When the Bestmed Walkerville Mountain Bike Classic rolled out in July, Ken Davies was once again on hand to oversee it, just as he has done since its inception seventeen years ago.
“Walkerville was the first mountain bike classic in Gauteng, as far as I’m aware,” says Davies.
Then a member of the Rockhoppers Mountain Bike Club, Davies and his fellow enthusiasts were determined to share their love of the burgeoning sport.
“When the popularity of classics started gaining momentum, we always had to drive down to KwaZulu-Natal or some other place to compete.
“So we decided to start the Walkerville Classic and to assist some other people in starting races.”
They plotted courses, did the timing and helped with other practicalities that brought events such as the Mabalingwe Lion Man to life.
But it was Walkerville that captured the Hartzenbergfontein native’s imagination from the outset.
“It’s tough, technical and cold. If you survive Walkerville, you can call yourself a real mountain biker.”
Billed as Gauteng’s oldest and coldest race, the temperatures do not seem to deter the up to 1 500 riders who sign up annually.
“Mountain bikers are a funny breed,” says Davies. “They’ll have a go at anything that sounds impossible.”
He recalls telling a colleague about the Rhodes Mountain Bike Challenge in the Eastern Cape, another event he was involved in from the start.
“It was 85km and you have a big climb in altitude; up almost into Lesotho and back down again.”
The route, which passes Tiffindell Ski Resort, is therefore subject to extreme weather conditions.
“We’ve had years when it snowed, and rainstorms and wind that blew people off their bicycles. I told him how I’d actually seen it happen.”
Thinking no more about their conversation, Davies was surprised when his co-worker later came back to him.
“He said, right, he’d bought himself a bike, now how does he enter? And he wasn’t even a mountain biker!
“It is this rugged quest for adventure that so many of the early mountain bikers shared.”
Davies himself was first introduced to the sport in the nineties when he got a wake-up call with regard to his health.
“As a carrot to get fit again, I decided to run Comrades.
“With the preparation I had planned, everyone said I was never going to make it. If it hadn’t been for cycling, they probably would’ve been right.”
Having been off the bike since his junior days, he went out and bought a road bike to do most of his training on.
“I nearly didn’t run Comrades because I was so enjoying being back on the bike. But I completed the marathon and carried on cycling.”
He joined the veteran cycling association and was subsequently introduced to mountain biking by a friend.
Back then cross-country racing was the norm, with lap-based circuits designed to test a rider’s technical ability.
“At events, you entered all three disciplines: downhill, cross country and foot-ups (riding around an obstacle course without touching the ground).”
Davies’s skills improved substantially and he was selected for Worlds in ’97 and ’98.
“Eventually it just got too expensive, but I so enjoyed being able to represent my country at that stage of my life. It was such an honour that I decided to give something back.”
He helped take over the running of the Rockhoppers club, joined various national and provincial bodies and became a national selector for mountain biking.
Around this time, the face of mountain biking began to change.
“A lot of pleasure riders found lap-based riding boring. Things changed as soon as fun riding became possible off road.”
Davies and his club mates noted the possibilities and started Walkerville, which drew just a couple of hundred riders in its first year.
“I’m just trying to think back. That’s the problem with getting old,” laughs Davies, who turns 70 this year, “you don’t always remember these things.”
He says the early years offered a blank canvas in terms of undeveloped land and they were able to host an 80 to 85km race with lots of challenging climbs and without crossing any main roads.
But with ongoing development in the area, the start/finish venue has had to be relocated four times over the years.
“The first one was at what is now Eye of Africa. Then we moved to Sun Valley Riding Ranch, Lapeng Hotel and now the showgrounds.”
Despite this, Davies says his team has employed creative thinking to keep the bulk of the route, including the landmark Platberg climb, the same over the years.
“Each year presents a new challenge in terms of route designing. The main driving force is to create something that the guys are going to enjoy.
“I spend many weekends trying to add a few kilometres here and there.
“It’s certainly not the normal classic where you’re riding on farm roads and things. You have some serious mountain biking.”
The proof of this lies in the fact that the 2002 event doubled as the national championships.
Aside from route marking, Davies is still very involved in all aspects of organising. This includes land access negotiations beforehand and the big cleanup afterwards.
“The farmers on the route will often move their cattle, let us cut fences and do all sorts of things. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with them.”
After a brief hiatus from the administrative side, Davies is now the Gauteng mountain biking commissioner.
“It’s a bit of a backwards step, I thought I’d learnt my lesson,” he laughs.
“It keeps me pretty busy and my cycling suffers as a result. It’s a year or so since I rode competitively, but I’m certainly intending to change that.”
Never one to sit still, Davies and fellow cycling stalwart Wendell Bole have decided to breathe new life into cross-country racing.
“Wendell is also passionate about cross-country, so we’re looking at setting up a couple of events through the Thaba Trails Club.”
When asked whether he had plans to retire from mountain biking, Davies’s answer is immediate and definitive.
“No. None,” he laughs. “I’d love to get more involved.”