The second edition of the Rainmaker RollerCoaster, organised by HotChillee, ran between October 5 and October 11, 2019 in South Africa. Covering 600km from Swellendam to Plettenberg Bay, it took advantage of the country’s extensive network of gravel roads and, over six competitive racing stages and a final processional stage, delivered a sensational event that should be on any gravel grinders must-do list. You can race as a pair, solo or simply ride at your own pace and enjoy a fully supported adventure.
Racing as a pair, I partnered up with Siphé Ncapayi, a 19-year old development rider from the Kwano Cycling Academy. I’d met Siphé when I’d ridden the event recce in 2018 and the Kwano riders had joined us for the final day. I knew from then that he was a strong rider and hoped he’d be kind to me as I was more than twice his age!
Stage 1 – 28km / 283m Swellendam – Swellendam
Having made the three-hour transfer from Cape Town to Swellendam, built up our bikes and settled into camp, this short early evening “Prologue Stage” was supposed to be about giving bike and body and bit of a shakedown. However line-up 70 riders, fire a starting gun and it doesn’t take long for the competitive juices to begin to flow.
A block headwind on the opening road section strung out the field and, with a couple of hard digs, Siphé and I got off the front and, hitting the first gravel of the trip, started to ride away. Riding initially through orchards and then riverside single-track, we were pushing hard. The trail then opened out onto a 2km drag but stunning views of the surrounding mountains, ostriches and giraffes distracted us from our effort. A blistering descent tailgating wildebeest put huge grins on both of our faces and, in a little over 56 minutes, we crossed the line.
Bikes and bodies had both felt pretty good and, having set the fastest time and put 3:47 in the second-placed pairing from the Velokhaya Cycling Academy, had given ourselves a solid opening buffer.
Stage 2 – 97km / 1430m Swellendam – Swellendam
After the previous evening’s short but sharp effort, a 20km neutralised roll-out through the Bontebok National Park was a welcome leg loosener but, as we lined up for the start proper, it was obvious, as they edged their way to the front of the field, that a few of the other teams were gunning for us.
On the gun, we crested a short climb at a blistering pace and were then faced with a gravel road stretching to the horizon. The constantly rolling road soon thinned us out into a lead group of three teams, us, Velokhaya and Songezo Academy, and, with 40km to cover until the neutralised river crossing at Malgas, there was barely a meter of flat riding. The RollerCoaster was living up to its moniker and, with great gravel and a solid working group, our average speed hovered at 36kph. On one fast descent, Siphé lost a bottle but, with the group travelling so fast, there was no question of stopping to pick it up. It was 20km to the feed station and, although I had a little water to spare, Siphé was forced to tough it out on just a few sips.
Reaching the river as a group, we had a chance to recover, refill our bottles and take advantage of the amazing feed station, that included an impromptu mini-Braai – South African BBQ, while the hand-drawn ferry filled up with vehicles. After we’d crossed the river, we were straight into a tough climb and, with café legs, I had to dig in hard to stick with the front group. Although we’d been joined by a few more riders while waiting for the ferry, it didn’t take long for the constantly undulating terrain to thin us down again.
Constantly seeking out the smoothest line, our group snaked from side to side and, although there was a bit more caginess to the group, the overall pace just didn’t drop. On yet enough kicker, I heard a shout from behind. Siphé was cramping, paying for the early pace and missed hydration. I dropped back to him, tried to pace him as best as I could but the other two teams had a gap and were riding away from us. In a cloud of dust our lead was disappearing up the road but we knew what had gone wrong and that there was plenty of racing ahead of us. As we spun our legs out on the 5km neutralised run-in, Siphé kept re-hydrating, his cramping stopped and I was confident we’d make amends tomorrow.
The Velokhaya riders had averaged over 45kph for the 30km from the ferry and had reduced our lead on GC to a mere 35 seconds but I hoped that they might have overdone it.
Stage 3 – 109km / 1974m Swellendam – Riversdale
Lying in our tent, I’d asked Siphé how he wanted to play things on this stage. His plan was to get on the front and ramp up the pace on a technical section about 4km in to form a smaller workable group for a 10km flat road section. We’d then ride tempo on the first climb of the day to keep the group together and then sit on it for the following rolling section. The crux of the day had been christened Alpe D’Huez and that’s where Siphé planned for us to make our move. Climbing 400m over 3.5km with ramps over 25% and rough gravel on the steepest pitches, it was a ballsy call.
After a bonus 13km on the neutralised roll-out due to a navigational error which, as I was on the front, I was blamed for, the pace built steadily until we turned off the wide gravel road. Then, as planned, hitting a steep boulder-strewn field, Siphé got on the front and unleashed hell. Part one of the plan worked perfectly and, after a steep and technical descent, we hit the tarmac in a group of eight riders – the three lead teams and two solo riders. On the road, we rolled along well as a group and, although there was a bit of cat and mouse with the Velokhaya riders, no other riders bridged across. Back on the dirt, we held things together on the first climb and then, on the run into the Alpe, Siphé and I did as little work as possible.
As we steadily descended the mountains closed in around us and it was obvious that soon the only way out would be up. A left turn marked the start of the climb and a gravel wall loomed ahead of us. Siphé moved to the front and, on the opening 10-15% slopes, set a relentless tempo. We shed riders and soon it was just us and Velokhaya. As the gradient increased and the surface deteriorated, I ground my way to the front and upped the pace. Finally, we split the Velokhaya pair and, although one stayed with us, his partner had cracked completely. By the summit, we’d pulled out a couple of minutes gap and, moving quickly through the feed station, we knew this was our chance. We launched down the descent, barely touching our brakes and, crossing the river at the bottom, there was no-one in sight.
With 76km ridden, I knew from the recce how tough the remaining 33km were. With two more smaller but still significant climbs and then constant kicks, chasing was going to be really tough and demoralising. I reckoned, if we could just ride consistently and stay out of sight, we’d pull out some more time. We started really well but gradually our pace slowed and we were soon running on fumes. Every descent seemed to be followed by a steep ramp and the corrugations (aka washboard) just got worse and worse. We limped through the final feed station at 98km and the last couple of small climbs had us in our smallest gears and zig-zagging. Finally, with 5km to go, we crested the final ramp and were able to enjoy the downhill run-in to the finish.
Then the waiting started and, as 5, 10 and then 15 minutes passed, it was clear that, although we’d found it tough, Siphé’s plan had worked perfectly and others had found it tougher. In the end, we won the stage by 19:43 over Velokhaya and extended our lead on GC to just over 20 minutes.
Stage 4 – 111km / 2197m Riversdale – Calitzdorp
With a good cushion, we planned to ride defensively and, with two big passes bookending today’s stage, try to not dig too deep into our reserves. The first climb was the steady road climb of the Garcia Pass and, by riding tempo, we whittled things down to a group of about ten riders. On the descent, I was aware of a jangling noise but this was nothing to do with my bike. Due to the navigational mishap yesterday, I was having to ride the stage wearing a fake bling rapper’s chain. Although we were racing hard, as with all HotChillee events, there was a lot of fun and a few beers each evening.
After 25km, we turned off the tarmac and onto a rolling strip of gravel that snaked into the distance, weaving a pallid white line through the reds and oranges of the Klein Karoo desert. With a tailwind we ripped along and, despite our speed rarely dropping below 40kph, the mountains in the distance that we had to cross never seemed to get any closer.
Fortunately, given that temperatures can easily be above 40C in this region at this time of year, overcast skies and our speed kept me cool. However, as we finally reached the foot of the mountains, the clouds melted away and the mercury started to rise. So too did the gravel and, although the climb of the Rooiberg Pass is officially just under 8km in length, in reality, you’re gaining height with the odd descent for 16km.
I was feeling good as we hit the bottom of the climb proper and Siphé seemed to be riding strong too so, I went to the front and gradually upped the pace. I found myself riding away from the group but Siphé seemed to be staying in it. I wasn’t going hard, felt comfortable and maybe, if I held my pace and a bit of a gap, maybe Siphé could bide his time and then bridge across. Maybe it was the sun baking my head or the lack of oxygen from my effort but, looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking. After multiple tantalising false summits, I reached the feed station alone and, rather than seeing Siphé bridging across, the Velokhaya riders had left him in the group and sailed past me as I waited.
I frantically got food and bottles ready for him and, as he rolled in, I apologised profusely for my idiocy and gave him plenty of time to chill and recover. The descent off the Rooiberg was rocky and technical and I knew that the Velokhaya boys, who’d opted for MTB’s, would rip down it. The temptation was to chase hard but I figured a puncture or crash would cost us more time and so we took it steady. Once back on the flat gravel though I reckoned I owed Siphé so, I waved him onto my wheel, went into TT mode and did my best to recoup some of the time I’d lost us.
With a couple of kilometres left, I saw the Velokhaya boys in the distance and put in a final push. Siphé had recovered on my wheel, put in a couple of pulls and we managed to limit our losses to just 2 minutes.
Stage 5 – 53km / 412m Calitzdorp – Oudtshoorn
Given that we were in the desert and the ostrich farming capital of the world, a forecast of 10-12 Celcius, rain and wind was a bit of a surprise. Although short and flat, I’d been eyeing up as stage as, coming from a track and time trial background, I knew it’d suit me. This was unlike Stage 6, which had multiple climbs and, although I can ride rollers well and usually have one or two bigger climbs in my legs, I’m 80kg and the profile filled me with dread – I knew we might well need a cushion. Also, sitting at breakfast, both the Velokhaya and Songezo teams were togged up as if they were going for a polar adventure and their body language definitely didn’t say “we’re racing”.
During the 5km neutralised roll out, I checked in with Siphé, told him to stick on my wheel and be ready for my jumps. As it turned out, we got a gap on our first attack on a badly corrugated short climb, went full bore for 5 minutes to cement the gap and then I settled into my TT effort.
I felt great and, with a stiff headwind, imagined a half-hearted and disorganised chase behind. As previously planned, we blasted through the feed station at 30km without stopping.
The final 10km followed a riverside trail and got increasingly technical and fun. Siphé came though a put in some turns and, once again, it was a waiting game. Minutes after we finished a group of riders came in but it contained none of our rivals and then the heavens opened in a downpour. There’d been no rain in Oudtshoorn for 7 weeks and I knew that this deluge would make the trail we’d just ridden in the dry trickier and slower.
The sodden Velokhaya team came in 16:44 after us and, although delighted with our ride, I’d gone pretty deep and my stomach seemed a bit unsettled. As we sat on the veranda, watching giraffe and springbok, I just hoped that the 34:57 we had on GC would be enough given the profile of the final racing day to come.
Stage 6 – 106km / 1920m Oudtshoorn – Uniondale
After a freezing night, my stomach felt decidedly odd at breakfast and I didn’t set off feeling very confident. Even on the 7km roll-out, I didn’t feel right. My legs felt okay but just sipping on my bottle made me belch and retch a little. The other factor that had been thrown into the mix was that, with her African Cup race having been cancelled, we’d been joined by top pro rider Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and her ex-pro triathlete husband Carl Pasio. It was obvious from the start that Ashleigh wanted a decent training hit out and, once the flag dropped, was drilling it on the front.
I hung on from as long as I could, even trying to coax myself into action by putting in some pulls but with every climb, I felt myself weakening. I tried riding the descents hard to get ahead but eventually the inevitable happened, the elastic snapped and, on a longer climb, the group rode away from me. Siphé pulled in front of me and, on a flatter section, we bridged back on but, as soon as the gravel kicked back up again, my legs failed me. I kept on being sick and was struggling to keep anything down.
To compound the situation, despite a cold start, the sun was now blazing down and a headwind blowing hard. Siphé nursed me along and, despite only being halfway through the stage, he knew we were in crisis management mode.
I tried switching to Coke at the feed stations but the goosebumps on my arms and legs, increasing nausea and headache all indicated I was becoming really dehydrated. I was so grateful to have Siphé with me and, when I could extract myself from my pain cave, the scenery was absolutely stunning. With 30km to go, I distracted myself by trying to work out how much time we’d be losing but my brain was fully engaged with just getting my muscles to keep my pedals turning.
Finally, having crested yet another climb, we saw the finish. Crossing the line and dabbing our timing chips, we asked the marshal how far back we were and she guessed at about 10 minutes. Surprised at how little this was and not 100% convinced we hesitantly congratulated each other but knew we wouldn’t be happy until the results were confirmed at the awards that evening.
We still had another 10km on the tarmac to cover though to get to camp and, with more hills, more wind and our fatigue, it seemed to take an eternity. When we did finally get in, I really wasn’t feeling good and any attempts to drink resulted in me being sick. Finally, the race medics intervened, put me on a drip and, as it worked its magic, I found out that we’d only lost 9:43 and had won the race by a final margin of 25:14. I rallied for the awards that night and it felt great to stand on the top step of the podium with Siphé. We’d ridden far from the perfect race but the course, his company and the simply stunning South African gravel had made it the most memorable event I’d ever taken part in.
Stage 7 (Neutralised) – 90km / 1392m Uniondale – Plettenberg Bay
Despite the race having concluded, we still had to get to the finish at the Kwano Academy and then on to Plettenberg Bay. Once it’d been confirmed that there was no need for me to ride for our win to stand, the medics, based on the fact that I was still not feeling 100% and it was forecast to be 30C+, refused to let me ride.
I was gutted but knew how deep I’d gone yesterday and, although sure that I could have limped through, the point of the day was a fun social ride, not a suffer-fest. Riding the stage in a support vehicle, I was even more disappointed as the scenery and the trails were some of the best that the RollerCoaster had delivered. A seemingly endless descent through a gorge that resembled a film set, breathtaking ridge lines and wonderfully smelling pine forests.
It was great to see Siphé riding into his home township, the academy that had nurtured his cycling talent and even past his home. He proudly showed me the school he’d attended and deservedly received the plaudits of his friends and family.
Ride it Yourself
The 2020 Rainmaker RollerCoaster will take place between October 3 and October 9 and entries open on October 18, 2019.
Whether you intend to race or ride, it’s a gravel adventure that’s genuinely unique.
The route is being further refined and improved for 2020 and will offer a full seven stages of racing.
For more details go to https://www.hotchillee.com/event/rainmaker-rollercoaster/
All photos in this article by Daniel Hughes