What it takes to keep trails up and running
01 January 1970
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Well, hello and welcome to our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast, thanks for downloading, I’m Gerald de Kock. As you know, we talk mountain biking and this wonderful sport provides us with so much to talk about and so many different areas of the sport that we keep ourselves busy on the trails and off the trails. Those trails are where we’re going to be focusing our attention on the next ten minutes or so. Because without these trails, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our mountain biking nearly as much.
There’s a man who has made it pretty much his business now in the Western Cape, in fact based in Stellenbosch. But working all over the Western Cape, he’s known as the Ace of Spades, Bennet Nel. Bennet is with me now, based in Stellenbosch, working on trails here in Jonkershoek. Bennet, a year and a half ago some terrible fires really wreaked havoc here. Have those trails recovered, are we back where we were then?
Bennet Nel: We’re starting to get there. A couple that were outside the burn line we were opening, I think, up to two or three months after the fire. Some of them that are within the tree line and where the burn was, we’re still battling with. Now trying to prioritise on putting a bit more user-friendly trail closer to the gate and entry, largely depending on felling process.
Jonkershoek is a special trail to work on
GDK: What makes Jonkershoek in particular so special as a trail building and a mountain bike venue?
BN: I think a little bit of the location, the fact that it’s a valley. You don’t drive through it, you go to it, it’s definitely a destination. A lot of the natural and weather elements, the fact that it’s got the highest rainfall and is beautiful in winter.
Luckily it seems to be back to normal this year and then a slope, degrees, we’ve got good dirt on the slopes. We have nice clay in many places and we do have nice rocky slopes to use for technical trail and some trees that are being planted. So we’ve got shade and wind block, there’s many plus factors.
GDK: You have to go and scout and decide where those trails are going to be built, is that your decision as to where and how it’ll be built?
BN: Largely, I must be honest to say I have one or two key people. In 2012 for instance, when I got permission to go in after those fires and we got a bit of funding outside. It was a specialised guy and a guy like Gniel de Villers and Paul the Plumber. The four of us sat and said, where would be good places to come off the top or provide a trail.
I then decided things like it was young trees then, so there would be there for a long time, so let’s build there. Luckily for us, also because it was small trees, they now burnt, but they weren’t getting harvested. So I can go back immediately again, many plus things to plan it that way. But no, not solely me, definitely some feedback from role players and beneficiaries.
GDK: MTO play a role here?
BN: Yes, they do, they’re very keen. Ownership and management have really bought into it, with a great, big push from Specialized. It’s a really good partnership in that sense, to provide trail. That’s why I’m focusing on some stuff closer to the gate for more family orientated stuff.
What does it cost to build and maintain trails?
GDK: Now, let’s get down to the brass tacks and what it takes to build a trail. Let’s start with the ugly stuff, the money stuff? What are the costs and overheads involved there?
BN: Look, if you can make your sums, if you’ve got seven guys and a 4×4 out daily, and the terrain usually is not great. So something like AA rates almost don’t apply and you have to battle about that as well. Starting up chainsaws and blades for that, it sometimes go in pasella, you can’t always charge that everywhere. It gets pricey quick, you can compare it to the construction industry.
GDK: Is it quite a difficult thing to convey, I suppose to mountain bikers who see this as recreation and these trails are just lekker and then they go and ride them. Is it difficult to get that across in a world where, as I said, people see mountain biking as just fun and why should we have to pay for these things?
BN: Yes, I think when we all started riding and a couple of guys, even older than myself, sort of been in the hills for 40 years or whatever. A lot of the trails were found or quickly raked open, often not necessarily even permission and it wasn’t an issue. There were a couple of people riding and if you copped the fence it wasn’t an issue.
Now, 200 over a weekend changes things and then events and basically skills. People wanted to progress and ride higher and more dangerous or faster or just longer rides out. People used to go for an hour, now guys ride eight hours in the day if they want.
So in that sense, I think it’s definitely been, the need for stuff. Now it’s created almost a little industry and it’s hard sometimes to carry that across, that it’s not a Saturday job. It’s not an after-hours thing, there’s a lot of people requiring trail. A lot of planning and the finances and all of that to get it together. In the end makes seven days a week sometimes.
What makes a good trail?
GDK: What makes a good trail in your mind?
BN: That would depend on who I build it for. But in the end I think the smile on the face. If it’s a climb, it should not kill you. But if it’s an XCO track, it should, that type of thing. Definitely flow, a bit of sustainability, a bit of a challeng, but properly built.
Something you can maybe leave until your spring time maintenance or before a rain. Not building such a way that you have to be in there after the first thousand bikes. I think that would qualify as something that’s been put effort into.
GDK: I know you like the technical stuff and going downhill, how difficult is it to sort put aside what you enjoy and what you think will be a nice trail? To take into regard, as you say, the families and others?
BN: Yes, that is difficult. Often I’ve now ended up putting what I would like aside. So much that I have to actually sometimes think if I get to an area, what could I add. Then go back to what I would like and really sometimes have a little bit more simple trail that works well. Go too much complicated and busy and something that’s a flop.
Great to hear the satisfaction people get
GDK: Not many people who builds these trails and on a weekend here at Jonkershoek thousands come and they ride them. They leave, sometimes, I have bumped into here, on the trails. Do you get compliments, do people know or do you just quietly go about the business?
BN: No, it’s sometimes, I wouldn’t say an issue. But I end up going for a ride and so many people stop you with compliments or enquiries. But I have very random people coming up to me, that I don’t even know, just thanking me. Students, 6:00 in the morning at the BP, knocking on my window, I haven’t slept from before and just stoked on trails.
GDK: I suppose that’s one of the great rewards?
BN: Yes, more than money. I think even if people just post something or send a message privately saying, look, we’ve been up something new and it’s rad, that’s definitely more than money.
GDK: Are you building new stuff here in Jonkershoek at the moment?
BN: Yes, we’ve got something that’s now in the third season. Where Specialized helps to bring Hylton Turvey and MTO is now also contributing towards that and together we tackle something new. The felling has progressed to a point where we can build a little bit closer to the gate, a little bit lower down. Maybe a bit more friendly trail, according to the slope. So we’re very busy at the moment.
GDK: You’ve rehabilitated quite a few of those trails as we talked about earlier, from the fire. How much damage was done?
BN: A lot, to be honest. I think the areas that were affected the largest were obviously bigger trees, very dangerous area. You can’t move in some of those areas, they haven’t been felled yet. They’re still standing and it’s an issue whether or not to let people in because it’s still dangerous. Trees fall over, even without the wind blowing, just randomly.
How much trail is currently on offer?
GDK: Looking at the trails that are in here now. You’ve got, how many kilometres are we looking at that are ridable now?
BN: That’s a good question, I haven’t actually, after the fire, quite calculated. But yes, we’ve got at least about 8-12km of trails coming off the top of the hill and in total I’d say at least 15-18km of usable trail at the moment.
GDK: Does it reach a stage where you’ve reached a saturation phase of trail here?
BN: Luckily that is still a ways away for Jonkershoek. I’m actually waiting for the day when we can build that much.
GDK: It’s a thankless task, although, as I said, you get those people who do thank you and obviously there’s a bit of a financial reward for it. But I take it this is a passion?
BN: Definitely, I think, like the earlier questions about having bikes and testing stuff. That to me sometimes is the gratification of riding something you built. Sometimes it gets busy, so that goes out and you just work. Then the thanks you get from people and messages and just big smiles and happy people.
GDK: You work here in the Western Cape. Have you worked elsewhere in the country?
BN: Not far from Stellies. At this stage I’ve had so many inquiries, I’ve had one or two people wanting to fly my team places in the world. But at this stage, Jonkershoek is the backyard, so I’m committed to that. I have a handful of other nice, good clients around that I try and look after.
GDK: Long may you continue the passion. We certainly as riders appreciate it richly and hopefully you do too and you continue to enjoy it.
BN: Yes, thank you very much and thanks for having a chat Gerald.
GDK: Bennet Nel, the Ace of Spades, the Ace trail builder here in Jonkershoek and around Stellenbosch. If you ride your mountain bike anywhere in these parts you would have ridden his trails. You will continue, hopefully, to do so for many years to come and if you see him on the trails, he’s riding a?
GDK: What colour is your helmet?
BN: Black, same as the bike.
GDK: Okay, give him a wave and say thanks very much because he’s the man who has made us smile so much on these trails. I hope you’ve enjoyed that issue of our Old Mutual Live Mountain Bike podcast. Please download once more because you’ll find out a lot more about this great sport. Until then, cheers.