Words by Jake Hood
Photography by Jake Hood, Cameron Mackenzie & Jay French

Can a photo be life changing? I’m not just talking about a photo that makes you go, ‘Wow that’s amazing!’, but an image that actually changes the path in which you are destined to take in life. It’s a turning point; a defining moment. Well, this is what happened to me.

Let’s turn back the clock a few years – back to when I had fewer wrinkles and a lot more hair. I was a know-it-all grom, working in a bike shop in Scotland. On my lunch break, I was flicking through a UK-based mountain bike magazine when I stopped turning the pages, captivated by this one image that caught my eye. It was a photo of a beautiful golden landscape, featuring three riders carving their way down this unbelievable bit of track that snaked its way through the orange, sun-kissed hillside. There were huge mountains in the background. The corners of the track looked like those perfect berms you only dream about, and dust clouds tailed the riders, highlighted by the evening sun. The golden orange light contrasted the dark moody hills perfectly in the background. It was such a defining photo. A photo that I needed to know more about.


‘Where is that?’ I thought. ‘I need to see this place, I need to experience it for myself! It looks like paradise.’ Well, it turned out to be Queenstown, New Zealand – or as I like to call it: Dreamstown.

A couple of years after first seeing that photo, I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud, and set up camp on the alpine shores of Lake Whakatipu. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I knew this place was something special. The mountain air felt dense. Jagged, craggy mountain peaks towered over the lake, while the small, sunny town below basked in the late evening sun. The energy of the town seemed to echo through the valleys. I remember getting a taxi from the airport to town and seeing the Skyline Gondola for the first time. It literally went straight up – like, vertical. How was that even possible?! How could there be trails off that hill? My mind was blown. The first summer I spent here, I experienced as many of the myriad trails as possible. I would finish work and commute home via the gondola back to Fernhill. There were just so many trails to explore and places to see. I kept having to pinch myself to remember I was really living here, in Dreamstown. This place really made an impression on me. But something weird happened after living and riding in this amazing place for a summer. I started to realise that it’s not just the landscape, town or trails that make Queenstown oh-so-special. Yeah, these aspects are amazing, but there is something else that makes this place special… I’ll come back to that later.

It would be hard not to talk about the trails whilst on the topic of Queenstown. There is such a variety, spanning the 7 Mile riding area to Arrowtown. Over a weekend, you would be lucky to just scratch the surface of the amount of riding there is. Every year, this network grows, and us Queenstown riders get better and better trails. In the past few years, the quality of new trails has skyrocketed. The driving force behind this movement are Elevate Trail Building and Dirt Tec Trails. Tom Hey from Elevate Trail Building started shaping the trails of Queenstown in 2013, with Rude Rock being one of his first builds, supported by Queenstown Mountain Bike Club (QMTBC) and and Queenstown Trails Trust (QTT). This trail was an instant classic and is now known across the world. Since then, Tom’s been shaping the dirt, rocks and roots of Queenstown into some of the finest bits of singletrack on the planet. Like an artist with his paintbrush, he has this amazing ability to build perfect bits of trail that become instant hits. Kepler Rek, local trail building legend, was working at Skyline Gondola from 2013-2015, as a lifty and running trail maintenance. In 2015 he started transforming the Queenstown Bike Park and moved up the ranks to the manager of the bike park. This is when the bike park started to transform into what it is now – up there as one of the best in the world. Before 2015, all the trails had a bit of an old-school feel about them; very fast and straight. Nothing lined up well; they were very janky, you could say. Once Kep was on the scene, he started the process of transformation. The first big shift in the park was Huck Yeah – a Queenstown Mountain Bike Club-funded jump trail in the park. This was the catalyst for the rest of the park getting rebuilt. Things got de-janked, rebuilt and realigned – and safety was also improved. It was such a shift forward, and every year things kept getting better in the park. More trails were built with more variety of terrain, including new blue and green trails, so riders of all abilities could test their limits. It was the shift the park needed and involved a more ‘new school’ way of building. It also brought the trails up to a modern, sustainable standard that improved flow whilst also leaving character. In 2017, Kep joined the Elevate Trail Building team. From that point, Tom and Kep went on to build and shape the next generation of Queenstown mountain bike trails, such as Nearly McGnarly and Hot Rod – trails that are now world-famous. Last year alone, Nearly McGnarly was ridden 75,000 times and Hot Rod was ridden 67,000 times. These are trails that work for all abilities, from beginners to the best riders in the world. It’s these types of trails that are helping get new people into the sport and giving beginners a place to improve their skills in a safe environment. For many people visiting Queenstown, Nearly McGnarly and Hot Rod are on the must-ride list – but there is so much more to be enjoyed. From flowing beech forest singletrack, like Missing Link, to Creaky Winder and steep, techy trails like Salmon Run – and everything in between. Throw some jumps into the mix, such as the world-famous Dreamtrack, Gorge Road Jump Park, and Kerry Road pump track, and you’ll find something for everyone to enjoy. Just last year, Kep went on to start his own company, Dirt Tec Trails, with Skyline taking a back seat in running the bike park. Dirt Tec Trails is now in charge of all the maintenance in the park and I have to say, the park has never been better. Dirt Tec Trails is also lending a hand to other projects around town – most recently, the new BluGazi trail. To say we are spoiled for passionate trail builders in Queenstown is an understatement. With two of New Zealand’s best trail builders living here, it’s easy to see why Queenstown, as a biking destination, is known around the world.

The other big reason Queenstown’s mountain biking scene is what it is today comes down to all the hard work put in by the QMTBC. Since forming in 2003, the club has really brought to life the vision of so many people, making Queenstown a world-famous destination for mountain biking. The amount of work these local legends get done is nothing short of a miracle – and it’s all volunteer work. There is an ever-changing group that takes the reins of this juggernaut of a club. Every year at the AGM, club members can nominate themself to become committee members for the following year. This constant change of committee members keeps the club moving forward and ensures fresh ideas come in year after year. These committee members are the true unsung heroes of the mountain biking scene in Queenstown. From trail network planning and gaining land consents, to running weekly dig nights, local jump sessions, fundraising events and getting new members on board, the work this club achieves is endless. What the club gets done is monumental but, through all this, we have this amazing thriving group of locals that just keeps growing and growing. Every year, membership numbers go up and the club receives more consent for trails; the community grows, and new trails get built. Overall, this club has been such a benefit to the Queenstown region and its community.

The network of trails that spans the basin is the artery that joins everything together all thanks to the Queenstown Trails Trusts. The QTT is responsible for the gravel trails that connect the Queenstown area together, giving access to different parts of the region without the need to ride on busy roads. The QMTBC and QTT work together to create a bigger, better network. Recent projects, like Bush Creek, a single track that has connected Coronet Peak to Arrowtown, has massively improved the famous ride, ‘Corotown’, by removing all the horrible river crossings. By using the QTT network and the QMTBC network, you can link up huge rides whilst mostly avoiding the roads. It’s flipping fantastic! And, if you’re not in the mood to ride mountain bikes but still want to get out and about, it’s easy to grab a gravel bike and smash out the k’s. With over 130km of gravel trails in the area, there is more than enough to keep you busy. For those who feel up to a big backcountry XC ride that feels kind of remote, I can’t go past recommending the Coronet XC loop that takes you around the back of Coronet Peak. These trails and networks are all possible due to the hard work QTT puts in. I’ve heard about the plans for the future and if they get the go-ahead, it’s going to make Queenstown an even more connected cycle network, which is a huge win in my books. With such a host of trails available on Queenstown’s doorstep, it’s easy to see why there are a bunch of locals doing so well on the world circuit in downhill, enduro and freeride events. The list of riders who now reside in the small alpine town during the summer months is pretty ridiculous: Eddie Masters, Matt Walker, Cole Locus, George Brannigan, Louise Ferguson, Vinny Armstrong, Jess Blewit and Robin Goomes, just to mention a few. In the lead-up to the World Cup, Enduro World Series, and Crankworx seasons, there is a whole host of teams and pros that come to town for testing and training. Line up at the Skyline Gondola in the latter half of the season and you will see everyone from Loïc Bruini to Emil Johansson lapping the park. And it’s not just the big names that are savage riders – there are so many low-key shredders in town. People that you have never even heard of, who can outride the best. There is something in the water here. People will come for a season and progress so much in that time. Being able to ride after work probably helps a lot – and I mean, literally from your office to the bike park, just two minutes out of town – but another big factor is being able to ride with people that are better than you. From trying to hold your mate’s wheel down a track while you chase him at a pace you don’t really want to ride at, to rolling up to Wynyard Bike Park for a jump session with your mates and getting spurred on by them making cool shapes while in the air — there is a culture of moving forward, of improving, taking inspiration from others, and applying it to your own riding. The progression levels of everyone seem to go up every year. It’s really a product of its own environment: with lots of variety of trails and long summer days giving you heaps of time to get out on the bike, the bike time just racks up. I will warn you though – don’t drop-in in front of the grommets, because they’ll be flying past you in no time, with more style than you could imagine. The next generation coming up are talented beyond what I can comprehend. They are so incredibly fast and stylish. It’s like they watch a YouTube video, and then just go do it — there’s no question about how they do it; they just do it. It’s so impressive and I think in the next few years we’ll see even more big names come out of this small town.

I think one of the reasons we have so many fast grommets in town is due to the Vertigo Summer Series race events. The main man behind this series is Paul Angus (a.k.a Pang), a legendary figure around Queenstown. Co-owner of Vertigo Bikes, and sometimes known as the ‘Huck Wizard’, Pang has seen and done it all in Queenstown. He lives and breathes the sport that we all love. As a former World Cup racer, he’s deadly fast on a bike, riding with pinpoint precision, and as stylish as they come, making him a great person to watch flow down the steep trails of Queenstown. His passion for downhill is prevalent from the moment you step foot into Vertigo Bikes. There’s a museum of old downhill bikes as you walk in the front door and dotted around the shop are old classic parts and frames. Pictures of the staff out shredding the local trails, cover the walls.

There’s a vibe you can feel as soon as you enter and you can sense the passion which is shared by everyone who works there. The smell of the workshop lingers in the air; that classic old bike shop smell, it’s fantastic. Vertigo has such a rich history in mountain biking in Queenstown, that it’s such a staple in the community. Throughout the summer, Pang, Jimi Ramsay (manager at Skyline MTB) and a few legends from Skyline run the Vertigo Summer Series in the Queenstown Bike Park. A grassroots race series that consists of four rounds, with the Whakatipu World Champs wrapping it up. Pang and Jimi pour their heart and soul into these well-organised races, which are a passion project of theirs, along with volunteers who donate their time on race day. It’s a hotly contested race series – everyone comes out to race their mates and settle the trash-talk that’s been going on all summer. The turnout is huge and normally you have to pre-register to enter. All the funds raised at the races go back to the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club.

The groms make up a huge number of participants and their times are within seconds of the elites. Each race is on a different track and often have fresh bits of track dug in for the racing. The atmosphere at the side of the track is electric. They are awesome events to be involved with and it’s so cool to see all the young, up-and-coming riders get to race on the local trails.

If you want to see a representation of this local scene, there’s no better place to be than Atlas Beer Cafe on a summer’s evening. This tiny yet wholesome pub will be packed to the brim with locals after finishing their ride. There are bikes everywhere, parked up all over the place, and smiles and cheers getting thrown about left, right and centre. Big hearty pints are being poured from the range of 24 beer taps that consume the wall of the bar, and the warm, welcoming atmosphere sucks you in. Above the bar hangs Kelly McGarry’s bike that was famously flipped over the canyon gap at Red Bull Rampage. Other bike memorabilia is scattered around the place, and the friendly staff always want to know about your ride as they pour you a beverage to quench your thirst. If you’re a local and you come to Atlas on a Friday evening, you will be sure to bump into someone you know. You don’t need to plan your evening, as it’s one of the best places be post-ride. It’s a common place us riders like to descend on to catch up with each other after the week’s events and plan the weekend’s adventures. There are two reasons why everyone comes here though; 1) the fact it’s just a fantastic little bar that has a vibe that is second-to-none; and 2) Atlas give so much back to the mountain bike community. Atlas’s owner, Davey Mackenzie, and all the staff put so much effort into helping the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club, from organising and running fundraisers – like the SOS (Season of Shred) Party at the start of summer as well as the end-of-season wrap-up party – to sponsoring trails and the club’s trailer. The staff outdo themselves every year by putting so much effort into these great events that see a huge turnout – they are always a night to remember.

Personally, it’s not Queenstown that makes Queenstown such a special place to be. Yes, I’ll say it again, the riding is pretty extraordinary, the landscape is breathtaking and having three lift-accessed parks in close proximity really does add to the appeal. But that’s all just a bonus. What really makes this place oh-so-special? It’s the people who live here. They really make this place what it is. I’ve never lived in a place where the community feel is so prevalent – it’s more like a big family.

I’m so glad I saw that photo and it changed the trajectory of my life so many years ago. I’m happy I made the leap of faith by moving about as far away from home as possible. After a few years of living here, Queenstown is my home. When I head away on holiday, instead of dreading coming home, I find myself looking forward to being back. The breathtaking landscape, vibrant energy and unbelievably good trails on its doorstep, really make this a special place. You soon realize, it’s the people that make Queenstown, Dreamstown.

A little slice of paradise.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #109

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