The first day starts with a 7km flat section, then it’s straight up a number of twisty and turning switchbacks. The higher you go, the steeper it gets until your lungs burst from your chest at the top. Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

Not exactly new to the scene, but tucked away quietly on the Wild Coast, is probably one of the more unique stage races on the local calendar - the Grindrod Bank Umngazi Pondo Pedal.

The Pondo Pedal takes place in a remote area of the Eastern Cape known as Pondoland. The region is generally accepted to stretch from the mouth of the Mthatha River to the mouth of the Mtamvuna River (the natural border between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal).

The bulk of day 1’s singletrack comes at the start and finish. In between, you ride dusty jeep track rolling hills. This section is near the end, a tight climb before you twist and turn to reach the ocean views. Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

Between those two rivers, sort of in the middle of Pondoland, sort of in the middle of nowhere, sits the Umngazi River, which is home to the Umngazi River Bungalows, the basecamp for the Pondo Pedal. It’s remote. So remote that you can’t even check Twitter in your room. But not so remote, thankfully, that Inverroche Gin hasn’t made its way there.

The last 2 or 3km must be the most scenic in South Africa. You turn a corner to be greeted with the sea for as far as the eyes can see. The singeltrack is narrow, with a sheer drop to your left. It’s easily rideable, but on this day there was a thumping gale that made the drop to the finish slightly more daunting. Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

Highlights of the ride are the pleasing absence of tents (you stay in perfect little bungalows with views of the crashing ocean below), the short days of riding, and the wide variety of delicious food on offer. Everything is on the menu, from butter chicken curry to a seafood platter with fish so fresh it could star in a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks. And you get to stay the night before the ride and the day the ride finishes, meaning no need to race home after enjoying your exertions on the bike.

Three perfect Pondo days

As is the rule with all local stage races that aren’t the Cape Epic, joBerg2c and the Cape Pioneer Trek, the Pondo Pedal has three days; with the distances hardly long enough to be labelled a distance.

Day 1 is but a 40km twinkle in the eye, day 2 is a blur at 28km (it should be 34km, but this year around 6km was axed thanks to a mudslide that gobbled up some newly built singletrack), and day 3 is a breezy and beachy 35km.

This is the top of a steep climb that soon becomes a steep descent towards the mangrove swamps. From the top, you rattle down with a dramatic view of the valley, river and mangroves staring you in the face.

Route-wise, there is actually a fair bit of climbing on day 1 and 3, though nothing to tame the hardened stage race veteran, with the technical challenges ranging from cattle path singletrack (bouncy) to inquisitive pigs sticking their snouts out to inspect the proceedings (tricky, but only when the pigs dash out, get confused and dash back right in front of you).

It’s a scenic riverside singletrack ride to the finish on day 2.

Goats, chickens, donkeys and cattle all appear at various stages along the route, as does the pleasing aromatic fragrance of the Wild Coast’s finest local herb. If you take too many deep breaths on some of the tougher climbs you might find yourself going higher than anticipated.

Naturally, in such a remote part of the country, it’s the scenery that really grabs you at the Pondo Pedal. The area is renowned for its mangrove swamps, as well as sweeping beach and ocean views. In that respect, the Pondo Pedal does not disappoint.

No time to ponder on this pedal

Near the finish on day one you climb a short singletrack section through bushveld, which eventually opens up to a cliff-face singletrack with such a wide unspoilt view that you can see Sarah Palin seeing Russia from her house’s porch in Alaska. The day ends with you zipping down this purpose-cut track for a kilometre or two and straight into the Umngazi River Bungalow pub.

Day 2, sadly cut short after massive rains in the region, was such a zippy affair that my riding partner (Chris) and I were done inside 80 minutes. The route still provided classic Wild Coast views, though, with one memorable climb opening up to sights of the mangrove swamps below - a unique and eye-catching experience for all level of rider.

The last 5km of the ride takes you along the beach to the finishline. Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

To finish off the second day, you hit about 5km of riverside singletrack to end on the other side of the Umngazi River, where a ferry waits to take you home. It goes without saying that the perks of finishing your stage race ride at 930 in the morning include catching the last rounds at breakfast and the very first rounds in the inviting pub.

With some effort, Chris and I found ourselves in second overall on the morning of day 3 (this even after we scuppered our chances of first place on day 2 when Chris, whose eyesight leaves a bit to be desired, thought he was following the leaders, but instead was chasing down two flustered cows). Day 3, then, was to be our big day, a chance to claim a stage race stage win.

ccs-58780-0-48887500-1498657421.jpgBut before you get there a few rocky outcrops stand in your way. Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

Pondo power

On the final day riders set off at 20 second intervals from where we’d finished the day before. Day 2’s winners went off first, followed by ourselves 20 seconds later. With Cape Epic stickers plastered all over their bikes, the leaders were loathe to lose their position to two jokers who had spent more time sampling the wine list than slurping power shakes. But Cape Climbing Legs are built for stage race pursuits, and after the first real climb of the day, we overtook our rivals.

Powering on through rural villages, we reached a ferry crossing. Here the local ferryman waits with his tiny put-put boat to take you across the river before you tackle the final few kilometres of the race on the beach.

If you look at the top left of the image you can see the finish line; nothing dramatic, just a small set-up in the middle of a huge beach. Iconic, for sure. Photo credit: Kevin Sawyer

If there’s a better way to finish a race, then I’ve yet to experience it. With just enough room to fit two robust men, the ferryman, and two bikes, we spluttered across the water, with the ferryman casually informing us halfway through the journey that we were taking on water. He seemed pretty relaxed about the whole situation, though, and after four days in Pondoland, Chris and I were now at one with the sedate pace of life too.

We made it across, with no sign of the now second-placed team behind us, and roared triumphantly for about 3km on hard Wild Coast sand to the finishline on the beach. To the victors go the spoils; two bottles of red wine, a wooden fish medal, a blue towel and an ice-cold beer, plus an amazing setting to watch the rest of the field pedal home.

One of the event highlights is the need for a ferry crossing. On day 2 you’re taken home via the ferry, on day 3 you’re taking to the start by the ferry, and before you hit the beach on day 3, a ferryman takes you across on his tiny boat.

In the end, our efforts weren’t enough to claim overall victory, but first on the day and second for the event was a highly satisfying experience, as was cycling through a land that time (and, to be frank, some government agencies) has forgotten.