“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Sir Winston Churchill
Cycling Sani pass (The hard way)
Sani pass is infamous among South African mountain bikers and 4×4 enthusiasts. With a gentle climb from the Sani lodge backpackers for the first couple of km’s then from the SA border its about a 1000m climb in 8km to the Lesotho border at almost 2900m. The road is of very poor quality with many loose rocks, gravel and the gradient of the last couple of km’s is between 15-25%.
Contra to popular belief and despite a painful motorbike accident a few years ago I still have testosterone producing meat between my legs and therefore from time to time my caveman instincts boil up and I feel the need to prove my manhood. As it is no longer socially acceptable to club a pretty lady over the head and drag her back to my cave I make do with a physical challenge against my fellow testosterone primates from time to time.
Since arriving in South Africa I mentioned a few times that I was thinking about tackling Sani pass. Everybody I’ve spoken to (especially mountain bikers) have said it’s impossible with my middle aged belly and heavy 50kg bike. The more I heard this reaction the more my caveman instinct wanted to throw down the gauntlet against these girly mountain bikers, most of which haven’t or can’t cycle Sani pass on their lightweight 9kg bikes.
By the very unfashionable time of 7am I was on the road in the hope of making progress before the worst of the morning sun and tour groups. The 15km to the SA border went fine, I was thinking this isn’t that bad, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Just before the border I saw in the distance what looked like rungs of a ladder going up the mountain and just before it a long steep road, “bugger that’s going to hurt”.
My ascent was far from graceful or fast, so many loose rocks, gravel and potholes. I spent most of the day doing a 20m sprint followed by 1 minute getting my breath back. Lucky it wasn’t too hot otherwise I would of just gotten a lift, it was hard enough at 20 degrees. I’m pleased that a couple of years ago I had the money to invest in a Rohloff Speedhub instead of conventional gears, the ability to change gear at a standstill or almost standstill really saved the day.
After about 4.5 hours I arrived for a closer inspection of the “ladder” a series of tight hairpin bends about 100m from each other. These 100m stretches of road brought a new meaning to pain and hyperventilation, each 100m stretch taking several short sprints then a couple of minutes catching my breath. A couple of these stretches where so steep that my front wheel just didn’t want to stay on the ground or if I hit a rock at the wrong angle the whole bike would instantly spin 90 degrees towards the steep road’s edge.
The wonderful views made the challenge more than worth the effort, unfortunately the last 2 hours I had to deal with a thunderstorm with hail stones too, which turned the already tricky road into a river and knocked visibility down to about 30m.
I guess I was looking pretty tired and wet by this point because while taking one of my breathers in the torrential rain a 4×4 stopped, rolled down the window about an inch and asked if I was ok., I just grinned from ear to ear and said “happier than a pig in shit” tipped my hat and pedalled another 20m.
At the last hairpin bout 300m from the border post I heard a call from the Sani top pub veranda above “well done”. I shouted back “I’m not done yet” this last bit took me another 15 minutes, much to the amusement of the now 30 spectators. Once at the top my well wishers and a small crowd had gathered and presented me with a victory beer, almost 8 hours after starting this little 23km ride.
Broken but very satisfied with myself I spent the rest of the afternoon eating, drinking and telling war stories about my little ride from Cape Town in the “Highest pub in Africa” (these nonsense tourist attractions make me laugh…).
So girly South African mountain bikers, lets just call the Sani pass “almost” impossible to cycle for a fatboy on a 50kg bike.