Blazing a trail
In 1994, the first Moonride mountain-bike race was held in Rotorua, an event which has followed the growing popularity and evolution of the sport.
Shut up legs’, reads one of the many motivational signs dotted along the track. I didn’t notice it earlier in the day, but it becomes something of a mantra as I struggle up the Lion Trail on my last lap. I’m exhausted, but this is my first night ride and it’s an exhilarating experience—like pedalling through a tunnel of light. And even though it’s my slowest lap of the day, I feel as though I’m flying. The spotlights on my helmet pick out tiny particles of dust and bugs, and as I weave my way through the forest, narrow beams from other riders’ lamps illuminate the trees with flashes and sweeps of cool, blue LED light.
“How was that?” asks Gary Sullivan of Team Nzo when I get back to the start-finish line and hand over the race number and timing chip to the next rider in our team. I’m so out of breath that all I can do is nod and grin and give him a thumbs-up. It’s been a long day, but I’m beginning to understand why the Moonride has endured for the past 20 years.
The first moonride was held in 1994, dreamed up by Fred Christensen, one of the pioneers of mountain biking in Rotorua. A former motocross racer, Christensen organised some of the first mountain-bike events in Riverhead Forest near Auckland in the late 1980s, then discovered Whakarewarewa Forest in Rotorua.
“The riding was just so good,” says Christensen. “We carved through the Redwoods walking tracks and it was such a stunning environment for mountain biking.”
Whakarewarewa Forest is a 5600 hectare block right on Rotorua’s doorstep.
The Redwoods Visitor Centre opened in 1978 to cater for the growing numbers using the walking tracks in the forest, but there were no official bike trails until September 1990. A year earlier, Christensen had convinced the Forestry Corporation, to let him build the first track, which became known as Genesis. The Department of Corrections provided periodic detention crews to build the trails; Christensen provided the expertise and the enthusiasm.
“On a Monday morning, I walked into the forest with a can of paint to mark out the track,” says Christensen. “A year later, the first track was finished. It was four kilometres long, with 95 corners, and it was a beautiful thing.”
The part of the forest where Christensen built the first trails became known as the Fredwoods, which—like other parts of Rotorua—benefits from the twin evils of deforestation and a catastrophic natural disaster.
Some 600 years ago, Maori cleared the land and burned great swathes of forest to encourage the growth of bracken fern, a starchy food source. Then in 1886 Mount Tarawera erupted, destroying one of New Zealand’s original tourist attractions, the Pink and White Terraces, and simultaneously covering the area with a fine layer of tephra.
That meant the Whakarewarewa Forest was planted on relatively bare land, or at least land that had not been covered in native bush for hundreds of years. “It essentially created a blank canvas for planting a forest and subsequently for building mountain-bike trails,” says Paul Charteris of Scion, a crown research institute dedicated to the forestry industry. “It’s also a porous subsoil strata, which in layman’s terms means it’s free draining and dries out quickly even after periods of heavy rain. That means the trails in the forest can be ridden all year round.”
Adam king has been building trails since 1992, when he first started riding in the forest. He was 10 years old at the time. “If you wanted something new to ride you had to get out there with your shovel and dig it,” says King. “A lot of people take the trails for granted, but over the years, hundreds of volunteers have helped make the forest what it is today.”
Some of those volunteers have gone on to make a career out of moving dirt, building trails around New Zealand and the rest of the world. King and his business partner, Chris Martin, set up their company Empire of Dirt (the name is derived from a line in a Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt), after spending a couple of years learning their trade at Whistler Bike Park in British Columbia, Canada, one of the most popular mountain-bike destinations in the world.
“We’re spoilt,” says King. “In Whistler, you have to dig through a lot of rock to build a trail. You find pockets of nice dirt, but nothing like here. I don’t know the technical names for the different soil types but I know what works through trial and error. We’ve got Rotomahana mud, which is really clay’y but is great for building trails. We’ve got two different topsoils: the black stuff, which is absolutely useless because it cuts up real quick, and the yellow clay-based topsoil, which is what you’re after. Most of the trails in the Whaka’ Forest have that nice yellow dirt that’s really consistent, packs in good and dries out real hard. That’s ideal. It’s not super hard wearing compared to soil that has a bit of rock in it, but it works really well.”
This combination of natural assets and volunteer effort meant that, by the late 1990s the number of mountain bikers had risen dramatically. In 1994, Christensen organised the first Moonride, a 12-hour race starting at 7pm and finishing at 7am. It was held in July under a full moon and was part of the Mad Mad Mid-Winter Festival, an initiative by the Rotorua District Council to attract more tourists to the city out of season. The Redwoods was set to become the mountain-biking capital of New Zealand.
A few hours before the start of the 2014 Moonride, I go for a reconnaissance ride in the forest to get my bearings. I’m an out-oftowner, and more of a runner than a rider. Team Nzo have kindly agreed to mentor me through my first Moonride and first ever mountain-bike event. The concept is simple. Riders (solo, and two- to five-man teams) can choose from the 24-hour, 12-hour or 6-hour events. The goal is to ride as many laps of the 8.5-kilometre circuit as the team can manage in the time allocated.
On my reconnoitre, I detour to the top of the Tokorangi Trail, where the vista takes in Mount Tongariro, the Green and Blue Lakes and the city.
In a little over 20 years, mountain biking has become a vital part of the Rotorua community and economy. Seventy different trails now stretch through 130 kilometres of the forest, plied by some 180,000 mountain bikers. Access to ride the forest is free, but hotels, hot pools, restaurants, shuttle services, petrol stations, supermarkets, bike shops and apparel businesses all benefit from the sport now worth $15 million a year to the local economy. According to a recent report, that figure’s predicted to double in the next five years.
“Mountain-biking used to have a grunge factor about it, but now it appeals to a much broader spectrum,” says Craig Corbett of Ride Central, one of seven bike shops in the city. “We get older people into the shop who’ve been told by their doctor that they need to exercise more. Another big growth area is families. My two boys, Conor and Patrick, used to sit on the back of my bike in a baby seat from the age of two or three, and as soon as they could ride a bike they were in the forest themselves.”
In fact, Conor’s riding for Team Nzo tonight, blazing through the field at the start to claim an early lead—regrettably the first and last time we will claim bragging rights in the event. “Adrenalin got me half way home and pain got me the rest of the way,” he says, rolling in 26 minutes later to swap with his brother Patrick.
“At least you got the holeshot,” says Patrick, who cycles off into the darkness, taking our team’s timing chip on a second shuddering, scorching lap of the course.
The Moonride is a competitive event some of New Zealand’s top professional riders, including Sam Gaze and Carl Jones, line up in the 12-hour race—but many of the teams take a more casual approach. The JagerBums are fuelled by shots of Jagermeister, a potent German liqueur. (By the 10 o’clock start on Friday night, they’ve polished off two of five bottles, yet still manage to lead the opening two laps and ride through the night.) Team Nzo make a tactical decision to clock off at 1.30am and get an early start the next morning. I camp out in the paddock beside the Waipa car park, where teams have set up an assortment of tents, gazebos and caravans.
Waking at dawn, I jump on my bike for my first lap—it’s just before 7am and I’ve got the trail pretty much to myself. An exposed tree root halfway up Lion Trail almost sends me over the handlebars, but I recover my balance and keep pumping my legs. Finally, I reach the top and pause to soak in the views of the forest as the morning mist lifts off the top of the tree-line. It’s a spectacular view, and after a couple of kilometres of bone-rattling downhill, I’m back at the base at the Waipa car park to hand over our race number and timing chip to the next rider.
Some teams have their transitions fine-tuned like a Formula 1 pit crew. Ours is a little more lackadaisical, though my successor, Saul Webb, doesn’t hang about once he gets on his bike. He powers his way around the course and his four quick laps help Team Nzo to close the gap on the teams ahead of us, who had elected to ride through the night.
At the far end of the campsite, Libby Shallard is cooking pancakes on a grill plate for her husband Jack, sons Michael, Blair and Sam, and granddaughter Rachel. Michael has competed in every Moonride since 1994 and Rachel, his 14-year-old daughter, is riding in her third. Jack is 72 years old and has missed the event only a handful of times since he made his debut in 1995.
“I remember riding in icy conditions one year, when bikes were slipping and sliding all over the place,” say Shallard. “It was a beautiful clear day but it was about minus four degrees. When you started a lap you got hit by this cold blast, but once you got in the forest you forgot all about the cold. I remember Fred [Christensen] saying one of the things that made the Moonride special was that fact that it was a mid-winter race, held in July—the coldest, baddest month of the year. It was a challenge for riders to beat the weather; the meanness of it was part of the attraction.”
At its peak the Moonride attracted more than 2000 riders. That was six or seven years ago. This year the number is closer to 800. A big increase in the number of events to choose from, a simplification of the course and bad weather are some of the factors that have contributed to the decline in popularity. It was changed from July to May in 2002, but almost every year since, it’s been dogged by torrential rain. Last year, the 24-hour race was reduced to 11 hours because the course was a quagmire—photographs show riders pushing their bikes downhill through six inches of mud. This year, the event has been moved to March, and rewarded with perfect conditions.
“You look at people riding this event; they’re all getting the same buzz out of it even though they’re all at completely different levels and going at different speeds,” says Gary Sullivan, who’s competed in the Moonride 16 times. “You don’t have to race against anyone, you’re testing yourself, and the kick you get out of riding a trail better than you usually do is tangible. It’s also meditative. When you’re riding the trails, you can’t think about anything else.”
A few hours later, I slither into the transition after my final lap. It’s after 8pm and I’ve ridden six laps for the team, or just over 50 kilometres. Patrick and Conor Corbett and a few of their friends ride the penultimate laps as I drain a beer with Sullivan and watch the final minutes of the race. I think of Fred Christensen and marvel at what he and hundreds of other volunteers have helped to create in this forest. Today 800 riders grind away on the cranks here, the vanguard of some 180,000 others who will sear through the forest over the next 12 months, and the multitude that will follow in their tracks for generations.