What should have been the week of the 2020 HotChillee Rollercoaster gravel stage race has got me looking back at last years epic event. This was an incredible adventure and a real privilege to have been a part of. The HotChillee Rollercoaster has quickly acquired the reputation as one of the best gravel races in the world. Unsurprisingly the 2020 edition has been cancelled due to the current pandemic but we’re looking forward to riding the event again when the world is a little more normal.

Checking bike bags in at LHR was the start of a journey accompanied by an interesting and inspirational bunch of riders; we knew quite a few taking the same flight through previous gravel and road events in the UK so the banter started immediately. Stuart and I were relieved that our hire car in Cape Town managed to fit both of our 1816 L’Enfer du Nord bikes, all of our kit, our massive grins, and off we set. A rebuild and shakedown of the bikes that would be facing their most demanding challenge yet (and for us to scout out a café for the following morning) was priority for an evening stop in Cape Town.

An early, coffee-fueled, start for the drive from Cape Town to Swellendam was filled with intrepid anticipation as we’d have a taster of the week to come on that evenings Prologue stage. A remote farm-setting was ‘base camp’ for the first couple of nights in safari tents and what a scene it was; enhanced by a big crew of riders and support staff all there to take out any stress and make this challenge as enjoyable as it could be. The hospitality, the food, the drinks and the camaraderie were instantly on show to make for a great week.

The evening prologue was a real shock to the expectations of just how much we would see, and how close, we would be to the incredible wildlife of the African bush. A sandy start through vineyards took us on to a short road section where a small peloton formed; everyone taking their turn on the front, before an abrupt right-hand turn on to the rough gravel. This rough wake-up call soon stretched out the group. Despite being awestruck by the scenery and the wildlife, somehow I finished P7 overall and P4 in category. This was going to be fun! Stage 01 overall position: 7Stage 01 category position: 4

Stage 02 was a 97km loop with wide, flowing gravel roads, Mars-scapes and a chain ferry rest-stop. Timing was stopped whilst we hauled the chain ferry across the water. Some race sections were super-fast, other sections were really hard work but the support and camaraderie was already establishing and we sailed along with a buzz. The right approach at this time seemed to be ride with mates and appreciate the scenery; I didn’t think about racing! Stage 2A overall position: 12Stage 2A category position: 7Stage 2A overall GC position: 14Stage 2A category GC position: 9Stage 2B overall position: 20Stage 2B category position: 14Stage 2B overall GC position: 15Stage 2B category GC position: 9

Stage 03 had been dubbed ‘Alpe D’Huez’ thanks to one of the climbs that took us the lumpy route from Buffeljagsrivier to Riversdale, about 112km. The hard work climbing on these epic roads in the wind had a bonus… the descents on these gravel tracks and boulder-laden field crossings meant we couldn’t fail but to have a great ride. The event campsite on the school field being the setting to grab a massage, eat well and try to recover before another big day. Stage 03 overall position: 12Stage 03 category position: 7Stage 03 overall GC position: 9Stage 03 category GC position: 4

Stage 04 started with a road section over Garcias Pass which felt Grand Tour worthy before turning off the highway and on to a gravel scene that was other-worldly. I wasn’t expecting that later that morning we’d be riding over the mountain range just about visible on the horizon. Between here and there, I buddied up with a local rider to pull each-other along the groads. This was quick. Summiting that mountain range not too far behind the lead group, made up mostly of the teams, I was met by photographer Dan Hughes at the remote feed station saying he needed a model. Seeing there was no one else around, meant automatic volunteering! Barely taking a moment to refill water bottles and eat some homemade cake, I couldn’t wait for the descent on the Rooiberg Pass and some great shots from Dan. The descent was utterly insane. My eyeballs were on storks navigating me through an incredibly rocky and rutted, fast but twisting descent.My 1816 L’Enfer du Nord bike was holding up better than my bone-shaken arms and legs for the time trial effort past the first of the ostrich fields. It was at this point that achieving a respectable overall GC position started playing on my mind. Thankfully, it wasn’t too far for another evening of great hospitality, food, drink, massage and rest to finish the 113km day. Stage 04 overall position: 8Stage 04 category position: 3Stage 04 overall GC position: 8Stage 04 category GC position: 3

Stage 05 was ‘no-Lycra-Wednesday’ or ‘rest-day’. The incessant head wind made sure this wasn’t a rest day and having struggled to hang on to the wheels of the team riders I chose to ‘loiter’ at the feed station for the next group of riders to come in and make the second half of this stage more sociable! The reward was camping at another game reserve and a giraffe just feet away whilst I had a massage under the veranda just out of the rain. Stage 05 overall position: 10 Stage 05 category position: 6 Stage 05 overall GC position: 8 Stage 05 category GC position: 3

Stage 06 was the longest of the week at 117km and nearly as lumpy as most of the rest of the week! We were joined by South African National Champion and Team CCC Liv world tour professional, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio for the final 2 days of riding and she didn’t hang about – not many could keep her wheel today! Stunning groads took us past ostrich farms, through twisting hill passes, into sheep herds and ultimately more riding with mates before being able to ‘tap-out’ on timing at the end of the gravel before a tarmac cruise to that evenings campsite and the final night braai!Stage 06 overall position: 9Stage 06 category position: 5Stage 06 overall GC position: 7Stage 06 category GC position: 2

Stage 07 was a fast start, and despite not being a timed stage, Ashleigh set a relentless pace on the first road section before helping us in on the gravel section approaching Kwanokathula Township. Ultimately, today was about witnessing the handover of 50 Qhubeka bikes to the school kids at Kwano Cycling Academy; hearing their stories, seeing the township they live in and having them ride with us on their new bikes. A truly humbling moment and something I’ve since continued to follow and support. The day finished rolling on to the beach at Plettenburg Bay, watching dolphins and eating pizza.

A total of over 600km and nearly 10,000m of climbing had taken us from Buffeljagsrivier near Swellendam to Plettenberg Bay on an almighty adventure over 7 days. My late thoughts on GC gave a surprise 2nd place overall in the mens single GC, and 7th overall amongst the teams from a total of 90 riders. Both 1816 L’Enfer du Nord bikes had held up without issue, not even a puncture! Check the bikes out in our shop.

Catching a lift back to the start to collect our hire car; we both needed a rest but the real sense of achievement, enthusiasm and adrenaline kept us moving and awake at this point. What other mode of transport could take you through these environments, let you meet such great people from all walks of life and leave your face aching from the unrelenting smile whilst your legs burned?

Keep a lookout for the 1816 L’Enfer du Nord gravel bikes in the event highlights video:


All photography:
Dan Hughes www.epiccols.com I. @danielhughesuk