When I joined Nelson College back in 2014, mountain biking was only a small thing. Rugby was the big thing.
I started out in Year 7 at Nelson Prep, which is housed in two little buildings in the middle of the big college. At the end of Year 8, Head Teacher Richard Nott (Mr Nott to you), decided to take the class on weekly mountain bike rides. I was still riding my mum’s bike - a Merida hardtail - and seeing someone do a bunny-hop completely blew my mind. For most ‘preppies’, this was their first time off-road and, for a few, their first time on a bike. I had never been riding with a group, outside of my mates, and it was great seeing everyone crash - unfortunately kids didn’t have phones to film it all back then. Nowadays, lots of the preppies have spent as much on their bikes as they have on their phones, and full-sus bikes, bunny-hops and fail videos aren't such a big deal.
Mountain biking at Nelson College is now one of its most highly participated in sports. Rugby is still a thing, but now more kids are riding than playing basketball or running around with oddly shaped balls. Students can now get school colours and awards for mountain biking, and the staff have taken note with mountain biking being actively promoted as a competition and participation sport. It’s not too difficult to see why, considering some of the best bike tracks in New Zealand are just ten minutes around the corner. More students are catching on, and shin scars and odd tan lines are now part of the school uniform. Looking at bike parts online during English lessons isn’t yet in the curriculum, but it’s certainly educational.
The college has partnered with Gravity Nelson for some after-school coaching for beginners and experts. I participated in these lessons for a few terms and learnt quite a lot. One of the most valuable things I learnt, was to remember my light battery for winter riding and sunscreen for summer. Luckily the Gravity guys and girls are prepared for the less prepared, and carry spares. Lessons last a few hours, which allows more than enough time to climb to the top of the hill, session some tech lines and practice technique - such as banana bum, which might be one of Gravity’s proprietary teaching tools. For younger riders there is a programme called Krankin Kids. While this is aimed at young beginners, it doesn’t necessarily mean easy trails. Older students are able to help coach and can be paid - and there is still plenty of time to complete our usual light load of homework afterwards.
In term two this year, the college sent 27 boys to Methven to compete in the South Island Championships. The Nelson College team won, with most of the boys having attended the Gravity coaching sessions - which was not just a coincidence. The school treated the event like most other national sports competitions and arranged transport and accommodation, along with a social studies teacher, Vaughan Watson (Mr Watson to you), to accompany the team - he deserves a big thank you for being able to put up with all of the lads.
As well as winning national races, the college has created its own local ones. Tim Tucker (Deputy Headmaster) has designed an urban cross country which includes sections inside the school buildings. This very popular race allows riders to do skids on the carpet and get the hallways dirty, and has now been running for several years. Funds raised go to good causes. Mr Tucker has also just released a new race at our local Codgers Mountain Bike Park, catering to all riders, with the downhill on the flowy P51 and the XC around the Jack’s Track area (no relation).
There’s often a few too many things going on at the same time, and I missed this year’s event because I had rock climbing for outdoor education on the same day, but that’s no bad thing. The outdoor ed’ classes have NCEA credits up for grabs, with mountain biking as a subject. Outdoor ed’ is open from Year 11 to Year 13 and is a pleasant way to get credits – and, unlike a few of the other subjects in outdoor ed’, ‘excellence’ credits for riding are available (possibly one of the few ways I’ll be getting some of them on my report card).
Nelson College has two boarding houses with around 130 boys. With those bike trails just minutes down the road, there are plenty of opportunities for a good after-school ride. One of the boarding house masters - Simon Mardon - has encouraged the sport by giving boarders free rein to build trails up the back of the school. (I wish my rein had been free). The goal is to build a pump track where the shooting range once was. Rifles aren't allowed at college so it’s currently dead space. This pump track will be open to everybody at lunchtime and will be ideal for the boarders after school. I’ve ridden with a few of the boarders - showing a few out-of-towners the local scene - and most are in it for the social aspect rather than racing.
Our teachers have also got their own riding community and some of them are competitive. My legendary outdoor ed’ teacher, Stephen Garside (Stephen when he’s bantering with the lads), came riding with my dad and his mates one evening when I was invited along. He beat all of us on the uphill - by miles - but hit the dirt on the downhill, trying to keep up with me (he might tell you otherwise). He also got a flat and had to borrow my dad’s spare tube. He returned it to me at school the next day, and if it wasn’t for my speedy alt-tab skills he would have caught me looking at bike part websites during geography.
We’re really lucky to have Dulkara Martig as an outdoor ed’ teacher - with her incredible outdoor experience (and she remembers teaching me to swim when I was five) - and Vaughan Watson who delivers entertaining mountain bike news (in costume) when he should be teaching social studies.
According to 2017 Sports NZ data, 13% of secondary students in the top of the South Island mountain bike, while just 5.5% play rugby. The same data for ‘young adults’ - 16 to 34 year olds, without kids, who have left school - shows 12.6% mountain biking while only 0.4% continue playing rugby. This tells me that introducing kids to biking is more likely to lead to them riding and being active when they’re older, whereas rugby…. The Sports NZ trend data also shows growing participation in biking (my dad looks at this stuff for a living).
So, Nelson College is on the right track, encouraging mountain biking, cooperating with Krankin Kids and Gravity Nelson for coaching, and developing our own fun races. Mountain biking at school is like a mince and cheese pie. It’s just better with tomato sauce.
Words: Jack Greenaway
Images: Leo Secker