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Feature: Reefton Electrified

It’s Wednesday night and the weekend weather forecast at home in Christchurch isn’t looking too flash. Frankly, it’s looking like a winter weekend indoors, which is not going to fly. Two friends are keen to ride, and both itching for a mission after a big work week. With a few days to plan, a quick Google and Trailforks search, what about across the divide? We had heard rumours about epic singletrack in lush beech forest, untouched by time. The rumours and online presence are vague enough that there’s still some mystery about the trails -enough to push the intrigue and excitement up towards committing to check it out. A weekend warrior mission to better weather on the other side of the Alps, to the wild West Coast, in search of new trails unridden and maximised riding time. With a twist to our usual bike adventures, this time we’d be electrified. It might have been a gamble, but as the region’s history goes, we could end up striking some gold.

Reefton, located on the South Island’s West Coast, may be small in terms of population (927 people at the last count) but it’s always been ahead of its time; big on technology and innovation. A gold mining town established in 1870, Reefton was the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity – beating even London and New York to the switch in 1888 – and the first to have an electric street lighting system. Pretty mind-blowing to think this sleepy West Coast town was a pioneer before the world’s major cities. Given all its history, it’s more than fitting that Reefton should now be experiencing an electrified renaissance and quietly becoming a must-visit eBiking destination.

Surrounded by the Victoria Conservation Park, with 180,000 hectares to be explored, the mountain bike trails range from Grade 2 for beginners to Grade 5 for the more experienced. It’s a stunning setting and you can’t help but enjoy the rugged beauty of the place as you make your way along old mining trails and up through ancient beech forests. Time could well have been standing still for the last hundred years or so, everything feels so untouched, and the old mining relics left lying around are a constant reminder of the history of this region and its tough, pioneering spirit.

Kirwans Track is one of the best-known trails and the main draw card bringing mountain bikers to the town but traditionally it is the domain of the hike-a-bike enthusiast with an overnight hut stay that requires the unique kind of endurance and commitment which can be hard for your average weekend warrior to muster. A long, steep Grade 5 track, gruelling on the uphill, technical on the downhill, Kirwans has a hardcore reputation which, in the past, had many riders choosing to skip the climb and take a helicopter to the top. And then came another ‘lightbulb’ moment: this place is perfect for eBikes.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually mind a steep climb - or even carrying my bike from time to time - that’s just the price you pay to get to the best tracks. But, for this particular mission we’d be riding the whole way, thanks to a couple of Bosch-powered Moustache Game 9 and Game 8 bikes we were lucky enough to have at our disposal for the weekend - they’re just the right tool for the job.

Like a lot of mountain bikers, I like an adventure and when the crew and I go on trips, we tend to look for destinations or trails that offer a few challenges, whether it be the technicality of the riding or the difficulty in accessing it. Reefton has tended to be the kind of place we just keep missing; with opportunities closer to home like Craigieburn, or up to the north and down to the south, we rarely stop to explore the pockets in between. But along the way we’d heard lots of murmurings both about how good Kirwins is, and about Reefton being a cool little hub for accessing other trails and some unique natural spots. Finally, the stars had aligned to make the mission to Reefton happen.

We loaded up on Friday afternoon, heading straight out of Christchurch for the hills and through the Lewis Pass. Coming through the pass and arriving at Reefton, you can see the rolling hills coming down from the Alps and why this terrain is built for riding.

As it happens, there was a major flaw in our plan: Kirwins was closed, another victim of the extreme weather events of recent months, and impassable thanks to multiple slips and tree falls. While we were disappointed not to be able to take on this beast - we’d come well equipped for the job after all – there turned out to be a silver lining as we were forced to seek out another place to ride. These hills have turned up gold before and, in our case, it comes in the form of a different, but equally testing, spot called Blacks Point.

Only a kilometre or so out of town, Blacks Point offers up some classic old-school mountain biking in all its raw and rugged glory. We found ourselves getting lost and having to find our way again; it’s hard, it’s steep, and it’s super gnarly with 550m of elevation gain straight out of the car park. It’s also super fun on eBikes.

The main track goes upwards for about seven kilometres before splitting off at the top and running back down. It would be fair to say that on an analogue bike there’d be a fair bit of pushing, grovelling and sweating, and either wishing you’d packed a second sandwich or stayed behind to check out the Reefton Distillery instead. On this day, however, we had assistance from the Bosch eMTB mode, which helped with hitting the right cadence to get to the top and makes the climb enjoyable. The Performance Line CX motor worked quietly below, giving us the assist needed so the uphill was not so much of a grind. I still got the heart rate up, without destroying my legs.

It occured to me as I cruised, rather than slogged, my way up, that trails like these have always called for some kind of assistance on the ascent. Back in the day, the miners would have used horses or bullocks for the job. It seems a little ironic that, as the world became more modernised, places like this somehow became less accessible. I’m thankful for some pedal assistance today. After all, what better place to embrace the innovation of electric power than in Reefton.

Poetic musings aside, and back to the present moment, the eMTB mode is equally handy on the descent. The top section was undulating, with many of the steep descents juxtaposed with equally steep ascents, meaning you’re constantly pumping through then sprinting out and using eMTB to keep the momentum going as you dip and weave, keeping the rhythm high all the way to the finish.

The Moustache bikes run a 625w Bosch battery and even with those big, punchy climbs there’s no need for any range anxiety. Our Kiox display told us we’d covered 25km and climbed 847m at the end of the first day, and we were still on 70%. There was plenty more opportunity to explore and we hadn’t even had lunch.

One of the things that makes Reefton the ideal destination for eBiking is that the trails are all so close to town. The beauty of basing ourselves out of the township, and Reefton’s proximity to all this infrastructure, is that no matter your bike or body's battery levels, a recharge is never too far away. Even if you plan for a big ride in the morning, it’s an easy roll back into town where you can actually enjoy a midday breather and a long, leisurely lunch while you recharge the bike before heading out again for some afternoon laps. We didn’t need to recharge the bikes, given the battery size, but we made up for it in a few extra coffees. It’s not about chasing the sun, not having enough daylight hours, running out of time to eat, battling the lactic in your legs, or having to deal with the additional logistics of doing an overnight hut stay. On the eBikes it’s a simple case of see more, explore more, enjoy more.

We were there because we wanted a chance to really test out the bikes, as well as explore some new territory over the course of a fun weekend, and we came away happy on both counts. The Moustache bikes offer the reassurance of a strong, sturdy ride in a backcountry setting and, with the Bosch system on board, we knew that whatever mischief we got ourselves into, the bikes would withstand what we threw at them.

As for Reefton itself, I have a feeling this age-old town is about to experience a new golden era with an exciting nod to its pioneering past. Just like the lightbulb moment in 1888, eBiking has a future here, opening up a new realm for adventure to more than just those hardcore cross-country riders who love a brutal climb. There are mining trails all through the hills, maybe these will be the next great rides of New Zealand? We only got to scratch the surface but we’re already looking forward to returning to tackle Kirwans. If you were daunted by the thought of a hike-a-bike mission, here’s your chance to get amongst it – without the grunt - in some of the most untouched backcountry New Zealand has to offer. Power on.

Disclaimer: While eBikes enable easier access to remote and backcountry trails, they don’t remove the risks associated with riding in these locations. Know your limits, more so than previously, and be prepared. Have a plan for getting out.


Words: Alex Stevens

Images: Cameron Mackenzie

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