Former executive chef turned group operations manager Melgard “Ranger Mel” Meyer dished up yet another winner at this year’s Bestmed Sondela Mountain Bike Classic near Bela-Bela at the end of June.

More than 4 500 visitors turned out for the biggest mountain biking bash in the Bushveld, which offered a weekend of real family entertainment and top quality trails.

“We probably had about 1 400 riders taking part over the two days and they brought their families and friends,” says Meyer.

“Sondela sleeps 1 800 people and we were full. We had lots of day-trippers too.”

Although the numbers are impressive, Meyer says the highlight for him personally was seeing so many families taking part across the 60km, 40km, 20km and kiddies’ races.

“We’re a family resort and our aim is to see this sport grow among people of all ages. I get more pleasure from seeing one family – pa, ma, boetie en sussie – on bicycles than 1 400 crazy individual cyclists in a race.”

He believes the event has come a long way since it first started with just 60 participants seven years ago.

“At first we increased to around 300 or 400 riders. But the moment ASG Events got involved three years ago, we started growing exponentially.

“Wynand de Villiers brings a huge amount of experience to event organising. He just has a different way of looking at an event.”

While his career may have taken several detours through various aspects of the hospitality industry, Meyer says cycling has always been a part of his life and a natural extension of his love for the great outdoors.

“Being on a bicycle is where I find myself, where I’m cut off from everything else, in my own space and time. It’s my place of dreaming.

“When I came to Sondela twelve years ago, I naturally started putting down some trails. We then decided to develop those trails and later to start some mountain biking events.”

The resort currently hosts six events annually, two of which fall under the auspices of ASG. The remainder act as practical training for Sondela’s event management students, with Ranger Mel keeping an ever-watchful eye.

“We’re not just a race village, we’re a genuine mountain biking destination,” says Meyer.

And that, he says, makes all the difference when it comes to setting up the trails, which include 78km of hand-cut single-track across the 4 700-hectare reserve.

“If you’re just a once-off race village, you want a route that’s tactical and tough. But if you’ve got trails that are marked 24/7 and 365 days a year, then your trail setup must look different.

“It must be safe and fair to everyone but your serious rider must still be able to pick up speed on the single-track and get in some proper training.”

Meyer says the students at the Sondela Academy are completely involved in all aspects of the trail development process.

“One of my real passions in life – aside from food and cycling – is developing people and the academy brings all of these together.

“As part of our ecotourism courses, our conservation, guiding and event support students prepare and maintain trails. The roles they play are linked to very specific outcomes for each of these qualifications.”

Although mountain biking is essentially an eco-friendly sport, he says it still has a significant impact on the environment, which must be planned for and mitigated.

“Trails are not there forever, they can become eroded. Game can also start using the trails, so you’re changing animal behaviour patterns.

“It’s important to analyse your trails and change portions where necessary. You want to help those areas recover but you also want to take people there so that they understand their impact on nature.”

As a farm boy, the 47-year-old says farming and conservation principles have been in his blood since the day he was born.

Now as group operations manager for the past two years, he has been able to positively influence the direction that Sondela is taking at all levels of the business.

“Mountain biking is a big part of our vision because we aim to become the default destination for the sport. Even our executives are now on bicycles – they all ride.”

While the dust from this year’s Sondela Mountain Bike Classic has barely settled across the reserve, Meyer is already busy making plans for 2015.

Aside from growing the number of participants in the main feature race, he also plans to give children their own batch starts in the 20km fun ride to improve the enjoyment and safety factors.

“We don’t just want to maintain our results, we want to exceed every expectation as far as we go, and just keep on making it a better experience year after year.”

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Coetzee Gouws
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