In mid-October I took a trip through dark tunnels, storm water drains and stone-walled canals, under arterial roads and through a cemetery. No, it wasn’t a scary underground tour of the city - it was the Urban Assault or Juma, the Jozi Urban Mountain Bike Adventure, and it was the most fun I’ve had on a bike in Joburg for a while.
I have been curious for a long time about the beautiful canal running through the Parkview Golf Course. The stonework is lovely, with trees leaning over into the space, and a small stream of water flowing down the middle. Zipping along the edge of the water was awesome and a unique way to experience Jozi.
The race started at Marks Park, and wound out of Emmarentia Dam parklands towards Alberts’ Farm, but then turned south and edged along Westpark Cemetery before cutting through Melville and down a ramp into the canal of Parkview. At the end it turned into a 700m dark tunnel which exited at Zoo Lake, then snaked through the suburbs, and down each side of the M1, crossing over Rivonia and Oxford roads on steep scaffolding ramps on to a tributary of the Braamfontein Spruit to Riverside, then back along the spruit trail, and across a floating bridge at the southern end of Emmarentia Dam, to end again at Marks Park.
The race consisted of two distances: 22km and the tougher 52km route. Joburgers took up the challenge en masse - 5 500 entered, 4 800 of whom finished. There were injuries, some of which ended in hospital. Novice riders would have found the scaffolding ramps down into the canal a challenge, and some riders probably landed in the canal when they slipped on moss. As I rode over the floating bridge I asked the divers stationed on it if anyone had gone in, but no one had.
Riders came in muddy and dusty, but they were raving about the race as they crossed the finish line, and all said they would be back next year. Men’s winner Jan Withaar, smiling widely, said: “It’s absolutely awesome - how they managed to string it all together, and the variety . . . it was an absolute blast. It was wonderful.” Women’s winner Janine Rawlinson enthused: “You know you’re riding past stuff that you know every day, in a completely new way. The effort the guys put on is amazing, really. It’s really appreciated by the riders, I think.”
It was created by two mountain bikers, Mark Castel and Russell Willis, two sociable riders who, like all of us, ride the spruit trail every week. It was Castel’s idea, and his motivation was to have an awesome race within the city, instead of travelling far out of the city borders to do a race. “I wanted to create a new, different, exciting race with tunnels, bridges and forests. To take riders to parts of the city they never see.”
Willis adds: “We wanted to create a unique mountain bike experience in South Africa. Joburg as a city has no special mountain bike event. We didn’t want just another mountain bike race – we wanted to link up all the green belt areas.” Joburg City Parks and Zoo came on board to help with that. There were road closures, to get riders from one green stretch to the next, but next year they plan to eliminate road riding altogether.
What they also tried to minimise was riding along the well-worn Braamfontein spruit path, which all mountain bikers in Joburg know so well. The 52km riders only did 13km along this trail, but next year they hope to bypass it altogether.
They did an environmental impact assessment before and after the event, and it turns out mountain bikers don’t do damage to the spruit and surrounds, something local residents were surprised about. On the contrary, the paths used by bikers and walkers have become natural firebreaks now. And besides, says Louise Gordon of new business development at City Parks, the parks are designed for recreation and healthy outdoor lifestyles, and that’s exactly what was happening with Juma. Safety in numbers is also a spin-off.
Besides the R370 000 prize money that was dished out, City Parks is also a winner: signage on do’s and don’ts and events at Emmarentia Dam has already gone up. Litter bins are also to be placed in some parks, courtesy of Juma, and 40 bikes for patrolling are being donated, in addition to 60 bikes for a deserving community. And, if parks and green lungs can be used to help City Parks earn income, they won’t be complaining, especially as their goal is to be become a self-sustaining unit of local government. Juma was good for them - they pocketed a R100 000 fee for the event.
It took Willis and Castel six months of walking and exploring these hidden places, to create the race route. They approached Hollard as their sponsor, because, says Castel, “they’re different”, in keeping with their theme of a different experience.
They will be taking the constructive criticism to heart: there were serious bottlenecks in places, like at the start of the Parkview canal. (I managed to sneak to the front of hundreds of riders waiting in the queue by claiming pensioner status, and no one argued once they’d checked out my grey head.) They will hopefully circumvent this with more chicken runs, they reckon. One of the water points ran dry, so that won’t happen again.
Castel says they want it to be a big event, tapping into the estimated 38 000 mountain bike riders in Gauteng.
“We wanted Joburgers to love their city a little bit more,” says Willis. “We don’t have a Comrades, a Dusi, an Argus or an Epic, so we wanted something that is really unique and world famous. We wanted to find places not ordinary,” says Willis. When not riding, the two 30-somethings are “event and experience creators”.