The Tanqua Kuru Bicycle Race is a two-day gravel stage race in the heart of the infamous Tankwa Karoo National Park in South Africa. It is an incredibly harsh, exposed, and stunning area that will test you in ways that few other places can. The total distance is 170 kilometres, 110 on day one, and a very intense, fast 50 on day two.
To train for this race, in February, I attempted to ride across Tankwa Karoo over two days to visit my dad. The Tankwa Karoo National Park lies about 70 km due west of Sutherland near the northern Cape and Western Cape border, in one of the most arid regions of South Africa. It was the hottest month of the year, with temps reaching 47 degrees. I was even walking my bike through soft sand parts under the burning sun, riding some stretches was impossible, and access to water was limited, at times, for distances as long as 100 kilomtres. Suffice to say, my first attempt at riding the Tankwa chewed me out good that day, suffering heat stroke and dehydration; I told myself if I survived this hell, I would not be coming anywhere near the Tankwa with a bicycle ever again.
I endured and managed to get safely to my dad, albeit in a slightly lesser shade than the man that left Cape Town two days prior. I was adamant I was not going anywhere near the Tankwa with my Ti Kev (Colonel Kev as affectionately called) again.
So life went on, and I spent a couple of months touring the Garden Route and Overberg regions of South Africa, which are lusher, cooler temperature, coastal areas of our beautiful country. However, I couldn't ignore the feeling my heart had, yearning to return to the Tankwa. Meanwhile, the Tanqua Kuru Bicycle Race launch and these yearnings for future suffering somehow coincided almost too perfectly with one another.
The race centres itself around the infamous Tankwa Town at the Tankwa Tented Camp, also used as the AfrikaBurn site. The area exhibits awe-inspiring art pieces that will boggle your mind, massive statues made out of iron and wood, and even some 3D pieces that, as you drive past, eventually all lineup to reveal a beautiful story. It's the perfect place to put on a gravel race.
Deciding the only way to conquer my Tankwa demons was to begin by commuting to the race start line from Cape Town, a total of 330 kilomtres. I gave myself two days to complete the commute, so I could also test myself and hopefully have some gas left in the tank for two days of racing. The ride up to Ceres on day one wasn't overly challenging; most roads are sealed. I also deliberately didn't send any gear ahead for the race, leaving my bike loaded with equipment for two days of self-supported touring, plus two days of racing. My Ti Kevin was far from light. The climbs out of Cape Town, despite hard work, went by pretty seamlessly, and I arrived at the first sleepover spot with high spirits, knowing full well the actual test of the ride was coming the next day. I still had 160 kilometers straight through the Tankwa, with 120 kilometers being up the infamous R355 gravel road, the longest uninterrupted gravel road in South Africa.
You will struggle to find a straighter road in South Africa. On a map profile, it may appear flat, but it's anything but that; it's nothing but repeat undulations on immense, vast sandy plains. Hours pass, and you get that feeling like you are on a never-ending set of stairs, stairs that are so heavily corrugated, you think you'll rattle your teeth out. The surroundings here all look the same; you're completely exposed to the elements. There is no shelter except for a few tiny thorn bushes scattered across the horizon. You will find no water, just the remains of broken windmills that once pumped life-sustaining liquid out of the earth. The final nail was massive gale-force winds. These North Westerly winds were debilitating and exhausting and, with me, the whole direction of travel. The perfect recipe for a challenging ride.
The final 70 kilometres to the Tankwa tented camp took 5 hours to ride; it was brutal! That wind was relentless, but despite feeling like every pedal stroke took me 2 meters backward, I was still glad not to be in the fierce heat I experienced in February. Finally, I made it to the race village just as the sun was setting. The Tankwa had once again thrown all it could have at me. Still, as I rolled into the camp feeling like I could still run away and ride home, I knew I had conquered those feelings of "Tankwa Dread." I had wrestled the beast and finally felt like I could go toe to toe with Tankwa again and come out the other side battered but still hungry for more. Despite the difficulty of my commute leg, I was still yet to conquer the two-day race.
When race day arrived on Saturday, the wind had calmed only slightly; we were still set up for 40 kilometres headwinds as we made our way onto the infamous R355. The first day of racing covered 120 kilometers, made up of four segments. The winner of each leg would receive 3 points, second place 2, and third 1 point. It was a great format because it meant that in the "neutral zones," we could kick back and soak in all that the Tankwa has to offer. We could take time to reflect on the visual nothingness. It was a perfect opportunity to decompress and unplug from the mad rush of life that was waiting for us when we got back home.
Further on, the resupply station was at the end of this incredible salt pan, and boy, it did not disappoint. Steak rolls ready for eating, a huge selection of fruit and cheeses, plus crackers and bread. It was a feast! There were even a couple of Tequila shots doing the rounds for those up for the liquid boost. Any future resupply stations I go through will be hard-pressed to beat the Tankwa and the tiny caravan of treats at the end of a salt pan.
The race itself was a perfect balance between comfort and experience on the bike and brutally tough racing. The terrain was so incredibly harsh, corrugated washboard roads, sand so soft you should instead have a beach umbrella than a bicycle, plus razor-sharp rocks that eat sidewalls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was the ultimate test of man (or woman) and bike versus a terrain more suited for overland vehicles.
An amazing lunch and beers were waiting for us at the end of the first day's racing. One thing the Tankwa locals know how to do is cater for hungry bike riders. At no stage was there ever a shortage of delicious food for the entire weekend.
Later Saturday, post ride, we took a drive through some of the art pieces on the farm and arrived on koppie (small hill) just in time to watch the sunset with a lekker (delicious) gin, reflecting on where life has taken us individually. It was the perfect end to a great day of racing.
Sunday's route was a lot shorter at only 54 kilometers with three timed segments; in terms of rideability, it was the hardest of the two days. Soft sand abounded, and with every pedal stroke, you felt like you sank in deeper instead of propelling forward. It was a battle for the ages, and just when you felt like throwing in the beach towel and suntanning instead, the roads firmed up, and we could throw the hammer down hard for the final 5.4 kilometre segment. As a result, I placed second overall for the Men’s competition that weekend, an amazing result based on the commute leg I battled through to reach the start line.
Again, more beers and even more high fives were waiting at the finish line. Soon the agony and suffering of those all-out efforts in the race were replaced by stories and laughter of two tough but happy days spent racing a bicycle.
The Tankwa Kuru Bicycle Race has taken the essence of the Tankwa Karoo, its beauty and its brutality, shaken in some flair, and poured out a wonderful gem of a race.
For more information about the race see HERE
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