A badly planned holiday to Queenstown in 2017 with only 2 hectic days, a spangly new mountain bike and no recent riding experience, qualified me as a card carrying member of the “All gear, No idea” brigade.
But I wasn't shy lah- I just wanted to jump back into mountain biking, head first, after a 2 decade absence, and wanted to see first hand what mountain biking had become in the intervening years.
Let's be clear, 2017 was the first time in my life that I had sent it down the side of a real mountain on a modern mountain bike; drag racing hardtails in my teens in East Coast Park, didn’t count then, totally useless now- I had no fitness, no relevant riding skill and when let loose on Rude Rock, a beautiful, intermediate graded flow trail, I hung on to my brakes like I do with found money, eventually crashing out into the dry grass and almost setting the mountainside on fire with my overheated rotors.
It was not the best experience…but was not bad either…and God, what a spectacularly beautiful place.
In 2019, I wanted to come back to see if I had progressed as a rider. Did the things that seemed big back then, seem so big now?
7 Mile Bike Park, Queenstown
If anything, any ride holiday to Queenstown should start with a warm-up ride here. 7 Mile Bike Park is a compact network of lake-side trails that are open all year round and is easy to get to by car, or if you feel compelled, a 30 minute bike ride out from town. You will need to pedal up to the mid point called Eagles Nest to start the big, fun downhill trails that feature runs with proper sized berms and jumps.
Everything is wide, well sighted and chicken lined, so let it rip.
If you can stretch to it, new riders should get lesson here with a local so they can size you up and tell if you are going to crash out. If you’ve never had instruction in pumping your bike, riding berms or attempting tabletop jumps, this spot is a really great introduction to experience them; again, try to go with a local who can give you pointers for your first ride- I did, and it really cleared my head for the rest of the trip.
Skyline Bike Park, Queenstown
Skyline is regarded as one of the steepest bike parks in the world and it’s apparent on the gondola up- it almost feels vertical.
As it’s often acknowledged in these parts, there is nothing here that is truly easy, easy, easy- even the green trails would be classified as intermediate in other places. But if you have your basics dialled, then the park is a riot from the get go, with the easiest trail, "Hammy’s Track", being well sighted, having fun beginner berms and clearly expressed line choices… and speed- so much speed that pumping to bike to get some rhythm had me hitting the limits of my bike’s suspension travel frequently, but in an edgy fun way- more of the bike saying “hmmm...this is interesting” as opposed to “ Please don’t do this”.
Small tip, switch to "Thundergoat" from the mid-point rest area for a more enjoyable run back to the bottom station of the gondola.
The only glaring issue with Skyline is that if you can’t jump with any competence, then you will find your skill topping out at the blue trails, which are kind enough to have rollable tabletops and not lethal gaps. The black trails here are world class, and with all the attendant levels of riding required- I strayed on to a double black once and actually could not even see where the trail was headed. Maybe one day.
If you find your skill level limiting you to the greens and blues, then 2 days, max 3 would be enough; but if you are a bit handy with the bike, you will want to spend more time here for sure, as the whole park will be your playground.
Rude Rock, Coronet Peak
Legendary flow track on Coronet Peak.
I was lucky to have the trail open the week I was there, and in a "start of the season” condition ie: smooth, not blown out.
2 years ago I was terrified and on the brakes all the time.
This time round I was far more comfortable riding this ridge line trail and didn’t worry too much about the blind crests- I just sent them. If you find yourself here, it pays to let off the brakes more then you think you need to- although that will happen instinctively with each successive run. I thought I was the fastest man in the world, till a local overtook me with the smallest of gaps and scampered off into the distance at twice the speed.
There is always room to grow bigger balls it seems, but I didn’t care, I was having too much fun this time round and I was nowhere near setting the undergrowth on fire.
Crown Peak Heli-Biking
Getting a helicopter to give you a lift to the top of a mountain seems to elicit all the “Ohhs" and “Ahhhs” you would ever want from anyone who would give you the time of day to listen to your ride adventures, and in terms of photo opportunities, may be THE SHOT that defines your trip in the eyes of others. True, it costs a bit of money, but the scenery is epic and it’s just a very different way to spend a day riding downhill.
In all honesty, it’s not a big technical ride, more a guided tourist adventure, but there are some exposed cliffside moments, so don’t think this is PCN cakewalk either.
Fun, baller, but admittedly not essential.
Clyde Downhill Track, Central Otago
Strangely the trail that I took to the most despite not being able to ride it like a king- but maybe that was the hook: it was a trail that led to me think about “What if” more than others. “What if I had more skill?” “ What if I could gap that?” Etc…
A lovely long, proper DH track of 2 distinct personalities, with some easy flowy bits, cut with some very, very chunky rock gardens. This trail is about an hour away from Queenstown- the scenery out here is stunning in a different way from Rude Rock- flat open landscapes and endless blue skies. This is wine growing terrain and feels it. Stop for fruit ice-cream on the way back.
Newly opened 1.8km rollercoaster jump trail with more than 50 jumps for you to hit. You need to push/ ride up for the descent on a mild switchback trail, so you have to earn the down; but what you will find is what some have called “The best jump line in the world” winding its way through a pine forest. McNearly Gnarly was created by the locals to be an intermediate jump line to improve jump skills- if you’re a beginner this might be a bit overwhelming, as once you drop in, you can’t back out- the trail is open, sets you up for speed to all the kickers and demands all your attention…. but the reality for me was it just had me again, lamenting the fact that my jump skills were piss poor, so I got less than I wanted out of it; but my, this trail is a work of art and almost a sole reason to come back for another go in the future.
Don’t be a hero: Walk the rougher bits of the trail on the first run to save from crashing out on the subsequent ones. Don’t give in to peer pressure, the level of riding here is very high, and it can feel a bit much if you are new. Just take your time to ride what you want to.
Wear long things: Our local Singaporean climate may not allow us a wardrobe of rain gear, downhill pants and long sleeve jerseys. But in hindsight, I would have kitted myself out with more surface protection. Even if you are not crash-prone, the shrubs will still get you and it’s incredibly distracting when riding, the last thing you need on an unfamiliar technical trail. Some of local flora seems to have been designed by god as prototypes for fishing hooks and toothpicks.
These are fast trails. Have all the passive protection you need. A full face helmet, armour, the works.
And if you can, allow yourself a decent amount of time for the trip and stay here for a week or more- bed in, take your time and enjoy the rides with decent breaks in-between.
The city centre of Queenstown is compact but has all the first-world amenity that you would want or need on a trip. The chilled nature of the place and the limited number of cheesy tourist distractions means that if all you want is a riding holiday, all you will think of is riding, when here. Food is not cheap, but the portions are almost for 2.
There are decent bikes shops in town, so if you forget anything, you’ll be able to sort yourself out.
No question that Queenstown is a great mountain biking destination; distilled, it’s got enough challenges for you to want to come back to ride and benchmark your progress.
Come January, peak summer, the professional mountain biking community decants here away from the northern hemisphere winter to ride and train. If it’s good enough for them… and yet, QT has something for everyone- there are enough trails, with enough types of riding available, and after few days of intense riding back to back, if you are feeling a bit burnt out, you can just switch off, ride the easy vineyard trails, or just sit in a bar, or feed the ducks at the lake, or eat gelato in the sun.
So allow yourself as much time as possible if you ever plan to come. It’s one of those places where it's possible to lose track of the days. A rare thing.
Bike: Evil Following MB* - Fox 36 with PUSH Industries ACS 3 coil conversion kit - Industry 9 Grade 300 wheel set.
*Yes, it was a bit short on travel but it sucked it all in.