When I first heard that Jan Braai was going to do the Absa Cape Epic, I thought: "I hope he does well." Which in a rough Afrikaans translation is: "Hy eet te veel tjops en wors en gaan sy g@t sien." His team completed the toughest mountain bike stage race in the world in 136th position - an impressive result. Which made no sense to me.
So when I saw on Facebook that he is on a mountain bike road trip (on a cyclocross bicycle, braai-ing along the way) I was intrigued. This was done in preparation for a Mounain Bike Braai Tour (Tour de Braai - Travel on Gravel) they were planning for 2017. I followed them closely on Facebook to try and figure out where they were going. A while ago Hasie Lourens (local 60+ year old phenomena) told me about a mountain bike route on gravel roads that will take you from Swellendam straight to Hell (just past Oudtshoorn), which he has cycled numerous times. Hasie emphasized that when on this route a person should stay at the Rooiberg Lodge. When I saw that Jan's road trip went from Oudtshoorn to the Rooiberg Lodge, I started wondering whether this road trip was on its way to Swellendam.
I contacted a friend who has a tannie, who's cousin's uncle's sister knows Jan Braai and I told her to ask Jan if he was travelling towards Swellendam and wanted a local mountain bike guide on that section. Luckily for me he said yes. When Jan phoned me from Riversdale the evening before the trip to Swellendam he had two questions: 1) Where can he get a decent beer 2) How fit am I. On the second question I did what any decent cyclist would do - I avoided a straight answer. And when the call ended I again did what any decent cyclist would do - I checked his results on Racetec. After seeing that he had done the Cape Town Cycle Tour in sub 3 hours more than once (first time in 1995 when he was still a laatie and a top 450 finish in 2015) it made his good Absa Cape Epic result make more sense. Apparently braai-ing is not Jan's only talent.
I met the group in Riversdale at the lodging where they spent the previous night. We were four cyclists in the group - two cyclocross Cervelos (which included Jan) and two hard tail mountain bike Cannondales (which included myself). I was surprised at how well the cyclocross bikes handled on the open gravel road. The Tour de Braai riders had their water bottles filled with - water. They were advocating that such a road trip could be done on water supplemented with "real" food like banana, sandwiches and in extreme conditions beer. No energy drinks or Gu-like products. After about 40 minutes' riding one of the backup vehicles stopped ahead of us and the driver stepped out with cappuccinos! Pretty cool :) When asked how he got the coffee to us still being piping hot, the backup explained that he drove with the vehicle's heaters on full blast. The group laughed and joked that the first case of heat exhaustion on the Tour de Braai was going to be the guy delivering the coffee.
If I recall correctly the cyclocross bikes were fitted with 32" tires including snake bite protection. On the flats the cyclocross bikes were the faster (but bumpier) option. On the down hills the mountain bikes could move faster, with less worry about the rough patches and holes in the road. The uphills created a conundrum - the cyclocross bikes are lighter, but the gearing..... the mountain bikes' gearing were better suited to spin up the extremely steep hills. The heavier gearing did not seem to bother Jan. I guess it's not always about the bike.
This was an awesome day on a bicycle with beautiful scenery, lots of talking and great back-up service from Team Braai. As we approached Grootvadersbosch I warned the cyclocross riders of a serious upcoming hill that would probably get them off their bikes to push. Jan asked if the hill was a segment on Strava. I said yes and pointed to where I thought the segment started. As Jan fell silent I knew what was going to happen next. Without a word being spoken the speed and effort increased. Because I knew this hill well and Jan was on his cyclocross bike I was pretty sure his initial surge would not last. But it did. For 5 minutes I could match Jan's pace but then he dropped me like a badly spiced tjoppie. By this time it was quite hot and this unofficial defeat made the air taste even more dusty in my mouth. When Jan reached the top of the climb/Strava segment I could see him turn around and came back towards me. He greeted me with "Keep pedalling you're not at the top yet." Due to lack of oxygen I could not produce a witty reply. After completing the climb I turned back to where Jan was waiting for the other two riders in our group. When I arrived he declared that he had the third fastest time on this Strava segment and asked if I knew the two riders ranked above him. I told him that they were exceptional local riders. Jan suggested that he probably could have beaten (take note Pieter and Andries) their times if he had not wasted time waiting for me for the first 5 minutes. The dusty taste in my mouth came back. But by the time the other two riders joined us at the top of the climb the dusty taste was gone as we all laughed about the suffering we just endured at the hands of the grueling climb.
The top of this climb is at the turn-off into Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve. A good friend of mine who is also a keen mountain biker met us here to cycle the last bit into Suurbraak. When we were approaching Suurbraak, Jan asked if we knew of a good public braai spot in the area. We stopped at the Suurbraak camping area close to the old missionary church and next to the river. We rested our bikes and behinds in the shade of a nearby tree, and in no time Team Braai had the fire going and we all had a beer and gourmet sosatie in the hand. While enjoying the second beer and third sosatie we admired the view of the mountain, chatted about the great day on the bike and the possibility of a bike lane next to the N2 between Buffeljagsrivier and Swellendam. For Team Braai, Suurbraak was the end of the day's riding and I advised them on where they could find some craft beer in Swellendam. We said our good-byes as my friend and I cycled the last section from Suurbraak to Buffeljags while Team Braai went beer hunting.
In my book this rated as a day of living the good life in Swellendam. Even though I got crushed on that climb. Tour de Braai (Travel on Gravel) will be coming past that climb in May 2017. Maybe there will be a rematch.....
Tour de Braai - Travel on Gravel in May 2017 - This 5 day MTB tour will finish in Swellendam with it’s typical post stage activities, followed by prize giving and a farewell braai on the Friday night.
Strava Segment - this is the section where Jan crushed me. I misjudged the point where the segment starts, we started our unofficial face-off 1.3km earlier than where this Strava segment starts.
Team Braai enjoying an ice cold beer in Swellendam.