Launched in 2008, the Trailseeker Series has become an integral part of South African mountain bike racing. In its 2024 format, under the title sponsorship of Ford, the Trailseeker Series has attracted very good numbers in the first three of six rounds. Here’s why this is a positive sign for the sport.

By Sean Badenhorst

But first, a short backstory. Before the Cape Epic launched in 2004, mountain bike racing in South Africa was small and comprised Cross-country racing, Downhill racing and Classics. The Classics were more endurance-focused marathon-style events and included the likes of the Sabie Classic, Barberton Classic, Spring Classic (Joburg), Magalies Monster, Hilton Classic, Steeltek Enduro (P.E.), Lourensford Classic, Rhodes Classic and others.

The Classics helped grow mountain biking in the 1990s and early 2000s, but never really became attractive to the masses. In 2003, after concluding his racing career, which included winning three South African XCO titles, Fritz Pienaar opened a bike shop and started a mountain bike events company, Advendurance (which is now known as Faces Events).

World No. 1 Alessandra Keller leads South African champion, Candice Lill at Ford Trailseeker #1 2024, Banhoek

Pienaar and his team launched a high-profile marathon series that had guaranteed TV coverage in 2003, the Mazda Drifter MTB Series. It initially used existing Classics and helped improve the rider experience at each.

“That worked okay, but we needed some events in other areas, so we launched some of our own events. Eventually it made business sense to own all of the events in the Series and that’s pretty much how we operate to this day,” explained Pienaar over a beer after the prizegiving at the Ford Trailseeker, Die Bosveld, this past weekend.

Advendurance’s national marathon series was successful, drew sponsorship from corporates like MTN and MiWay and, in conjunction with the growth of stage races, helped bring mountain biking from a niche discipline to by far the largest cycling discipling in the country. It wasn’t necessarily the marathons that attracted the masses, but the half-marathons, which offered a ‘gateway drug’ to mountain biking newcomers.

Wildebeest encounter at Ford Trailseeker #2 2024, Cradle Moon.

“While our national series was thriving, there was a growing demand for well-organised marathon and half-marathon races in Gauteng and Nissan was looking at getting into the mountain biking market. So, we launched the Nissan Trailseeker Series in 2008 and then steadily grew that over the years.

“In 2017, when our then national series sponsor, Ashburton Investments, decided not to extend, we had no choice but to end that series. It wasn’t great because it was a really good series. But the timing of the announcement didn’t give us any real opportunity to source a new sponsor and without a sponsor it’s not a viable business,” explained Pienaar.

“Fortunately, the Trailseeker Series was growing nicely at that time and we continued to focus on it. We had started to organise Trailseeker Series races in the Western Cape, so the series had grown beyond just Gauteng. Two key factors for the Trailseeker Series are that the events are relatively close to a major city and family focused. Finding ideal venues is becoming more difficult, but not impossible and the success of the two rounds at new venues in Gauteng this year are proof of that,” added Pienaar.

The Ford Trailseeker Series events accommodate all ages and fitness levels.

Ford has invested significantly in mountain biking from 2024 and is the new sponsor the Trailseeker Series as well as other events. Ford is also a vehicle sponsor of the Pyga Euro Steel professional racing team.

All three rounds of the Series have been highly successful this year. More than 1000 riders entered Round 1 at Banhoek in the Western Cape at the end of January. This is a very good turnout for a marathon in that region. Round 2 at Cradle Moon near Johannesburg in February sold out at 2500 entries. And Round 3 at Die Bosveld, near Pretoria in June (a chilly winter date), attracted more than 2300 entries…

It’s no secret that the mountain bike/cycling industry is going through a low point currently. A combination of various factors, but primarily an over-supply of stock in the market and an economic recession that’s affecting all spending. This is a global challenge, not only a South African one.

Ford Trailseeker #2 2024, Cradle Moon delivered a proper mountain biking route.

This comes straight after the restrictions on events enforced by the South African government during the Covid-19 period that almost crushed the events industry. Cancellations and postponements from 2020 into mid-2022 forced some event organisers to close shop. Larger events companies survived but took a big knock. Corporates that were laying off staff were unable to commit to new sponsorships or extensions; and those that stayed and continued to support events, often did so with risk or out of pure passion for the events.

Last year was the first full year of no Covid-19 restrictions, allowing some normality to return to the mountain bike events landscape. Unfortunately, event entry numbers were down 20-30% on pre-Covid-19 period numbers. Load-shedding, election anxiety and a weakening Rand all compounded to create clouds of gloom as the events industry began to reset.

What do mountain bikers do when they’re feeling glum? They go for a ride. Regardless of the political or economic climate, or freedom-of-movement restrictions, mountain bikers will find a way to keep riding. And committed mountain bikers never stopped riding over the past few years. Yes, they stopped entering as many out-of-town races. Yes, they didn’t buy a new bike as they’d planned to. Yes, they put a bit more time on their bib-shorts or tyres before upgrading. Yes, they kept servicing their bikes, even though the pricing seemed steeper. But they never stopped riding.

The top men sprint for first place at Ford Trailseeker #1 2023, Banhoek.

For many, organised races are essential to their motivation to ride. A safe, pre-set route with timing and a good pre/post-race vibe is what first attracted them to mountain biking. And they want more of that. Then there are those who discovered mountain biking recently that appreciate the value and predictability of a well-organised race…

The fact that the Ford Trailseeker Series is attracting such good numbers is a very positive sign. Not just for the series, but the sport as a whole. When half-marathons are popular, the sport is in a good place. And most half-marathons are adjoined to a marathon. And there’s a shorter fun race too. A broad appeal at one event. Add to that the increasing popularity of newer disciplines like Gravel and Enduro and we cannot help but feel more positive about the future of mountain bike events.

As we reach the middle of 2024, there’s no doubt that the mountain biking events industry skies are still cloudy; but there are definitely gaps appearing and the sun is shining through. Don’t focus on the clouds, focus on the gaps between the clouds. Here’s to an even sunnier second half of 2024 for mountain bike events in South Africa…

Find out more about the Ford Trailseeker Series 2024 here.

Future stars: Junior men’s podium after the Half-marathon at Ford Trailseeker #3 2024, Die Bosveld.

Sean Badenhorst is the Editor and Co-Founder of TREAD Media. He started riding and racing mountain bikes in 1991 and has been reporting on it in various roles since then. He participated at the Ford Trailseeker #2 2024 at Cradle Moon and joined the media crew at the Ford Trailseeker #3 2024 at Die Bosveld.