Bennet Nel – the Ace of Spades
01 January 1970
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Gerald de Kock: Hello and thanks for downloading another edition of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast where we discuss all matters mountain biking. We’ve met the personalities, races, we’ve met people who take it longer than the races. We’ve met the event organisers and planners, we’ve met pretty much anyone who is anything involved with mountain biking. People who have a passion for the sport.
But there’s one area of the sport that I think gets a little big neglected and that’s those who create these trails that we ride. We enjoy these trails but we’re not actually sure who built them and what goes into them. Today I’m going to introduce you to a man who has developed a reputation as one of the finest trail builders in the Western Cape, if not the country.
He’s currently, in fact we’re sitting at the doorstep, the gateway to Jonkershoek, one of the great trails in the Western Cape. The man I’m talking to is Bennet Nel. It’s a rainy day in the Western Cape and it’s a sort of day I think you quite enjoy building trails?
Bennet Nel: Yes, very thankful, honestly, it’s been two years since it was this wet. It was dusty and dry the whole of last winter, so very thankful.
GDK: And that makes trail building quite tricky, doesn’t it, and I suppose maintenance of trails.
BN: Yes, dry weather in general, just building fresh stuff, it’s hard to compact and shape things nicely and actually get it ready to use. Because it stays crumbly, so yes, lots of maintenance and just not nice riding sometimes.
GDK: You’re a Stellenbosch man and trail building is what you do. I know you have a little bit of a small business on the outside, but this is what you do. Where did it all germinate, when did it start?
How did you get into it?
BN: Building stuff to progress on in private time, at school already. Then helping people on events that needed someone to also provide stuff. Mainly due to how your ride, I suppose, you would be able to provide something.
GDK: What was the trigger? People go and ride their bikes, but not many people say: Hang on, I’m going to go and build a trail. At school, were you challenging yourself to try and ride stuff?
BN: Yes, basically, I think the media wasn’t as big, stuff like internet and YouTube and what-not. So you saw maybe magazines which had still pictures of guys doing stuff. So planning the build of it and actually executing some of it was a story of its own, definitely.
GDK: Did you grow up here and were you at school here?
BN: Finished matric in the Cape, we moved here in 1995 from the Free State. But before that we were a couple of places overseas, working with parents.
GDK: Mountain biking, it was your passion, in those days it wasn’t, as you say, that fashionable.
BN: Yes, I think a mountain bike was seen like a skateboard. Why do you want one to go to school on and shocks and disc brakes later. Parents didn’t understand, like the bubble in a Nike shoe heel, does it have a motor for that price, that type of question.
The early days before designed trails
GDK: You obviously rode a lot of the trails and things here, when they were probably not trails in those days.
BN: Yes, some of the older stuff in Jonkershoek was created after guys got exposed to some downhill racing in the 90’s. Then wanted some gravity and just longer runs off the top. Some of our mountains suit that. I think as media grew and I think kids get exposed to certain things a lot earlier, there was demand. Also the bike industry, bikes can provide stuff. Back then we had to build something or order it from overseas, if it could be shipped at all.
GDK: Did you race?
BN: Well, I did a bit of triathlon with some of the cycling, that was also at school. Cause I swam well and then people suggested, to build stuff onto that. But the whole road cycling, it was a bit boring. I decided most people can get as fit as the next guy if you had the time and put the effort in.
But a bit more of the skills and technical riding, whether or not for a competition. But later yes, I started doing a bit of downhill racing, also more to progress myself. In that you meet so many people and actually get to see guys do things you’d like to attempt and see whether you’d fail or not.
GDK: I would think that as a trail builder you need to have an eye for geography, for angles, for lines, and that you clearly have.
An eye for building a good trail
BN: Yes, I think that maybe is a gift from above. It’s something, I think you could acquire and you could use instruments like the guys build roads. But that would take it away and there’s also maybe the side of it being a bit like art in the sense. That landscape differs so much and that your options, it’s like a canvas. Every one is blank, to a certain extent. Then there are natural features that guide you, but definitely, I think something inside.
GDK: So it progressed. You had your business, I think maintaining pools, is the business you were in. So how much time does this take of your working life?
BN: Actually that’s scaled down quite a bit, I help out one or two key clients that have been with me for a decade or so, more out of respect than a bit of extra pocket money. But very little, I’d say 5-10 hours a month, if that.
GDK: You’re working now at the moment in Jonkershoek with a team. How many do you have in your team?
BN: I’ve got seven permanent staff from Kayamandi and they’ve been with me for many years, all of them. Then when it gets busy, we bolt on some extra family and friends that have been casuals on and off as the winters come, it always gets busy.
GDK: The funding of these things is not an easy thing. Who is funding all this?
Where do the funds come from?
BN: Jonkershoek specifically, since last year we’re almost at the end of our first term of funding from MTO themselves. They’ve, with the help and a great push from Specialized, have created a budget for us. We’re almost going into the second term and should provide a lot of new trail with that.
GDK: Jonkershoek is special and it’s got a great reputation, but it’s special in another sense. I believe it’s not just a forest for forestry sake?
BN: No, as far as I understand, most of the pine forests would have been rehabilitated in the Western Cape. That Jonkershoek has been retained as an eco and a green footprint and will be replanted. But at this stage will be one of the only forests in the Boland.
GDK: Your services are more and more sought after, you finding yourself being drawn to other areas to plan trails?
BN: Yes, definitely. Many private land owners, which is also nicer to work with sometimes, less politics and that. But I also help one or two mountain bike clubs, providing trails in their area as land owners also can’t access, with good management, which is usually an issue. If you manage it well, I think people would let you in.
Working with land owners
GDK: What is that, the difficulty of land owners. I think that in South Africa we’re getting to a stage where land owners are becoming more and more welcoming to mountain bikers and trails. But do they see it as a profit making thing or do they see it as a nice to have, fun thing?
BN: Yes, that I think is, well, I wouldn’t say close to 50/50, but a lot of farmers are approached more than they would offer. Basically because there’s someone in the area wanting to provide a loop for people. Depending on where on the farm and maybe if it’s for an event or for recreational permanent riding. That’s got a big effect on the guys decision.
Also if a farmer does ride a mountain bike, it helps. But in general, I’d say it starts with events. People want larger loops around areas, around mountains. Then a route gets established and then after that, then feelers go out and clubs and privateers.
GDK: I suppose that’s the difficulty, people seeing this and trails are springing up all over the place, some of them not well constructed, not well built. In this area you’re known as a trail builder. How does one differentiate whose trail is whose?
BN: Yes, in the end I think it’s all about why you build trails, like I said in the beginning, I never phoned one person to go build a trail until now. It’s basically been people needing someone who can build and usually it’s about sustainability, not just how fun or rad it might be. It really is about drainage and the fun factor within that, if you can give a bit of gravity, but the trail stays there.
GDK: You just asked the question, so I’m going to reverse it on you, why do you build trails essentially?
Why do you build trails?
BN: I’ve often come down to it feeling like it’s a calling, in a way. That it’s something that came over my life. I really never went looking for it, to do it as a job-job. A lot of people are doing it that way now. Seeing that you might be able to make a couple of bucks off it. It’s become something that I now need to support family with.
Because the decision has been made, so you run it like a business. But no, it’s definitely come across my life as people need some nice trail to ride and myself, we needed to progress. There was nowhere we could take our bike to feel scared anymore or do something new, so just build new stuff.
GDK: I take it you’re still riding a lot, are you the final tester on these trails?
BN: Sometimes it gets so busy that I have to rely on some good mates who poach in the first time. But I try to, yes. That sort of reminds you why you do it. Sometimes it really does get very busy in the week and you almost have to focus on bringing your bike and remember why you do it.
GDK: You’re the Ace of Spades.
BN: That’s it!
GDK: Okay, that’s Bennet Nel, he’s known as the Ace of Spades in the Western Cape. That’s because he creates and sculpts these beautiful trails all over the Western Cape. If you’ve ridden anywhere in Stellenbosch in the last ten years, you would have ridden some of Bennet’s wonderful trails and he’s continuing to build.
That’s really an essential, vital part of mountain biking. Done the right way, these trails can be sustained for many years to come. I hope you enjoyed that, there’ll be more to come on our Old Mutual Mountain Bike live podcast. Please download once more, until then, cheers.