The run with a view – of the world!
Since 1994 there has been a run down the Sani Pass in the southern Drakensburg which is part of a world heritage site. This awesome event commences with a 4x 4 drive from the ‘base’ at the Sani Pass hotel to the top of the pass at over 9000ft. Once everyone is up they literally run off the edge to plummet their way back to the hotel in a distance of 21km.
Typically the clouds are just that bit lower than the top of the pass, and it is like walking out on cotton wool as the leg-jarring 21km descent takes every last bit of energy from the quads! – a feeling that will live with the runners for almost a week afterwards.
In the last two years the numbers have escalated dramatically as the race now offers an up run (21km) a down run (21km) and the up and back (42.2km) – this is not one to attempt as a Comrades qualifier as the winning time is only just under 3 hours 30 minutes, and the fastest time to the top is 1 hour 58 minutes.
However for views, challenge, and a really enjoyable weekend – there is little to beat the Sani Stagger and with entries limited by the vehicles getting to the top, you had better reserve your place for the 2003 race now!!!
Even if you do survive the Saturday challenge, you can always attempt Sunday’s ‘workout’ – a mere 66km mountain bike race – taking you just that little bit further – but a whole lot higher!!! Read on.
It takes a special sort of cyclist to take on a classic mountain bike event. They are the kind of people who enjoy the natural surroundings. People who try to blend machines with nature and like a challenge of going everywhere, up or down, with the push of a pedal. For people like this the question is not whether to take the challenge, but how difficult can the challenge be made?
It seems that 150 mountain bikers found arguably the Toughest South African challenge in the Southern Drakensburg World Heritage site on 8 December this year.
While there has been a run down the Sani pass since 1994, many had dreamt of a cycle up and back the old mule track that joins Kwazulu Natal to the Kingdom of Lesotho. Race organiser Sam Knox took on the logistic challenge of ensuring a safe event, which would start and finish at the Sani Pass hotel a ‘mere’ 1577m above sea level – Basically not that different to Johannesburg. However in the next 33 km not only would riders be expected to crest out at the top of Sani Pass at the Lesotho border post, but also to go another 10kms into the Kingdom and then climb to an oxygen-depleted 3150 metres!
Although the road has improved since the days of the mule, there are sufficient rocks, river crossings, ruts and ridges to hold the attention of the most technically deviant mountain biker, particularly when speeding down the hairpin bends where the only alternative to the road is a free-fall plummet over ‘the edge of the world’ into the billowing clouds that hug the sides of the mountains.
There are gradients that force the most dedicated rider into a walk and push mode, where the only comfort is that it provides an opportunity to admire the view of where you have climbed from – Certainly views cannot be the focus on the speedy downhill.
The real work starts after passing through the South African Border post and soon on the horizon is the zig-zag route etched into the mountainside that leads like flights of stair to heaven. Like the South African counterparts, the Lesotho Border is open to the cyclists without the inconvenience of showing a passport and so they spin into the distance on a good dirt track, dispersing the muscle pain and waste of Sani climb. Soon however the real impact of Black Mountain pass is seen. 3km of steep-uphill and a snake of bike-pushing riders ahead! Suddenly there is the potential of increasing your time by 50%! Riding shoes never were designed to bend and the calf, hamstring push waddle is developed to speed things up, but lung-bursting altitude still restricts you to 4km per hour.
It is noticeable that riders (or should that be walkers) ahead take a long time to return on the down – Are they taking you further inland? No it is simply the attraction of a water and recovery spot at the turn, not to mention an awesome view.
The downhill is both exhilarating and entertaining as you hurtle earthwards like the space shuttle going through re-entry! The return takes well under half the time of the climb, and brings out the adrenalin junkie in each rider.
Interestingly the top riders take roughly the same length of time to get to the top of Sani Pas from the hotel as the top runners did the previous day. But in there lies another challenge- this year a couple of people attempted the up run on the Saturday and the full cycle on the Sunday. This is surely the beginning of a duathlon or triathlon challenge and next year the organisers are talking about a swim on the Saturday afternoon. Do one, do two or do all three – but one thing is certain the Sani Pass Challenge is a tough cookie and one that every mountain biker must do if they consider themselves a true adventure rider!!