Arriving in Queenstown, the fact that you’re a tourist hits you like a brick. But so do the tall mountains rising above, which is precisely what brings so many people there.
Walking through the main streets, surrounded by queues, pamphlets, accents, shining lights and people pushing past on their own private missions to get somewhere, you’re instantly struck by a traveller’s paradox: how do you make the most of the experiences offered to you as a visitor, while getting a more authentic sense of what it’s actually like to live in this incredible place as a local?
The mountain biker in me wanted to get out of the bustle of town and into the open space offered by the surrounding landscape as soon as possible. But first, I needed some supplies. And this is where the whole experience shifted.
Our first stop was the bricks and mortar Torpedo 7 store to replace some equipment and find out about the trails. A comprehensive trail map is available from most bike shops in the area for about five dollars. The shops make about a buck from this sale, explained Bryn, who works at the store. The rest goes to the Queenstown Mountain Bike Club for things like trail maintenance.
The longer we chatted, the more my partner and I got a sense of the trails best suited to our skill and experience level and a couple of new ones worth seeking out to get taste of what’s making Queenstown riders most excited right now.
I ask Bryn what makes people travel to this town to seek out adventure. It’s about sharing the stoke, he says simply, eyes lighting up.
When mountain bikers meet in different parts of the world there are these golden moments when a genuine excitement for the sport transcends the boundaries that govern interactions with strangers elsewhere. It diffuses the bolshy ignorance that comes with putting on your tourist hat, and gives a sense of the strength, and values, of the local riding community. As Bryn saw our stoke, he let us in on his.
Stoke is infectious. So are those little dashed lines on the map. Our next stop was Rude Rock, looped together with a couple of Bryn’s suggestions to turn a short ride into one that flowed much better with equal parts quality, adventure and views that show you why so many people come to this town to shoot movies.
The Queenstown Mountain Bike Club is a volunteer-run organisation and build most of the trails you will ride while you’re in town. Join the club if you’re staying awhile, or seek out some sweet, souvenir merch if you’re passing through.
The shop ride
Even better than local intel on where to ride, or how to join the dots, is joining a local crew and riding along with them.
Walking into Bikeaholic on Gorge Road it’s instantly clear that, unlike a lot of shops right in town, this one is aimed at local riders more than tourists. Set up by Mat Weir and Justin Worth, this is a shop that injects some serious heart and soul into the way things are run. This includes a regular shop ride, which runs all year round, even in winter. How’s that for dedication?
Whether it’s in your own community or one you’re visiting, the thrill of a good shop ride is hard to top. Especially if a few prerequisites line up to provide the best chance of things going smoothly for the riders who are generous enough to have you along: you’re strong enough not to hold anyone up, skilled enough not to hold anyone up, your bike is appropriate for the type of riding about to be undertaken and you’re pleasant enough company that people appear genuinely happy to roll along next to you.
We took a playful route around Lake Wakatipu toward a track called ‘Gold Digger’. Justin explained that the club built this trail so riders could reach Moke Lake without having to go on the road. In the process they uncovered a whole lot of relics from the gold digging era. If it wasn’t for mountain biking they’d still be lost, buried in the bush.
The track itself can be ridden as an out and back. Out: you see the lines as you make your way up a gentle gradient. Back: you rail turn after turn as fast as you can!
While Queenstown is known for its more extreme trails Gold Digger is located near the Seven Mile mountain bike park. This is a much more relaxing area to ride in terms of skill versus terrain. These are trails that are much better suited to developing or cross-country riders, but also good fun on a trail bike, especially with a crew.
Another little detour on the way back from Gold Digger took us to a trail full of playful little chutes, some of which were more vertical than I thought tyres could stay connected to. The trailbuilders in Cairns, Australia, another town known for it’s sport-defining trails, have a phrase that helps them determine where to build: ‘If a tree grows on it, you can ride it!’ they say. The final chute we rode that day was about the length of a two story building and so vertical that trees don’t stand a chance.
Game on Cairns! And thank you Queenstowners for so casually, and stokefully, showing me why riders in this town have the skilful reputation they do.
The bike park
Going to Queenstown and skipping the Skyline Mountain Bike Park is like going to a five-star restaurant and ordering a muffin. You look like you’re enjoying the party, but you’re completely missing out on the energy and the artistry that sends the people around you absolutely fizzing.
The park offers a variety of runs with the grading reflecting the steepness of the trail as it makes its way down the mountain, the amount of skill needed to get from one obstacle to the next, and the number of opportunities to put your foot down without consequence if you ride beyond your limits.
The Skyline Gondola has space for your bike and a four-hour pass will set you back a minimum of $NZ 60. A three-day pass, to be used over a week, costs $NZ 199. In addition to the energy-efficient route to the top, the other best thing about the gondola is it offers plenty of chances to meet other riders. Stoke is shared on the way back up the mountain and grows exponentially as you weave past, or with, each other on repeated runs back down.
The better the bike handler you are, the more runs you’ll have to choose from. Even the green circle Hammy’s track has a lot of bonus obstacles and sneaky lines to lift your skills and keep you amused for hours. It’s also a great warm up before countless other runs down everything else. Our four short hours went by quickly enough to see why people come to this place and never leave.
Once upon a time, my brother worked for a travel agent. He loved travel, but hated the way customers abused the verb ‘do’: “I’ve done France and Italy,” they’d say, “but I’d like to do Spain.” Queenstown brings this out in people too. “Have you done Rude Rock?” one visitor will say to another. “Yeh, I’m going to do the bike park again tomorrow,” comes the reply.
While the locations we rode are part of any visitor’s mountain biking bucket list – Rude Rock, the bike park and, for the more xc-minded riders, Seven Mile – the experiences you’ll have there are as unique as the attitude you bring and the people you share them with.
Don’t just ‘do’ them. Share them, experience them, learn about how they came to be, push your skills, extend your comfort zone, lose your breath looking at the view.
You can’t manufacture stoke. But if mountain biking is part of they way you discover the world, the experiences shared between bikers on the trail are better than anything you’ll read about in a pamphlet.
Disclaimer: This trip was partially supported by Tourism New Zealand. It was mostly supported by a thirst for adventure and the generosity of the local mountain bike community. Always support the communities you visit in return.