Understated much like its trail builder, Bottelary Hills offers some of the best rides in the Western Cape.

Best trail loop in Cape Town?

Shayne Dowling interviews ADRIAN WINSOR.

We chat to the very modest Adrian Winsor of Trail-Blazers, who have built and maintain the incredible trail network that does a complete 360, taking in views that include Durbanville, Paarl, Stellenbosch and Table Mountain. I don’t think there is another trail network that can boast such a variety of vistas – all this while riding on brilliantly marked, maintained and manicured trails – most of which are singletrack and another unique feature can be accessed from pretty much every side of the mountain outcrop it circles.

How did you get involved with trail building? For how many years have you been building?

It started in 2007 for slightly selfish reasons; we got bored of riding the same 5km loop around the Majik Forest across the road from where I live. The Tygerberg Club used the forest for races but numbers had dwindled to 30, the entire committee stood down at the AGM, it was looking at closure. I stuck my hand up to volunteer to run it, thinking I could make it work. We set up a meeting with the Tygerberg Conservancy who called in Meurant Botha, together we toured the farms asking who was in and who was out. With a small grant from the PPA, Meurant and Bennet built the first 7km of trail at Hillcrest Wine Estate. Club numbers jumped to 200! We had watched the process carefully, and a few months later financed and built the next 8km ourselves. Club numbers jumped again and we realised it was a “build the trails and they shall come” situation. Meerendal and Nitida followed, whilst Robert Starke opened Contermanskloof, we put in the links to join it all up, by which point club numbers reached 2 500. In 2011 I stepped away from the club to start building full time, opening the 65km Bottelary Conservancy MTB trails the same year (now 92km-Ed). I am still the resident trail builder and maintainer there.

“When it comes to jumps, we usually employ a specialist to do the shaping and testing as I prefer to keep both wheels strictly on the ground” 

Tell us more about your most recent trails. Where were they built and what makes them so special?

Over the intervening years, we built trails all over the Western Cape; at Anysberg in the Karoo, Algeria in the Cederberg, Robertson, Cape Infanta, De Doorns etc. plus a few bike parks. Not entirely by coincidence we have worked mostly with Conservancies or Cape Nature, building legacy projects that will be there for the community for decades to come, raising money for conservation, security, upliftment projects and awareness to preserve what little of the Fynbos and Strandveld remains in the Cape Floral Kingdom.

A common feature of all our trails is that they are minimally invasive, natural and unmanicured in keeping with their surroundings, they provide all you need to appreciate the incredible vistas, scenery and wildlife available to us at every turn in the Western Cape.

Meerendal, although one of the older trails showed us immediately that the demand for easy riding fun trails is much bigger than for downhill/enduro/gnarly stuff. We are essentially risk-averse, a policy that has minimised the potential for accidents, that does not have to mean trails are boring though.

Does it help when building your own trails, you can ride them? (An advantage to be a rider?)

Does a chef taste his own food?!? I don’t think I could build trails if I didn’t ride a bike. Whilst my skills set is creaky and a large percentage of the riding public much younger than me now, I hope what we build satisfies all palettes.

When it comes to jumps, we usually employ a specialist to do the shaping and testing as I prefer to keep both wheels strictly on the ground.

What is your favourite Western Cape trail and why?

Don’t really have one. I’ve ridden over 100-day races, numerous multi-day races and lots of WC trails, occasionally you hit a really good piece of flowing singletrack in a race or somewhere out there that just widens the grin, I recognise it for that and respect the trail builder.

My favourite trail on Bottelary is Mongoose, the sweeping bends and flow just will me to go faster. Strange but true, I’m still getting PB’s on bits of it even as I get older and less fit.

How big is your team and does each member have his own set of skills?

Trail-Blazers is really just two of us, myself and Braam. He is the trail architect; I am the builder. He has a unique ability to see possibilities where you or I might not, there is high degree of lateral thinking needed sometimes, and he is very good at that. The planning of a new trail is always done together, the synergy of two minds bouncing ideas around usually means we get it right sooner.

When we are working away from home, we use local labour from the farms, sometimes using two teams to speed up the build, the largest crew was around 30. My own current team (usually numbering eight) have been with me for 15 months and understand how to construct berms, rollers and trail paths, most of them ride bikes too which helps enormously (see q3!). A couple of them have a good eye for using natural features, shaping berms or just the line, we re-work everything until it is right. Sometimes I use test pilots who ride as we build, giving instant feedback and allowing us to fettle as we go. A maintenance team is four.

When building the bike parks we use machinery, big stuff; excavators, digger-loaders, six-wheel drive articulated dump trucks and mini-diggers as we have to move hundreds, sometimes thousands of cubes of clay, shape and compact it. It speeds up the process considerably, but we still finish every berm, roller and tabletop by hand. That is what we call “Uncivil Engineering”, doing unconventional things with conventional machinery. I have thought about ditching the team and learning to drive a mini-digger, but it does nothing to help employment in the farming community … plus it’s easy to hire one in when necessary.

What are the biggest challenges of building – say by area or where you have worked the most? (Soil, traffic, terrain, water, area restrictions – world heritage site & National Park etc.)

Building trails is primarily about managing water. Building in the winter in the WC is a must; lower temperatures, wetter soils and watching where the water goes when it rains are key components of any build. You never really know what hand you are dealt until the build starts. Poor soils, rocks and sand are almost guaranteed around the WC, if you find some nice soil or quality clay, it’s time to celebrate.

Working for Cape Nature was challenging; in Anysberg we were not allowed to cut any fynbos or make any singletrack. However the reserve is huge (625km squared/80 000 hectares) with 400km jeep tracks, so we just cut open one side of the overgrown jeep track to make it singletrack.

Accessibility is another challenge. Often all materials and tools have to be carried in by hand, sometimes for kilometres as we get deeper into the build. We can never get enough water to damp down soil for compaction and have to rely on rain-usually a given during WC winters. Building across a steep slope (not possible with a machine and challenging enough on two legs) can mean we only cut 200m a day, and some short features that you ride through or across in seconds may have taken two days to build. Maintenance of the more remote trails is also an issue.

The conservancy conundrum: generally speaking all the conservancies we have worked for have understood that they must sacrifice a tiny fraction of plant life to MTB trails if a project is to be successful. Having said that, opening up trails often encourages new and varied plant life alongside the trails.

There are always the risk natural disasters pose to the trails (fire, rain etc.). How do you take this into account when planning and how can one ensure minimum damage and longevity to trails? What have you learnt after a disaster that could help ensure better trails should anything like that happen again?

The water issue is perhaps less severe, none of the Bottelary trails are subject to flooding and if you manage the rainfall properly it should not give you problems – plus the trail is usually still there after water runs over it. Fire though can be devastating. We have had a couple over the years, and once the fallen trees were cleared, we rebuilt the trails - usually a total new build. Additionally, for years after the fire we were continually having to cut away trees that died slowly before falling ove,r often blocking the trail.

In 2016 a massive fire raged through the Simonsberg weeks before the Fairtree Capital stage race. We rebuilt kilometres of singletrack in record time using huge crews to clear trees and debris and rebuild bridges, coming home every day totally black, covered with charcoal and dust. It was a real challenge.

In the Bottelary Conservancy, with the systematic eradication of aliens across the entire area (funded jointly by permit fees, Landcare and Working for Water), the effects of fire have been minimised as best as possible. The Fire Protection Association is very active around Stellenbosch helping farmers build fire breaks and contingency plan for emergencies. We are reliant on them looking after their bit in order to protect the whole.

Has Corona/lockdown made trail building slower or impossible? Did it help you?

I had to do some essential trail maintenance during lockdown last year, having checked the team showed no Covid-19 symptoms we did what was necessary, plus working out in the open presented little chance of infection, but I did limit the work. The Bottelary trail system was one of the first to reopen and attached a lot of new business as a result.

Any specific area in SA you would love to get your hands on and build some new trails?

I get calls and emails from all over the country, and sometimes from beyond. The practicalities of cost, getting there finding a team, tools etc. make it more challenging to work far away from home. Happy to carry on in the WC for now!

What is your favourite place to ride outside of the Western Cape?

MTB trails have mushroomed across the country and world in the last 15 years, during which time I have been living in Cape Town. Riding the Sani to Sea or Joberg to Sea is a way to experience trails away from WC and opened my eyes to new stuff in South Africa. I don’t take my bike when I go back the the UK so haven’t yet ridden any of the new trails there. I have ridden some great trails in New Zealand and some scary ones on Reunion. I am planning to ride outside of WC and abroad a lot more when I retire …

Any advice for upcoming builders?

I see some talented people of the younger generation building fabulous jumps and huge flow trails, because that’s what they want to ride, plus the skill sets of kids under 10 is vastly superior to mine at any time. Access to trails, bike parks, training and better equipment has given them the edge. New builders should remember that the riding public is made up of all sorts though - please don’t forget us oldies!

ADRIAN WINSOR:  Owner at Trail-Blazers - Cape Town based mountain bike trail building company, which has enabled Adrian to combine his love of the outdoors with nature conservation, personal fitness and his philanthropic tendencies. Trails for the people, more people to the trails. Adrian is an outgoing multi-skilled all-rounder who creates legacy projects for the youth of today.