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For the launch of the Brevet collection, three riders travelled to South Africa to explore part of the Tour of Ara – a 700km race across some of the country’s most notorious and challenging terrain.

The tour of Ara

For the launch of the Brevet collection, three riders travelled to South Africa to explore part of the Tour of Ara – a 700km race across some of the country’s most notorious and challenging terrain.

08 March 2016

They were met with arid land, endless dirt roads, and wide, glassy skies. We spoke to Stan Engelbrecht, founder of the race, about the inspiration behind the route.

“When I first plotted the route, the idea of constellations and points on a map stuck with me, which is where I took the name for the race", says Stan. "The constellation of Ara has eight stars, one for each point of the race: the start, each night, and the finish. You’re totally on your own during the Tour of Ara, and only have a map to find your way, so the link to the big sky, constellations, and their history in navigation is quite perfect.”

The Tour of Ara is an unsupported six-day amateur stage race, and is a true test of self-sufficiency and endurance. It passes through incredibly isolated and arid terrain, including a 400,000 square kilometre expanse of land known as the Karoo, in the southeastern region of the country. Revered for its low rainfall, extreme temperatures and cloudless skies, the Karoo is considered by many to be the last truly wild region of South Africa.

“It’s a wild, wild place. Not many people go there because it’s quite dangerous in its isolation. As a result, there aren’t many tar roads, so there is an amazing network of dirt tracks that are often covered in deep corrugations,” explains Stan.

Named by its earliest inhabitants, the Khoikhoi, Karoo literally means 'land of thirst'. The region receives just 50-250mm of rainfall per year, and is exposed to extreme temperatures throughout. Only a few small farming communities call the Karoo home, raising sheep and ostriches.

“I wanted to involve the local communities as much as possible, so along the race route we stay with locals, eat locally prepared food, and share the story of the race wherever we can.

“Arriving by bicycle at an incredibly remote community, whose only access point is a dirt road, is quite an unusual concept. People think we’re very strange”, says Stan. “Because they’re such isolated people they have their own eccentricities. But there’s a special understanding between someone who lives in a place like this, and someone who’s crazy enough to ride a bicycle to a place like this.”

A South African photographer and passionate cyclist, Stan designed the race as a long-distance tour similar to those held in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, with riders encountering gruelling dirt roads and challenging mountainous terrain, with little to no support.

“Because of sanctions on importing bicycles during the apartheid years, a frame building movement grew in South Africa, and the result was a wealth of beautifully crafted, often-unique bikes dotted around the country.

“I wanted to revive this history, and decided to restrict riders to competing on these old frames. It reminded me of the old photos you see of early Italian stage races, with steel bikes being hauled over very rough and difficult roads by the toughest of riders. When I started thinking about the race I never consciously thought ‘let’s do it in the Karoo’ – it just came naturally. It was the obvious choice. It’s the last vestige of wilderness in South Africa, which really appeals to me.”

The third edition of the Tour of Ara is currently being planned. Open to anyone, the race is entirely independent – with no sponsors and no prize money – and with just one restriction: it must be ridden on a pre-1999 South African-built road bike.

Visit tourofara.co.za to find out more.

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