The Nürburgring of Mountain Biking
IN ASSOCIATION WITH VOLVO – ADIDAS – TOMTOM – THULE
Welvanpas is to cycling what the Nürburgring is to motorsport – a test bed, to gauge just how fast, fit and agile you are as a rider.
Perhaps it’s the location, or maybe the extreme summer temperatures in these parts that scare people away; but Bains MTB Trails (or Welvanpas) in Wellington doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It’s a long way from Cape Town’s CBD, after all – even further, if you’re travelling from the depths of the Southern Suburbs – but one thing’s for sure: the trails are in the same league as (if not better than) the ones you’ll find at Jonkershoek or Tokai. But we’ll touch on that a little later…
Joining me for a blast around the black route is former professional mountain biker and Bicycling Gear Editor Oli Munnik, or ‘Pinner’, as we like to call him – with a nickname like that, today’s going to be nothing less than, er… fast.
Each route (blue, yellow, black and white) starts at the Welvanpas farm, located between the beautiful Hawekwa and Groenberg mountain ranges, near Wellington. The place is known for its heat, and can easily hit figures in the upper 40s (that’s degrees Celcius) in the summer months. While the black route is more sheltered than the equally challenging white, the humidity in the forested sections is palpable.
“The notorious Aap d’Huez switchback climb and its 9% average gradient confronts riders almost immediately.”
I remember riding here during stage 3 of the 2016 Absa Cape Epic – it was brutal. With 104km/2150m to negotiate, as well as the ‘small’ issue of Bainskloof Pass, it was a tough day, made tougher by the searing conditions in the Wellington Valley. Some of the Europeans took tremendous strain here; I remember a good few of them shambling about in search of cooler temperatures, like the walking dead in a scene from Game of Thrones – winter isn’t coming, I’m afraid; this is Africa.
Being here again has brought all those memories flooding back; and if I remember correctly, we’re in for some pretty amazing riding, given the quality of the trails on offer. I’m pretty amped, to be honest; and judging by his animated actions, so is Oli, in loquacious form as always. “We need permits, bru…” Good point – rogue riding has become a pest here in the Western Cape, and has led to a plethora of trail closures. Best we keep things legal. As a Tygerberg MTB Club member, my entry here is free – even more reason to pay for an annual permit. Boards sorted, it’s time to slay some trails.
“I really enjoy climbing on singletrack sections like the Black Route’s Aap d’Huez. It’s brilliantly constructed, with 21 switchbacks – just like its infamous French cousin.” – Oli Munnik, Bicycling Gear Editor.
But there’s no real time to warm up – contrary to the other trails we’ve ridden in this series, the notorious Aap d’Huez switchback climb and its 9% average gradient confronts riders almost immediately. Ok, not immediately… but you get my point. For the Strava junkies, the segment starts after crossing Bainskloof Pass. While it’s not a particularly difficult climb, the switchbacks (especially near the top) are exceptionally tight to negotiate. The trick here is to give yourself some space, find a rhythm, and grind it out – there are 21 switchbacks, and each one poses a unique challenge, whether by roots, ruts or steep kickers. A bit of a rude awakening, if we’re honest, but a beautiful climb nonetheless.
Though the devastation caused by the recent fires is hard to ignore – like Jonkershoek, Tokai and Grabouw, Welvanpas too suffered tremendous damage. The trees are black and branchless, and it looks very much like a forest graveyard – the trailing dust from our three-man cavalcade adds to the eerie feel.
Thankfully, not all the trees are damaged; it appears the fire wasn’t able to breach the upper levels of the forest, and the higher we go, the greener it becomes. The contrast in aroma is stark: burnt sediment soon morphs into the fresh scent of pine needles, a harbinger of high-quality MTB single track – at least, that’s what the smell means to Western Cape riders.
The resident animals are back in full force too, and a fairly large and noisy troop of baboons echoes up and down the valley below. We could hear them fighting and playing as we climbed Aap d’Huez – named after these critters, I’m sure. The various sections of singletrack can be reached using jeep tracks that climb up one level at a time; but the baboons have thwarted our progress, by blocking the road. Desmond says he’d like to take some detail shots of the bikes and scenery – either that, or he isn’t too keen on an encounter with Romeo, the alpha (geddit?). But Romeo quickly loses interest in us and the troop moves on, allowing us to move into the upper echelons of the trail. And that’s one thing you need to come prepared for: climbing. There’s a lot of it. But the reward is some of the most entertaining descents in the Western Cape.
“Something I always look forward when heading out to Welvanpas is the trail network’s variety, and the flowing nature of the turns – every section is thoroughly entertaining.” – Oli Munnik, Bicycling Gear Editor
The black route comprises roughly 27km, with 1200m of vertical gain. While it never feels like tough work riding here, you do have to earn your descent; but the reward is superb – the Full Monty is what we’ve all been chatting about, and it’s taken us a while to get here. We’ll blame Des and his obsessive photographic tendencies for that… What scares me is that he’s packed his lens away, which usually means he’s ready to go hell for leather.
The Full Monty singletrack descent consists of three parts divided by two jeep tracks. It’s fast and flowing, but also pretty tricky in places – washed out, and rutted by brake marks. You can easily have an oopsy: too much gas and you’ll see your ass, too little and you’ll probably experience the same fate. I just let Oli and Des do their thing as they jump, bar-flick and tail-whip into the distance. I won’t see them again until the very end. Cheeky buggers.
“There are no free kilometres at Welvanpas. From the climbing to the descending, every inch needs to be earned; and that means staying alert. There are many tricky sections that require carrying speed, so any kind of hesitation could end in tears – there’s a sphincter-clenching moment hiding around every corner.” – Aaron Borrill, Bicycling Online Editor
With so much trail goodness on offer in the Western Cape, it’s appreciably difficult to categorically rank any of these amazing trails. I think having places such as Grabouw, Jonkershoek, Tokai and Welvanpas is a privilege that too many riders take for granted. There’s a reason the Europeans come to train here: our trails are world class. One thing’s for sure, there’s more technical riding per kilometre at Welvanpas than on any other trail in the Western Cape. Fact. The terrain here is some of the most testing you’ll find anywhere in the world, and it’s the perfect place to benchmark not only your fitness and skills, but your bike’s resilience, too.
Mountain biking’s Nürburgring? Yes sir. – By Aaron Borrill
DISCLAIMER: Please note that the black and yellow routes are currently closed owing to harvesting. This story was shot and produced earlier this year.
NEED TO KNOW
START: The trailhead is located roughly 50m from the trail office – all routes are clearly marked. Remember to pay your trail fee! R30 per day per rider. Tygerberg Mountain Bike Club members ride for free.
BEST TIME TO RIDE: To avoid cooking in the heat, we suggest riding in the morning.
WATCH OUT FOR: The odd jump and rock garden. Some of the corners are washed out and rutted (especially in the summer months). Keep an eye out for Romeo the baboon and his troop.
Special thanks goes to Revolution Cycles for the use of their Specialized Camber and Levo.
Click here for more The Wow Rides action.