From Dirt Issue 109 - March 2011

In New Zealand.
In New Zealand.

I had to come back, I had no choice really. After a much anticipated, then disastrous crash ridden short first visit to New Zealand, I vowed I would return some day and hopefully the tables would be turned.

Looking back every racer has their highs and lows. For me ’06 World Champs in Rotorua managed to be both. My race run was the low light of my already pretty dismal (or comical depending on whose perspective) racing career, yet it still made the highlights reel on New Zealand national TV, unfortunately it was the highlights reel that featured four of the week’s worst crashes, two of which just happened to be mine mid race run. I don’t think this was the kind of media coverage the sponsors were after.

The next eight days of the ‘dream’ holiday were spent looking out of the window of a rented camper van that I could barely lift myself into and out of without my back freezing up while my wife Anka, hiked, jet–boated and bungee jumped herself all around New Zealand. Awesome.

Somehow the next four years shot by in a heart beat: work, family gatherings, friend’s weddings, all dictating our off–season travels, but when the snow started falling in Oregon early October, it was time to book the tickets for some endless summertime Kiwi fun.

With so much riding on offer all condensed into two relatively small islands, which combined are only the size of Colorado, we hatched a vague itinerary over a few late night Skype chats with Caleb Smith, New Zealand editor of Spoke magazine. He provided a couple of ‘must do’ rides both on and off the beaten track and a list of local contacts in each town who would all be sure to try break us (they often succeeded) on their best and toughest local trails. Roughly ten days to be spent on the North Island and another twenty on the South Island, all super flexible, our schedule dictated only by the quality of trails, ‘flat–whites’, pastries and an abundance of scenic freedom camping spots to sleep at>>

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[part title="New Zealand 100%..."]

New Zealand, with a small population of only four million people attracts a staggering 350,000 people just in cycling based tourism alone. The stunning scenery, safety and ability to take in a half dozen climate zones all in one or two days, guarantees total sensory satisfaction, all without any snakes, bears, cougars, lions and poison oak, which is a plus if you are a mountain biker.

In Golden Bay, New Zealand.
In Golden Bay, New Zealand.

Fresh off the plane and in our new spray painted wicked camper, we set off west for Raglan, New Zealand’s answer for goofy footed surfers seeking a left hand breaking version of Jefferey’s Bay, South Africa. After sampling one of the world’s longest waves it was off to Rotorua to ride the much vaunted trails we had heard about when we were over there last for World Champs and I made my TV appearance. While the DH track for Worlds in ‘06 was not bad, it would be like coming to race the Mega in Alp d’Huez, but only being allowed to road ride down the 27 asphalt bends the ‘The Tour’ wannabes ride up. It did Rotorua no justice whatsoever. Here just a short ride out of town was one of the most developed, well–built and well thought out trail networks I have ever ridden. Anywhere!

In New Zealand.
In New Zealand.

We spent a few days here exploring on our own waiting to meet up with Sam Blenkinsop and Clay Porter who was in the country filming with Sam for his newest film, Three Minute Gaps, out any day now. It was a treat to watch him light up the Rotorua DH trails that I had just barely been surviving on, hanging off the saddle and on the brakes on my Nomad. It is good to see the top riders in their home countries, observing the terrain that is responsible for developing their styles. Blenkinsop was right at home hopping and popping over roots, ruts and braking bumps in his loose ‘wildman' off the side of the bike flat pedal’ style.

We could have stayed for longer but we had only just begun our trip with so much more to see. A quick stop off in Lake Taupo for some home and handmade hamburgers from Kiwi Legend John Kirkaldie himself, or rather, I should say from his lovely and highly pregnant wife ex US pro DH’er Kodie. Spoilt with a real bed and our first shower it was time to continue, we had heard of a rumour of two trails, Whirinaki and Te Iringa nearby. First up was Whirinaki (the Maori words with Wh are pronounced as an “f"). A drop off with a ‘shuttle’ company who used our own van for a half price rate had us set off on a one–way–no–way–out 40km ride of epic proportions. While Rotorua had planned trails this one followed the natural contours of two river valleys with a descent in the beginning, a hell of a never ending climb in the middle and a 10km descent in the end. It’s impossible to explain the natural, wild and remote feel of this ride. Almost 100% rideable, with bench–cut into some exposed cliffs make this one of my top five rides ever, with a smaller chainring that is. Holy Shit #2

[part title="New Zealand 100%"]

Te Iringa on the other hand is one of those ‘once every few years’ type of rides that takes so much out of you, you are completely drained. If the last few rides were of the Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park variety this one was straight out of Avatar. No computer animation necessary. Five hour ride, three hours of pushing. Unbelievable descents, with not one man–made dumbed down MTB ‘feature’ to be found anywhere. We met a hunter camped out at the trail head afterwards and even Anka, a vegetarian, was seriously considering eating his wild freshly shot venison he was offering us. If you hate trail centres and like to carry multiple spare derailleur hangers in your pack this ride is for you. We went through three hangers on this one ride alone. Thankfully you are safe to pretty much drink any and all of the water on these remote trails, no filter necessary. That just makes it even that much better. Fuck yeah #3.

In New Zealand.
In New Zealand.

With days slipping away faster than Sam Hill in Champery, it was time for the South Island, a quick scenic ferry ride away. Arriving with some very un–summer like weather we decided to keep moving, taking advantage of the stormy conditions to get in some surfing near Kaikoura, where you go to have your breath taken away by snow capped mountains that spill right down to the bay that is home to dolphins whales, seals and great waves. Pushing on to Christchurch, the flat approach to and through the city contrasts the actual riding just beyond it on the ridges separating the city and its natural harbour just beyond. Breezy, narrow hardpack single track keeps you on your toes as you navigate your way up and down ridgelines into small neighbourhoods and bays. A good mix of city and natural park riding with open views give it the scenic tourist ride feel. Some good downhill trails with both public and private shuttle access that locals like Cameron Cole and Justin Leov have cut their teeth on provide ample tech, fast, fun and variety for all levels. Some all–day riding and followed by some night driving resulted in a squashed possum or two (the Kiwis will thank me) it was time to keep moving towards the Southern Alp’s towns of Wanaka and Queenstown.

In New Zealand.
In New Zealand.

After rolling into a random riverside campsite outside of Wanaka we were awoken by the sound of skidding tyres. Fuelled by coffee we ventured up the hill and discovered, by chance, we had parked at the end of a local underground mini DH trail network, complete with jumps, berms and gaps. Sometimes the unexpected, off the map spots tend to yield the most impromptu fun sessions. Next it was off to nearby Queenstown, passing the Snow Farm DH trails, sections of which are made famous by Gee and Steve Smith in the film Follow Me. The other three or four sections to their video part were all to be sampled over the next few days with our newly adopted big crew of Queenstown and Vertigo bikes friendly locals, all of which hailed from either England, Scotland or Wales. Where are all the Kiwis? In the UK?

We met up with Chris Ball, whom I spend the better part of the year either hiding away from, or complaining to depending on the race or situation, as he is the UCI DH technical delegate. He was out visiting NZ with his fiancé Kate and hooking up with his old Scottish ex–pat teammate Paul Angus from the original Mojo–Orange team, who is now part owner of the Queenstown go–to shop, Vertigo Bikes. The ex–pat crew will tackle any climb, no matter how steep, single big 36 tooth ring up front, armed with nothing more than a Kiwi Camelbak (water bottle in pocket). After destroying us on the climbs they repeated the humiliation on the descents. Thank God by the time you read this the newly opened gondola accessing the Skyline tails and legendary massive jumps of the Dream Track will be in full swing. You want a Whistler for the winter; this is it, look no further. While you read this, the Atherton’s will be deep into their second month in Queenstown, using it as a pre–season launching pad to get up to speed. With all its tempting distractions we will have to see how that pans out.

[part title="New Zealand 100%..."]

Nelson 2011. Kierren Bennet and Kelly McGary
Nelson 2011. Kierren Bennet and Kelly McGary

Sad to leave such a special place after making so many new friends, we pushed back North via the wild and rugged west coast where massive waterfalls and rivers emptied themselves into an angry ocean. We somehow drove straight into, yet miraculously avoided being washed away by, the region’s worst flooding in 108 years. Asphalt floating off the road surface in front of us, bridges washing away behind us, and landslides to the sides of us, what a ‘summer’ holiday we were having! You really do feel connected to the land here. We just made it through the forever happy and hippy Golden bay and reached roads–end on the far North West corner of the North Island, Whiriraki Beach. Stranded. Road closures all around us for the next couple of days at least, stranded in paradise with good surf and sweet cliff–side coastal single track made it time well spent with nowhere to go. As always the unplanned and unexpected events while travelling often turn into lifelong memories you will cherish.

If you want to be guaranteed better weather for your visit, plan a trip during February, but anytime from October thru April can be rewarding, the beauty of New Zealand is in experiencing all the seasons without the extremes. In other words perfect, which is also a word to describe the last few days of the trip.

In New Zealand.
In New Zealand.

Next day we hooked up with Kelly McGarry and Kieran Bennett for some shooting and riding on the local club’s DH trails. Kieran had been digging all week on the soon to be raced Nelson National DH track. Natural, steep, with good flow seems to be the character of all New Zealand’s trails, be it DH or XC, Kelly found some wild loose chutes to drop and got equally styley on the DH track, good to see all–round ripping riding skills from someone you usually only associate with massive drops gaps and flips. Good onya!

In Golden Bay, New Zealand.
In Golden Bay, New Zealand.

Basic facts:

Camper Van Rental: $69-$100 NZ per day for 2–3 people depending on the season.

Bikes to bring: 5–6 incher do–it–all. Seat dropper, chain-guide a plus. If you are going to be based in the Queenstown area solely, maybe decide on a Dirt Jumper or DH