MR. MCGREGOR'S GRAVEL
In the middle of three days of crashes and chaos, Seamus Allardice joined Mother City Amateur Bicycle Club crew for their inaugural McGregor gravel race, The Gallows. Lured by the prospect of climbing the infamous Galgeberg, 250 riders ascended to Heaven’s View Mountain Resort.
I’m usually the one to convince other people to do questionable things. But this time round my brother; Ricki; and my friend; Renata were to blame for my choices. Ren roped me into entering The Gallows months before. Then, in race week, my boet decided to book a last-minute trip to Elandsbaai. Rather than miss out on the surfing, I packed my bike, boards and laptop so I could join him for a couple of days at South Africa’s most famous surf spot before the bike race.
That’s where my bad luck began. On Thursday morning, while surfing the fun but not particularly powerful Elands, my brother suggested I give his longboard a try. The waves were coming through slowly, with long lulls between chest to shoulder high sets. Ricki was catching wave after wave on his longboard while I sat deep in the kelp scratching onto the odd runner on my fish. Because he had a work call, Ricki had to get out the water sooner than I did; but generously offered me his longboard while he paddled in on my fish.
Moments after swapping boards the wave of the session rolled in. I swivelled and went, without adjusting my approach to accommodate the 9 foot log. Foolishly I neglected to set the rail down the line, but rather took off straight in an attempt to maximise my speed as I’d been doing on the 5”8. Big mistake. The nose of the longboard dug into the trough of the wave while the lip drove into the tail. I made it to my feet but got rag-dolled by the impact of the water crashing onto the shallow reef. I knew immediately it was bad. While being tumbled I felt the leash snap. “Shit,” I thought, “the board is going to wash up on the point and get dinged up.”
Popping up amongst the kelp fronds I was relieved to see the board drifting in the tumultuous water just ahead of me, held in the impact zone rather than forced towards the rocks. My next revelation was that the board was snapped clean in two. Not a strip of glass fibre holding it semi together. It was floating in two distinct pieces.
Shit happens. Especially to surfboards.
Fortunately, Ricki wasn’t too phased. And the rest of Thursday and Friday morning was spent between the water and the Airbnb, surfing and getting work done. Then, on Friday afternoon, I set off for McGregor. Arriving at registration for The Gallows, I pulled into Heaven's View's parking area as the sun set.
Now, if you’ve never been to Heaven’s View let me explain the layout to you. It is two-thirds of the way up a mountain. Quite literally. The wedding venue, which served as the race village for The Gallows, is three kilometres from the summit of the Galgeberg; 1 000 metres above sea level. To get there you drive a 10 kilometre gravel road out of McGregor, ascending for the final five kilometres or so into the foothills of the Sonderend Mountains. Then you turn right onto a degrading tar road. The kind of road which anyone who knows anything about South African mountains means that the pass ahead is: A, steep and B, has a radar station at the summit.
The road is one and a bit car width wide and the parking area is nearly as steep as the road to it. As I pulled into the parking area the food vendor was reversing his oversized trailer into position for the weekend. He had a spotter guiding him back as the solid trailer blocked his view entirely. The spotter and I made eye contact. He indicated for the vendor to stop and waved me on. Clearly the driver of the other vehicle never saw any of these movements and started to edge his trailer back. Seeing impending disaster, I floored the accelerator and my bakkie lurched forward, but not fast enough.
With a sickening crunch the trailer smashed into my tail light. Shit happens. To cars and surfboards.
After the preceding two days I wasn’t too focused on the bike race anymore. Yet it was still a great day out. The Gallows is basically a 100 kilometre loop, starting at Lord's Wine Estate outside McGregor, with an arduous 11 kilometre climb tacked on at the end from Lords to the summit of Galgeberg. The finale includes around 1 000 metres of climbing at 8.7% with the final bad asphalt 5.7 kilometre road averaging 11%.
The loop before the climb was simply fantastic. Rolling gravel roads along the northern slopes of the Sonderend Mountains, then a tarmac stretch parallel to the Breede River and a crossing of the Steenbokhoogte pass. Back in the McGregor valley, the route turns right, away from town, following the Robertson road to the start of the Kingskloof gravel road. That took us back to McGregor, where a wiggle around the side of the town linked us back onto the Lord's road.
Remarkably, given the amount of riding I’d done in the build-up to the race, I was feeling relatively good by the time I passed through McGregor for the second time. What made this more surprising was the fact that I’d spent 50 kilometres riding solo, after the group I’d freeloaded with for the first 40 kilometres broke up.
After refuelling at the water point just outside town, I set off for the Galge with every intention to ride to the summit. The only catch was that my car was parked at Lord's. And from the road, I could see people enjoying wine tastings and lunch in the soft winter sunshine…
On the first ramps of the pass, I decided riding was an error. I’d done over 100 kilometres already. A headwind was picking up, and my ankle which I’d injured a couple of weeks before was not entirely happy with out-of-the-saddle efforts. So two kilometres into the climb, I swung round and rolled back to Lord's for a cappuccino, a bottle of water, a glass of MCC (I can highly recommend the Lord's Wines MCC Brut) and a home-made chicken pot pie. Sitting on the terrace soaking up the sun, I was entirely content with my decision.
Later I heard that a guy who had been in Renata’s group, at the foot of the climb, bonked and spent over two hours riding and walking the 11 kilometre climb. That could have easily been me. Caffeine, bubbles and food were the better choice. By far!
My good decisions didn’t bring my run of bad luck to an end, however. At 2am the next morning I awoke to the sound of someone on the roof of the accommodation we were staying in. When I got out of bed to investigate, the door opened, and a would-be intruder poked his head into the room.
I shouted “Voetsek!” at him and he bolted into the quad between the buildings. Without thinking, I gave chase and, within seconds, had him cornered, with me blocking the exit at the opening of the U-shaped garden within the house. For what felt like minutes, but could only have been seconds, every time he jinked left or right, I covered his route of retreat. Separated by an unlit fire pit, we traded insults, and I hoped one of the other tenants would come and lend support.
Then he pulled out a knife. And exclaimed “Ek het ‘n mes!” It looked like a broad-bladed chef’s knife from the quick glimpse I got. But that was all it took to convince me to step aside, and I moved left as he bolted past to my right. With enviable agility he scaled the stone wall and was gone, knife and all. Fortunately, though, without having stolen anything.
It’s probably unsurprising that The Gallows itself didn’t make a massive impression on me, given the general excitement of my long weekend. That shouldn’t put you off though. It’s an awesome route, especially if you want to ride one of the toughest climbs in the Western Cape on tired legs. As far as I know, there is no public access to the Galgeberg, at least not beyond Heaven’s View. So, the only time you can get up there is during the race; unless you know a guy, speak good Afrikaans and have a bottle of Klippies on you for smoothing land access negotiations.
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