Tripping through Gee-Pee on two wheels may not sound like a fun day out but, if you know where to go, there’s quality riding to be found. Jacques Marais highlights routes, rides and races not to miss
Jozi on a bicycle? You must think I’m some kind of gung-ho nutcase or something… End-of-days traffic, clouds of carbon monoxide, bike muggings, and a concrete jungle that stretches as far as the mind’s eye can imagine. I mean, be real: what are the chances of finding a safe, enjoyable and scenic ride up here in the belly of the Big Smoke Beast?
You’d be pretty surprised, actually. As I was once I started researching my latest book on MTB trails for South Africa’s northern provinces. Sure, I expected Mpumalanga and Limpopo to boast deserted stretches of tarmac and a whole bunch of wilderness off-road trails, but did not for a moment imagine I’d uncover any velo gems within the immediate vicinity of Joburg and Pretoria.
Well, I stand corrected. Cycling gods such as Fritz Pienaar, Carla van der Westhuizen, Phillip Buys and thousands of others have been cranking into the golden Egoli dawn for ages now – both on and off the road – and, once I got chatting to them, I realised how much fun you could have in Gauteng on either a road bicycle or a mountain bike.
Unlike Cape Town or KwaZulu-Natal, a lot of riding has traditionally been done as organised group rides. To a large extent this ensured the safety of participants within an urban metropolis, where crime was obviously expected to occasionally be an issue. Weekly outrides therefore evolved in most suburbs in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg to cater for varying levels of riders.
These include social options (find out about those starting from the House of Coffee outlets around Joburg), or rides centred around retail outlets such as Cycle Lab (www.cyclelab.co.za). According to local MTB legend, Fritz Pienaar, the MTB riding culture has now progressed to the “next best thing”, and that is purpose-built mountain bike parks.
“These parks consist of fenced areas – usually with well-maintained single-track – and within easy reach of the city centres,” says Pienaar. “Check out spots such as Groenkloof Nature Reserve or Rosemary Hill MTB Park on any given weekend morning and you will be amazed; here you can ride safely and at your own pace, in an environment that is scenic, tranquil and well-maintained.”
If you’re not keen to pedal as part of the herd, don’t sweat. Or rather, go sweat it out solo or with just a few mates on one of the many MTB trails mushrooming just beyond the boundaries of Jozi and Pretoria. Parys and the surrounding Vredefort Dome – as well as Magaliesberg and the adjacent Cradle of Humankind – are just two of the regions riders head to for a touch of trail therapy.
The former gives you the best of both worlds, with meandering stretches of tarmac roads in good condition (and not too much traffic if you choose your time right – try the R500 or R53 for good measure). Short dirt excursions can be had from Otters’ Haunt on the banks of the Vaal, or go big on your bike along more than 70km of trails at Berakah Adventures.
Otherwise, head west towards The Cradle and adjacent Magaliesberg area, arguably top of the pops as far as Gee-Pee velocipede fun goes. Tarmac-tripping around the Hartbeespoort Dam (the R512 and R104 get a double thumbs-up) rates as a favourite weekend ride for thousands of cyclists, while nearby Skeerpoort brims with mountain biking magic. Most mountain bikers in the know will doff their cycling helmet to Van Gaalen farm as a must-do ride. Fast-tracking does not get much better than this, with a good 150km of riding – much of it sought-after single-track – not to mention a boutique fromagerie (cheesy, I know), plus a lekker restaurant with cold beer on tap.
Then, finally, there is always the classic go-to for bored bicyclists – events! Races of all types, distances and disciplines abound here within the Witwatersrand Metropolitan Area. Crank into the dark zone at the Energizer Night Race Series; mix up the pedal power with a run leg at the SA Duathlon Series or Xterra events; get muddy (and extremely moeg) at the 24HR MTB by Omni-Motion; or make it an all-out spandex affair at the annual 94.7 Cycle Challenge.
The latter race is Gauteng’s own ‘Argus’, and more than 27 000 roadies in tight-fitting lycra can’t be completely wrong. And if you’re in dire need of motivation to get back onto your bike, how about adding the annual MTN Tour of Legends (SA’s first cycling stage race for decades) to your bucket list?
This, or the unique Nedbank Tour de Tuli – where you crank off-road over 300km through Zimbabwe, Botswana and Limpopo – will be more than enough reason to get back into the biking buzz here, on any of the dozens of Gauteng rides.
Top Ten Races, Routes And Rides
The trails and routes below include most of the popular mountain biking or cycling destinations within a two-hour drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria. Always enquire beforehand to check that routes are open, and to ensure access and safety. www.mtbroutes.co.za
- Groenkloof & Surrounds Get your MTB mojo on in the greenbelt area of Pretoria, where you can next-level your ride from Groenkloof Nature Reserve through Fountains, Fort Klapperkop and the Voortrekker Monument. www.ottershaunt.co.za
- The Skeerpoort Trails at Van Gaalen Cheese Farm need no intro, and it is no wonder they are rated as some of the top MTB trails near Jozi. Purpose-built single-track abounds, and you can revel in a ripping ride as you bomb through reeds, bush, open veld and rivers along nearly 150km of trails. www.vangaalen.co.za
- Rated as one of SA’s first World Heritage Sites, the Dome Land Conservancy is owned mainly by private landowners like Berakah Adventures Their mountain bike route follows their quad-bike trail, with more than enough technical sections – think river crossings and rocks – on which to hone your skills. www.berakah.co.za
- Energizer Night Race Get into the vibe of this popular night race by dressing up in your best neon outfit, and with as many flashing lights as possible. Expect a fast and flowing XC-style (cross-country) circuit looping through an event centre, with massive crowds, bands and all the funk you can handle. www.nightrace.co.za
- SA Duathlon Anybody from weekend warriors to racing snakes can sign up for this run-and-ride combo on either tarmac or trail. Regular triathlon rules apply regarding drafting and transitions, but the fun factor is huge.
- Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge Any dedicated follower of lycra fashion will surely not miss Jozi’s premier road cycling event. Camaraderie and cranking comes together in a festival of lithe limbs, velocipede fun and pedal power. www.cyclechallenge.co.za
- Tour of Legends This three-day cycling stage race is bound to become one of the premier events of its kind in Southern Africa, and you can expect all the big names to line up at the start. www.touroflegends.co.za. And if stage-racing over multiple days is your thing, go utterly hardcore along the extreme nine-day joBerg2C route. www.joberg2c.co.za
- NISSAN Trailseeker Series This series of off-road races is specifically focused on Gauteng residents, allowing them to have an authentic MTB experience within an hour of the city limits. Put together by ace rider Fritz Pienaar, this series ensures a quality (and challenging) ride. www.trailseeker.co.za
- Omni-Motion 24hrs Old-school riders will enjoy the endurance aspect, festival feel and community spirit of the continuous racing format, where riders see how much total distance they can cover in a 24hr period. www.facebook.com/24hrmtb
- Tour de Tuli Believe me, nothing beats an organised bike tour, especially if it’s an event where you can settle into an unparalleled wilderness feel such as the unique NedbankTour de Tuli. This four-day ride through lion and elephant territory is trulya once-in-a-lifetime experience. www.childreninthewilderness.com