How do you survive 700km of winter Karoo riding, through snow and sleet with 60km/hr winds, unsupported. Being self sufficient is a critical part of cycling etiquette. On the Tour of Ara, its lore. Here Kirsten unpacks some helpful and amusing insights she gained into preparing for, and surviving this unique multistage race.

Being self sufficient is a critical part of cycling etiquette. On the Tour of Ara, its lore.

The very ethos of the race is a intimate understanding of bicycle and rider. That which is required to ensure optimal performance of both must either be administered before the day begins or carried to be used as needed. Under the most extreme and glorious conditions, both bike and rider must be attended to, and for 700km of Karoo rumble, much was expected. As a self proclaimed newbie to cycling, here are some helpful and amusing insights I gained into preparing for, and surviving this unique multistage race:

Things that Fall Apart

Derailleurs fall apart. Clusters fall apart. Handbars fall apart. These must all be somehow reassembled on the road with what is available and given proper attention back at camp if you make it. Should you be in the unfortunate position of having a mechanical that involves your derailleur, experience has shown the best solution is to rip it off and convert your bike to a single speed machine [hipsters clap quietly with crocheted woolen gloves]. Remove chain links to ensure correct tension and be on your way.

– Carry a ‘chaintoolthingy’. They are very helpful to remove broken links.
– Vaseline, lipice or massage oil are essentials. Its terribly awkward to ask passers-by for lubrication.
– Its entirely possible to have 5 punctures on one day #quickrelease
– Always have zipties and duct tape.

If you have a crash or mechanical issue, be encouraged. It is possible to still win a stage on a buckled frame.

Gone with the Wind

On a multistage race, weather can become somewhat inclement as was experienced on the tour. Rain, sleet, hours of howling headwinds and snow were all the rage this season. Pack carefully. Here are some creative suggestions and essentials that proved their worth in dealing with the worst weather imaginable:

Buff: Protects your face from bugs, dust, sun, hail and pictures taken of your ‘effort face’
Washing gloves: Yeah. In cases of extreme cold and circumstance hands can also be warmed during a visit to the bushes to relieve oneself. Yeah, that too.
Layers layers layers. Including wrapping of plastic bags and anything waterproof as a top covering.
Hypothermia is sneaky and serious. Ride together. Look for early warming signs

If you do happen upon a padstal (roadside shop) and take refuge there, run a warm footbath, make yourself at home with a horde of other plastic bag wrapped cyclists cracking jokes and playing sombre Scottish highlands tunes on an iphone. Its fun. As a side note – don’t go into barns.

This Padstaal provided shelter from the storm, a warm foot bath, some coffee and a good few laughs. — with Jörg Diekmann. Photograph © David Malan.
Justin Fiske the hard man of the tour enjoying a soft fluffy moment. Photograph © David Malan.
Charl snowproofed with washing gloves! Photograph © Charl Neethling.

Everyone falls in sand. It’s inevitable.

Riding on unpaved roads on a steel frame road bike is a pleasure. Your arms transform into shock absorbers and your eyes become glued to the road’s intricate undulations and corrugations.

Follow the lines: with a lead group of experienced cyclists carving the terrain ahead, you will develop a keen eye for a good race line. Tread marks snake across the road – follow them like a tracker! Judging speed and the occasion imprint of an entire cyclist will give you clues to thickness of sand and gearing required. Ride more carefully at midday, as the shadows on the road surface are least apparent.

Everyone falls in sand. It’s inevitable. As is being blow off one’s bike completely by Karoo cross winds. Fall well. Check your bike after each terrain mishap. Bolts are literally rattled apart and a quick check during a group sanctioned water stop will help to avert disaster down the road. I can’t imagine a mountain bike would fair much better in some of the Karoo terrain on the Tour. When I asked one of the more experienced riders how best to cope with sand, he answered wryly, “don’t ride at the front so you know where not to fall”. Another useful tactic.

The “Moordenaars Karoo” definitely had a soft spot for us. — with Cameron Barnes. Photograph © David Malan.

Character buidling

Wheels buckle and frames buckle. Learn how to adjust spokes by spending sometime with experienced cyclists and see how its done.

The only thing trickier than sand is when it gets wet. Road bikes with very little clearance between wheel and brake mechanism struggled through the muddy conditions. Master frame builder Francois Du Toit left the road at one point to wash his bike off in a nearby water pool midway through the horrendous conditions on day 5. Another rider removed his brakes completely. While purists laughed off my emergency compressed air ‘bomb’ in my saddle bag, it did prove a fantastic mechanism to blast-clean muck from bikes. 1 point for the newbie!

A final note on riding conditions and a question I am probably asked most about the tour is why vintage roadbikes?

Removing your hands from the bars during bone-shaking corrugations to change gears certainly adds to the flavor. The appreciation that more technology is a poor substitute for courage is a factor. The recognition of a tested homegrown creative interpretation of the world noblest design is a key part of it all.

The answer. Because the Tour of Arae is a tour of heritage made real. Heritage is useful, robust and character shaping. As is the vintage roadbike. As is the Karoo.

The legendary Francois du Toit pulling some “donker moves”. Photo © D. Malan.

Navigating The Endless Vastness

Getting lost was not as challenging as simply seeing the expanse of terrain still to be overcome. False summits and endless rolling hills literally brought riders to a standstill. Checking maps, routes and reminiscing about geography classes where contour reading seemed uninteresting but certainly proved to be a useful skill. Thanks to some fantastic route marking by the support team, colorful fabric streamers and chalk arrows were as refreshing a sight as a padstal or the peleton in the dust ahead.

Are you sure we still have 80km’s to go? Photograph © David Malan.

The Great Gatsby

Eating and staying hydrated over long distances in isolated areas can be tricky. Within hours we had passed out of the winelands cappacino belt with no promise of padstal or farmstead ahead. Here are some useful and creative food and packing ideas for tour riding that I experienced during the week:

Eat a lot. Eat more. On your bike and off your bike.
Mix it up. Snacks, energybars and fruitcan be taped to your frame to be ripped off and eaten as required. Make your own trailmix and decant into packets for the ride. Gherkins are quite delicious when complimented by a swig of bourbon. Winegums, biltong, raisins and bananas featured on most mobile menus.
Make a pitstop. Eating while riding one handed on sandy dirt roads is not always wise.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate You may feel cold but keep drinking.

Lunch stop halfway up Ouberg Pass Day 2. Photograph @ Charl Neethling
Typical morning grub – Tour of Ara. Photograph @ Kirsten Wilkins

The Mind Game

Possibly the best application of the rule of self sufficiency is about attitude.

The ones who have the most fun, the best adventure and get the most joy out of Tour of Ara are those who, in addition to their bicycle and legs have prepared their minds. Prepare your mind to win. Be prepared to wait and to listen. And be prepared for more of the same dished out after a day that brought many to tears.

And so, my final observation is to always pack a book and stash it in your sleeping bag. Position yourself to be inspired as more will always be required when you wake to do it all again.


Urban Design & cycling advocate
Kirsten is a dedicated advocate for social justice, cycling and livable cities. An avid commuter and sports cyclist, Kirsten’s can-do attitude means that she never backs down from a challenge, whether its navigating the morning rush hour or racing a vintage road bike through the Karoo.

    A journey to challenge all of us. For nine days, twelve cyclists traversed the mostly un-tarred back roads of the central Karoo. Braving +40 degree temperatures, all in opposition to hydraulic fracking in the Karoo.

    9 Days | ⇔ 1 100 km | + 8 961 m | ≡ Tar/ Gravel


    Q: What happens when you mix bikes, wine and a bunch of strangers? ANS: A whole lot of fun and camaraderie.


    David Donde, of Truth Coffee, one of Cape Town’s most loved bike friendly coffee shops, shares his passion for cycling, coffee and urban transformation.

Urban Design & cycling advocate
Kirsten is a dedicated advocate for social justice, cycling and livable cities. An avid commuter and sports cyclist, Kirsten’s can-do attitude means that she never backs down from a challenge, whether its navigating the morning rush hour or racing a vintage road bike through the Karoo.

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