The history of mountain biking is a story of exploration, of breaking new ground and yes, even of breaking the rules! ERNST GOUWS celebrates the mavericks who have built some of Stellenbosch’s best trails.
EACH NATURE AREA that now offers beautiful and enjoyable mountain bike trails was once untouched. Invariably, it took someone with an unconventional take on life, someone with passion and persistence, to turn a vision of a mountain bike trail into reality. Sometimes they had no formal permission; often they had lots of push-back from people concerned about the environmental impact. And, typically, they had inadequate funding. Without their efforts, labouring hundreds of hours with very basic equipment, we would not have the safe access to the beauty and challenges of the great outdoors we have today.
Great trail builders are more than hard workers – they’re also artists. It’s a rare talent to be able to envisage a trail across stretches of natural land and enhance it with features like berms, jumps and bridges. And it takes skill to physically construct a trail that both experts and novices can enjoy. Stellenbosch is lucky to be the home of several world-class trail builders and it’s time they are given the recognition they deserve.
Until he was 25, Mark spent all his time on either his skateboard or his surfboard. He first encountered mountain biking through Meurant Botha and Bennet Nel at Dirtopia on Simonsberg, and after working for them for a few years he moved to Dalsig in 2008. He now lives 100m from an unused field behind the reservoir. On one of his daily walks in the field he looked up towards Stellenbosch Mountain and imagined a bike trail running down the slope. Here, he thought with excitement, he could build a simple trail where he could practise his biking skills. Shovel in hand, he started clearing grass and, at a rate of about 25m per day, the trail began to materialise.
A month later, his first main line was indeed running down the slope. Passing walkers would stop and ask what he was up to and whether he had permission to build a cycle trail there, and they promised to put an end to his work. At the same time, Mark asked a few friends to test ride the new line with him and they immediately shared his excitement, recognising that this mountain bike trail was quite different. Most trails at that time were steep downhill lines, yet here Mark was constructing one along a flatter gradient, with a range of bigger and smaller berms to suit different skill levels and a wonderful ‘flow’. He had to wait for the following winter, and softer soil, before he could continue, still with only a spade and a pickaxe as his tools. Mark, nicknamed ‘G’ for Gordon, started hearing his friends saying “Let’s go to G’s spot.” He begged them to keep the trail a secret until he could extend it, dig proper drainage channels and build a few exciting jumps. But the rumours of ‘G-Spot’ spread fast and Mark began to receive calls and emails from riders across South Africa and around the world asking for directions to the new trail.
Fifteen years later, G-Spot is a famous mountain bike trail. As Mark himself says, “Yes, I’ve seen multiple injuries over the years. But I’ve also seen how an area went from totally unused to being used by people from all over the place. That’s something I could never have imagined. All the professionals who come to train in South Africa ride G-Spot and it’s a massive motivator for our young riders. And I certainly never imagined that my trail would host the famous ABSA Cape Epic! During the Covid lockdowns my mind was totally blown by the large number of walkers, runners and cyclists enjoying the trail. I believe I proved the haters wrong and hope I have made a small but meaningful contribution to Stellenbosch.”
Born and bred in the town and a product of Paul Roos Gymnasium, Mark is something of an enigma, preferring to do his own thing. He continues to maintain the G-Spot trail as a labour of love, with limited financial support from the Stellenbosch Trail Fund. And he is still often seen cruising the town’s streets on his skateboard, top off and his T-shirt tucked into his shorts.
Having grown up on a farm outside Lydenburg in Mpumalanga, Conrad Stoltz competed internationally as a professional athlete from the age of 18 until he was 40 years old. During that time he won seven world champion titles as an XTERRA and cross-triathlon athlete, earning the nickname ‘the Caveman’ for being as tough as nails.
In 2015, shortly after he had retired from professional racing and settled in Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek Nature Reserve suffered major fire damage. In one of the few gorges that still had vegetation, Conrad built his own hidden trail, full of technical features and tricky stream crossings. A friend took a liking to it and asked him to build a few trails on his farms in Paarl and Franschhoek – and in no time Conrad had a new fulltime occupation!
Backing himself to get enough trail building work, he bought a mini excavator and established a small team of workers. In the six years that followed, Conrad built a wide range of trails across the Western Cape, covering Banhoek and Jonkershoek, the Lourensford, Ernie Els and Stellenzicht wine estates, and Durbanville, Grabouw and Elgin. Time and again he demonstrated imagination and creativity while building robust trails that complied with international standards.
“I’ve ridden and competed on some of the best trails in the world, from the lush, fern-covered woods of Rotorua, New Zealand, to the solid rocky terrain of Utah. And in Whistler, British Columbia, there was the added rush of dodging bears and acrophobia!” says Conrad. “Trail building, very much like XTERRA, is the culmination of my talents and interests: I love riding a good trail, I love nature, I love manual labour, I’m self-motivated and creative. I don’t like an office or a boss. Stoltz means ‘proud’ in German, so when I build a trail, or compete in a race, I give 100% every time and pour all my passion into it.”
Conrad’s fellow trail builders highlight his ability to build trails with excellent ‘flow’, an attribute that is clearly important to him. He explains, “There are lots of paths in the mountains where you can ride a bike, but good flow is a rare beast. I think a ‘flowy’ trail is one where you seemingly fly through nature on a magic carpet, where the wind rushes past your ears, where you never have to brake hard or pedal hard, if at all.” He speaks as a true artist, whose work has put a big smile on the faces of thousands of mountain bikers.
Corrie, like Mark, is a Paul Roos old boy and as an athlete he earned national colours in several middle-distance categories. He qualified as a dentist and practised for many years, but in 2013 he broke both his thumbs in a cycling accident. By chance, he was approached at the same time by Michael Meyer from Stillwater Sports to help build a route for the inaugural Savanna Origin of Trails mountain bike event. From that initial venture Corrie became more involved in trail building and slowly started to put together his own team of trail builders.
A few years later, Stellenbosch was presented with an opportunity to host a UCI cross-country World Cup event. Corrie and his team were awarded the contract to build the cross-country track at Coetzenburg specifically for this event, and on 10 March 2018, 30 000 spectators lined the track to watch the world’s best mountain bikers in action. The track has subsequently hosted numerous provincial and national events and is an inspiration to all young cross-country riders.
Corrie has a deep relationship with his crew of six isiXhosa-speaking trail builders and together they don’t shy away from a challenge. As Corrie explains, “We’re happy to take on any type of trail building. Each year we go to the Garden Route and the Karoo to build and maintain trails. We built a 15km route in the mountains above Stanford and we’re busy with a 20km route in Limpopo. We’re also in the planning phase of a project based in Yorkshire, England. And I’m already working hard to improve my English!”
“I met Corrie nearly 40 years ago,” recalls Michael Meyer, “and we had many battles on the track. He was tenacious, tough as nails and a very hard worker, all combined with a sense of humour. It’s these attributes as an athlete that have made Corrie an excellent trail builder. Nothing holds him back when he’s on a mission to find a route and build a trail. His passion and his drive to be part of creating a world-class trail-building environment in Stellenbosch is something that every mountain biker, trail runner and walker have benefited from. We must all be very grateful for that.”
Unathi hails from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. After finishing his studies at the MSC College, he moved to Stellenbosch and worked at the Sustainability Institute in Lynedoch, just outside town. One afternoon when he was commuting from work back to Kayamandi, his bike had a flat tyre. He pushed it to the nearest bike shop, which was BMT, then owned by Chris Norton and the late Richard de Villiers. Chris helped Unathi with his bicycle and they became close friends. This friendship led to Chris sponsoring Unathi’s cycling team, the Kayamandi Trail Riders, which grew into what today is known as the Fairtree DP World Cannondale Racing Team.
And here we meet Corrie Muller again. He was looking for a person to lead his trail-building team and he called Chris for advice. Chris suggested that he give Unathi a chance – and Unathi jumped at it. Corrie remembers, “I was so impressed with Unathi, who realised that his comfortable office job was not giving him enough purpose in life. He was eager to join me in working outdoors with a shovel and pickaxe and he still has the most amazing work ethic.”
Unathi eventually became the leader of the Stellenbosch Trail Fund team and helped Richard de Villiers to set up the Eerste River Stewardship Programme. He and his crew work tirelessly to keep the Eerste River and surrounding paths clean. They also maintain all the mountain biking trails on municipal land in and around Stellenbosch, including Eden Forest, Coetzenburg, Botmaskop and Koloniesland.
Over and above his Stellenbosch Trail Fund duties, Unathi has remained a key part of the Fairtree racing team’s management. Chris says, “Unathi is at the forefront of the racing team and helps me enormously. He is also a mentor to several riders who do not have fathers. When many doubted the team, he pulled them together and got them over the line. He really is a selfless human being with great heart! And a huge asset to the Stellenbosch Trail Fund.”
THE STELLENBOSCH TRAIL FUND
The fund was established as a non-profit company in 2011. Its management team are all volunteers, and the organisation relies solely on donations to fund its trail-building team of six permanent employees. Please support the Stellenbosch Trail Fund by visiting stellenboschtrailfund.co.za.