Heritage Day 2023, or Braai Day as it is more commonly known in South Africa, coincides with the twenty third edition of the Lions Karoo to Coast mountain bike race; on Sunday, 24 September. Which is exceptionally fitting as the event is more than a mainstay of the South African cycling calendar. It is among the most iconic events in the country and provides 4 500 riders with a goal to keep them on their bikes through the cold winter months and provides a springboard from one-day events into stage races, thanks to its association with the Dr Evil Classic.
For many the Lions Karoo to Coast is their foray into competitive racing. Or their first big mountain biking challenge. Its route covers 100 kilometres, from Uniondale to Knysna, taking on the scenic Prince Alfred Pass and the beautiful indigenous forest roads through Kom se Pad. In total the course includes 1 560 metres of climbing. This makes it a significant test. More importantly though, it is the type of race that participants do again and again.
Winding through the vast wilderness of the Outeniqua Mountains, Prince Alfred Pass is the longest publicly accessible mountain pass in South Africa. It was first opened to light traffic in 1866 and is considered to be the finest work of the prolific road builder, Thomas Bain. Though the start is off one of the Karoo’s major throughfares and the finish is in the heart of the Garden Route, the course itself is relatively remote. The race thus provides an excellent opportunity to ride a famous pass, which one would otherwise never explore and celebrate in the heritage of the region.
There is no better way to soak in the sights, sounds and smells of the area than by bicycle. “There are over 300 kilometres of dirt roads and mountain bike trails in the area, complete with stunning mountains vistas and wide-open spaces, meaning you are spoiled for choice when it comes to mountain- and gravel biking from Uniondale,” said Joan Shaw; the CEO of George, Wilderness and Uniondale Tourism. “Beyond Lions Karoo to Coast’s iconic route there is so much riding to be done from Uniondale. We’d love to see more mountain bikers coming to stay in the Langkloof region before or after the race to explore more of the on- and off- the bike attractions too.”
On the bike the attractions of the Lions Karoo to Coast have been amplified for 2023. E-Bikes will be allowed for the first time. “We’re excited to announce the new E-Bike category,” race director Zandile Meneses smiled. “The E-Bike category will be a ‘fun’ ride one, with participants on electrically assisted bicycles starting in their own start group. We’d like E-Bikers to take it easy and enjoy the scenery, rather than trying to race the route. But with 100 kilometres to cover they will have to look after their battery anyway, so clever power management will be essential.”
“Gravel bikes and single speed mountain bikes will also be allowed this year,” Meneses confirmed. “They will be governed by the normal race rules and as such will be able to race against the conventional mountain bikes. I think it’ll be interesting to see if gravel bikes prove faster over the course. We’ve had a few unofficial finishers on gravel bikes in recent years, but mountain bikes have always won out. Perhaps that will change with road conditions though. The Ou Wapad, out of Uninondale to Avontuur, will probably be the crucial differentiating factor in the battle between gravel- and mountain bikes.”