In only its second year of existence the 245km long Ceder gravel race event has quickly gained popularity as one of the premier gravel events in South Africa, held just over 2 hours drive from Cape Town in the Cederberg Region of the Western Cape, South Africa. The remote and spectacular natural beauty of the region most certainly acting as one of the strong drawcards for this event. The inaugural event in 2021 gained an almost cult like notoriety after racers woke up on race day to find the course covered in snow. This made for truly once in a lifetime (or maybe not) racing conditions and hypothermia induced memories.
There is nowhere to hide along this beautiful brute of a route, however the spectacular scenery and festival feel of the event more than make up for the “I hit rock bottom” level of physical difficulty encountered by the riders.
With a 60/40 ratio of gravel to tar and 3700m of elevation, riders from all walks of life and varying fitness levels lined up to tackle the testing course. It might be easy to think that this race is ‘tar heavy’ but rest assured the smooth stuff is a welcome reprieve after the endless corrugated gravel sections included along the route. “OMG what the was that last 40km all about??”, probably the most used phrase by competitors after the race, a testament to the bone shattering last section of the race.
Rolling off the start line at 4am with temperatures in the region of 5 degrees celsius (practically tropical compared to the snowy conditions of last year) the race would heat up quickly with riders heading straight into a 5km gravel wall that is the Grootrivierhoogte climb. In hindsight it was probably best that the start was in the dark because seeing a climb that steep at the start of a 245km day might cause some to just roll back to their warm beds situated a mere 40 meters from the start line.
As was expected the day started at a frenetic pace with race favourites shooting off the start line to make it safely through the first choke point on the route – a rapid 2km gravel decent into a narrow concrete water crossing. Many a squealing brake could be heard with riders scrambling in the dark to recover dropped water bottles.
Following the event on the day giving race updates was the Gravel Junction media team who quickly reported on the searing pace at which this first climb was being tackled, a lot of matches to burn so early on such a long day. A leading group of 5 formed consisting of a number of race favourites including Donovan Le Cok, local Cape Town climbing weapons Dan Loubser and Tom Briggs as well as ultra-distance racer and 2021 Munga champion Kevin Benkenstein. Eventual 3rd place finisher Dean Hopf decided to take a slightly easier approach to the start of the race with the hope of finding the lead group later in the day.
The lowest temperature of 1 degree was seen around 45km in, just before the welcome first tar section of the race. It was around this point that Kevin Benkenstein made a move off the front by himself and quickly started building up a lead on the chasing bunch. Sitting in his aerobars chewing through the kilometers it was looking like it might already be ‘game over’ as once Benkenstein gets a lead in a race he seldom gives it back. Granted this race is a bit ‘shorter’ than the type of events he normally tackles. At the finish however he explained that this early breakout was a plan put in place to counteract the climbing prowess of the smaller climbers chasing him down. The last climb of the day, “Uitkyk” at 205km would indeed prove to be a decisive point in the race.
By kilometer 65 at the Op Die Berg tar section the days storyline was set with Benkenstein out front and a chasing group including the likes of Loubser, Le Cok, Hopf, Briggs and Ryno Van Wyk a further 3-4 minutes back working hard to bring back the leader.
It would stay like this all the way to the tough Jamaka Rollers, a section of unrelenting rolling terrain leading up to the decisive last climb. By this stage the chasing group had been whittled down to powerful rouler Dean Hopf and lightweight climber Dan Loubser with Benkenstein now teasingly close, popping into sight every few minutes as he crested another one of the gravel rollers ahead.
It was at this point that Loubser played his hand knowing he would hold the advantage up the final Uitkyk climb. He dug deep to close the gap to the leader, with Benkenstein looking back constantly, a worried expression on his face knowing who was coming up the road. Just as he had feared the decisive moment would indeed take place on the final climb. The moment, captured by the Gravel Junction team, saw Loubser power his way up to the leader, sitting on his wheel momentarily before getting out the saddle to attack to put in a gap to the bigger rider.
Now in the lead, Loubser knew he had to put as much space between himself and the 2nd place rider before the top of the climb where the bigger rider would hold the advantage on the fast, bumpy final 35km into the finish.
Once over the top, 3rd place on the road, Dean Hopf had made his way up to Benkenstein and they began to work together to put the power down and reel in the new race leader. Loubsers 2 minute lead at the top of the climb quickly started to tumble as the ‘big boys’ got to work.
However with the win very much still up for grabs Loubsers dwindling lead was given a lifeline in the form of a dropped chain by Hopf at a crucial point in the last few kilometers. With Hopf dropping back, the wind was taken out of the chase. With a blistering time of 8hrs 30min to cover 245km, Dan Loubser managed to hold on to take the 2022 title, crossing the line a mere 2 minutes ahead of Benkenstein with Hopf a further minute back.
With a much smaller field the women’s race was more spread out over the course. Defending champion Rebecca Van Huyssteen, an established ultra-distance gravel racer in her own right retained her title finishing in the top twenty overall ahead of Renata Bossi who put in a very strong performance doing well to push through some ‘very dark moments’ as she would later describe. The podium was rounded out by 3rd place finisher Desiree Strydom. Van Huyssteen, the overall winner at the 2021 Sedgefield500 (a 500km gravel race), took the lead up the first climb and never looked back but as the popularity of this event grows she is sure to have some stiff competition in the years to come.
Each and every competitor who managed to fight their way around this tough course had a story to tell, from the first finisher all the way to the last rider who spent a crazy 16 ½ hours in the saddle. A testament to the challenge is the fact that out of the original 100 capped entries sold only 58 made the choice to start the race.
Crossing the finish line, competitors were greeted with cold beers and soft drinks, taking a minute to recover before diving head long into the inevitable war stories from the days ride. Finishers did not wander too far from the line, instead choosing to sit nearby and cheer each rider as they crossed.
Although most certainly a race, especially for those with a burning competitive spirit, event creator Raoul Goetze emphasis that this event was created to be inclusive. To create a platform for people to come and push themselves physically while surrounded by a like-minded and supportive community. With exciting plans already in place for next year’s race it is sure to be another sold out event.
With the likes of Matt Beers winning the recent inaugural South African National Gravel Championships, gravel in South Africa is alive and well and events such as the Ceder are quickly garnering the attention of the worlds gravel community. Who knows, maybe next year we see some high profile Gravel Pro’s head this way to tackle the Beautiful Brute that is The Ceder Race.
As the last rider crossed the line, over 8 hours after the winner, the intentions to stay up and celebrate the days’ events quickly subside as riders, one by one, snuck off back to their cabins to call it a night. By 11pm the camp was all but silent with nothing but a distant call of a wild animal to be heard.
Another great day on a bicycle.
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