More than mine dumps.
Johannesburg was already part of cycling in South Africa when this first became a world sport, and they founded the Amateur Cycling Union, around which cycling evolved in 1892. A year later, when the first World Championship took place, so too the first South African National Championship was also organised in Joburg, and some famous top-end rac-ers have continued to emerge from this community. Even after he became the first South African to win a stage in the Tour de France, Robbie Hunter would still come back to see his family and train in Joburg, as does multiple Tour de France champ Chris Froome.
Words: Adelé Tait
This feature first appeared in the May/June issue of Ride magazine.
In 1886, the city of Johannesburg was established when mining prospectors found what they were looking for, and more than 100 000 gold rush fanatics arrived almost immediately. This is still the largest and wealthiest city in South Africa despite plenty of economic and political changes over the years. No less than 11 local municipalities already had to join forces to cope with the population density in Gauteng, but somehow nature still matters too in this city that is now called Joburg. Many zoos, parks and nature reserves exist, and a world record has noted that no less than 16 million trees have been planted and maintained since the city was first established because they are not indigenous to the grassland. It is also true that the weather on the Highveld is mild, and now one has to wonder whether living with industries, businesses and technologies in this surprisingly pleasant environment has helped to raise the appeal of enjoying competition and partnership because a truly astonishing number of locals pedal – most cycling industry surveys claim 45-47% of the cyclists in South Africa reside in Gauteng.
Currently the city and its greater environs host road racing of some description every weekend of the year, with mountain bike events not far behind. Over the years, population density and struggling with traffic and pedestrians has put some road cycling events around the city under pressure, but one event continues to entice professionals, experienced fanatics and thousands of newbies to show up every year. When it was first established 23 editions ago, the 947 Cycle Challenge was already the biggest Joburg race, and only the Cycle Tour in Cape Town manages to attract more participants in South Africa. With road closure the route offers a safe ride over highways and adventures through parts of the city that are normally too old, famous, fancy, dangerous or private to experience, and a surprising range of wider communities now spectate, support or are involved. This has helped to bring previous participants back year after year to get faster or just finish. Raising funds for hundreds of charities or joining company teams has helped to attract people who might otherwise have been too nervous or lazy to try. When this first started to appeal to professionals and serious racers from other parts of the country and the world, it also revealed a curious benefit. There are not really long, steep climbs in Joburg, so these foreigners expected it to be easy, but then the Highveld altitude at an average elevation of 1 753m above sea level chewed their lungs. Daryl Impey grew up in Joburg and his dad still has a bike shop here. Despite already having worn UCI yellow jerseys in top races around the world a few times he had an interesting comment after winning the the professional men’s race last year: he thought he was going to get dropped off on those five short climbs to the finish line because they were tough. So maybe Joburgers do altitude training without being aware.
Mountain biking was only invented in the early 80’s, but the Johannesburg Mountain Bike Club (JMBC) already appeared in 1989. They had a plan to ride somewhere else every Sunday and without all the dedicated venues we enjoy now, riders didn’t often have to pay but there were a few other challenges. Every week group leaders would go out to explore new dirt roads and paths, and they would communicate with farmers and industries to ask for a pass through. Over time, trying out more technical options meant skills training for club members and newbies had to be offered, and this helped to expand the sport. Some JMBC club members became keen to involve a wider community and several years before Qhubeka was established in Joburg to assist even wider communities, they already donated bikes and skills to kids in Soweto. This crowd helped to rescue Northern Farm, near Diepsloot from becoming a burial site, and now some Diepsloot MTB Academy riders are already capable of participating in the Absa Cape Epic.
Although risks on the dense roads have shrunk road cycling in Joburg over the years, this has fed mountain biking because not everybody is prepared to get off bikes. By now even long-time famous road supporter clubs like Cycle Lab also have to offer mountain biking options.
Actually there are so many dedicated venues to enjoy or get challenged by and events to enter night and day that club life has shrunk a bit,although there are not fewer riders. One of the most impressive developments in Joburg’s mountain biking community involves youngsters. The largest number of teams that participate in Spur Schools leagues show up in Gauteng, and last year no less than 950 fifteen-year-olds participated in the four local qualifiers before the fast final.
Although the organisers don’t always like to admit this, many events in the rest of our country would not survive without all the Joburgers who show up. Now travelling away to ride might seem to be the favourite option, but that is not true either.
Here are some riding spots to enjoy or use to try to catch up and overtake some of the regular Joburg pedallers.
CRADLE OF HUMANKIND
This popular venue is located towards the north-west of Joburg, where safe and smooth tarred roads with dedicated two-metre-wide cycle lanes that are clearly marked are on offer in the Cradle of Humankind. Because the terrain consists of constant rises and descents it can be quite challenging, but the gradients are not wild and the routes run along farmlands and nature reserves that offer plenty of animals to watch if you are not focused on a faster pace. The central loop of the Cradle is not very long, but this venue can work for everyone because there are virtually always fellow riders even on week days, and several clubs add more distance and gradients from their own start venues. The biggest groups come from Cycle Lab that offers 70 or 93km routes from their bike shop in Fourways on Saturdays, and then you climb more than 1000m because some of the longest climbs are on the way out and back over Cedar road. Many smaller groups come from the Broadacres Shopping Centre, to avoid the more dense city traffic, and the half-professionals do a high pace ride from Northcliff along Hendrik Potgieter Road towards the Cradle. Because of this club traffic in the Cradle, most of the riding is is very disciplined and there is help available from team cars if you have a mechanical problem or injury, but it is wise to just look out for fast-moving pelotons. A few locals tried to chase out the cyclists with piles of drawing pins tossed on the roads in the early days, but by now some local venues benefit more from cyclists than tourists, weddings and conferences. This offers cyclists good coffee as well as pleasant meals to enjoy after a ride and good ways to entertain family and friends as well.
START AND FINISH: Bidon Bistro, Valverde Eco Hotel, Riverstone Lodge, Ground Café and the Rhino and Lion Nature Reserve are all cycling-friendly venues, but club and group rides add distance and climbing because they start in and return to the city.
DISTANCE: 30 km for one circular lap along the Cradle route, 50km if you ride to Sterkfontein Cave and back, and more if you start and finish somewhere in the city.
ASCENT: from 320m upwards, depending on which route you choose.
HIGHLIGHTS: Comparatively safe roads in one of Africa’s busiest cities; there is always someone to ride with.
START AND FINISH: Engen Garage on Main Road in Bryanston
This ride starts just before 5am on week days, with what the A- and B-bunch riders and Vets describe as fast rides on Tuesday and Thursday, a more chilled ride on Wednesday and a coffee ride on Friday. You need to be a strong pedaller to stick with the main bunch on any of these days, and they spend just a bit more than an hour and 20 minutes out there. Quite a lot of smaller groups form along the way. Although the roads have been chosen very carefully to keep riders safe on the route which mainly runs through suburbs and commercial areas to avoid early industrial traffic, about 100 of them won’t even stop at a red traffic light. This crowd has no concern about irritating motorists who then have to try and pass them a bit later, so some of the smaller groups are also just more responsible. After starting in Bryanston, the route runs along Sandton Drive before turning onto Rivonia Road, towards Oxford Drive in Rosebank and eventually they head towards Saxonwold, Parktown, Greenside and Linden before heading back towards Bryanston over Randburg. This offers fairly well maintained roads over a good mix of rises, descents and flat roads on which to pace, so these are excellent training rides if you are preparing to race. However, you have to call Uber if your bike packs up or you get knocked off because there are no team cars to assist, and if you need an ambulance it will take some time to get to you because the traffic density explodes after 7.30am.
START AND FINISH: Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve
DISTANCE: From 15 to 50 or more kilometres
ASCENT: 1 300m, or more if you ride more than one loop
Riders from the south of Joburg often just ride to the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, but those who live in the rest of the city need to allow at least an hour to drive here. Although you can see this venue from the N3, the gate has to be accessed off the R550. The tar roads offer easier options as well as longer loops, but the distance matters less than the gradients. This nature reserve is named after the Suikerbosrand mountain range for a very good reason, and offers some pretty challenging climbing. Although it is so secure you don’t need to ride in a big group or often watch out for cars, sensible pacing and a bike with a good choice of gears are essential. For riders who prefer a natural distraction rather than focusing on the ride there are sometimes zebras, wildebeest, red hartebeest and hyenas to spectate, and bird watchers may even be able to spot some of the rare African grass owls and secretary birds. Among the international riders who come to spend their rest time in Joburg with their families, both Chris Froome and Daryl Impey have logged rides here that are above the abilities of most riders over distances of more than 200km and more than 5000m of climbing, but even if you plan a comfortable distance it can be tough. This applies even on the flats if it is windy, but snakes are surprisingly often seen to keep you moving. A few races used to pass through here, but because some cyclists assumed other people must clean up the papers and bottles they toss off their bikes this is no longer allowed. Now everybody just has to keep it clean and tidy to retain this good riding venue.
FIND OUT MORE
With dense traffic and the occasional risk of being stopped by a criminal who (hopefully) just wants your phone but might also like your bike, riding alone in the city is not safe. Joining a group or a club is a sensible option. The Cycle Lab club is big and they are able to offer rides with group leaders to plan appropriate speed and distance as well as vehicles to help with problems, and this group can literally accommodate all kinds of riders. You can find more information about this on cyclelabclub.co.za. If you prefer to ride in smaller groups and maybe connect more closely with some of the other cyclists you meet, Club 100 also offers good options that you can find on www.club100.co.za. To train with speed freaks, you might enjoy riding with the Northcliff Cycles bike shop crowd who start on Beyers Naudé Drive in Northcliff where local hill repeats almost as tough as the climbs in Suikerbosrand can also be planned, but only at times when the traffic is calm. In fact, you can find many more options all round the city on the Central Gauteng Cycling website (cgcycling.co.za) with descriptions of where they are and phone and email contact options.
This farm and nature reserve off the R114 near Diepsloot covers a wide range of different terrains that offer options for everyone from beginners to crazy racers. It is open over weekends and public holidays, and is so popular that there are seldom fewer than 100 cars in the parking venue next to the club house. The routes are clearly marked with colour codes which give clear indications of the more technical sections so you can mix the colours if you want to skip some. While the Pink route that many young kiddies enjoy just covers fairly smooth farm roads over about 8km, and the 12km Green route also mainly covers farm roads with no obstacles, the other options are more interesting. Route 2 is marked Blue and covers about 22 km, with about 200m of climbing over a mix of farm roads and single tracks through the gum tree forest and Mamba Trail sections that are not particularly technical. One of the most popular options is the Red route which offers amusing single tracks with about 350m of climbing over 38km, including some pretty rocky sections near the Jukskei river, which runs along the bottom of the farm. Route 4 is marked Black, and covers about 62km with more than 600m of climbing over rock gardens and drop-offs to that definitely demand some technical focus. Because this is a nature reserve, there are some limits to what the course designers are allowed to do, and sometimes the routes get a bit maintenance hungry, but repetition makes it easier. Even if you choose one of the less popular routes you can stay safe because a large number of security guards control this estate. Sometimes cars, trucks and tractors appear, but they are only allowed to use the farm roads so it is not difficult to keep out of their way. There is a pretty entertaining play zone for the kids, with coffee and simple meals available around the clubhouse where picnics and braais are permitted. Trail runners, bird watchers and other nature lovers are also accommodated, and bikes and helmets are available to hire so visitors and families can easily also be accommodated.
CLOSEST PART OF GAUTENG: Midrand
DISTANCES: 8km to 62km
DIFFICULTY: From easy farm roads to narrow Black technical routes
MORE INFORMATION: www.northernfarm.co.za
PWC BIKE PARK
This bike park runs over the green belt of Bryanston, and the Libertas access road comes off Sloane Road in Bryanston. This offers riding options for kids and all kinds of older riders, from beginners and intermediates to fanatical racers. They even offer a comfortable option for night riders, since the Sandton crowd don’t really work short hours. The tracks all run off a smooth 4km perimeter road that is bidirectional, and there is one easy green track, as well as five more difficult and interesting blue and challenging black trails. Instructors are also available, and a Cycle Lab skills area helps riders who are not experienced to start coping with everything from rock gardens to drop-offs and wiggles. Because of the natural environment in which these tracks have been built, riders can even experience a magical forest and some pretty steep bits, with river crossings as well as bridges, berms and other man-made obstacles and it is all well maintained. Trail runners are also accommodated, and children’s parties are frequently hosted. To keep the kids who come to ride safe, some technicians check their bikes before they head out, and even youngsters with parents who don’t know a thing about cycling are able to try and enjoy it on a little mini track because there are bicycles and helmets to hire. Jump and pump tracks are also offered, and the people who don’t ride can enjoy food and drinks, while the cyclists often sip coffee before they get moving again on their bike or car. Club membership here offers particularly good options with unlimited access, bike wash and lubes, a lesson to get started and regular masterclasses, discounts from the restaurant and events, as well as a whole range of other cycling and life activities.
CLOSEST PART OF GAUTENG: Sandton
DISTANCES: 13km for one lap
DIFFICULTY: Easy to much harder
MORE INFORMATION: www.bikepark.co.za
GATEWAY TO GATEWAY MTB TRAIL
Although thousands of riders have been very thankful to ride the cycling lanes in the Cradle, even more people could enjoy this environment when a mountain biking track started to appear between the fences and tar. At first it was just a little 18km route along the Kromdraai Road, but it already offered a really pleasant adventure over the rise and falls among the trees and grasses of this area. This attracted riders who need somewhere safe to park before they get on and off the bike and don’t necessarily demand spectacular distances. With so many venues to choose from they were also able to start enjoying coffee, snacks and more elaborate meals and to have them spending money might well have helped to grow their options. Recently permission was obtained to add a 13km extension to this track, and now mountain bikers can enjoy a full offroad lap through the Cradle over a distance of 31km. There is also clear signage and road markings to ensure that the route is safely ridden clockwise with careful road crossings and hopefully attention from cyclists both on and off the tar. The fact these tracks have always been well maintained and not frighteningly technical has helped to appeal, but these riders are often joined by the lot who still add the pedestrian tracks along Beyers Naudé Drive to extend their distance to earn some fun off the bike. Now more locals also enjoy tourist activities such as hot air ballooning, game viewing, and trout fishing, and the Unesco World Heritage Site certification certainly makes sense after you have seen even one of the hominid fossils that are about 3.5 million years old.
CLOSEST PART OF GAUTENG: Krugersdorp
DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate
MORE INFORMATION: www.n3gateway.com
FIND OUT MORE
Some parts of the city have become very densely populated and by now many of the farm roads and foot paths that mountain bikers used to enjoy between the north of Joburg, Midrand and Pretoria have disappeared completely. Although off-roaders now mostly have to pay, they get to enjoy mountain biking venues all around the city that have to compete with each other. Since the distances are often a bit limited, wanting to extend that by riding there and back can bring some risks out on the roads and in between. Asking about this on bikehub.co.za often delivers good regional information, but it is often also a good plan to ask a bike shop close by to recommend some advice and local experts. One very enjoyable free open space that is still available in the city is known as the Spruit; where foot paths and tracks run next to a stream between Emmarentia dam, Parkhurst, Craighall Park, Riverclub, Bryanston and Rivonia. Most of it has been surprisingly well maintained, often by members of the Swamp Dogs club who have just chosen to do this since the mid-90’s. Because it is a public venue you can start and finish anywhere along the way, and enjoy some wiggles, rocky slabs, gap jumps, bridges and water crossings, and some people commute this way, but it is not risk free. Although cyclists, runners, and walkers sometimes irritate each other, and you have cross the roads carefully, mugging is not impossible and riding in a group or going out during the morning or afternoon when many people are also out there is sensible.