guest Farm, 30km outside Sutherland. On paper, this was a 100-mile road with the steepest sections right at the end thanks to the Ouberg Pass.

 

We decided to sleep somewhere a bit closer to our starting point to make it easier to get an early start on Saturday morning. We found Boplaas Estate, a guesthouse on a farm in the heart of the Kouebokkeveld, just past Op-Die-Berg. On Friday afternoon we loaded all our gear and made our way to Op-Die-Berg. Established in 1743 the farm boasts incredible views of the valley and the mountains that surround it. It was the perfect spot to spend the evening and clear our minds of the week and work behind us.

 

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We spent the evening talking bikes, naturally, and getting everything ready for our adventure the next day. For the trip, Jaco would ride an SL6 with some changes to the standard specification and Mynhardt would pilot Trek’s Checkpoint ALR4. The week leading up to the ride Mynhardt spent in Gauteng so he had very little time to get the bike set up. Thankfully, Jaco works at VeloLife in Somerset West and offered to get the bike ready. The final tweaks were done at Boplaas the night before setting off.

 

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On Saturday morning we were all up bright and early, we had to drive 45 km from where we stayed to the start point. Even the drive there alone was worth the trip. The Katbakkies Pass joins the Koue Bokkeveld with the Ceres Karoo and Tankwa Karoo and offers breathtaking views and deafening silence. When we arrived at the Tankwa Padstal everyone was in game mode. Bikes were offloaded and given a final check, photography gear was prepared and I ate some oats! We were ready for what lay ahead. Kind of...

 

During the week leading up to the weekend, Mynhardt managed to catch a bug which had him man down. So much so that on Thursday afternoon we weren’t 100% sure he would be able to make the trip and if he did it was almost guaranteed that he would not be able to ride all of it. We all agreed that it wouldn’t be the same without him and even if he had to call it a day we’d still have a great day out exploring the backcountry.

 

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The day came, we almost had a little setback with health. However, bike riding heals you, the truth in that was so visible on this ride. The one-moment Mynhardt and I were speaking about how we needed this ride to clear our heads, to escape, to breathe but most of all to actually get lost. At the next stop, Dimitri asked Mynhardt how he felt and he answered joyfully; “I feel great, actually I’m definitely better”. Dimitri then said; “Well, bike riding does that, doesn’t it? It energizes you and heals you.” We looked at each other in awe, almost speechless at the truth that had just been spoken. It was definitely a sign. I think that’s why I have this pull towards gravel, it’s so simple, no strings attached. We ride bikes, we have fun and afterwards, we feel good! Jaco Pelser

 

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The route would take us from the legendary Tankwa Padstal on the R355 for a kilometre or two before we turned off to the right onto the Ronda Vel Road into the Tankwa Karoo National Park. We turned off again not far from the Tankwa River and would follow it before crossing the river to make our way to the foot of the Ouberg Pass. This is where things got tough. Up to this point, roughly 110 km in, Mynhardt and Jaco had done just over 500 metre worth of climbing. The next 15 km will see them climb to an elevation of 1,500m and finish the ride on a total ascent of 1,870 metres.

 

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The original gravel grinders.
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With its 44 bends, corners and curves, which include 8 hairpins and steep gradient over very rocky terrain there can be little doubt of the pass’s legendary status.

 

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Riding 100 miles is the gravel grinding standard. It is long enough to thoroughly test your physical and mental capacity, but short enough to not cross over into the ultra-endurance category. Riding through the Tankwa Karoo from the now famous Tankwa Padstal, over the Ouberg Pass to Blesfontein Farm (a stone’s throw from Sutherland), is the perfect combination of distance, elevation and difficulty to make sure you’ve got what it takes to call yourself a thoroughbred gravel grinder. Traversing the rocky Ouberg Pass is the proverbial, if bitter, cherry on the cake. Towering 1,500 metres above sea level, and rising from 600 to 1,400 metres in the span of about 5 km, it is one of the giants to be conquered in the Tankwa Karoo. However, reaching the top is immediately rewarded with spectacular 180-degree panoramic views and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. If you’re lucky you might even, as we did, spot the occasional eagle hovering above, keeping a watchful eye on the intruders. Mynhardt Van Pletsen

 

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We made it there, more impressively, the riders made it there. Including Mynhardt. It took a couple of stops and there was some pushing along the way but I gained an incredible amount of respect for his grit and sheer determination to make it all the way to the top on his own steam. After the week like he had many, including myself, would probably not have shown up. Justifiably so. And when things got hot, steep and rough it would have been all too easy to jump in the support car. But he kept pushing. I still remember stopping next to him (in the airconditioned Landy!) on a sharp and steep switchback, I popped my head out and asked him if he’s still okay and keen to keep pushing. He looked at me and said, “come hell or &^%#*^%$ high water, I will make it to the top”. Respect. It was also notable that both Mynhardt and Jaco kept smiling and full of jokes all the way there.

 

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Once at the top, we still had 25 km to go before we would arrive at our accommodation for the night. Blesfontein Guest Farm is situated 28 km South West of Sutherland and is an incredible place to visit. Boasting grey rheebok, steenbok, duiker, springbok, blesbok, black wildebeest, gazelle, zebra, rock rabbit, hare, porcupine, lynx, wild cat, erdvark, tortoise, meerkat, skunk, mongoose, fox and a variety of birds. Thanks to the location and the owner, Nicol’s passion for the universe, you can do some star gazing on the farm and take in the vast night sky.

 

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When we arrived, Mynhardt and Jaco had quick showers while I got the fire going before setting off to view the sunset from the escarpment on the farm. An incredible end to an incredible day.

 

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The older I get, the more I appreciate that feeling that comes with escaping the routine of the rat race, and surrendering to the uncertainties of adventurous exploring. Also, I love my bike - and when those worlds finally collided with the advent of gravel cycling, it was like a dream come true. To be able to load a car, pick-up some of your best mates, and disappear into the desert with just food and, of course, your gravel bikes is the best way I know how to reset from the rigours of modern suburban life.

 

Spending countless hours in the saddle, keeping each other company with silence, stopping for whatever is left in the cooler, and then finally arriving at a warm and cosy farmhouse where a cold something-something is waiting next to a hearty fire awaiting the steaks, I mean - what better thing is there in the world?

 

Gravel cycling is more than merely the type of bicycle you ride over whichever type of road surface. It is a mentality. An attitude. It is the understanding that cycling is more than train, race repeat. It is above all a visceral expression of what it means to live untethered to the worries of this world, and to allow yourself momentary lapses of not-knowing. It is the embodiment of true adventure, but not the Bear Grylls kind the might get you killed - it is the adventure that might just teach you how to live. Mynhardt Van Pletsen

 

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3 Comments

juan pelota, Dec 14 2018 11:49

nice!! the tankwa Trek

Buff_SA, Dec 14 2018 04:35

Great write up and one of my favourite places in the world to spend time.

Jaco Steyn, Dec 15 2018 08:07

Damn!

 

This write up has made me realise that it has been WAY too long since I have been in the awesome karoo! I was born in Sutherland.

 

The guest farm mentioned (Blesfontein), is my niece and her husband's place. Wonderful people!!! If you want to have a fantastic break-away from the hustle and bustle of the city's rat-race, this is the place to go to when you want to unwind. Be prepared to be amazed at the splendour of stars in the clear karoo nights!