At a quick count, I have ridden at least 40 different South African trails in five provinces during the first half of 2014. Yes, this is obviously a perk of my job. It’s truly amazing that we have so many mountain bike-specific trails to ride in our country, with the number growing monthly.
I get to ride these trails fast (I’m competitive) and I get to ride them slowly (when teaching skills clinics). And I get to see exactly what terrain, gradient, vegetation, drainage and flow each of these trails possesses.
Most of the trails at trail centres where you pay to ride are well marked and maintained. This is good. Most of the trail centres name their trails with a colour. This is not good. Why? Because there’s a perfectly good trail grading and identification system developed by IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) that can be applied here and which is definitive and widely understood.
Some trails in South Africa do actually use the IMBA system. It’s a fairly straightforward system.
In slightly simplified terms, a White Trail is ideal for Beginners; a Green Trail is ideal for Beginner-to-Intermediate riders; a Blue Trail is ideal for Intermediate-to-Advanced riders; and Black Trail is ideal for Advanced riders. That’s it – just four colours. The IMBA system grades trails only according to technical difficulty. Distance and elevation change numbers are perfectly good indicators of physical/fitness requirements.
In order to distinguish one Blue trail from another Blue trail, you simply name each trail. For some reason, South African trails are often named after dangerous snakes, like mamba, puff adder, python etc. This I assume/hope is more because of the trail’s shape than it’s residents… But the important thing is that the trails are named and then graded by colour according to the IMBA system. This is good. But it’s not used nearly widely enough in our country.
So we have many trail parks that have called their trails, the Red Trail, the Blue Trail, the Yellow Trail, the Green Trail etc. Actually, I’ve spoken to many of the trail masters at these venues about the possibility of changing their system, but some, such as Holla Trails in KZN, have spent a huge amount of cash on existing signage and to make a change to the IMBA system will be costly (they have over 300km of trails at Holla).
I feel that there really should be one uniform trail identification system in place throughout South Africa. This will minimise crashes, injuries and confusion and give mountain bikers the ability to make better ride-planning decisions/trips.
I’m happy to co-ordinate this, but we need a sponsor that will provide the funding to enable the changing of signage where required. If you’re a sponsorship decision maker, have some budget and are looking for a fresh platform on which to engage South African mountain bikers, send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. The return on investment is bigger than you may think…
If you’re a mountain biker, be aware that trail distance isn’t always indicative of trail difficulty. Some trail centres say a trail is ideal for advanced riders, but they don’t indicate if it’s advanced fitness or advanced skill (or both). I’ve not dug into the detail of the IMBA grading system here, because I purely want to raise the awareness of a successful system that’s already in use around the world – and, partly, in South Africa. So until we have a unified trail grading system in place, use common sense when riding on a trail you’ve never ridden before. In fact, use common sense on all trails. Always.
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*Originally published in TREAD Issue 30, 2014 – All rights reserved