Community charm of the Karoo to Coast

The Lions Karoo to Coast is one of South Africa’s most enduring and popular mountain bike races for a reason. Yes, the route is spectacularly beautiful. It is challenging enough to attract the most competitive of riders, while being an achievable challenge for relative newcomers to the sport.  What really makes the event so special though is that the whole community gets involved in ensuring it is a success.

From Uniondale to Knysna and all along the route, from Avontuur to De Vlugt, the community of the Lions Karoo to Coast make the race the annual festival of mountain biking it rapidly became and has always remained. In 2023 George Municipality has once again, through the tourism division George, Wilderness and Uniondale Tourism, added their expertise to the efforts, to better celebrate some of the tourism region’s less heralded towns.

Precarious pathways as riders manage the route from Uniondale to Knysna

“We market George, Wilderness and Uniondale to South Africa and the world,” says Tourism Manager, Joan Shaw. “Uniondale is certainly the hidden gem of the three. It boasts incredible small-town charm and warm hospitality, gives visitors a taste of the vast, arid Klein Karoo – within a 1.5-hour drive from the George and Wilderness coastlines – and is the gateway to adventures along Prince Alfred’s Pass, the Langkloof and even the Baviaanskloof.”

“For the town of Uniondale, the Lions Karoo to Coast is a massive event; it brings thousands of cyclists to the town,” Shaw continues. “Every B&B is fully booked and the restaurants are full. The supermarkets are busy too and all manner of tourism affiliated businesses thrive. For the participants and their families, Uniondale, Avontuur, De Vlugt and the rest of the route do everything they can to make the race a memorable one. From manning water points and marshalling the route, to cheering on every rider as they pass by, the community makes the Lions Karoo to Coast.  By entering the Lions Karoo to Coast, you can give yourself a pat yourself on the back for being a part of this amazing, charitable experience where you will have directly impacted the livelihoods of people living in a really small ‘dorpie’.  Nowhere else in South Africa will you encounter a MTB race with a heart as big as the Lions Karoo to Coast, and you can be a part of that.”

The event, which was founded by the Lions of Knysna and Uniondale in 1999, has always had a charitable mission. Having risen to Helen Keller’s challenge to Lions Clubs globally to become Knights of the Blind the Knysna and Uniondale chapters have channelled the funds raised though the race to local charities. This has helped many individuals with visual impairments. Some of the practical interventions and operations the event has funded include 5 824 cataract operations, in the Southern Cape region; 66 guide dogs puppies donated through South African Guide Dog Association; the sponsorship of 20 cornea grafts; and an average of 300 pairs of spectacles every year, through the Operation Brightsight division of Lions.

Another aspect of the Lions Karoo to Coast is the entries which the Lions of Knysna and Uniondale sponsor to cyclists from communities along the route. The most famous of these riders is John Ketchen, of De Vlugt. He has ridden each of the 23 editions of the race, since its inaugural edition in 1999. Ketchen rode the first edition as a 24-year-old, and now, at the age of 47, is proud to have never missed a race; regardless of how sick he was or how bad the weather was.

Participant cyclists and their loves ones at the Karoo to Coast in Uniondale

“The highlight for me is always the vibe and meeting new people,” Ketchen explained. “The old ox wagon trail, leaving Uniondale, is always the toughest part of the race. I’m always in a late start group and there are so many bikes on that narrow section of road.”

As one can imagine, Ketchen has a story or two to tell from his 23-year history with the race. “After the second race, in 2000, I had to take a bus back from Knysna, via the Outeniqua Pass, back to Uniondale. The bus overheated a couple of times before finally breaking down at Harold,” he retold. “We didn’t have much choice, so another cyclist and I decided to ride home. It was already dark when we started the approximately 70-kilometre cycle back to De Vlugt. We were both very tired and about 7 kilometres from home I fell asleep on my bicycle and rode into a bush! I’d never thought it was possible to fall asleep while cycling, but apparently it can happen.”

When asked what he’s found as the essentials to take with during the Lions Karoo to Coast he replied: “Faith in God and yourself, plus a couple of Rennie’s for the cramps!” Ketchen’s favourite section of the route is the downhill to De Vlugt on the Prince Alfred Pass. The fastest speed he ever reached on that 15-kilometre-long downhill was nearly 100 kilometres per hour.

When asked when he would hang up his bike Ketchen smiled. “I’ve ridden the Lions Karoo to Coast with my wife and my son. But I’d love to do it with my daughter. She will only be 18, and eligible to ride, in 5 years’ time. So, I have a few more Lions Karoo to Coasts in me still.”

The 2023 Lions Karoo to Coast is set to be more festive than ever. “The Springboks play Ireland in what should be the key match for us in the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup on Saturday night, before the race,” Race Director Zandile Meneses pointed out. “The Showgrounds bar will have live coverage of the match. There’s always a festival atmosphere when there’s rugby on during registration, but I suspect this year might be more intense than usual.”

“We’re also improving the e-Bike riders’ experience this year, so that they can enjoy the Lions Karoo to Coast without the worry of running out of battery power,” Meneses confirmed. “e-Bike riders can bring a spare, fully charged, battery to registration in Uniondale.  e-Bikers should note that this service is only available until 06:15 on Sunday morning, as the truck needs to leave for Buffelsnek before the race starts.”

Gorgeous winding route of the Karoo to Coast

“These spare batteries will be transported to the Squirt Cycling Products e-Bike Lubrication Station gazebo at Buffelsnek, where riders will be able to swap out their depleted batteries for the final 36 kilometres. For more information on the e-Bike Battery Management regulations please see the Lions Karoo to Coast race rules.”

“We’re really looking forward to hosting the Lions Karoo to Coast riders in Uniondale on the 24th of September. Entries close on the 5th of September and substitutions are currently open. Substitutions can be done on the race website and close at the end of August.”

Find some great accommodation lodgings to suit your taste, budget, and needs for the Karoo to Coast here.