For most of us, mountain bike trails appear as if by magic. Sometimes overnight. One week you’re bumping across a rutted section of familiar trail and the next it’s been transformed into sweet singletrack nirvana. We spoke to one of South Africa’s most celebrated magicians to learn more about the dark art of trail building. Meet Bennet Nel.
By Nic Lamond
Photos: Johan Badenhorst
I was waiting in a pile of manure in an unfamiliar corner of Stellenbosch University. A herd of healthy-looking dairy cows eyed me suspiciously. In the distance a strapping Matie was working his way through a pile of javelins. High above me a ridgeline of lofty gum trees reached the sky.
As I stood studying the hillside I suddenly noticed the serpentine scars of red earth beneath the gums. These were no shortcut for hikers returning from the bush. These were elaborate berms and expertly crafted drop-offs, looping back on each other. As another wayward spear from our aspiring young athletics wunderkind whistled overhead, I regretted not heeding the invitation to bring my bike to Stellenbosch.
I was waiting for Bennet Nel, the maverick Stellenbosch local known for his mountain bike trail design wizardry. I had faithfully followed the directions he’d given me to the Coetzenberg soccer fields, at the edge of the university grounds and to this cow pat. I knew he was busy. Bennet had the enviable mandate to build the South African XCO Mountain Bike Championships course, which will take place in mid-July, and by the distant sound of chainsaws I could tell he was taking the job seriously.
Eventually a white bakkie pulled up in a wide arc and a cloud of dust. A man I assumed to be Bennet jumped out almost before it had stopped. He rushed around and dumped a handful of tools in the back with his bike. As he hopped back behind the wheel he half-scooped kneepads and old bike jerseys off the passenger seat and invited me to sit. And then the whirlwind tour began…
Bennet tore around the Coetzenberg hillside in the bakkie showing me the trails he and a small team were preparing for the Nationals. We discussed lines across bridges, over rock gardens and through berms, but when he heard I might be riding the Western Province XCO Champs that weekend on parts of the same course, he stopped. He didn’t want to spoil it for me. He wanted me to experience the jol of riding the trails for myself.
So we found a spot next to his crew of trail builders as they crafted a clay berm under his watchful eye. Bennet described how he stumbled into the mythical ‘dream job’ and the harsh reality of running his trail building company, Ace of Spades.
So what does it take to make a living out of building trails? “People often meet me and say, ag, it’s so nice out here in your office,” Bennet admits, looking over a leafy Stellenbosch below us.
“And, yes, I’m thankful every single day. That’s why I didn’t go follow the money in the office because I’ll probably flip. But I don’t come out here at 10 in the morning like you would on a Saturday. People see my job as a highlights package. Only the good stuff. It’s tough. There’s the physical: when we work far away, we leave town at 5 in the morning, and we do 8-9 hours on site. When it rains, we work. When it’s hailing, we work. When it’s 45 degrees, we work. Then, after all of that, there’s the politics. And there’s a lot. I deal with all the trail user groups.
“And the funding. That’s the part that has had me thinking at times I should chuck it. Get a day job. Earn money. Ride my bike. I’m not even riding a lot because we’re so busy. It’s physically demanding and mentally it occupies you… It’s just such a big community. Most types of work ends at five in the afternoon. This never ends. It follows you to bed on facebook! It’s not nine-to-five at all. Trail building isn’t big business. But it’s a big part of life.”
Bennet’s passion is deeply rooted in the simple act of riding a bike. “I still rent a little flat and if I can go into town and hop down three stairs and round the corner and go back home – literally 10 minutes – I feel it’s all fine. You can ride off the curb and you’ve ridden your bike. You can’t do that with a surfboard or a snowboard in a car park.”
Bennet was born in Bloemfontein, but his dad chose to teach art around the world so Bennet and his family lived all over the place. They settled in Stellenbosch in 1995, and his love affair with the mountains started: “How can you not go up there, whether it’s on your feet or a bike?”
In 1997 Bennet started mountain biking, “Not commuting to school, but seriously going out to ride a mountain bike. In that same year I helped on the World Cup downhill track in Botmaskop because there was a need for stuff. Around then we wanted to progress our riding and there was nothing physically challenging. So it was either go into town and find steps that were the next level or go and build stuff.”
After a brief stint overseas for a ski season Bennet returned to Stellenbosch. “I was faced with this question: do I work to make money, or what?” So he joined a family friend doing pool installations. “The installation jobs kept me alive and made the trail building possible,” he acknowledges.
“I’ve never gone and poach-built [built trails illegally]. I’ve got a spot outside of town on a bit of private land where I have some jumps with permission and from there I grew. People saw that and my volunteer work at Dirtopia Festivals and working for Dirtopia directly – the Argus MTB race, Die Burger and then later the Epic and 24-hour races and all that. I was always building for the need for features – trails that have a slight bit of gradient.”
Arguably Bennet is most famous for the work he has done in Jonkershoek, an exhilarating trail network in a pine and fynbos reserve just outside Stellenbosch: “At the start it was quite easy. There were a couple of guys who contributed, I did the work and we went on like that. There have always been people building trails in Jonkers, even before me. Then, without going into too much detail, I ended up with a vehicle and being asked to do work. I thought well if I don’t take this opportunity, not for the money, but to be able to delegate how these trails are going to be built, then who’s going to do it? That was basically the big jump.”
As the sport got more popular and rider numbers in Jonkershoek increased, the politics got more complex and the work died. “I had the bakkie and was semi-unemployed and I had a kid at the same time! We had half a year of sitting at home and half going hungry. And these guys,” Bennet points to his workers still packing berms. “They all stuck by me. Most of them have been here since Ace of Spades started.”
With no real work prospects, Bennet approached MTO Forestry, the leaseholders for Jonkershoek. “I had a good relationship with them and I went to them and offered to just work on stuff and fix it. They said that if I had the budget they’d allow me. So they gave me some papers and allowed me to put trails in there…” The rest, as they say, is history. The Jonkershoek trails have grown from strength to strength since, with increasingly generous private financial support from the close-knit Stellenbosch mountain bike community, made up of many well-known sporting personalities. But as Bennet points out, in the early days it was: “baie min geld and moerse werk!”
Bennet’s job is as designer, politician, foreman and test pilot – turning ideas in dust and dirt into smiles and speed. The reality is if you’ve ridden any of the major mountain biking networks in the Cape you’ve experienced Bennet’s handiwork – Stellenbosch, Jonkershoek, Tygerberg, Hoogekraal, Meerendal, Bloomendahl, Majik Forest, Welvanpas, Robert Starke’s and even Tokai. Next time your local trail in the Cape suddenly gets a new lease on life, you know who to thank.
*Originally published in TREAD Issue 35, 2015 and can be found on Zinio – All rights reserved