• Try these tips to get the best out of dancing on the trails in Rotorua (Gaye Camm)
At the heart of any good mountain biking holiday is combining thrills on the trails with getting to know the local cycling culture. Kath Bicknell shares her top tips for experiencing the best of both in Rotorua, New Zealand.
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Kath Bicknell
21 Feb 2016 - 11:30 AM  UPDATED 21 Feb 2016 - 4:53 PM

1. Ride the Redwoods

If you’ve heard anything about the mountain biking in Rotorua, then you’ve heard of the Whakarewarewa Forest, or the Rotorua Redwoods. A place of genius trail building, endlessly playful twists and turns, and so much variety that you could ride there for three days straight and still be riding tracks for the very first time.

If you haven’t packed a bike, or you’d like to try one with more bounce than your own, you can hire one from Mountain Bike Rotorua, located at the Waipa Carpark entrance to the forest, or from a number of shops in town.

If you need a teaser before you get there, check out these videos from our friends at Flow Mountain Bike.

They’ve been so popular that people come to the Redwoods to “ride the videos”. With more trails appearing all the time, make sure to seek out other winning routes on the map as well.

2. Buy a map

There are map boards scattered throughout the forest, but your ride will flow much better if you have one on hand at all times. Buy a hard copy from Ride Rotorua, also in the Waipa Carpark, or search for Trailmapps on your smartphone.

The app map is the most regularly updated. It uses location services to tell you exactly where you are, and, should you have a nasty crash, allows you to communicate your exact latitude and longitude to emergency services.

3. Take shuttles

What goes down, must go up! If you make the most out of your time in Rotorua, you’ll run out of climbing legs long before you run out of enthusiasm for 10-20 minute descents. Check your map for the Southstar Shuttles pick up points and check their website, or Facebook page, for up to date info on timetables. One off lifts are $NZ 10. For better value, buy a 20 lift pass for $NZ 100 which can be shared between mates.

Australians seems to have this strange idea that skipping the hills is cheating and make all kinds of excuses when you spot them in the shuttle queue. Really, the only reason you should skip the shuttles is if the time-to-exhaustion between you and your riding mates differs by about two hours, or you have some kind of fitness based aspiration in the immediate future, like beating Nino Schurter at the cross-country world champs.

Plan your ride days so you can take advantage of the assisted altitude gain right when you can use it the most. Never underestimate how completely and happily pasted you can become racing each other down the very physical descents, and how good this is for your skills.

4. Commute from your accommodation via something amazing

If you have a hire car, there is plenty of parking at three entry points to the Redwoods. But the commute from town is interesting in its own right. Enter the Te Ara Ahi trail near the Te Puia Maori cultural centre, and take in a pretty, purpose built track along a river all the way to the Waipa Carpark.

If you’re riding from the lake side of town, sniff out Sulphur Point and watch steam rise out of the ground on either side of your wheels.

5. Ride out of the Redwoods

While it’s tempting to spend every day in the Redwoods, there are a huge variety of other trails to enjoy in the region too. These include the gondola assisted runs at the recently opened Skyline gravity park and a long ascent-descent at Rainbow Mountain. At Rainbow Mountain you can also finish the ride with a soak in the naturally heated water of Kerosene Creek.

Further afield there’s the W2K trail and Craters of the Moon at Taupo. Head to Tauranga for the Summerhill and Oropi mountain bike parks, or pick from a number of day rides such as the 85km-long Timber Trail. This one is part of the NZ Cycle Trail, which connects the tip of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, allow at least a month to ride all of this one.

6. Support the local bike industry

If you’re in Rotorua for any period of time, you’re guaranteed to wear something out on your bike, or realise you left some essential piece of riding equipment at home. There seems to be a bike shop on every street and most of them, necessarily, offer a point of difference to the others. Bike shops are also a great place to learn what makes local riders most excited and what makes them tick.

The Nzo Ride Central shop, on Amohau Street, is one part museum, and a place where long time fans of Rotorua-based Nzo clothing can touch and feel the products they’ve followed online.

Bike Culture, on Pukuatua Street, were set up with a focus on repairs. I’m yet to see anyone pull suspension apart, and expertly put it back together again, quicker than these guys. Having said that, I’ve always been struck by the excellent service from other shops too, so have a look around and see what speaks to you the most.

While you’re on holidays, remember that shop staff are not. Don’t be THAT customer that expects their repair to be done yesterday. 

7. Skill up

When people spend a week at a ski resort it’s not uncommon to book a lesson and learn some skills. It’s strange that most mountain bikers skip this important step and bash their way through the trails instead.

Before you arrive, consider booking a skills clinic to lift your flowy smoothness. This can be done from Mountain Bike Rotorua, who also run guided tours of the forest, or MTB Skills Clinics. Learn to dance over the local soil from some of the most skillful riders in town.

8. Keep your confidence in check

With long descents, corners that slingshot you perfectly to the next section of trail, and a fast, (often) dust free trail surface, you can get some serious speed on these iconic NZ trails.

It takes most visitors about three days to get their head into the trails and find a super-fast groove. It’s not surprising then that some of the biggest accidents happen on or around day five.

Keep your confidence in check and ride within your limits. Your collarbones, family and the tall trees on the side of the trail will thank you for this too.

9. Give back

When you’re dipping in and out of a riding culture, you can end up in a take, take, take relationship with the community and the sport. Find opportunities to give back as well.

There are three donation boxes in the Waipa Carpark, which raise funds for trail maintenance, first aid, and the Dodzy Skills Park. These are located not far from where you collect your change after a post-ride coffee or feed. Each makes the forest, and your holiday, what it is. I suggest donating to all of them.

10. Experience a local event

Rotorua is a town that knows how to host an event. From multiple World Champs, to Crankworx, to the Enduro World Series, to singlespeed shenanigans, social rides and everything in between. If there’s a type of event that tickles your fancy, time your holiday so you can experience that too. These events are a guaranteed way to meet a heap of other riders who make this community such an exceptional one.

Do some Google research ahead of your trip to see what’s happening when. Or come during the Rotorua Bike Festival in February and do something different every day of the week.

11. Stay in touch

With a mountain biking culture that extends from the world class trails into the town itself, Rotorua is a place you’ll want to visit more than once. Stay in touch between visits so these outstanding trails, and the stories that come from them, never feel too far away.

For well told tales from the Redwoods Forest and other enticing destinations a retro camper trip away, follow this newsletter from Nzo’s Gary Sullivan. For images that make you stop, dream, and wish you were better photographer (or rider), follow Rotorua local, Graeme Murray on Instagram.

Disclaimer: a small portion of this trip was supported by Tourism New Zealand. Most of it was supported by an insatiable thirst for holidays and local hospitality. Thanks Rotorua. See you again soon!

Coming soon: What’s that smell? Rotorua must-dos for fun away from the bike.