Joy Riding the Elgin Valley

Less than an hour’s drive from Cape Town, Elgin is Mecca for mountain bikers.

Words: Fiona McIntosh

Pictures: Shaen Adey and Matthew Holt

18b MTB Elgin, copyright Shaen Adey

Drive through the Elgin Valley on a weekend and you’ll see bikes on every second vehicle. Many turn off towards Grabouw, heading for the legendary mountain-biking trails of the Cape Pine forestry plantations near Elgin Country Club or at Oak Valley Wine Estate, while the remainder continue for a few kilometres to the equally popular routes at Paul Cluver or Lebanon.

“The Elgin Valley is the hub of MTB in the Western Cape,” my guide Gerhard Huiskens assures me. “ It’s the biggest area of intense mountain biking you can get.” He should know. He’s been scouting trails for MTB events for more than seven years and, with the help of Jolanda Fick and Wimpie Bouwer, has built numerous trails in the Cape Pine forestry area.

“We’ve seen phenomenal growth since 2006,” he continues. “And there’s plenty more to discover. It’s such a diverse area, with pines, fynbos, vineyards, orchards, oaks and indigenous forest. And the environment is constantly changing.” He points across the valley to a skyline ridge that bristles like a hedgehog. “Those spiky pines survived a fire but they’re clearing the forests here at Cape Pine so that will change the nature of the routes.”

5. MTB Elgin, copyright Shaen Adey

We ride up from the trailhead near the country club to the start of the Bruggie single track. The koppie is a mass of yellow daisies heralding the arrival of spring but the winter rains have only just ceased and much of the track is still soggy. But therein lies the beauty of this trail; the bruggies are log bridges over the streams and in all weather it’s fun, easy riding. Halfway down the hill, the route ducks into the forest on well-crafted single track that weaves through the trees and descends via a series of switchbacks that requires you to keep your wits about you to avoid a crash. “Yup, I built it so that you can’t fall asleep.” Gerhard laughs when I tell him I was constantly on the alert.

“How do you go about building a MTB track?” I ask. “Hard sweat,” he responds. “I generally trim back the branches and saplings, then Jolanda sweeps away the leaves. If we need to cut a track we do it with spades. When we built the Bell’s ingle track, one 2.5km section took us three weeks.”

It all started way back in 2008 when he marked a trail for Oude Molen (now called the Nuweberg Route), he explains, as I follow him down the second route of the day – this time watching out for dongas. “It’s rough riding but I like it that way. The rougher the better.”

Not surprisingly, after a day with Gerhard I’m pretty exhausted. The man is tough and he’s made a point of taking me on the most challenging parts of his trails. But don’t let that put you off; you don’t have to ride single track or steep routes in the Elgin Valley – there are plenty of easy, low-level tracks for novices at Oak Valley, Paul Cluver and Lebanon, as well as a number of quiet gravel roads. You can also make up your own back-road route, and do a bit of sightseeing and wine tasting (not too much) as you go. In fact, if you fancy it, since there are plenty of places to stay, you could easily devise your own customised, multi-day trail and ride for a week without covering the same ground.

31 MTB Elgin, copyright Shaen Adey

“What’s the best trail in the valley?”  I quiz as we say goodbye. Gerhard won’t be drawn in. “The whole Grabouw/Elgin area is the best trail. There’s so much different riding. I’ve been living here for 16 years and am still discovering new tracks. I’m so glad I don’t live in Gauteng and have to ride the same routes every weekend.”

My second day in the valley is spent riding on Oak Valley estate. Oak Valley needs no introduction to the MTB fraternity. The trails on the farm, established by avid rider, Pieter ‘Vissie’ Visser, the Oak Valley winemaker who sadly passed away in 2014, are lauded as some of the finest and best-known MTB routes in the country. They form core sections of many of the iconic events centred around Elgin Valley, including the Wines2Whales, the race village for which is on the estate, and the Apple Blossom MTB Classic.

The early morning mist is rising as we buy our permits at the entrance gate on the historic farm’s oak-lined avenue. After studying the route map we opt for the middle option of the three trails on offer – the 24km Red Route. (There is also a 14km family-friendly Blue Route and a 32km Black Route for fitter and bolder riders). Gerhard and Jolanda make an unscheduled appearance – the chance to ride these trails is too much to pass up, they mutter by way of explanation – accompanied by Theresa Horn, a buddy of mine who recently relocated to Grabouw because of the wealth of MTB trails. A highly accomplished mountain biker with two Absa Cape Epics, several Cape Pioneer Treks and many other stage races across South Africa to her name, Theresa used to race with Vissie’s wife, Elzan.

As we head out on the easy path, the light dappling through the oak trees, I have high expectations. When I once told magazine editor Tim Brink of my Elgin plans, he insisted I ride Oak Valley’s Red or Black Route (which follow the same track for much of the way). “The descent from the top stile, and through the Star Wars riverbed section, is the funnest piece of single track in the Western Cape.” What with this and my expert guides I was looking forward to the adventure.

Once out of the shade of the magnificent old oaks, we wind up through orchards and vineyards, the ever-improving views providing the excuse to stop after the more testing climbs. It’s heavenly, but negotiating some interesting bridges and styles over fences and streams means we can’t just relax and enjoy the scenery. Finally we pop out onto the high grasslands at the foot of the fynbos-covered Groenlandberg and climb to the top of the hill. Time to let rip.

“I used to chase Vissie down this,” Theresa confides as I psyche myself up. “I can still see him and his fast blue Santa Cruz bike in front of me. It’s always a bit sad for me going down here now. But you’re going to love it.” And boy is she right. The next six kilometres are as good as you can ask for on a mountain-bike track; beautifully cut and maintained, wonderfully varied and, apart from a few intimidating log stiles over fences, which can be avoided, never too difficult. Swooping around a couple of berms takes us into the forest where we weave down through the trees on clean, forgiving and flowing track.

It’s exhilarating; sufficiently challenging to get the pulse rating but technically within the realms of even nervous, inexperienced riders like myself. I have only one ‘moment’. After negotiating a stile, then a short, steep descent, I round a corner to find Gerhard off his bike crouching over the path. “Oh heck,” methinks. “Someone’s come to grief.” But as I draw up I find my companions studying the bank. “Oak Valley is one of the oldest farms in the area,” Gerhard advises. “In the early days water was brought down in these wooden pipes. The owner, Antonie Viljoen, imported them from England in the early 1900s as he set about developing Oak Valley’s fruit orchards and vines.”

Theresa is astounded. “I must have ridden down here at least 500 times,” she admits “and I’ve never noticed.” (I’m less surprised that she missed them given the speed with which she ‘flew’ down the route). We continue on, my confidence growing with every turn and, by the time I reach the gentle track that led back through the oaks to the start, I’ve risen to the challenge of the stiles, and am beaming. So often expectations breed disappointment. But not this time, Tim was right on the mark.

After freshening up in the showers at the parking lot we head to The Pool Room Restaurant and Wine Tasting centre to celebrate. “Glad you enjoyed the trail,” Danelle Bosman, the estate’s PR officer says as she pours me a glass of Oak Valley Rosé. “Maybe you’d like to come back for our annual 24-hour MTB relay in January?” Mmm, 24 hours of riding those exquisite trails sounds quite appealing. Maybe I will.

Up to It?

  • There are trails to suit all levels of experience, and courage, in both the Cape Pine plantations and at Oak Valley.
  • The Oak Valley trails are probably more suited to beginners.
  • Permits for the Cape Pine trails are issued at the entrance, near Elgin Country Club. Oak Valley permits are issued at their entrance gate.

When to Go

  • The trails are open year round but spring is a wonderful time to visit. The fruit trees are covered with blossoms and the koppies are a blaze of wild flowers.

Where to Stay

  • The renovated, historic Cottage 1902 on Oak Valley Estate sleeps two adults and two children and is a wonderfully exclusive spoil.

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