Ride every mountain
Twenty-five years ago, the term “mountain bike” didn’t exist. Today the fat-tyred, shock-absorbing off-road machines outsell their bitumen-bound cousins three to one, and the call of the outdoors is as often answered on wheels as on foot.
It started innocently enough. An autumn afternoon, the world an ochre still life, inviting contemplation. I was out for a stroll on my bicycle. Nothing too strenuous, just a routine tour of my hometown of Wanaka: the post office, a favourite café, the beach, perhaps the riverside promenade, where I like to watch trout feeding along the grassy beds.
Short-cutting through a park, spinning my pedals at an easy cadence, whistling a tune in praise of the perfection of it all—the sunshine and the blazing autumn colours—I was distinctly unaware that certain events had already been set in motion and were coming to meet me head-on and at speed. My short cut would turn out to be the longest possible way from A to B. And possibly the scariest one as well.
From around a tight corner came a mob of mountain bikers, muscling their machines into the turn, surrounding me in a rough circle. Brakes screeched, tyres skidded to a halt, dual suspensions rocked back and forth. I knew most of these hombres, though now they were strangely transformed, alien almost, knights-in-armour hidden behind wraparound shades and aerodynamic helmets, clad in Lycra as bright as city neons.
One other thing I noticed: their quads. Stallion quads, knots of muscle tissue stretching the Spandex shorts, making the knee joint look like the waist of an hourglass.
For a moment they said nothing, either catching their breath or sucking on the nipples of their Camelbak hydration packs. When they did speak, the words came in eruptions and all at once, as among kids fresh off a festival ride.
“Wow! Dude! That was cool! Almost hooked a tree with my handlebars. That jump was wicked, but man, gnarly landing! Nearly lost it!” And then to me: “Hey, Derek! Hop in, dude! We’ll show you some cool tracks. Let’s blast!”
And they were off again, the quads impatient to churn some dirt, pumping like pistons. I pedalled like fury in the rear, hanging on to the mob’s tail, and for a while we glided along a narrow trail, then climbed up steeply into the pine plantations high above Lake Wanaka.
Suddenly the lead rider swerved sharply and dipped down into the forest. The others followed close behind. I slowed down and listened, and there was a receding but unmistakable sound as if the riders were tossing their bikes down an endless staircase.
It was a staircase, its irregular steps made of roots and ruts—a narrow, winding tunnel of trees, and not a place where you’d ordinarily think to take a bicycle. With both brakes clamped and squealing, I bounced down the hill, dodging tree trunks and ducking under branches, when, around a blind corner, the trail suddenly narrowed into a single furrow. Unwittingly, I had crossed the event horizon. My front wheel jammed in the rut and I saw the world turning around me. I was on my back, then on my feet, then on my back again, fending off a bike that just wouldn’t go away. Then the commotion stopped.
“Good on ya! Wicked! Do it again!” the bikers cheered as I gathered my senses, assessing the damage.
I left some good skin along that trail, and sprinkled the thirsty earth with blood—though, in hindsight, it seemed a small price, a rookie’s rite of passage. Something happened that afternoon two years ago, something that was both like falling in love and discovering a brand-new sensory reality. I became a dirthead. I was initiated into the tribe.
The tribe of mountain bikers, with its various subcultures—racers, commuters, kamikaze downhillers, tourers, health buffs and weekend strollers—is one of the fastest-growing nations in the world. Twenty-five years ago, no one had heard of a mountain bike. Today there is hardly a household without one. Just walk past any schoolyard bike rack. Sure, those cycles are no titanium colts, but their geometry is unmistakable: straight handlebars, fork suspension, fat, knobbly tyres and enough front and rear gears for kids to learn their multiplication tables on them.
The mountain-bike craze began in California in the mid-1970s, when cycling enthusiasts Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly started building experimental off-road bikes out of parts scavenged from standard road bikes, tandems and even motorcycles. Their 20 kg clunkers were primitive, but they caught the imagination of a new breed of adventurous pedallers, and the machines evolved rapidly. The frames became lighter, more gears were added and thumb shifters were installed, so you could change gear while keeping both hands on the handlebars. Then came suspension—front and back—and more reliable brakes. In short order, the mongrels became thoroughbreds, stylish steeds which could go just about anywhere. The tyranny of the tarmac was broken.
In 1981, the first production all-terrain bicycle appeared in the US and three years later 15 of them arrived in New Zealand. From then on, the popularity of the sport has been nothing short of an eruption, and today mountain biking is still the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the US and in New Zealand. A 1993 opinion poll showed that cycling was the most common outdoor pursuit for 8 per cent of outdoor-oriented New Zealanders—as popular as tramping. The Bicycle Industry Association of New Zealand estimates that 80 per cent of all bicycles sold in this country are mountain bikes. Sales peaked at 194,974 in 1993, then began changing in nature from purchases of new machines to component upgrades. It seemed that most of the population had already acquired a mountain bike.
These days, new bike models are heralded with all the hype and fervour associated with motorcar marketing. When, through a string of coincidences and synchronicities, I bought my current mount at a bargain price (brand-new it would have cost more than my car), I noted with pleasure that it was equipped with a Rapid Fire Flight-deck Compatible Drive Train (meaning a lot of gears, really), Wild Gripper Hot S Intense tyres (extra fat), and Rock Shox Judy SL suspension (soft, like a well worn-in armchair). I immediately upgraded it with an SX Shok Post (like one side of Judy SL directly under your seat), Kevlar hand-grips and a pair of spuds (Shimano Pedalling Dynamicsclick-in pedals which make you one with your machine).
Still, when it comes to bikes, there is always more you can and want to have, and so the development of the industry has been a case of technology trying to catch up with dreams, sometimes with amusing consequences. Last year, Gary Sullivan, owner of local cycling fashion label N-Zone, placed a promotional ad in a magazine featuring a downhill-racing body suit equipped with six air bags and a “cortex pick-up activation system,” which sensed exactly when you were ready to bail out and needed those air bags to fire.
“It was a joke,” Sullivan told me, “but some people didn’t get it. We’ve been receiving orders ever since.”
Apart from the inflated and largely sales-driven tech-talk, there is also a more lucid layer in the fat-tyre lingua franca, and it has to do with the riding itself. Young as it is, the mountain-biking fraternity has developed its own ersatz vernacular to communicate the finer points of bikemanship. Much of the terminology originates in California, and has been transplanted here via magazines and the Internet.
Not surprisingly, there are several expressions to describe a fall, depending on its reason, severity and the exact aerial acrobatics involved. There is an endo, short for “end over end,” the manoeuvre of flying over one’s handlebars, a rag dolly, a boneless kind of tumble, a superman, when a rider flies head-first, arms outstretched, over a considerable distance, and a yard sale, a serious crash that leaves parts of machine and apparel scattered along the trail as if on retail display.
The results of a fall can vary, too, ranging from a road rash, an allergic reaction of skin to moving ground, to cranial disharmony, a feeling in one’s head upon augering, defined as involuntarily taking samples of the local geology, usually with one’s face. The effect of a fall on the bike are also codified. A mild crash can turn a wheel into a potato chip (often fixable), while a more serious impact results in a taco, a wheel bent in half.
The biker’s lexicon also contains an entry that is dear to the heart of every rider, one that conjures up images of trail nirvana: singletrack.
An ideal singletrack is no more than a metre wide, and preferably less. It snakes gracefully, so that you don’t see too far ahead but let it unfold before you, like a good story, one turn at a time. Its vertical profile is that of a roller-coaster, and the whole thing is hidden in the trees, with just enough openings and scenic look-outs, so that the posse of bikers can regroup, snack, catch their breath and compare bruises. I found just such a track on the outskirts of Rotorua.
At the turn of the century, European settlers around Rotorua began experimenting with forestry, figuring out just which exotic trees were suited to New Zealand soil and climate and which were not. Some 200 species were planted: Australian eucalypts, Mexican pines, European larches and, most impressive of all, Californian redwoods, towering giants which can grow up to 110 metres tall.
As the trees matured, this part-plantation, part-botanical garden called Whakarewarewa Forest became a popular place to walk, jog or even ride a horse. Then, in 1989, someone came along with the idea of turning the forest into New Zealand’s mountain-biking Disneyworld.
Fred Christensen grew up in nearby Tokoroa, where he developed an early passion for off-road motorcycling. After a stint at the local dirt tracks, and to further his racing career, he moved to Australia, where throttleheads were more numerous and better organised. He raced there for a decade, and it was in the land of Oz that mountain biking found him.
“I was about to get out of trail-bike racing anyway,” he told me, “mainly because of injuries. You can do a lot of damage to yourself if you eat it at 80 miles an hour. I was already road cycling a lot to keep fit for the races, so when mountain biking came along it seemed a natural progression. It had the same technical challenge, only that you had to provide your own horsepower. Plus no fumes, no noise, just the sweet twirl of tyres on earth. We had only one problem: no decent trails to ride.”
He grinned and put on his helmet. “But we’ve fixed that now.”
We were talking in a car park on the edge of the forest, getting ready for a ride. Cyclists were popping out of the redwoods and disappearing back into them again, and the ever-present whiff of hot pools wafted in on the afternoon’s breath. Christensen mounted his bike, clicked into the pedals and led off up the narrow trail.
When he returned home from Australia, Christensen saw the recreational potential of VVhakarewarewa Forest, 5667 ha within minutes of central Rotorua. His entrepreneurial wheels spinning, he enthused the council, the forestry company, even the Department of Justice, which provided a periodic detention work gang to help him build his first singletrack—only 3.5 km long but incorporating 96 custom-built corners.
“When a mountain bike is travelling at speed, it comes alive,” he said. “You don’t want to stop or radically slow down to make it round a corner. So we built the trails accordingly. You’re coming straight at a tree, going fast, and in the last moment you have a wide, banked-up turn which takes you around it. Once you learn to trust the trail, you can really fly.”
Fly he did, leaning into the turns, absorbing the bumps, flowing down staircases of roots, jumping the odd log. I’d never imagined you could ride a bicycle with so much grace. It was a dance to some unheard music, the bike responding like a good partner in a fast-paced tango. The dance wasn’t exactly made easier by the fact that Christensen was riding a bike with only one gear. While cycle manufacturers now equip their offerings with 24 or even 27 gears, for Christensen a single-speed on singletrack is the absolute in purism. It requires you to carry the momentum through the turns, encouraging commitment and fluidity. Watching him ride, I had no doubt that he knew every turn, dip and puddle on the circuit.
The track work continued until 1997, when Christensen swapped his shovel and hoe for a camera and a laptop, establishing NZ Bike magazine, with the aim of encouraging a sense of community in what is essentially a sport of individuals. By then, Whakarewarewa’s trails had grown to some 30 km, all mapped out and colour-coded according to difficulty, like pistes on a skifield.
Laid out as they are in one small portion of the forest, the trails are the antithesis of the shortcut, making the most of available space and terrain, meandering, writhing, folding back on one another, but never crossing. Their design seems similar to taking the longest possible peel from a relatively small apple. And the apple, peeled and tempting, now beckons bikers like a siren.
“Fred has given Rotorua a tremendous asset,” Gary Sullivan told me as we hosed our steeds at trail’s end. “I’ve travelled the world looking for the best bike tracks. I’ve done Utah and Colorado, even the donkey trails in Turkey. But I came back and settled in Rotorua because for the sheer amount of per kilometre fun this place is hard to beat. Fred has created a playground where mum, dad and the kids can ride the same trail as a national champion, and be grinning all the way.”
Equally poignant, and delicately tickling the designer’s pride, is an autographed comment from Gary Fisher: “The best singletracks ever!” But perhaps the greatest pleasure for Christensen comes from the popularity of the trails themselves—from watching a father and son arriving in an old ute after work and school, and racing each other through the woods until the daylight wanes. And even then the trails are not empty. Many riders now strap torches to handlebars or helmet and explore the forest by night, the eerie chiaroscuro ambience adding to the excitement and challenge. An annual all-night winter ride during the full moon makes an event of it.
I never got to try night riding. After cycling Whakarewarewa’s 30 intense kilometres in daylight, followed by a soak in the hot pools, I entered a state of such blissful exhaustion that even brushing my teeth was too much effort. That night, I ate in a restaurant where the car park was lined with vehicles sporting multiple bike racks, and the waiter had a gravel rash on his chin, a result of a misjudged curb jump. I wondered, lolling by the fire, what it was about the magic of two wheels on a track, and why the sensation could be so universally appealing. H.G.Wells, an avid cyclist, once wrote: “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.” In Rotorua, I’m sure, his hopes—and spirit—would have soared.
It was an Indian summer, and I was travelling the country snooping for the best rides. Fred Christensen’s project has created a precedent, and custom-built tracks are appearing wherever local enthusiasm for mountain biking reaches critical mass. Among them are some superb trails: Tokoroa’s Big Rock, Taupo’s Craters of the Moon, Riverhead Forest, north of Auckland, and Lismore, out of Wanganui, Naseby and Wanaka, most of them blazed through plantations of exotic trees.
But what about the myriad already-established tracks, those traversing some of our best scenery and dotted with delightfully rustic back-country huts? New Zealand has a long-standing reputation as a walker’s Arcadia. With the go-anywhere freedom that mountain bikes offer, wouldn’t it seem natural that cyclists should gravitate towards the tramper’s turf?
Well, they did, leading to angry stand-offs of the “this-track-ain’twide-enough-for-the-both-of-us” variety with the foot traffic. For many trampers, there is something inappropriate—bordering on the profane—about encountering wheels in the wilderness. Soon, signs appeared at many trail entrances. Next to the usual “No dogs” and “No fires” there was now “No mountain bikes” as well.
I was cycling a legal trail in the hills behind Nelson when a young local teacher I met there invited me to try a forbidden fruit: to ride the Heaphy Track, once a classic mountain-biking adventure, now out of bounds within the new Kahurangi National Park. As far as the National Parks Act is concerned, a bicycle is a vehicle, and in national parks all vehicles are banned. This seemed only a minor hurdle to my young friend, who suggested that we simply ride fast and speak German should difficulties arise.
“If the Department of Conservation opened all the tracks around here, Nelson could be another Moab,” Kelvin Gordon, proprietor of a tiny cycle shop, told me when I brought in my iron horse for a check-up. Well, if not Moab—the mountain biker’s Mecca in Utah—then perhaps another Rotorua. But vocal tramping lobbies in Nelson and across the country insist that mountain biking causes extensive trail damage and detracts from the enjoyment of walkers. Even worse, they say, is the potential for life-threatening collisions that exists when fast-moving cyclists round a corner and meet a bevy of trampers.
The cyclists, in turn, are quick to riposte that it is only an occasional irresponsible speedster that lends a barbarian reputation to their otherwise eco-kosher community, and that their way of experiencing the outdoors, though different, is just as valid as the tramper’s. And as for surface damage, with its fat tyres and compacting effect, isn’t a mountain bike really a mini-roller, and in fact a cheap form of track maintenance?
Perhaps it’s a generation issue. Surveys show that most trampers are in the middle-age-to-elderly category, and they prefer more passive and contemplative pursuits, while mountain bikers are usually young, action-oriented and in search of challenges and thrills. Whatever the cause, the result is a stalemate in which the easiest and safest management policy has been trail apartheid—segregating walkers and riders into different routes, thus avoiding interaction altogether.
Yet when you have sampled both modes of transport—when you’ve worn out a few centimetres of Vibram in the back country and broken a chain or two crossing mountain streams—the entire argument begins to seem more and more parochial. Are the interests of walkers and bikers really so far apart? Aren’t we all just bipeds strolling through the woods? The pace may differ, but it’s the same wilderness that calls.
Ironically, while the battle lines are drawn between bikers and ecosensitive pedestrians in the forests, elsewhere cycling is vigorously promoted as an environmentally sensible method of transport. In Italy, the birthplace of Lamborghini and Ferrari, and a stronghold of a mucho macho automotive culture, Sundays have been declared car-free days in 14 major cities, including Rome, Florence and Milan. Switzerland has a web of cycleways as comprehensive and scenic as its railroads, and in New Zealand agencies such as Cycling Advocates Network (CAN), Cycle Aware, the Bicycle Industry Association of NZ, the Hillary Commission, the Health Sponsorship Council and recently even the Automobile Association extol the virtues of two wheels.
Nearly half of all car journeys in this country are three kilometres or less, and 43 per cent of New Zealanders, and 87 per cent of children, own bicycles. Leave your vehicle at home and get on your bike, say the cycle advocates. Forget the parking hassles, save money and feel your pulse. Live a little on your way from A to B. There is something wrong with a society that drives a car to work out in a gym.
Forgoing the clandestine Heaphy offer, I headed to the Marlborough Sounds to sample a trail where walkers, cyclists and the Department of Conservation seem to have worked out an exemplary compromise. Depending on how you look at it, the Queen Charlotte Track is either a gloriously scenic four-day amble or, shaded from both wind and sunshine for most of its 67 km, the country’s coolest and longest singletrack. The compromise is this: the northern section of the track is closed to cyclists during the busy summer season.
The track is managed by DoC and runs through a mixture of private land and reserves, following the shoreline of Endeavour Inlet, then undulating along the ridgetops between Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds. It is like no other back-country trail in New Zealand in that it combines the outdoor experience—beaches, forests and hill-climbs—with the luxury of lodges and resorts, spa pools and a scallops-and-wine level of cuisine. You can even send your backpack or panniers by boat to your next port of call. The only way to rough it here is to have an al fresco picnic.
Not surprisingly, the Queen Charlotte Track has been extremely popular, and conflict minimal. “There have been occasional out bursts of animosity,” says Lisa Smith, owner of the Punga Cove resort, “but most of the time there is really no problem with cyclists and pedestrians using the trail at the same time. Both groups could do with a little more awareness about each other’s needs. The rest is just a matter of courtesy and basic trail etiquette.”
Gordon Cessford, a recreation analyst with DoC’s Science and Research Division, has tried to assess that mutual awareness, beginning with a 1994 study of the Heaphy Track (prior to its closure to cyclists) which showed that most of the interviewed pedestrians didn’t mind mountain bikers at all.
Part of Cessford’s work was to determine what environmental impact mountain bikes have on trails themselves. His conclusion was that, ridden with consideration, a mountain bike does no more damage to a trail than a boot-shod tramper. The problem begins when bikers descend steep downhill sections, locking their brakes and skidding, tearing a furrow in the trail’s surface. Then the rainwater flows down the furrow, eroding it into a rut and eventually making the track unridable and difficult to walk. To prevent the damage, all cyclists need is an awareness of the problem and better braking practices.
“Mountain bikers spend months building their own trails,” says Cessford, “but here [Queen Charlotte] they have a fantastic track already made for them, and all they need to do is ride it in a responsible way, and that involves absolutely no skidding.”
Besides, skidding is a vulgarian way to ride, antithetical to “the flow,” which is the highest attainable skill in mountain biking. Riding at this level, you move like water over rocks, in balance and control, yet with little effort at all. Prolonged stretches of such riding can take you into a Zenlike state of being where you simply do and are, with unparalleled on-the-edge intensity.
I caught glimpses of this state several times while cycling the Queen Charlotte Track, and the experience is still vivid in my memory. On my last day, coasting through immaculate native forest towards Anakiwa, stopping to chat with trampers I had met along the track, I began to wonder if, with more enlightened attitudes, one day we might see mountain bikers allowed in national parks and other DoC reserves. Imagine an extra 7500 km of singletracks. Maybe not all ridable, but what a choice!
The bicycle has always been the vehicle of choice for the Kennett brothers. None of the three—Paul, Simon and Jonathan—owns a car; none of them wants to. They work in a tiny loft in the heart of Wellington’s business district, wearing cycling garb instead of suits, their mountain bikes tethered nearby, unobtrusive and ready. As the Kennetts see it, a need to go somewhere is an opportunity for a ride.
No one has done more for mountain biking in New Zealand than the Kennetts. All three are fine athletes. They have represented New Zealand at the mountain-bike world championships, have raced—and won—on the US national circuit and have cycled to Everest Base Camp. But their first love has always been low-key local adventuring: finding excitement and challenge in their own back yard.
When I visited them on a sparkling Wellington day in March, Jonathan was out for his lunch-time workout—a three-kilometre open-water swim to Somes Island, in the middle of Wellington Harbour, assisted by a friend in a sea kayak. Later, he matter-of-factly recounted another of his adventures: cycling from the Tasman Sea coast to the terminal face of Fox Glacier, climbing up it and crossing its neve, climbing Mt Tasman—a serious undertaking for any mountaineer—then descending via Franz Josef Glacier to pick up the bike he had stashed away in the bush, and cycling out. His message seemed to be this: you don’t need to go to the Himalayas or Moab, it’s all right here—if you know where to look. To help people find those local outdoor opportunities, the Kennetts have produced a guidebook, Classic New Zealand Adventures, which offers ideas for do-it-yourself—and often do-it-the-hard-way—action such as tubing river rapids in the Tararuas, sea kayaking in the Marlborough Sounds or cross-country skiing in Otago’s Old Man Range. A second Kennett book focuses exclusively on mountain-bike exploration. Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides sold 3000 copies in its first summer. Now in its fourth edition, it has become the Bible for off-road cyclists.
Since 1986, the brothers have also organised the annual 50 km Karapoti Classic, the most prestigious mountain-bike race in New Zealand, held in the hills around Wellington. They act as consultants to councils and recreation managers and share their expertise on track-building, fundraising, cycling advocacy and avoiding bureaucratic ruts. Pedalling three-abreast to spread the two-wheel gospel, the Kennetts have created a small business around their passion, becoming a hub of mountain-biking activity—especially since Paul, an Internet consultant, established the www.mountainbike.co.nz website, a national forum for the fat-tyred.
But even the Kennetts were initially stuck for words when I asked them why they thought mountain biking was so universally appealing, why none of us had ever met a person who had tried it and didn’t like it. What was the source of the enchantment, I wondered? Sitting in their office, having just ridden some of the choicest rides in their Bible, I was at a loss, too.
In the end, it was Patrick Morgan, the Kennetts’ adopted soul-brother, who came up with a plausible explanation. “Remember when we were kids, riding our bikes through ditches and puddles? Not going anywhere, just riding in circles, snakes and figure-of-eights? We were innocently happy then, playing because playing was fun. We didn’t need any other reason to ride. As you grow older, things get complicated. You are surrounded with seriousness and responsibilities.
But on a mountain bike, you can be a kid again. When you ride, you forget the adult stuff. You play for no reason at all.”
We nodded our heads, satisfied with this philosophical discourse. I closed my notebook. The brothers shut off their computers. Now we could all just go for a ride.
When you Cycle with the Kennetts – or at least follow in their tyre-tracks via the guidebook—you are essentially tramping on wheels. They have graded the trails according to difficulty, adopting a 1-6 scale similar to that of whitewater kayakers, with most of the rides falling somewhere in the mid-range, challenging yet relatively safe. But there is also an entirely different side to mountain biking, an elite pursuit of velocity that comes only when you point your front wheel down a steep mountain slope and release the brakes.
One of the best-known exponents of the daredevil downhill ride is Henry van Asch, pioneer with A. J. Hackett of the sport of bungy jumping. Even in his pre-bungy days van Asch was a gravity addict, always looking to go down faster or steeper, or simply to go down a way no one had gone before. It was on snow skis that he first discovered his need for speed. Straight-lining a bullet course with air foils strapped to his legs to minimise drag, he clocked a personal best of 194 km/h.
A transition to mountain biking was a natural progression, van Asch told me in his home outside Queenstown, because the two sports have a lot in common: speed, technique and commitment to the fall-line. He went on to win the New Zealand inaugural downhill bike competition, and successfully raced cross-country as well.
In 1993, he made a memorable visit to Vanuatu, where, on the island of Ambrym, he took a helicopter flight to the top of an active volcano and rode his mountain bike down its untracked slopes—”like powder skiing, only in volcanic ash.”
Years before, he and his buddy, Hackett, had travelled to the nearby island of Pentecost, where they saw locals testing their mettle by diving from a high bamboo tower with a vine tied to their feet. To gravity junkies like van Asch and Hackett, the idea was instantly appealing . . . and you know the rest of the story: they made their fortune with a piece of rubber cord.
To van Asch, the pleasure to be gained from a bicycle chain comes very close to that delivered by an elastic bungy. The day I visited, he and his mechanic, Mark Angus, were talking bike tech the way Arab sheikhs might discuss the virtues of their camels. It was apparent that they loved their bikes not just for their functionality but also for their looks—the curves and angles, the eye-catching sheen; the tactile pleasure of technological perfection.
The two new bicycles Angus had brought round were already top racing thoroughbreds, each costing over $10,000, but both men were busily brainstorming how they could improve them: shaving off an extraneous gram or two, replacing steel nuts and bolts with titanium, brass spoke nipples with aluminium, using more carbon fibre and Kevlar in place of metal.
Van Asch limped about impatiently. Like some of his older bikes, he was a little the worse for wear.
His flamboyant speedster style apparently had its downsides: one was the nickname “van Crash,” another the knee surgery from which he was recovering. The bungy business, the new vineyard, the A. J. Hackett clothing labels were all doing fine, he said. The more critical challenge was to get back on the bike. Maybe next week, doctors permitting. There were many trails in the hills around Queenstown that he itched to explore.
Mountain bikers spend a lot of time looking at road maps-not at the places where the roads are, but where they are not. There is a tantalising “roadless-travelled” pleasure in rediscovering places you think you know well, but in a way which surprises you at every turn. Exploring on your bicycle is like peeling off the onion layers of the land. There is always something new and fresh underneath.
I turned my attention east from where I live towards the highlands of Central Otago. The mountains around Alexandra are riddled with rarely used trails, and their tops are a gallery of numinous rock formations that bring to mind the stone faces of Easter Island. Parts of the highlands are also sheep country, and sheep, I have learned, are particularly adept at establishing singletracks. One autumn Saturday I drove to Alex and headed for the local bike shop, hoping perhaps for a few pointers and ideas. There was a social ride happening in the afternoon which I was welcome to join, proprietor Ritchie Bailey told me. Meanwhile, if I wanted to warm up, I could go with another group which was about to depart for a place called Mountain Bikers’ Heaven.
Minutes later we were out of town and pedalling hard up the Old Coach Road—once the main artery here, chiselled out of solid rock and rutted finger-deep by the wheels of horse-drawn vehicles. This “other group,” it slowly dawned on me, were the local top guns, weekend warriors astride their gleaming machines. They all had Clydesdale quads and calves—not calves, cows!—rearing with restless energy. There was a palpable sense of staunchness in the cool Otago air, the kind of back-country tenacity that the “Southern Man” image exploits but never really fathoms. Here, when it gets hilly you don’t drop down a gear, you simply stand up on the pedals.
The road to Heaven was long and steep, but from the heights we were rewarded with views of the dun land and the big Otago sky, and then we flowed back down to Alex along a divine singletrack fashioned out of a disused water race. I joined the second ride, too, pedalling with a dozen or so good keen Alexandrians in the hills above Chatto Creek. Later that day, as the falling sun brought out the profiles of the land, we all sat by the fire in a stonewalled pub, and I felt a pleasant rigor setting into my legs.
Next to me, still in his cycling gear, Omakau farmer Tony Glassford was telling me how he once spotted a trophy stag in the back hills of his property. He figured that the fastest and stealthiest way to hunt the animal was by mountain bike, so he slung his rifle over his shoulder and set off.
“And? Did you get him?” I asked. “Oh, I got ‘im all right.”
In Omakau, Glassford told me, Z the winters were fierce. The temperature could drop to minus 24°C, Z and snow stayed on the ground a for weeks.
The fire crackled and I took another swig of Speight’s. This, I thought, was my kind of country; these were my kind of people. Two hours ago complete strangers, now good mates already inviting me to come back. We should do it again next weekend, they said. Sure thing. Just say the magic word. Singletrack!