Updated: Jun 27, 2022
It would always astound me how, on any given day in summer, you could be standing in that hour- long lift line in the shadow of Skyline, watching an almost one-to-one ratio of international riders and pros alongside locals. People would flock from all corners of the globe to ride in Queenstown, and many would call it home for those key months as they trained for the coming season.
The world’s fastest weren’t the only ones preferring to use Queenstown as their base of operation though. Over the last few years, as the mountain bike media landscape has changed, so too has the way projects have been shot, with a major emphasis on the location. If you were to look at any random selection of film or photo projects, not just with Kiwi athletes, I guarantee the Queenstown Lakes region would feature.
Given the depth of talent residing in the south, it’s always baffled me as to why there hadn’t been a world- class event hosted on the slopes above the Wakatipu Basin. That’s not to say the likes of Mcgazzafest, or any one of the locally organised races aren’t world- class nor lack the talent pool, but rather an event recognised in all four corners of the globe.
When it was announced that Crankworx would be taking the show on the road in the form of a multi-stop summer series road trip, speculation began as to what the locations would be, and for what disciplines. It was of both little surprise and great excitement when it was finally announced that the downhill event would be held in Queenstown. It was the logical location for such an iconic event, and the rightful home in the minds of many. The biggest surprise was the addition of a pump track event held alongside, on what we’d later come to find was a brand-new course built to launch with the race.
The benefit of an event like the summer series coming to town, is that the circus brings with it some of the world’s best athletes, transplants them into a tight-knit community and creates the opportunity for local pros, riders on the fringe, and aspiring next-generation rippers to rub shoulders with some of the world’s best. Add to that a purpose-built course that’s then handed back to the community for all to use, in a town where that was the last thing remaining to complete the trifecta, and you’ve got everything anyone would need to progress and grow.
We couldn’t not attend the inaugural Queenstown CWX Downhill, with the stage set for it to be great. It wasn’t just the athletes; we were curious to see how it would compare to the Rotorua-based main event.
With our Covid restrictions changing shape, and easing somewhat, right on the eve of practice, I don’t think anyone quite knew what to expect. It wasn’t until race day when the storm rolled in that the true colours began to show. Overnight, between practice and race day, the heavens opened, soaking the steep and rather fresh course. What greeted us all in the morning was a mud bath, a complete slip and slide, and the makings of a mud race for the ages.
The orange-light open-season meant spectators were once again allowed trackside, and whilst Crankworx didn’t actively promote spectatorship, they came marching two-by-two, armed with refreshments to see them through the day. I don’t think anyone could have planned a wilder restart and race if they’d tried. The potent mix of a proper mud race and the event we’d all been waiting for combined with an easing of Covid restrictions and enthusiastic humans who’d been locked down for the end of winter, resulted in a heckle-fest even Crankworx staff were comparing to the heckler’s rock of old. Safe to say, it definitely made for some of the most colourful scenes I’ve ever witnessed at a race.
New Zealand featured heavily on the leader board, with Kiwis taking out the top five placings in the men’s division and Sam Blenkinsop nailing the top spot. Over in the women’s division, Jenna Hastings took out a solid 4th place, whilst fellow Kiwis, Melissa Newell and Kelsey Timpany, came in 8th and 11th respectively.
I don’t think anyone could have planned a wilder restart and race if they’d tried. The potent mix of a proper mud race, the event we’d all been waiting for, an easing of restrictions, Crate Day, excessive drinking and loose-moralled humans resulted in a heckle-fest even Crankworx staff were comparing to the heckler’s rock of old, and made for some of the most colourful scenes I’ve ever witnessed at a race. In other words: nothing short of complete mayhem. Off the back of the festivities and continuing the theme of ‘new and improved’, it was only fitting to hang around a couple of days, revisit some old faves, and go exploring to see what was new in the trail department.
The benefits of mixing pros and locals has been prevalent for some time but, more recently, it’s been on full display throughout the Gorge Road Jump Park saga. After several stays of execution, and despite the best efforts of the Gorge Road riding community, it seemed that arguably the most iconic community jump spot in the world, would meet its end this year. However, with considerable effort from Gorge Road locals, including mainstays Nathan Greenwood and Remy Morton, Queenstown-based entrepreneur, Rod Drury, and legions of domestic and international riders, the future of Gorge Road has been secured for the long term.
To find out a bit more about what had been going on since the trails were saved, we headed down to Gorge Road to find out about the plans for the future. When we arrived, it was clear that a fair amount of work was underway in several sections of the park. Speaking with Remy Morton and Nathan Greenwood, finally having some long-term security over the future of the trails has meant that a commitment can be made to some key infrastructure work for the jumps. Both Remy and Nathan explained that a major focus for the rebuild that’s currently underway, is to improve the durability of the trails.
These durability upgrades include some extensive drainage work, along with re-grading the slope the trails sit on, and lowering the height of the sections between jumps. The plan is to have water drain away from the jumps more easily following wet periods, hopefully reducing damage to the trails after heavy rain.
Elsewhere in the park, Remy’s fellow Flux Trail crew members, Dave McMillan and Matt Begg, were busy stacking and slapping on one of Gorge Road’s many sculpted landings. The beefed-up landings are another one of the big durability upgrades that it’s hoped will accomplish the ultimate goal of having the jumps open to more people, more of the time. In doing so it will also help to ensure the high aesthetic standard of the jumps that Nathan and others have worked so hard to achieve, is carried on as a key feature of the trails.
As well as the infrastructure upgrades, the smaller lines in the park are receiving a major overhaul, while the old wall ride has been removed with a new extension underway to push the trails further down the site. Speaking with Nathan, he pointed out that these improvements and upgrades are one stage of building out his ultimate vision for the trails, that they’ll continue to work towards in the years ahead. A big part of that vision is having a place where young riders can come and progress themselves, not only as dirt jumpers, but as all-round riders.
The Gorge Road upgrades are just one of many trail upgrades and developments that are either underway, or have been completed, in Queenstown in the past few months. Later that afternoon, we found ourselves on the Skyline Gondola sampling some of Queenstown Bike Park’s refreshed trails. On the topic of refreshment, we stopped by local haunt, Searchlight Brewing, on our way back down Gorge Road, to sample some of their current offerings.
In a town that’s pretty synonymous with hospitality, Searchlight doesn’t fit the standard mould of posting up on the lakefront and watching the sunset. Tucked away in Industrial Place, just up the road from the iconic Gorge Road trails, Searchlight takes a bit more local knowledge to find. With its inviting beer garden and tap-room, along with the brewery itself on full display behind the bar, it’s the kind of place you and your mates head to for a genuine experience. Speaking with Clayton, who’s recently taken over the brewery with his partner Sharon, from founder Lewis, his enthusiasm and passion for Searchlight is infectious. From comedy nights to live music and quiz nights, Clayton tells us that Searchlight wants to give the community a heap of different options to come down, hang out and enjoy some great beer.
Aside from acting as a hub for people to meet up and hang out, Clayton also wants to use the brewery to support different local scenes. A great example of this was Searchlight’s recent award-winning ‘can art’ on one of their newest Hazy Pale Ales, Ladies of Dog Town. Rather than going down the illustration style route, Searchlight collaborated with local photographer Melissa Clark and local female skaters to feature a photo of them skating down Coronet Peak’s access road. Word on the street is that another collaboration, paying homage to the Gorge Road trails, may be on the cards so look out for that at some point in the future.
After some refreshments at Searchlight (but not too much) we headed over to Skyline for an afternoon rip with Queenstown shred lord, Reece Potter. Continuing the refreshment theme, Queenstown Bike Park’s trails received a massive and much needed refresh prior to opening for the season. First on the list for us was the rebuilt Vertigo, littered with pull-over gap options, shark fins and deep turns. One thing I always find with Queenstown trails, especially the jump trails, is how they always seem to have the perfect shape to them. This makes them a lot more predictable and fun to hit for the first time, as you can be pretty certain about how the bike’s going to behave as you go off the lip.
After dragging ourselves away from Vertigo’s endless supply of fun shapes, we had a brief interlude down the more natural GSD. In contrast to the open, fast and flowy Vertigo, GSD offers the perfect look into the darker, rocky, rooty side of the Queenstown Bike Park. Coming from a place like Christchurch, where the trails largely turn into an ice rink after some rain, I was a bit more apprehensive about the level of grip on offer down a damp GSD, especially on a blind run. As it turned out, there was a good amount of grip on offer, and we were able to make the most of GSD’s rock laden features. Near the end of the trail, things took a bit of a turn as Cam’s camera pack took him for a lengthy roll through the last set of said rock features.
After a mandatory roll through Thunder Goat’s scenic right hander, and a quick clean-up for Cam at the top of the gondola, we made our way down to the refreshed Original trail. In the past, this trail has always been a fun but fast run down the lower part of the hill. The refreshed version feels like it takes the shapes of Vertigo, merges them with a bit of Huck Yeah and brings them into the lower part of the hill. Flowy and fun are probably the best ways to describe the new Original, and the fact Reece and I were voluntarily pushing back up for another run through the features tells you pretty much all you need to know.
After a few runs through the epic series of new turns near the bottom of KY, and the final features down Original, it was time to cruise out to Arrowtown for a post-ride beer and dinner at the Fork and Tap.
FORK AND TAP
Our original plan had been to head to the Fork and Tap via the Slip Saddle and Bush Creek tracks that end up right at Arrowtown. A wet afternoon the day before saw Skyline open at midday and this, coupled with some big jobs lined up the following day, saw us taking the scenic drive out there instead. Ideally, you’d have a run right from the top of nearby Coronet Peak all the way down to the Fork and Tap at the bottom on a warm summer evening.
Housed in one of Arrowtown’s many historic buildings, the Fork and Tap offers a great post-ride atmosphere, inside and out. After being greeted by the friendly staff, we opted for a table inside and took our picks from the great selection of beers and food as the day wound down.
CORONET, HELI-BIKING AND FERNHILL
After easing into things the day before – in part thanks to the slightly wet start – we awoke to a sunny day and knew we were on for one. We headed out to Arrowtown to meet up with Reece before piling in the car and boosting up to one of New Zealand’s most scenic carparks, at Coronet Peak. Following through with yesterday’s original plan, we headed up to the top on the lift and made our way down the Coronet XC trail to Slip Saddle.
Slip Saddle always offers a challenging ride down and, with a little bit of moisture from the previous days’ rain, this time was no exception. After sliding our way down Slip Saddle’s steeps and gullies, we found ourselves at the top of the recently refreshed Bush Creek trail. While always offering a cruisy warm down after a Slip Saddle run, wet feet were usually a guaranteed outcome after Bush Creek. The recent work by locally based Elevate Trail Building, has added bridges, culverts or rerouting at all former crossing points, and made for a much dryer run.
After trying out some over-under lines on a new mega- turn lower down on the trail, we cruised down the denser lower section and out to Arrowtown. The much-needed lunch spot of choice was the Arrowtown Bakery where we got into the selection of pies, ‘footballs’ and cakes on offer. Then it was back into Reece’s van and up the Coronet Road once again to get the afternoon underway.
Originally, we’d planned on riding another one of Queenstown’s newest great trails in the form of ‘Upper Rude Rock’. Wet conditions once again messed with our plans, leaving the trail too soft to open, meaning we headed straight to the existing classic, ‘Lower Rude Rock’ instead. Scenic turns, scenic straights and high speeds are all par for the course down Rude Rock, on the way down to ‘Pack, Track and Sack’. A few fun fadeaways and turns later we found ourselves in Skippers, waiting for the heli.
This was a pretty big highlight of the trip – especially as it was the first proper heli-biking trip for Reece and I, and involved an epic flight up out of Skippers to nearby Bowen Peak. Even if you’ve been in one before, the excitement of a helicopter flight never really goes away, especially in an area that scenically stunning. Run by Helibike NZ, the ride had us dropped off at the top of Bowen Peak before descending on some fresh track to Ben Lomond saddle, Missing Link and Beeched As.
Feeling the pedal around the rest of Beeched As, after being out for quite a few hours by that point, we were hanging for the final descent back to town. Fortunately, we were treated to some epic late afternoon light out on the open part of the Fernhill descent, before plunging into the darkness of the trees. Near the bottom, we got to sample an unplanned freshening of lower Salmon Run, courtesy of heavy rain over the last two days. Although it’s something you usually wouldn’t want to happen, much of the lowest section now runs down the creek bed. This offers a few different line options and plenty of cool rock features to enjoy.
Finishing off the run with recent addition, McNearly Gnarly, and a Queenstown classic in Wynyard DH, we headed down to Atlas to cap off an epic day.
Finishing off a long day of riding down by the lake, with some good food, good people and one of the many great beers on offer at Atlas, is pretty hard to beat. Atlas has long been a big supporter of mountain biking and the mountain bike scene in Queenstown, through a whole raft of activities ranging from sponsorship and donations to the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club (QMTBC); sponsoring or hosting local riding events, like Season of Shred; to hosting end of season parties. A great example of this is the raising of more than $16,000 for the mountain bike club during the 2020 Season of Shred fundraiser.
Good relationships with local businesses like Atlas, and the support that they bring, has always struck me as something that QMTBC does really well. This kind of relationship and support really helps to strengthen that sense of community and the role that riding plays in it. Not to mention the activities, including trail development, that the club is able to undertake because of this support that helps to keep the scene progressing.
After going from hungry to full in a short space of time, we attempted to ride back up to the hotel to drop off the bikes before taking a sunset cruise back up to Coronet Peak to pick up the cars. There are definitely worse places to find yourself at 9:45 on a warm summer evening than up at Coronet Peak watching the basin glow in the fading light.
After the sizeable outing the previous day we were feeling pretty spent, so a cruise around at 7 Mile to check out some of the new trails was the perfect choice. Despite having been around for a while, 7 Mile hasn’t missed out on its share of the recent trail developments around Queenstown. The new Buck Land trail is the most recent addition and features a huge amount of impressive wooden features, as well as some nice natural chutes. The trail is another great example of the riding community, with support from local businesses like Altitude Brewing, getting together to build something new and different for the benefit of the local riding scene.
Once we’d checked out the range of features on offer on the new Buck Land trail, we headed down through the flowing jumps of Kachoong and Jack B Nimble. Both trails received a refresh in 2020 and offer a miniaturized bike park style alternative to a lot of 7 Mile’s more natural singletrack options. Dropping down Satan’s Corridor found us back at the lake front and ready to head back to town.
ALTITUDE, CANYON AND WRAP-UP
Our final afternoon saw us finish off the trip by checking out a few more Queenstown breweries. The first stop was at Altitude Brewing, another big supporter of the QMTBC and the mountain biking community. Having already been fans of Altitude’s beers before this trip, we were keen to visit the tap room and see what beers they had on offer.
After choosing from the varied options on the beer list, we had a chat with Altitude General Manager, Peter, who filled us in on the brewery’s identity and their community initiatives. Like Atlas, Altitude has been a big long-term supporter of the QMTBC via sponsorship and donations and even had a couple of QMTBC contribution awards on display in the tap room. Peter also explained to us that since its inception, Altitude has committed to donating a share of beer sales to a range of community organisations and groups, such as the Kea Conservancy Trust and QMTBC.
In a similar sense to Searchlight, Altitude prides itself on being a great community meeting place where people can come down and hang out in a relaxed atmosphere. With the brewery being visible from the tap room, and old kegs used for seating, there’s a nice sense of getting the product straight from the source. Peter told us that this down to earth community atmosphere, coupled with great beer, are core values for Altitude and something they always strive towards.
To finish things off, we cruised out to Arthur’s Point based Canyon brewing, sitting right next to the Shotover Jet. Relaxing in the sun in Canyon’s beer garden, with pizzas and a pint, was a nice way to finish off the trip. With so much great riding, backed up by a strong riding community and supportive local businesses, it’s easy to see why so many people are drawn to Queenstown as a riding destination. At the end of each trip, you always leave knowing that the next time you visit there’ll probably be another epic trail to ride or fun jumps to hit. It’s that kind of progression and development that keeps you coming back for more. •
• Thanks to: Destination Queenstown, Holiday Inn Express and partners.
Words: Nathan Petrie
Photography: Cameron Mackenzie