Can a luxury hotel brand African Pride put together a mountain bike challenge at one of their swoosh golf hotels? Well, this weekend it was time to find out at the first Arabella Challenge, in Kleinmond on the South Coast, a mere 110 kilometres from Cape Town. Next to a large lagoon you’ll find the African Pride Hotels Arabella Hotel & Spa, a golf hotel with a wonderful coastal golf course on the banks of the Bot River lagoon. We could see flamingos and fish eagle from the balcony of our room. There is also a recently renovated (and seriously spectacular) spa offering the classic treatments as well as their signature African Rainforest Experience, a 2 hour treatment incorporating various hot and cold water elements.
The Arabella Challenge itself was a 2 day stage race, with about 40 kms of riding a day. In terms of distance this is not huge and probably not a real challenge for most accomplished riders. It was great to see a few Epic finishers in the mix though who had probably taken the Arabella Challenge for what it really was: A great opportunity to take your partner and kids and combine a stay in a luxury hotel with cycling in some of the most beautiful areas in South Africa. Many riders brought their family (there was also a trail running challenge at the same time), so the hotel was full of sports people – and it was also my first time that I felt comfortable sitting in a hotel restaurant while wearing lycra.
The stage race itself was booked by about 150 riders, not a bad turn out at an initial race – which was quite pricy to participate in (ZAR 950), so my expectations were huge. Just being able to put your shammy cream on in 5 star luxury instead of in a smelly portaloo makes a huge difference. But there were other services that made this event very special: A bike wash and service station (included), free coffee at the start, a great cyclists breakfast in the main restaurant, a fantastic dinner buffet (very family friendly), bike lock up facilities, great goodie bag and best of all – a free beer on finish after day 1! Ice cold, handed over on the finishing line to forget the pain and agony that some of the sandy stretches of that route might have caused.
Day 1 was supposed to be a 40 km / 740m ride with most of the climbing to be done in the first third. On the start we were informed that the route had changed slightly, that there were two waterstops (with super friendly and cheerful people) and that there were going to be a few sandy patches. So off we went into the stunningly beautiful Koglberg Nature Reserve. Mostly climbing on jeep tracks we reached the top, with spectacular views of the lagoon and the surrounding mountains, partially covered in clouds. I had pushed way to hard and started hating the long and sandy, often rocky climbs and was extremely relieved to reach the first waterstop, thinking that it could only get better after that.
A lot of fast descents followed by short steep climbs and very sandy river sections made this day exciting – and exhausting. When I ended up on a climb all by myself, with the tracks of the sweep vehicle covering the other riders’ tracks, I realized that something had gone wrong. I had been on this climb before, early in the morning. I had cursed at these rocks before… so I turn around, went down to the next crossing, where there were no signs. Oddly enough there were also no tracks., so I was clueless when and where it had gone wrong, but luckily there was an Arabella vehicle in the distance with a friendly guy showing me 2kms back to the actual track – on one of the downhills I had missed a very visible sign. The last 5 kms were another very sandy affair, with a bit of climbing that I didn’t expect – so by the time I got the finish 42nd, I was quite happy to have completed the day. Said ice cold beer was handed to me there and then the bike was taken care of and I enjoyed the rest of the day in the hotel spa.
Day 2 started with the briefing “Beware of the climbing: Today starts with a long climb, to be followed by a long climb”. We left the start area and cycled the first few kilometres on the same route up the Highlands road, which took us a good 45 minutes to reach the first summit (after about 500m of ascent). Deep in wonderful pine forests, fast descents were followed by rocky climbs, then a few contour paths. At 20 kilometers, my bike gave in – the rear shock failed and I had to lock it out, so I wasn’t looking forward to the next half. But what lay ahead were the best 20 kilometres of riding I had done in a long time: first there was pine needle covered soft single track down the forest, super fast, stunningly beautiful and almost as good as the Welgevanpas near Wellington. We were flying through the forest at exhilarating pace, what a great reward after the long climbs of the day. The single track then changed to rocky jeep track (fast and dangerous) led us back to the main district road. I clocked 60km/h on this gravel district road, and after a small detour through the sandy forest of day one, made it back to the finish in just under 3 hours.
In total day 1 was about 38 km, with little over 800 m of ascent (plus my detour…), day tour was 46 km with 1100 m of ascent.
African Pride is planning another Arabella Challenge for September and it is highly recommendable, if you are looking for a weekend away where it is not just about you – it’s a luxury stage race where you can easily take your entire family (riders, runners, spa-experts…) and enjoy this concept. It is not a cheap exercise, but the hotel has got a package rate for participants which is great value for money. I would only make sure that you can arrange a late check out on the second day, as coming back from the ride and not being able to get into my room as it was after 11:00. ( I just need to ride faster, clearly…). Apart from that, a great mountain biking family experience in a beautiful location. I must admit, combining mountain biking with the comforts of a luxury hotel is a great concept: sitting on the terrace overlooking a beautiful lagoon, enjoying a freshly made beef burger from the hotel kitchen and great cappuccinos is definitely the best way to end a race.