Calling Johannesburg an urban jungle is particularly apt, given all the patches of veld and parks that punctuate its metropolitan sprawl. Not surprisingly, these have become very attractive to mountain bikers, many of them intimidatingly swathed in cycling tights and fancy-looking backpacks. But the city has a lot to offer for beginners, particularly this collection of tracks.
Facilities: Restrooms (botanical gardens)
Entrance: Free (tipping the car guards is customary)
Open: All week
Shortest distance: 5.6km Location: Jo'burg Central
Quirk: Unmaintained, unpredictable
It may be arrogant to declare Mark's Park as the centre of Johannesburg's mountain-bike scene, particularly in a city overflowing with trails.
Yet every off-road cyclist seems to show up here at least once a week. As far as tracks go, this green bastion in urban Jo'burg — colloquially known as Emmarentia Dam — can be a hair-raising experience. Mark's Park has a well-worn series of routes that loop around the grounds and through the botanical gardens.
It attaches to a longer trail that takes you well into the north of Johannesburg. The park offers enough variety for several satisfying laps. And it's free, mainly because it is unofficial.
Nobody looks after the tracks and there is not even an enforced traffic direction. Over weekends the trails can be incredibly crowded, and the park is shared with scores of pedestrians and dog walkers.
But weekdays are usually breezy and attract more regular cyclists. Mark's Park is never boring — especially after a storm – and a firm favourite of the greater area's cyclists, from greenhorns to pros.
Central Park Trails
Facilities: Restaurant, secure parking
Open: Weekends, public holidays
Shortest distance: 15km
Location: Jo'burg East
Quirk: Intense but very satisfying
Cycling is a good way to start an early weekend morning. But if you oversleep, perhaps skip going to Central Park Trails, better known as Modderfontein.
At roughly 15km (measured from the parking) it is the longest and toughest beginner course in this collection. Its three other levels are not to be sniffed at either.
On top of that, Central's hilly terrain can be gruelling — here, there is no shame in getting off your bike. But the torture is completely worth it: Central is littered with tight, curvy tracks that take you through an amazing variety of terrain: woodlands, reeds, rocks, veld, even disused paved road.
The most unforgiving aspect is its hilly terrain and Central should certainly not be the first place you ever attempt on a mountain bike.
But it is one of the most satisfying to conquer, especially when you lounge afterwards at the new restaurant Isideleki. If the goal of all-terrain cycling is to spike your adrenaline and keep you on your toes, Central scores. Even the final downhill stretch is edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Facilities: Kiosk (weekends), secure parking
Open: All week
Shortest distance: 2.3 km
Location: Jo'burg North
Quirk: Short, varied and beginner-friendly
If these tracks had to be compared with venues, PWC would be a theme park. Resting snug against both sides of the N1 highway, connected by a tunnel, the park's main loop measures scarcely more than 2km.
And even if you completed all of the beginner trials, you wouldn't top 10km. But to take a cliché for one more twirl, it's all about the journey.
PWC is crawling with banking curves, tight corners, sudden shifts in terrain, bouncing mounds and heart-stopping drops.
Yes, that may sound a bit intense, but it translates into loads of fun for all biking levels.
Some trails are really demanding, but considering how well everything is marked you are unlikely to stumble on to one of the non-beginner tracks.
Speed is not the main concern of PWC, though a dash of it can certainly galvanise the will of the fearless.
The park's trails can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace and its location makes PWC perfect for a quick morning ride with friends or family. But be wary of buddies: they might just dare you to try one of those expert trails.