The return TO THE
Groenlandberg is the most famed climb in the history of the Absa Cape Epic and in 2023 riders will be tackling it from east to west on the Queen Stage. Here’s what makes it so special.
If you crunch the numbers, a climb of 600 metres over a rocky 9-odd kilometres with an average gradient of 7% (with some pitches reaching close to 15%) might not sound like much in the scheme of an eight-day, 658 gruelling kilometre-long race, featuring some 15 775 metres of limit-testing climbing. But then Groenlandberg is not (just) about the stats.
Rising some 1 181m above mean sea level, the mountain is an icon of the Absa Cape Epic. It returns to form part of the route once again in 2023, fittingly as part of the Queen Stage (Stage 5 from Oak Valley Estate to Lourensford Wine Estate). Groenlandberg is a part of the Cape Fold Belt, which is a series of mountains that run parallel to the southern coast of South Africa. The mountain is known for its steep, rocky terrain, as well as its challenging weather conditions. The terrain is richly varied, from loose rocky technical sections to soft sandy sections. The descent too is loose and technical and can make or break a race for a team. It is exposed and due to the elevation often unforgiving… There is simply nowhere to hide. For pros it is the Alpe d’Huez of the race and has often been a race decider as superior descending skills come to the fore.
While for amateurs, it is always a big hurdle to overcome, both on the climb and the descent.
“What makes it truly special is the variety of route sections,” starts Absa Cape Epic Route Director, Hendrico Burger. “Between agricultural lands and forestry, there is 34km of wilderness with wide views to the coastal belt in the south when climbing, and then spectacular vistas to the north into the Franschhoek mountains and Theewaterskloof dam once on top.”
According to Burger, it is also the range of weather patterns on the different sections – often hot at the bottom and cold toward the summit – that makes it stand out as a pinnacle peak in a route profile full of big climbs.
“Groenlandberg has always held a mystical and iconic place in the Absa Cape Epic,” agrees race photographer Nick Muzik, who has filled countless memory cards up there. “Groenlandberg makes for the perfect setting for teams to test each other and potentially change the outcome of the race — the perfect battleground!”
Much like the riders, Muzik is looking forward to returning to the famed mountain. “It’s a beautiful mountain to shoot,” he says. “Views as far as the eye can see in every direction with magnificent fynbos, jagged rocks, and usually lots of action to go with it.”
The mountain is one of the most important sites for the conservation of the endangered Cape Floristic Region, which is known for its unique and diverse plant life. The Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, which includes Groenlandberg, is home to more than 1,800 species of plants, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. It is also home to several bird species, such as the endangered Cape sugarbird and the African harrier-hawk. It's also the place where the endangered Cape leopard is occasionally sighted. In addition to its natural beauty, Groenlandberg is also significant for its cultural and historical heritage. The mountain has been used by the indigenous Khoi and San people for thousands of years, and there are several rock art sites in the area that date back to the Middle Stone Age.
“It is a privilege to be up there,” says John Gale, one of the three remaining Last Lions, meaning he’s submitted and successfully descended the great mountain every single time the race has visited it. “It is an amazing beacon, it dominates the landscape and you see it and you just want to climb it," he says, explaining how the ride up and down has never been the same twice. “Your experience of that very big, very special climb is moulded by how strong you are and how strong your partner is, however. If your partner is running you just 4% harder than you can cope, then you are in for a really hard day. Whereas if you are feeling strong and your partner is letting you ride within yourself then you are in for a really good day. I’ve ridden Groenlandberg in a haze of fatigue and wondered how I’d survived it. And, I’ve chased a partner down that rocky death-defying thing at the far end (because we were both so strong that day), passing people in a cloud of dust and thought the same: ‘I wonder how I survived that’.”
Watch the riders, survive, overcome, and race for glory on this icon of the Absa Cape Epic, live, on Friday, March 24, 2023 on the Absa Cape Epic Facebook Page or the Epic Series YouTube channel.