Suikerbos Cycling Brilliance, Challenging Climbs, Fast Descents

Sunday, 27 March 2022, three of us friends decided to visit Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve. The plan, riding through the reserve on our mountain bikes, each with a different goal in mind for the day. One needed extra elevation for his monthly Strava Cycling Climbing Challenge, the other is working on getting his cycling fitness back, both their first time riding Suikerbos, and then there’s me, visiting an old friend. The little tar road with breathtaking views and scenery meandering through the reserve. I have visited Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve many times over the years, riding through the reserve on either my road or mountain bike. Training for cycling races or a bit of self-care, aligning body, mind and soul, energising the system. The experience is both challenging and exhilarating! One moment you’re climbing up hills like a mountain goat, next you’re flying down other hills like there’s no tomorrow, from one extreme to the next in seconds. I have forgotten what a liberating ride Suikerbosrand is.

Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve

Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve is a favourite amongst cyclists, for training at altitude. Several hiking trails also attract hikers to the reserve. The reserve is situated in Gauteng, South Africa, and is a popular ecotourism destination. It is near the historical town of Heidelberg, and not far from Johannesburg and Pretoria. The fauna and flora, are a typical rocky grassland ecosystem, stretching across the Suikerbosrand ridge and valleys. Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve is reported to be 220 km2(85 sq mi) in size. It is an unspoiled natural environment with a mountain range characterised by meandering twists and turns. The altitude varies between 1,545 and 1,917 m (5,069 and 6,289 ft) above sea level. Cycling or driving through the reserve takes one on a 60 km circular one-way tarred route with spectacular scenery. Friends of Suikerbosrand is active in the reserve, and all the info needed for a first-time visit is available on their website.

The Route, Challenging Climbs, Fast Descents

We started our ride shortly after 08:00 am, from the Diepkloof picnic area. Left the parking lot in great spirit, until we took a left and the first climb of the day winked at us. Mountain goat mode, here we go! It’s a 2.6 km climb, 1,832 m elevation and 3.7% grade. We made it to the top! The exciting part, halfway up, was a mother baboon with a little babe on her back, she observed us from afar and quickly disappeared into the valley.

After the first steep climb you’re on top of Suikerbos ridge, from here the route spreads out with lots of downhills and gradual climbs. It’s refreshing and the landscape and scenery are really breathtaking. During our ride we did not see a lot of animals along the route, the reserve being so vast. They graze far off in the grasslands. Birdlife is in abundance. We saw a baby snake. Also, you hear baboons, chattering in the ravines. The wonders of nature setting the most fantastic backdrop to a morning bike ride. There are also many insects.

I collided with a bee, on a descent at about 50 km/h. It flew straight into my forehead. I felt the smack, then the sting on the exposed skin between my cycling glasses and the rim of my cycling helmet. Brake, stop, rub! I know rubbing is not the right thing to do, but bugger it was sore! Quick check by my friends confirmed the sting. Luckily I’m not highly allergic to my little honey-making friends. Antihistamine is a must for any bike ride. It’s a standard item in my small medical survival kit, which I carry in my hydration pack. Tablet taken with water, and we set off again to our halfway mark.

Basic Medical Survival Kit
Top L-R: Zam-Buk Antiseptic Ointment, Plasters, Paracetamol
Bottom L-R: Hand Sanitizer, Antiseptic Cream, Antibiotic Topical Ointment, Spray Plaster, Alcohol-Free Wipes for Wound Cleaning, Antihistamine

The reserve sports a picnic spot, Holhoek picnic area. It is halfway through the reserve, where one can fill up with water if needed. Holhoek however was unfortunately closed at the time of our visit. We did stop here in the shade for a comfort break, leg stretch and taking in some nutrition, admiring the scenery. It’s about 28 km into the ride. We were entertained by a troop of baboons, playing down the road. Once back on the bike you start another challenging climb at about the 29 km mark. The climb stretches over 1 km, 1,713 m elevation and 7.8% grade. It takes you to the 30 km mark, for a fast descent, flying past the Kareekloof entrance gate of the reserve.

Kareekloof entrance ticked off on the map, the route follows another gradual ascent into the hills of Suikerbos. At 35.5 km into the ride, 1,626 m elevation and 9.7% grade, you’ve conquered the third last steepest hill with two more to go. The route now descent into a valley and the lowest point of the 60 km tarred route through the reserve, you’re at 37.1 km, 1,565 m elevation and -1.8% grade. In the valley, it’s cool, with great scenery, dams and dense green vegetation. The water in the dams looks cool and inviting. Knowing what awaits, you really just want to jump in and cool off before you tackle the rest of the route.

Above on both sides, looms the hills of the Suikerbos ridge. There’s only one way out, and that is up, and up, and up! Mountain goat mode, mind over matter and in my case, some clever tricks, will get you to the top.

Our ascent is at an acceptable pace, the three of us are stretched out over a distance, which is good. It allows each rider to draw on energy and inner strength in the quiet. Although this is only a 60 km ride, it is strenuous, depending on your fitness level. At this stage, I’m not worried about the second last big climb at 41.5 km, 1,667 m elevation and 10.6% grade. I enjoy the scenery and cover the distance one stroke at a time. I know what is waiting, the last mother of a climb! Daring to look up, it looms ahead, ‘Suikerbos CLIMB’, the only way to reach the top at 47.6 km, 1,852 m elevation and 9.6% grade, is to either pedal or push. My preference is not to push my bicycle. It was one of those, “Suck it up Buttercup” moments! Now or never!

Suikerbos CLIMB!

I rounded a bend in the road, I know it so well, I spot a little tree, roadside, I pedal to it, get off my bike, lean the ‘Black Stallion’ against the little tree, compose myself, breathe deeply, and stretch. I admire the view down into the valley and contemplate my uphill struggle to follow. I know this climb, I have an intimate relationship with it, I have done it many times. Introspection. I’m not pushing my bike, end of story! Comes past a roadie, checks if I’m ok, he glides to the top on his sleek road bike. I admire his energy for a second or two, and then get onto the ‘Black Stallion’. This is it! Lucy, You Can Do THIS! The first few pedal strokes are a bit difficult, getting back into a rhythm. My mind is in overdrive, the guys are ahead of me, most likely already at the top, waiting. I experience a WETF moment, the REBEL in me surface and YES, we’re doing this! Suikerbos CLIMB is not getting the better of me today! I apply a zigzag strategy, invented in the moment. I’m a creative, I colour outside of the lines, and riding up Suikerbos CLIMB in a straight line was absolutely not an option, at that moment. I zigzag my way to the top! MADE IT! My Partner in Crime spy on me, there’s evidence of zoomed-in, blurry pics taken, proof that I DID NOT PUSH MY BIKE! I find our friend roadside, waiting, it was a challenge for him too. It’s his first bike ride in months. He has kept up his fitness levels by riding on an indoor trainer, daily, and did very well on this ride.

We take photos from the top of Suikerbos CLIMB, the route we cycled a while ago, a thin line far down below in the valley. Now, down, down, down, we zoom at great speed! About 10+ km to the end of our fabulous ride through Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve. We finish, there are pics to show. But, we’re only on 57+ km on the Garmin? Let’s loop up and down, we need 60 km on the Garmin and Strava! We hit 60 km, now, we’re done! What an awesome experience!

Gadgets and Apps to Track my Ride, Route and Performance

I enjoy my sports gadgets and apps. It is important to track my performance, capture routes and navigate if needed. On this ride, I used a combination of Strava, Garmin Forerunner 935 Premium GPS Running/Triathlon Watch with Wrist-based Heart Rate monitoring, Garmin Edge 130 Plus Compact GPS bike computer and the Garmin Connect app. I will go into more detail about my favourite sports gadgets and apps in upcoming blog posts. Here, just a quick glance, with links that you can follow, to check out the devices and apps for yourself:

  • Strava – I’m a Premium Subscriber and have been a member of the Strava Community since 2014. It’s a fabulous app and a great community to be part of. I absolutely love it! It often motivates me to get out and be active. The weekly, monthly and yearly virtual Strava Challenges, keep me on my toes and out and about. I participate in, and complete many Strava Challenges every month, adding to my Strava virtual trophy case. No lying on the couch for this REBEL. The Strava app and online dashboard also provide many tools for the benefit of any athlete. Strava integrates with most fitness monitoring devices, allowing you to get accurate or near accurate data on your training efforts. It syncs activities seamlessly through wi-fi if the fitness device is wi-fi enabled. Strava also has a free version of the app, if you wish to try it out. If you are interested, you can check out my profile and follow my cycling adventures on Strava.
  • Garmin Forerunner 935 – Premium GPS Running/Triathlon Watch with Wrist-based Heart Rate monitoring. My Garmin Forerunner 935 is the most fantastic tool. The Wrist-based Heart Rate monitoring technology is a great asset. I am claustrophobic, and chest heart rate straps do not really work well for this condition I have. Apart from that, the features of the device are phenomenal, and the stats I can pull from it, through the Garmin Connect App is mindblowing. My Garmin Forerunner 935 integrates seamlessly with Strava through the Garmin Connect App. The device allows me to track performance, capture routes and navigate routes. It’s a multi-sport device, catering for many different sports activities, making it a popular choice amongst athletes. The Garmin Forerunner 945 supersedes the 935 model. But I love my 935, and will only be able to part with my little watch if it’s broken beyond repair. It just works! My activities sync seamlessly through Bluetooth/wi-fi to Strava, through the Garmin Connect App. The Garmin Connect App, like Strava, also has a community, and weekly, monthly and yearly virtual challenges in which one can participate. I collect badges here as well. But, it’s not just for collecting badges, you have to physically work for them, by being active.
  • Garmin Edge 130 Plus – Compact GPS bike computer. Garmin Edge 130 Plus is a device, which I use for navigation. It has many advanced technology features, a real little dynamite. The Garmin Edge 130 Plus is Bluetooth/wi-fi enabled; and integrates with my Garmin Forerunner 935 watch, as well as with Strava through the Garmin Connect App.
  • Garmin Connect App – The Garmin Connect app pulls all the training and health stats from my Garmin devices into the app. It syncs effortlessly with all the devices and Strava. The app is next level. I can draw all sorts of high-level health and activity data and stats from it. As a girl, I can even monitor my monthly female cycle. It monitors your sleep cycle, and stress levels, to mention a few. You have to however link and set up your app and devices properly, for the technology to work for you.

Back to our ride, in a nutshell! Suikerbos Cycling Brilliance πŸš΅β€β™‚οΈπŸš΅β€β™‚οΈπŸš΅β€β™€οΈπŸ’ͺπŸ˜…! I loved it 😍! It was a really awesome ride with two friends πŸš΅β€β™‚οΈπŸš΅β€β™‚οΈπŸš΅β€β™€οΈπŸŒ»πŸ’ͺ! Challenging climbs and fast descents were at the order of the day πŸš΄β€β™‚οΈπŸš΄β€β™‚οΈπŸš΄β€β™€οΈπŸ’¨πŸ’¨πŸ’¨πŸ˜œπŸ˜! The greatest views you can imagine on a bike ride in the Gauteng area! Beautiful scenery πŸŒ»πŸŒΎπŸ„πŸŒ³πŸ¦ŒπŸπŸ¦ŽπŸœπŸžπŸ¦ŸπŸ¦‹πŸŒπŸ›πŸ! Spectacular πŸ‘ŒπŸ€©πŸ₯³! To be repeated soon! Highly recommended! Check out my ride on Strava!

Thank you, Allan Webber, the best partner ever! Life is an amazing adventure with you!

Have Fun! Stay Safe! Rubber Side Down πŸ’ͺπŸš΄β€β™‚οΈπŸš΄β€β™€οΈπŸŒ»β˜˜οΈπŸŒˆ!

Photos by Allan Webber, Andrie Greeff and Luculle Stols – @real.life.rebel on Instagram
Photo Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve Diepkloof Entrance Gate – Google Maps