Here it is, the next blog and a truly special one at that. The big cheese was fortunate enough to be invited to join @curvecycling on the second week of their South Africa trip, hosted by Benky Rides (@benkyrides), this truly epic adventure perfectly encapsulates what the Curve brand is all about and reading this has the rest of us desperate to go! So grab yourself a brew and tuck into this epic tale about a magnificent week of riding bikes.
Since we opened our doors in 2013, we have been fortunate to meet and work with some incredible people… none more so than when Adam Lana and Ryan Flinn from Curve walked into G!RO to join us for an impromptu ride in the summer of 2016. That ride would prove to be the start of not only a working relationship between G!RO and Curve but something much deeper and more significant. Bound by a genuine excitement and passion for the adventure that one can have on a bike, the friendships that can be made, and the machines that make all of this possible, that ride proved to be one of the most enjoyable and laughter filled rides of the year. Adam and Ryan had just ridden across France to London (obviously), and it just so happened to be the start of our working relationship together. It is a relationship that I personally deeply cherish, but also a relationship that has had a huge and lasting impact in our G!RO community here at home.
Fast Forward 3 years, one 12 hour flight, transfers, one airport lounge shower, and here I was joining Curve’s Jesse Carlson and Ryan Flinn for a weeks gravel adventure in KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa. I had heard so much about the riding here - including the fabled Sani Pass - but now the stories stopped, and I was ready to experience it myself. My weapon of choice, the Curve GXR - aka Kevin (...which I will come back to later in more detail). Passport stamped, I exited baggage claim at Durban airport to greet my awaiting welcoming committee….well... that’s what I thought would happen. Instead, I was parked up in a coffee shop and waited for them to arrive. There were some delays caused by the apparent complications with Ryan’s new hairstyle: Some lovely highlights - which we came to know as The Durban Sunset.
So with the sunset well and truly underway, we packed the van with bikes and headed off to our first-night stay and the starting point of this epic ride in a town called Hilton, just outside Pietermaritzburg.
The trip had been put together by the man himself - Kevin Benkenstein. Kevin owns and runs Benky Rides. A company born out of the belief that it is never just a bike ride, and who is genuinely passionate about exploring South Africa on all terrain, and giving guests a new perspective on this incredible country. Within the first few seconds of meeting him, it was hard not to love the guy. “Howzit Jordan!!” came echoing through as his tall frame entered the courtyard. “So pleased you are here bru”. “Yah, Lekker Oak” I obviously replied with fluent saffa. You could immediately tell that Kevin was immensely proud to show us the place he calls home, genuinely passionate about riding bikes, and the places we would discover this coming week. His passion was infectious, and we were keen to get started.
Day 1 would start as the rest of the week would. Early. Damn early. Breakfast at 5 am. Rolling at 6 am. Scough as much breakfast as possible, pack the bike up, and roll.
So off we all went… well nearly all of us. Sadly the mighty Rhino had fallen ill to a severe case of the squirts (a brutal side effect of his new choice of hair colour) and was resigned to staying back to recover and drive to the next destination. So off we nearly all went; Kevin, Jesse, Adam, Eugene, Scott, Adrian, J.B, Jonty & myself set flight on our flashpacking trip that would take us 650km over the next 7 days across KwaZulu-Natal, into the Kingdom of Lesotho and back again.
Now it’s fair to say that I arrived with preconceptions on what I expected this land to look like. Having never travelled to sub-Saharan Africa, shamefully all I could compare it with was what David Attenborough narrated over as Lions and Rhino’s roamed wild. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The route out of the starting point took us through some windy roads, amongst farms and houses, and then all of a sudden the valley opened out before us as we summited a small ridge. A vivid, lush, rich, green landscape of fields, lakes, and farmlands revealed itself as far as the eye could see, framed by distant mountains silhouetted against a bright blue sky. A panorama of perfection. Initially, I thought it could be my Pryzm lenses at which point I quickly removed them… thankfully it was not the lenses, but a breathtaking reality! All I can akin it to would be what the Garden of Eden should have looked like. It was perfect. It was rich in life and rich in variety. The fields were full of grazing cattle, vast cornfields & more wildlife than you could count. And so it went, day after day… the saturation dial had been turned up to 11, and all we had to do was ride through this Eden. Following these perfect white gravel roads in and out of the fields, past dams, the occasional mule, one corner would reveal another view to behold, and another. It sounds over the top, but words cannot do justice just how spell-binding the views were….
…. And in the middle of this wonder, the riding suddenly got serious! Rolling countryside gave way to a brute of a climb. We turned a corner, and there ahead of us the road got steeper and steeper as it went into the distance. And it was hot! Damn hot! Welcome to South Africa indeed. Reaching the top, we sought a bit of refuge in the shelter of a tree escaping the sweltering 40+ degree heat. But with every great climb, we attacked the first descent of the week. There’s is nothing quite like descending gravel... Especially in surroundings like this. Weaving through these lush, green forests, getting used to the feeling of the bike naturally sliding around beneath you was such a rush. As the speeds increased on these gorgeous gravel descents, so too did your awareness of the road beneath and ahead… always ready with a bunny hop to hurdle a rogue hole or rock. Fun. So much fun.
And what a machine to do it on. Curve prides itself on passionately designing and engineering products that not only stand the test of time but more importantly machines that break down the barriers of what is possible on a bike. None more so that the Curve Ti GXR - affectionately known as Kevin. Released just over a year ago, the GXR has been a hugely popular bike - selling globally in both the Titanium and Steel formats. I was riding the Titanium Kevin, rolling on Curve Carbon wheels with Tubeless 43mm Panaracer GravelKings tyres. BEAST!!! I could wax lyrical about the intricacies of the bike, but the reality is that the bike is just so much fun to ride! It encourages you to ride to the limit, giving you growing confidence in the capability of the machine, and a huge smile on your face. I spent the next 7 days riding across arduous, challenging terrain, and Kevin didn’t even blink! What a bike!! What a bike!! As we were flashpacking - taking what we needed with us - Apidura had provided a few bike bags which again stood up to the task. (For more info or to book your demo ride, head over to https://girocycles.com/products/curve-demo-day)
Day 1 was drawing to a close, and we pulled into our first night's accommodation, and it did not disappoint. At the end of the final long (and hot!) gravel climb, we pulled into a stunning farmstay. Surrounded by mountainous views, grazing cattle, we settled into our collection of lodges, where we were simply spoilt with masses of home cooked food, cold beers and a bottle or two of incredible local wines. This would be how each day of the trip played out. Each evening we would arrive at the next beautiful farmstay and do it all over again. After showering off the day's dust and sweat, sitting down for lunch, the afternoons were spent at each owns pace. These afternoons I cherished. Being able to spend some time with good friends, unwinding and doing life together. For me its whats riding a bike is about, and why G!RO exists. It’s not just the riding you do, it’s the people you do it with that is important. Benky Rides has clearly got this nailed, and the group of us really bonded during these afternoons and evenings together. Then after dinner, we went to bed and the next morning, we started it all again. Day 1 had been pretty mind-blowing to be fair, and we couldn’t wait to see what the rest of the week would bring.
Whilst I could write an epic account of every day we rode, one day, in particular, stood out from the rest. The fabled Sani Pass. The world-renowned gravel pass that leads from South Africa into the Kingdom of Lesotho, up the sheer cliffs of the Drakensberg mountain range. The day started as the others… early! But sadly today we rolled out under grey overcast skies and mist. As we shook off the cobwebs, the stories that circled around the table at last nights dinner and that morning’s breakfast continued to circle around my head as we drew closer to the start of the pass. “...As soon as you hit the gravel, it's about 20km of gravel climb to the first passport control, then the climb gets serious. 9km of very steep, rocky, gravelly, treacherous ascending, with the final 2km being a nearly unrideable series of 14 switchbacks…”. The mist left visibility at an absolute minimum but left the thoughts of what awaited all too clear. Pedal stroke after pedal stroke we continued. Then the Sani Pass Gods showed their face, the mist lifted and the clouds parted revealing the majestic climb ahead in all its splendour. Set out before us was the most brilliant gravel trail, tracing the lines of a cascading river, set amongst the green cliffs of these Drakensberg mountains. As our eyes followed the road ahead, we could see its finale of brutally steep switchbacks near the summit…a bloody long way up there. Let's go. 20kms in and we reached the SA passport control; passports stamped, crammed some food, we were now free to attack the final 9km that we had heard so much about. Buoyed by an uncertain excitement, it was a case of head down, get to the top at all costs. Rhino made his move. In fact, he ascended the 9km of the pass in just under 1 hour. 1 hour! On a road bike! The fastest time posted on Strava for that segment is 52:42… which was on a super light MTB with appropriate gearing. Rhino attacked the climb on a road bike - his incredible Curve Belgie Spirit (the same bike he has completed the IndiPac, and TransAm races) pushing a 1:1 gear ratio. Not only show the incredible engineering of the Belgie Spirit - a bike that continues to prove itself as one of the best bikes ever designed - but it also showed the calibre of Ryan Flinn as a world-class bike rider. Truly. A world-class performance that few could match, and done with great humility. Chapeau Rhino.
With Rhino in the distance, J.B. and I pressed on...head down, determined to grit it out to the top as fast as possible! But... then you catch sight of the view behind you down the valley. You stop. Of course, you stop. You can’t help but stop. The lush green cliff walls reaching up to the heavens & stretching down to the valley below, the sounds of the river tumbling below, and the vast gravel road that lay head stops you in your tracks. You stop. Breathe it in. Then carry on until you are stopped again by this special, special road, and breathe it all in again. Strava was a distant memory. Fuck the segment. This is life. This is living. What a special place.
But there is still a task at hand. Get to the summit. The last 2-3km lived up to every expectation. Brutal. Brutal. Steep gradients over a bouldery, gravelly, slippery excuse of a road, where you are not only fighting to keep going with your lungs fighting for breath but also fighting to keep you and the bike upright and on the ‘right line’ - which was pretty indistinguishable at times. Switchback after switchback, boulder after boulder, the gradient eases as we crest the summit of Sani Pass. Sani Pass. Done. We pulled up at the top there and waited for the rest to join us to get our passports stamped once more. To share the ascent with J.B. was special for sure. Sharing something that mind-blowing bonds you together. Pass the peace pipe.
Then with a great sense of irony, the gravel stopped and made way for the most perfect tarmac road any of us had ever ridden on. I later learned that significant Chinese investment in Lesotho and its mining potential also resulted in some of the worlds most finely engineered roads ever built. With passports stamped welcoming us into Lesotho, and not wanting to pass off the opportunity of smooth roads, a group of us pressed on to Lesotho’s highest point - Black Mountain - standing at a lung-busting 3240m! 10km of rolling tarmac, followed by 5km of climbing. ‘Easy’ i thought. And whilst the road was smoother than silk, the gradients were less forgiving and with your lungs desperately panting for breath, the next 5km saw gradients of 20+% at times, which left me in pieces questioning if I could continue. A brief word of encouragement from Jesse later (“No way oak! You have committed now bru!” in his ever-improving Saffa accent), we crested Black Mountain. Without a doubt one of the most elated feelings of my life. Almost euphoric. Riding my bike has taken me to some incredible places so far, and have met some incredible people, and it has opened some incredible doors... But standing at the top of Black Mountain in Lesotho with my bike in hand was special. Spiritual almost. Summoning the words to describe the landscapes that spread out below us is still a challenge. Breathtaking in more ways than one, I was truly humbled, content and thankful in that moment. The bike truly is a wonderful thing.
And as we basked in our sense of great achievement, there was a couple of young Lesotho shepherds minding their flock right there on the rocks next to us. Looking at us all too unimpressed. Brilliant. All too humbling as this was their every day, and for us, it seemed like once in a lifetime.
So with 50km of climbing in the legs, reaching an altitude, many may never get to on a bike all that was left to do was start the 50km descent. So we did. 15km of perfect tarmac, followed by a well earned Beer or two in Africa’s highest pub (no chips because Benky said “NO!”...), and so onto the Sani Pass descent which… oh, wait… not quite yet. The previous week’s trip run by Kevin also took in Sani Pass, where they discovered 2 items that we absolutely had to smuggle back into SA: 1. Maluti - a locally brewed beer of Lesotho. 2. Mokorotlo - a traditional Lesotho straw hat. So we packed our bags with beers, cable tied our newly acquired Mokorotlos to our helmets, and we carried on.
At last onto the Sani Pass descent which left your legs burning and brakes cooked! Fierce gradients, boulders, switchbacks, slippery gravel and taxis (yes, taxis). As much taxing mentally as physically, having to pick your line and commit. But then the views. Oh, the views. After stopping at nearly every corner to take a photo better than the last of the valley below, I finally decided to put the camera away and get down the mountain. I took a moment to soak it all in. Soak in the majesty, the splendour of what cascaded down in front of me. One deep breath, and a moment of thankfulness, followed by a thoroughly challenging and enjoyable descent, another passport stamp as we entered SA again, a few baboons, and a rolling route back to our farmstay to consume another mountain of food, and a handful of smuggled Malutis. And just like that, Sani Pass was done. What a day.
Despite the hardships of the previous day, again, we rose early. Damn early. Breakfast at 5 am. Rolling at 6 am. Dare I say it, we got accustomed to this early morning routine followed by a day’s worth of jaw-dropping vistas (if you are not sure as to what a vista is, just head over to Rhino’s Instagram. He loves a vista), incredible roads accompanied by a group of amazing people.
The route Kevin had picked out for us traversed across KwaZulu Natal. Starting in Hilton, onto Impendle, Himeville, Underberg, in and out of Lesotho, Lotheni, Currys Post & through the Karkloof. Each day would be 90-100km of unrivalled gravel roads with about 2000-2500m of climbing. The roads were incredible… the most notable of which was the Lotheni Road… a seemingly unending single stretch gravel road that meandered through valleys, climbs & descents in and out of clouds, with the only company being cattle, fork-tailed drongos (cheers Kevin), and soaring eagles and kites. If you needed water, you pulled over by a river and filled up. Loved it! We would often ride through these small, humble towns, made up of a collection of small houses, sometimes a school, and to our excitement - A Shebeen! A Shebeen is essentially a small local shop to the untrained eye, stocked full of daily essentials. However, Shebeens very much play an integral role in these local communities, as a meeting place and hang out spot. Music playing, seats out in the sunshine, and inside everything we needed to satisfy our hungry stomachs… namely ice cold water, ice cold beer & Bigga Naks - a South African crisp brand that not only fills the hunger hole but also had a way of staining one’s fingers with food colouring upon consumption. Didn't matter… they tasted good, and we were hungry in the 40-degree heat!
One particular Shebeen in Impendle we fell in love with and henceforth is known as ‘The Worlds Best Shebeen’ (sign to be delivered there shortly). The proud owner - Ntokoso - took great pride in serving us and making us feel welcome. He even went to effort of changing his music playlist to something that he felt certain we would know and enjoy… Celine Dion. So, there we sat outside the Shebeen, cold beer in one hand, Bigga Naks the other, listening to Celine Dion as we reflected on the days riding so far. Too good.
The hospitality shown to us by Ntokoso was reflected throughout our journey here in South Africa. Back home you hear so many stories about how dangerous South Africa is, and it's clear it can put people off travelling to a destination where they won't feel safe. Now whilst this is said to be true in the cities, and the social issues facing South Africa very well documented, on our ride we encountered nothing but friendly smiling faces and genuinely warm hospitality. From the locals we encountered on the roads, to the hosts of the farmstays, we were absolutely spoilt by everyone's effort to welcome us and show the very best of South Africa.
It wouldn't be a G!RO blog without giving mention to some of the coffee stops we visited on our travels. A couple of times over the week, we would divert slightly to duck into one of the areas well-known coffee shops. La Flamme Rouge in Nottingham Road, Ground Coffee in Hilton, and a special mention to Steampunk in Lions River. A roastery and coffee bar, who’s passion for sourcing, roasting and serving artisan South African grown coffee was backed up by the quality of the brew. If you find yourself in the region, drop in!
The final day saw a shorter 40km transfer back into Pietermaritzburg, where our airport transfers awaited. After 7 days of being in rich, lush green pastures, the return to a large town was an assault on the senses. Almost offensive. The enclosed environment, the cars, the pollution, the noise. It stood to remind us just how privileged we had been to spend the past week in some of the most beautiful countrysides this planet has to offer. And to enjoy it on the bikes that we love so much was incredible. We started G!RO with a passion for cycling, and firm belief in the strength of community and adventures that can be had around the bike. Curve are the most wonderful partners in this journey, and we were honoured to spend this week in South Africa with them centred around the sport that we love. Thank you Curve. Heres to many more adventures. And thank you, Kevin, for hosting us in your beautiful country, and showing us where the bike can take us.
But it was more than a bike ride. It was a release and a confirmation as to why we ride these machines. The backdrop was spectacular, but the vessel the same. The same bike that we ride with our friends and colleagues week in week out, Forming friendships and community around a shared passion. Now this passion can transcend continents and boundaries, opening avenues to explore new places and form lasting friendships. The bike is a wonderful thing, and this trip reminded me that it's never just a bike ride.
Enjoyed this?! Try the beast yourself! Here at G!RO, we have a Curve demo day where you can test ride the GXR that Jordan took on this trip, as well as the other beautiful machines from the Curve Family. For more details: https://girocycles.com/products/curve-demo-dayDon’t forget to check out all the photos and stories from this adventure over at:
We’ve been seeing a big increase in the number of new cyclists out and about since the lockdown, which is absolutely fantastic. Here at G!RO, we believe the power of the bike to enable many things - a sustainable mode of transport, a freedom machine to let you see new places, through to the fast and furious sport of bike racing.
We teamed up with our good mate Francis Cade to create a video to highlight our Top 7 Tips for New Riders On The Road!