I have never actually done any mountain biking in South Africa. As a kid I lived on my bike, and as I got older – I had a road bike, still do – somewhere in my parents attic. So I was really looking forward to an opportunity to ride in Johannesburg – my old stomping grounds.
So lets get some uncomfortable truths out the way. You cannot ignore SA’s political climate – so I’ll try and sum this up very simply: Apartheid: Rich Whites, Poor Blacks. Post Apartheid: Rich Whites, Rich Blacks and poor people. The gap between rich and poor has simply widened. So the truth of the matter is you cannot jump on your bike and go for a ride. Not unless you are in a large group, or riding in a designated area with some form of access control. That gap jump between your R40,000 bike and people living almost hand-to-mouth is a high-risk proposition. At the risk of generalizing – this is not necessarily the case in the rest of the country, but on the outskirts of Egoli – it is.
I met up with my ‘guide’ Chris – a friend of a friend in a designated riding area known as The Red Barn. It’s always interesting riding with someone for the first time – there’s a period of sizing each other up, swapping a few war stories to try and figure out what kind of rider you are, and each others capabilities. Chris kindly lent me a bike – A Merida 29′ HT, I popped some more air in the tires, but there was nothing I could do about the 100mm fork diving through all its travel, but otherwise the bike was in pretty good condition, and off we went.
The trail was flat and twisty through the trees, pretty easy and flowed nicely. After a while it opened up a bit, and there were a few rickety tabletop bridges made from logs and wire. As we headed down to the river the technical level increased with some short sharp climbs and equally short steepish descents and tight turns. By this stage we had settled into a good rhythm, and with Chris thankfully reminding me to drink frequently – the heat was radiating from the ground, and it would be easy to dehydrate. We hit some of the black runs. These very technical rocky switchbacks with steep drops and ups. It was at this point I realised for the first time that my brakes were the ‘wrong’ way round – SA adopting the US standard of front brake on the left hand side! It wasn’t really an issue as there wasn’t a lot of hard braking – just occasional speed checks. The run was energy sapping but left you wanting to do it again – always a good sign. As we got back on the original path there were some faster sections with more wobbly bridges offering the chance to clear a few of the tables tops easily enough, but I dared not to push to hard with soft tire pressures and the fork on lockout was still getting hammered. The final section was twisty single track through the trees. Lots of fun with the pace up, just be ready for the next turn. The trail was firm but on either side there was treacherous instant wash-out ball bearing like sand, not helped by the instinct to snatch at the rear brake which is actually the front brake, and I could feel the tires folding in the faster bits. I was pretty relieved to get back to camp though – it was getting hot – 37C, and I was feeling it. Nothing that a cold beer(s) didn’t sort out. Big thanks to Chris for the outing!
While SA has a strong MTB scene, there seem to be more areas now opening up to riding than ever before. Relatively recently they have opened a trail along the length of Table Mountain in Cape Town – previously a restricted area, and there are a lot of the natural parks opening up bike routes all over the country. But here’s one for my bucket list, a three day staged event in on of the most beautiful parts of the world, and finishing on the beach. Maybe a TFIT tour in the future? Sani2C