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Enduring blazing hot sunshine, endless horizons and miles and miles of dirt roads on Hotchillee's first 7-Day Gravel Race, Shimano rider Daniel Hughes discovers what this new South African race has to offer.

It's Monday morning and I’ve just got off the phone to events organising company Hotchillee. I’ve just agreed to ride their inaugural 7-Day Gravel Race in three days’ time. I have a box of Shimano Dura-Ace components and a Pinarello GAN GR frame to build. Flights? I’m not even sure where the race starts let alone where I need to fly to! First things first, I make a call to my local bike shop.

Together with the guys at the Pinarello flagship store in London we set about building a badass gravel machine. To say I was excited was an understatement, the Dura-Ace equipment was almost too pretty to use. The build was in the capable hands of master builder Mike. After next to no time he'd created the end result. It was a beast of a bike. No excuses now, I thought, next stop Cape Town!

Bike build

A race against time

Matt, a master of bike builds, installing the Dura-Ace shifters

Getting to South Africa

After 72 hours of frantic organising I got to the airport. Further drama came.
I handed over my passport to the woman at the check-in desk. She flicked through my passport then picked up the phone. I overheard, “he doesn’t have two clear pages….right okay, he can’t travel.” My heart sank. It turns out to go to South Africa you need two clear pages in your passport and I only had one.

I was in a state of shock and spent the rest of the night trying to get an emergency appointment at the Embassy in London. Fortunately I managed to get an emergency passport the next morning, I made the next flight and was still in time to make one of the final Hotchillee transfers to the race start in Swellendam, 3 hours east of Cape Town.

Catch the flight to face the challenge

Race or Ride?

After arriving and finding my tent my first priority was to unpack and build up my bike. As anti-social as it is the first thing I do when I get to a race is check and double-check my equipment. Everything was looking great and working perfectly, what a relief!

Next was to work out my race strategy. I had the option to race in a pair but I decided that this was the trip of a lifetime and I wanted to enjoy it. Instead I chose to tag along with Francis Cade and Nick Muzik, still riding hard but knowing we would also stop to film and photograph what was sure to be a spectacular few days.

Good preparation is half the battle

The Prologue – Swellendam – Swellendam – 16KM

Although this was a timed stage I’m pretty sure the purpose of it was to make sure that everyone’s equipment was ready for the next six days. Either way the racers tore off, led by 2008 World MTB champ Christoph Sauser no less, and that pace carried through to the general riders too. It was super rough mountain bike conditions and I was shaken around like a ragdoll! Despite the short distance I was very happy to get off the bike at the end of the stage.

Rough mountain bike conditions with stunning scenery!

Stage 2 – Swellendam – Swellendam – 58KM

The prologue was useful for helping everyone adjust to the conditions and it told me that I needed to lower my tyre pressures by another 3-4 psi (0.25 bar) to help mitigate some of the lumps and bumps.

There was an easier pace at the start this time and the groups stuck together pretty well. We were in a group of around 20 riders and we spent the next hour or so together until we found a pretty cool place to get some shots.

Bird's eye view

After the photo stop it was just me and Francis so we pushed on at quite a lick. Francis also races for a team so we were a great combo. Both keen for fast riding and getting some great photos.

Although stage 2 wasn’t numerically long it was described as a solid ride. That it was. Terrain where you absolutely should have been on a full suspension mountain bike led to me ripping a tyre and having to revert to tubes. Tubeless can be your best friend but it’s a right faff when it goes wrong – sealant everywhere!

Climb, descend, climb, descend, and danger!

- photo credit Nick Muzik

"It was indeed a solid technical day proving to me just how versatile gravel bikes are."

Stage 3 Swellendam – Riversdale – 107KM

For the past two nights we’d enjoyed luxury tents, food and even a few beers. My kind of event! But on stage 3 it was time to move the race to Riversdale.

The start was on road and the group stuck together until we got scattered in a field of doom. Imagine a grass field with an incline and polished rocks the size of your fist. What a nightmare to cycle on. After some comical riding everyone dismounted, shouldered their bikes and started running cyclocross-style through the field.

Running cyclocross-style

We re-grouped and spent several hours ripping down some awesome trails in between riding on tarmac or dirt roads at a relaxed place.

Miles and miles of rolling countryside passed until we hit the first climb of the day. It was my kind of climb, 7% most of the time which allowed me to tune into my sweet spot (310w) and keep a nice steady cadence. That is where a power meter is so useful. I was using the Shimano Dura-Ace 9100 dual sided power meter and it’s a very neat upgrade, working perfectly too in these testing gravel conditions.

A few more 200m or so climbs and then fast paced rollers all the way down to Riversdale. A peach of a day, except for the ridiculous puncture in the carpark at the finish.

Francis looking back

Stage 4 Riversdale to Calitzdorp – 109KM

We had a neutralised start on the Tarmac with a police escort until the groups naturally split. Me and Francis were with the pro racers and we rode tempo up a pretty decent climb, before hitting a stunning descent.

Then came a right turn onto gravel and suddenly the red mist descended for everyone. Full gas! The pace was on and it was fun to lay down some big watts.

Riding in front of the group - photo credit Nick Muzik

Some kilometers down the road though Francis punctured. Hotchillee ride captain David stopped to help us. He grabbed a can of sealant, attempted to apply it and the can exploded spraying sealant all over his face. It was hysterical and had us doubled over, providing a much-needed comical respite during the stress of the race.

Once the laughter stopped we got going again through semi-desert and 40+ degrees temperatures. The infamous Rooiberg pass was ahead with 550m of climbing and 69 hairpins on loose and rocky gravel. It was sweltering with zero breeze but we eventually hit the summit absolutely dripping in sweat. The views were gorgeous, but all I could think about was getting out of the sun and off the mountain.

I fully expected to be rewarded with an epic descent, which I guess we were, but on super rough spine-shattering terrain. I felt robbed and totally beaten by it. To make matters worse we were then greeted by one hell of a crosswind. In Belgian conditions Francis and I rode in an echelon, taking it in turns to provide cover for each other. What a beautiful yet torturous stage. This one hurt!

Stage 5 Calitzdop to Oudtshoorn – 53KM

Stage 5 was a rest day of sorts, a flat parcours with a tailwind and a surprising number of ostrich farms. Actually though the highlight of the day was reaching a game reserve with an oasis of a lake and the most chilled out giraffe you’re ever likely to see. That guy just wanted love and attention, and it turns out he digged my bike too – even giraffes know badass equipment!

Stage 6 – Oudtshoorn to Knysna – 140KM

Batteries re-charged after the ‘rest’ day and everyone was firing on all cylinders for a big day in the saddle. This was classic American-style gravel riding with compacted gravel rollers, high speeds and dust clouds filling the air.

Group riding the gravel

Our group thinned out to just a few, to then just to me and Francis by the time we hit one of the best descents I’ve ever done. It was high speed descending through epic mountains and it carried on for miles, until an enforced stop came. We’d reached the outskirts of a city called George where a police escort was laid on for us.

I’ve had a police escort before, but nothing like this. Rolling road closures, more police cars and sirens than I could count and the locals thinking ‘who the hell are these idiots!’ It was comical and badass at same time.

Me and Francis – photo credit Nick Muzik

After that adrenaline rush Nick told us that we were in third place, which got us even more motivated. We put in a huge effort for the next 30kms. I had no idea how fast we were going, but once we hit Tarmac we were in full TT mode with the world screaming past until we hit the finish. A great way to end the day but little did we know that this would be final day of riding.

Stage 7 – Knysna – Plettenberg Bay – 74KM

"Is it me or do I hear rain? And did I leave my shoes outside?" Up until now we’d had consistent hot and dry days… "It can’t be raining?!" It was. Worse still, it was totally lashing down and had been all night.

Funny how you can wish for cooler temps and no more sunshine, only to immediately change your mind when it happens. The mood was solemn at breakfast. Less than 10 degrees and torrential rain, riding in this would suck.

The start time was delayed and the route was changed. Stage 7 was due to involve technical steep riding in epic forests but after a recce it was deemed unsafe. The Event team were in full re-planning mode to skirt that section. Further disappointment came as we couldn’t get the necessary permissions for the revised route, but a jewel in the crown was still on the cards with a visit the Kwano Cycling Academy.

We changed out of our cycling gear to spend some time with inspiring and talented riders who needed support. These kids had very little and the day before we had donated excess equipment to keep them on the road.

photo credit Nick Muzik

This is grass roots level and it was great to give something back. If you have any gear or want to help out these guys check out the Buffalo Foundation.

Before I knew it the experience of a lifetime was over and I was at 34,000 feet flying home again. How can I summarise this trip

photo credit Nick Muzik

Totally epic!