The Bikes and Riders
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
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 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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