Whether you're into leisurely cycling with the family, or rough routes for mountain bikes, South Africa has no shortage of truly beautiful places in which to do this.
Joining the chain gang is as easy as buying a bike and pedaling off into the sunset. There is the getting fit part, but you'll be having so much fun, you'll breeze through this. That said, you may need a refresher (let's not say crash!) course before setting off on your first off-road mission.
Speaking of crashes, watch this video taken by one of the cyclists at this year's Absa Cape Epic, which finished on Sunday at Lourensford Wine Estate in Somerset West. Here he crashes quite spectacularly a heart-breaking 3km from the finish line, breaking his collar bone in the process. It's not for the faint hearted.
But don't let this put you off, mountain-biking is still one of the most exciting sports you can take part in and here in SA we have some of the best mountain biking trails around.
In search of the holy trail
South Africa boasts a host of riding regions with anything from desert cranking and deep-forest riding to leisurely coastal cruises. Official trails are usually graded according to the level of difficulty - green means ''easy'', blue ''moderate'', red ''difficult'' and black ''extreme''.
When grading a route trail owners and riders consider the duration of the ride, accumulated climb, total distance and terrain. Ride with respect not only for other trail users but also for the environment.
Avoid hard braking and skidding as this causes erosion and damages the trail. Slow down when you see hikers or animals because they have right of way in the great outdoors. Always arrange access, pay for permits, stick to the marked trail and don't litter or damage anything.
We chose these trails from the many brilliant rides in South Africa. It may not be a definitive guide but each route is special in its own way, there are options to suit novices and pros and also one route abroad.
Rule No 1: Wear a helmet
No helmet, no ride. A good helmet is, after your bike, your most important MTB purchase. If it doesn't fit snugly it won't keep your cranium intact. And make sure there are plenty of air vents to keep your head cool. An internationally recognised impact rating (check for CE/EN, ANSI or CPSC figures) is a must, while an adjustable sun visor is a major bonus.
1. Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Free State
Grading: You're riding on tarmac roads within the park, making this an easy ride.
How fit should you be? Even for couch potatoes.
Where? This dramatic national park is in the Maloti range of the Eastern Free State, 14 km along the R712 from Clarens.
Why ride it? You'll feel as if you're cruising with your head in the clouds while you ogle eland, zebra and other animals on the grassy slopes.
Distance: Less than 20 km if you stick to the tarmac roads in the park but the climbs are steep and numerous other riding options beckon in the area.
Route description: For a tarmac cruise from Clarens cycle along the R712 towards Golden Gate (13,4 km), then turn right onto Blesbok Loop after 2 km. This 7 km one-way loop climbs steeply into eland country, offering panoramic views and a skittish switchback downhill back onto the R712. Hit a sharp left almost immediately to explore the Oribi Loop, a bonus 4 km or so of highland cranking. From here it is a speedy 22,5 km cruise back into Clarens.
Maps and markings: Maps are available at the park offices where you buy your permits.
Access: All roads are public access but you need to pay a park entrance fee. Entry free to Wild Card holders.
Contact: Visit www.sanparks.org - click on Parks A-Z then on Golden Gate Highlands National Park.
2. Augrabies National Park, Northern Cape
Grading: The surface is good and the riding is relatively flat.
How fit should you be? If you can cycle around the block you should test-drive this one.
Where? Along the Orange River, about 120 km west of Upington and just shy of 40 km along the R359 branching off the N14.
Why ride it? This is the ultimate family ride with gently undulating gravel roads, galloping giraffes and endless views across the lunar landscape. Don't do it at midday in the height of summer though!
Distance: If you cycle into every little turn-off, including the viewpoints across the Augrabies Gorge, you'll clock around 36 km on your bike computer.
Route description: Go on the dirt road from Augrabies Main Camp, sticking to the gravel park roads winding past Moon Rock along the edge of the spectacular gorge. Include the side roads to Ararat, Oranjekom, Echo Corner and Fonteintjie to take in the exquisite views unfolding across the canyon. Neither gradient nor road surface will push you too much along this ride but nothing stops you from exploring the river beds.
Maps and markings: You'll get a map at the park gate when you pay for your entrance permit. Free entry to Wild Card holders.
Access: Day visitors may bring their own bikes; there may also be bikes available for hire at the main camp.
Contact: Visit www.sanparks.org - click on Parks A-Z then on Augrabies Falls National Park.
Tel 054-452-9200; e-mail email@example.com.
3. Harkerville Trail, Garden Route
Grading: Bring the family because the various routes range from a gentle cruise for the kids to white-knuckle runs for the big guns.
How fit should you be? If you've survived a 6-8 km Sunday afternoon cycling trip with the family you can tackle this route.
Where? In the heart of the Garden Route midway between Plett and Knysna.
Why ride it? Gorgeous scenery, killer singletrack and good signage make it a hot favourite.
Distance: Four colour-coded options offer riding permutations from 12 km to 24 kmlong. You could combine them and ride the whole day. There is also the option of a two-day ride with overnight accommodation in a forest hut.
Route description: It varies from route to route but you generally start off along shady forest roads before whizzing onto the network of singletracks. A rugged climb through heathers and proteas will take you to a breathtaking view of the Garden Route coastline. Then it is back into the emerald shade of the coastal forest.
Maps and markings: Maps are available from most bike shops in the Knysna area. Try Knysna Cycle Works on 044-382-5153 or visit www.knysnacycles.co.za.
Access: Get your permits from the DWAF Garden of Eden kiosk (tel 044-532-7793) or from Knysna Cycle Works.
Contact: Visit www.sanparks.org - click on Parks A-Z then on Knysna National Lake Area.
Tel 044-302-5606. If you want a guide e-mail Tony on firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Tokai Forest, Cape Peninsula
Grading: The route goes from intermediate to extreme, depending on the options you take.
How fit should you be? If you can cycle 10 km over hilly terrain in less than an hour you can try this route.
Where? Crisscrossing the eastern slopes of Table Mountain above the suburb of Tokai.
Why ride it? It's an exhilarating rush of a singletrack ride zigzagging through pine plantations, Cape fynbos and patches of indigenous forest.
Distance: There are a number of route options but your total ride distance is about 30 km with an expected time of two to three hours in the saddle.
Route description: Start at the Tokai Arboretum, tackling the hard gravel climb winding up towards the Sentech Tower above Elephant's Eye Cave. About 9 km into the ride you have the option of continuing left to the tower along a steep tarmac section or turning right onto a track corkscrewing down the slopes. This will take you back onto a jeep track but keep a lookout for singletrack sections bombing left and right into the pine plantations. If it's your first time ride it with someone who knows the route or you're sure to miss out on some of the hidden delights.
Maps and markings: The maps seem to be out of print at present but brand-new route signage will ensure you know where to go most of the time.
Access: Buy a permit from the small office on your right before you reach the Manor House at the end of Tokai Road.
Contact: Phone MTO Forestry (Safcol) on 021-712-7471 or e-mail email@example.com.
Call them clip-in, cleated or SPD (Shimano Pedalling Dynamic) shoes, the bottom line is, wearing them will increase your pedalling efficiency by up to 15 per cent.
A metal cleat (with quick release, of course) clips your shoe to the pedal, giving you pulling power on the upstroke in addition to the downward force of normal pedalling. Look for a rigid sole (to ensure an even transfer of pressure across your foot), a padded tongue (for added comfort on the upstroke) and an aggressive tread pattern (for when you have to carry or push your bicycle).
5. Rhodes MTB Challenge, Eastern Cape
Grading: Naudé's Nek alone will see you climbing for a good 20 km.
How fit should you be? Very fit and experienced.
Where? Where the Eastern Cape snuggles up to Lesotho.
Why ride it? For the views and to say you've cranked all the way up South Africa's highest dirt road pass.
Distance: This circular route tops out at a calf-crunching 80 km.
Route description: From Rhodes a gravel road climbs to the top of Naudé's Nek before the route branches left along the escarpment. Pass Cairntoul Police Station and continue west up the hellish jeep track to Lesotho View, the highest point on the route. Drop onto the Ben Macdhui Flats, pass Tiffindell, then blast home along the infamous Carlisleshoek Pass.
Maps and markings: The mountain-biking route isn't marked so a topographical map will stand you in good stead.
Access: The gravel roads are public access - so you have no excuse to chicken out.
Contact: E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www. rhodesvillage.co.za.
6. Ceske Les National Park, Czech Republic
Grading: Anything you want, from mild to wild.
How fit should you be? If you can cycle 10 km on a gravel road every day you will enjoy this one.
Where? In the region surrounding the beautiful town of Marianske Lazne where the Czech Republic borders on Poland and Germany.
Why ride it? Expect rail-riding (riding as if locked into a rail) along perfectly cambered singletrack trails spider-webbing through deciduous forests straight from a Brothers Grimm fairytale.
Distance: You can ride for days on routes linking various villages in the region.
Route description: Ski tracks, forest roads, purpose-built singletrack, hiking trails and winding tarmac roads combine into an endless and exhilarating ride past mountain lakes and fantastical castles rising from the woods. Tiny taverns dot the forest routes and will entice you to pig out on lazy lunches and the best pilsner beer in the world. Ride it before you die.
Maps and markings: Topographical maps are on sale at the excellent (and affordable) local bike shops.
Access: Check with the local bike shops or forestry offices.
Contact: Visit www.marianskelazne.cz/en for more information, including trail routes.
Learning to ride
Too scared to take the singletrack plunge? Many riders who migrate from tarmac or gravel find their first ride a thoroughly intimidating experience. Saddle up and go to mountain-biking school. Various individuals and organisations in and around SA offer MTB lessons but the guys listed below know their game.
Club 100 ( Gauteng): www.club100.co.za
Epic Bike Shop ( Western Cape): www.epicbikeshop.co.za
Mountain Bike School ( Western Cape):www. mountainbike-school.com
Dirtopia ( Western Cape): www.dirtopia.co.za
Maverick Cycles ( KwaZulu-Natal): www.maverickworld.co.za
Drakensberg Bicycle Club ( KwaZulu-Natal): Tel 082-576-7825
More mountain-biking trails
For more information on trails in South Africa visit www.mtbroutes.co.za or buy the book Best Mountain Bike Rides in South Africa by Jacques Marais and Susanna and Herman Mills (Struik, R230).
(Jacques Marais, YOU Pulse; Summer, December 2007, updated April 2011)