The story of the mid-summer 270km gravel epic ridden by James Thompson, Luke Roberts and Charles Keey.


James: Luke! How you bru?

Luke: Ya good and you bru?

James: Good good. Do you want to ride from Stockdale to Kenton, in the Eastern Cape?

Luke: I’m in!!! … Over how many days?

“That is exactly how my first conversation with James Thompson went. James and his Bike Market Team are infamous for cooking up these rides and this latest Bike Market experience, was no different. Only after a few days and a coffee, did I fully grasp that the idea was to ride 270km in one day, on gravel roads, on gravel bikes. Originally it was going to be just James and I but with less than a week till kick-off, Charles Keey secured a ‘late entry’. The scene was set: three riders, three gravel bikes, one mission – Chasing the Sun. We wanted beers on the Bushmans river for sunset.

gravel riding stockdale
The start, a farm in Stockdale. Where the pre-ride Lagers were just as they should be: cold and endless in supply.

We touched down in Stockdale mid-afternoon on Thursday and in true bogan style, we began sinking beers, the day before a 270km gravel ride. By supper time at 21:00, we had already thrown back half a case of Lion and the gravity of the ride began to dawn. Then, in typical Alex Bramley fashion, he arrived late but little did we know how much we were going to need a follow car.

My alarm sounded at 04:00, I gingerly swung my legs off the edge of the bed and rubbed my eyes. This was it, shit just got real. We packed the car: Coke, Bar Ones and some boiled eggs that Charlie had very eagerly boiled the previous night. Sunrise to sunset, that was the goal, Chasing the Sun. It was 04:54, the first rays of sun stretched over the mountain range, licking the tip of the surrounding trees. “Click, click, click” and we rolled down the driveway. We knew we had 14hrs of daylight to make Bushmans for sunset. We had to ride steady and limit stop time.

Stockdale Sign
Just after sunrise, about an hour in, the morale was all-time!
gravel riding in stockdale south africa
gravel bikes stockdale
early on – hour in – stopped to shoot it – white knuckling it

After an early flat we soon regathered the squad and were making good distance. Breakfast was in Somerset East, after 2h30 on the bike we were keen to load up for the rest of the day. A picturesque scene of a local lady selling braai meat and roosterbrood greeted us. I got some meat and bread while the others played it safe with the ‘bread only’ option. Morale was high and time lost was minimal. We could not resist, ok I’ll clarify, I could not resist.

long gravel ride nutrition
Luke [John?] Roberts supporting the community. – Caption by Charles

From Somerset East the riding got real. We had a long stretch to Middleton where the roads were relentless, rough and corrugated AF. We ticked over nicely and stopped every now and then to refuel with coke and a bar one. Probably a little too confident and casual to think about it. Charlie has been badgering us about the road outside Middleton, that ran parallel to the N10. The road had a bad rep and Charlie was making sure we knew what we were getting in to. JT and I had no bloody idea. We stopped at the turn-off and for a short moment contemplated rolling down the N10 instead.

two gravel riders on a dirt road
gravel grinding in south africa
three gravel cyclists on a dirt road
tired gravel rider with poc helmet
About 100km in, the heat and fatigue was on the up.

After 5 minutes we were all in the hurt box. Corrugations like you have never seen before. Three meters in breadth, as far as the eye could see. There was no way to navigate around them. The thing with corrugations is you have to ride a lower gear, sit further back on your seat and ride faster than normal. This allows the rider to ‘ping’ across the top of the corrugations rather than dropping down into each dip.

gravel grinding in the african heat
Heat, headwinds and corrugations were the order of the day.
water bottle on a gravel road

Back to this notorious road. It is likely to be the worst road in all of Africa – The Col du Corrugation. Each corrugation probably has a name and cat number. It took us some time to get through this section. I had never before had to stop on a flat road to take a breather but this was no usual road. I think one more puncture and a few more bar ones later we made it through. Bruised, battered and yet somewhat chippy as it could only get better from here? Right?

three riders taking a break on a gravel road
happy gravel rider
rondo ruut gravel bike
James Thompson, deep in the pain cave.

Alicedale was a true highlight. The temps were reaching 40*C and we could hardly pedal when we arrived. We ordered some burgers and beers. We jumped in a pool that probably hadn’t been cleaned in 2 years – we could tell by the sludge on the bottom. We didn’t care. Beers were cold, burgers were still frozen, morale was high. Life was good. I’m not sure there will be another time in my life where I will still chow a frozen burger but this was dire. The three of us, topless, dazed, dripping wet stumbled into the Alicedale Golf Club Pub. What happened next was something you couldn’t script. We said a few words to the bartender, pulled the cushions off of the couches and slept on the floor of the pub for the next hour. Phones irresponsibly placed around the floor, bikes carelessly outside, no shirts, soaking wet, sunburnt and fast asleep. We were happy, the staff was unfazed and life was good.

gravel rider poc panaracer

It took some time to get rolling again but we knew we had to. It was at this point where we acknowledged defeat and sunset on Bushmans was no longer attainable. We settled into a rhythm and started the 20km climb south of Alicedale. The temps peaked at 45*C and we were puzzling.

gravel riding at night
Approaching the end, we were all swerving badly and taking shots.
cycling leopard print shirt

There was no way of going for more than thirty minutes without a water break. Three broken men pedaling in squares, puzzling through the Eastern Cape must have been one helluva sight. An hour and a half later we finally got to the top… another break ensued. We were bleeding time and we didn’t care. This was a relatively fast section but the block headwind we had all day didn’t make it any easier.

I can’t remember a single descent were we actually freewheeled. None. Savage. Then came the lemon. The lemon Charlie sold us. The dreams of a short tar road climb. I remember Charlie’s words clearly, “You can see the top.” That was from the bottom. He uttered those words with the confidence of Trump on a Friday night twitter rant. We climbed for the next 20 minutes as the sun retreated over the distant hills.

We made it to Alexandria as the light vanished. We strapped on lights, refueled with some Appletiser, sat down for a rest and slid on a jacket. The final stretch was ahead. It is interesting how gravel takes on a whole new form when darkness hits. The corrugations look deadly but often aren’t. The roads look smooth but are often sand traps.

The final act of the play came to a close at 21:00. We were done. 16hrs out there. Just under 12hrs pedaling.

It doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun.” – Ciao, Luke