Do you believe in trail fairies?

Trail fairies are the sprites which miraculously fix and build trails while the rest of us are sleeping – dreaming in single track. They cut berms, sculpt features and even construct bull and chicken runs to accommodate a variety of skills. These hard working imps are very real but not in the form you thought and as Seamus Allardice found out they need more cash and hands to keep up their essential work. 

We all want to ride the best trails, they don’t always have to be perfectly manicured – sometimes rough and ready is far more fun – but we’re not always aware of what really goes into building and maintaining great MTB trails. Hence riders acting like they believe in what Meurant Botha calls “trail fairies”.

I’m sure most of the time it’s not a conscious thing, it’s just that it’s easy to take for granted that someone built your favourite bit of trail (unless you did it yourself) or that someone comes out on a Saturday morning and fixes the braking bumps. So with the Origin of Trails coming up at the end of the month I went to speak to the route planner, Corrie Muller and Specialized’s Bobby Behan about the work that they’ve been putting into the trails around Stellenbosch. And got James Thornhill- Fisher to chip in with information on how the highly successful Tygerberg MTB Club manages their trails, but let’s start with the Origins…

Bottle neck single track
“It’s not just bottle necks which stop event organisers filling a race with quality sinsle track.”

In 2012 a group of avid riders from Stellenbosch, including 2009 Dakar Rally champion Giniel de Villiers and Stillwater Sport’s Michael Meyer, got together to raise money to expand the Jonkershoek trails. With the help of a fundraiser coordinated by one of the local bike shops, Bike Marathon Triathlon, and Specialized chipping in quite significantly they managed to raise R160 000 which they turned over to Bennet Nel of Ace Of Spades to build new trails.

This planted the seed of what was to become the Origin of Trails concept. To host a world class MTB event in the town used as a base for many top riders, including Christoph Sauser (a long time Stellenbosch summer resident), Nino Schurter and Jaroslav Kulhavy, and to use the funds to contribute directly to the trails in the region. As any old MTB hand from the Winelands will tell you – Stellenbosch is the spiritual home of MTB in South Africa. So it’s essential that they keep building quality trails to ensure that Stellenbosch keeps attracting and starts producing the world’s top riders. But let’s get down and dirty looking at what goes into laying trails for you to enjoy.

Origin’s route director, Corrie Muller, is usually a dentist by day, but a MTB crash left him with torn ligaments in both his thumbs and so while booked off work for three months Michael Meyer roped him in to liaise the route. This involved getting permission from 55 land owners to organise two 70km stages and as Corrie found there are no trails without lengthy land access debates – on average two hours per kilometre… It’s not that land owners don’t want MTBers on their property; they are just understandably particular about where the trails go.

Cape Fold Mountains - Stellenbosch
The iconic Cape Fold Mountains of Stellenbosch set the scene for the Origin of Trails but make trail building costly.

Corrie approached 58 land owners, so just three no’s are really pretty good going. Private land owners are actually easy to deal with apparently. It just takes some negotiating. Sometimes they want to show off a particular feature of their farm, or take the route past the wine cellar to plant the meme for future sales. As the ex-chair of the Tygerberg MTB Club and new Full Sus contributor, James Thornhill-Fisher explained, land owners have found that having MTBers on their land act as extra eyes to spot trespassers and other potential issues. While there will always be the nitwit who makes a nuisance of himself by straying off the designated path, for the most part land owners have found riders to be keen to protect their trail resources.

And at the end of the day trails are an expensive resource. Corrie says that it cost around R2 500 per day to cut trail high in Jonkershoek, which when you consider that it took 15 days to construct three switch-backs, which don’t measure up to anywhere near a kilometre, you’re looking at a R37 500 bill. Terrain as you’d imagine is the most important factor in infl uencing the cost of trail building, and James Thornhill-Fisher concurs, at the time of Tygerberg’s major expansion they were budgeting R30 000 per kilometre over rough virgin ground. Which is why jeep tracks, gravel roads and traverses along orchard or vine rows are more common than single tracks through natural veld.

So it’s not just bottle necks which stop event organisers fi lling a race with quality single track. Just consider the eff ect of 1 000 plus pairs of wheels rolling over the carefully manicured trails – which cost around R1 000 per kilometre to fi x – during a large MTB event. Some races use their profi le to leverage trail access without contributing to their maintenance, which means that the land owners or the original builders are saddled with the burden of putting up the cash for fi xing the damage incurred. This leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. So the more responsible organisers are keen to avoid burning their bridges with land owners, to ensure that the race can return year after year to the same farms and rather than the amount of single track decreasing every year the opposite can happen.

And on that note, a reminder is due when you’re out for a training ride or just a fun crank – don’t sneak around the pay point – if you ride the trail be prepared to pay for it, or in the case of public access trails maybe you should consider volunteering for a Saturday morning. Contact your local bike shop and see if they’ve got a trail maintenance programme, if they don’t they should be able to direct you in the direction of the relevant local trail builder. And if nobody else is doing it, maybe you should start a fund raising project to look after your local trails.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.