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A quiet revolution

Justin Leov and Mick Ross riding Swampy Summit with Dunedin City in the background. Photo: Sarah Bond
A new track network minutes from the CBD is helping Dunedin stake a claim as New Zealand’s most mountain biking friendly city, writes Sarah Bond

Queenstown and Central Otago tend to steal the limelight when it comes to mountain biking in the South Island. Yet, over the last five years, there has been a quiet revolution in Dunedin. A new track network has stretched out across the city landscape and there are now rides for all abilities, from tough nut dirt jumpers to weekend cruisers.

Hamish Seaton is the unofficial Godfather of Otago mountain biking and the president of MTB Otago. Although he is softly spoken and does not like being photographed, he is a nationally recognised mountain biking personality, known for his track building, race timekeeping and mountain bike advocacy. Seaton’s mountain biking addiction started while he was studying engineering at Canterbury University. He moved to Dunedin eight years ago, and in 2005, wanting a project to keep him busy during the winter, started the Nichols Creek track project.

As he describes his theories about successful track development, I begin to understand how, with the support of MTB Otago, he has created kilometres of club-funded mountain bike tracks.

“For a track to be well used, it needs to be close to the centre of town,” says Seaton. “That’s why we are so lucky in Dunedin – it’s a short ride from the Octagon out to Signal Hill, Bethunes Gully, Nichols Creek or Waikari. The best thing is that all these tracks are on public land.”

He looks up and shrugs. “Why invest all that time and money developing tracks on private property when the next generation of mountain bikers could be denied access. And, things have to be done properly – poorly made or illegal tracks do no one any favours.”

Building mountain bike tracks in New Zealand has become a recreational priority. Jonathan Kennet, a mountain bike guidebook writer and project manager for the New Zealand Cycle Trail, cites research completed in 2009 for the Cycle Trail Project which found there are “228,000 mountain bike riders nationally and the fastest growing rider group is male, aged between 35 and 55.” Steve Dyet, owner of Avanti Plus, confirms this trend in the Dunedin market. He has also noticed an increase in the sale of what he calls ‘comfort mountain bikes’ – bikes that are ideal for well groomed tracks like the Otago Rail Trail, but not the more challenging off road rides.

John Fridd started a social riding club which organises weekly rides in Dunedin and surrounding districts

John Fridd started a social riding club which organises weekly rides in Dunedin and surrounding districts

The key drivers behind the track development programme in Dunedin has been the financial success of MTB Otago and the endless supply of willing volunteers. The club runs the Naseby 12 hour Challenge every April. With more than 800 competitors, the profits from the competition have helped purchase a digger and other track building equipment.

“Buying a digger made sense; it costs a lot more to hire and transport a digger on a daily basis,” says Seaton.

The Switchback Track at Nichols Creek is an intermediate track that will eventually link Leith Valley Rd with the 4WD track along Swampy Ridge. “It took hours with a GPS and careful planning to create a track that would be fun to ride both up and down,” says Seaton. The Dunedin City Council was unable to offer financial support, however, the appropriate consents and access to public land were granted. Seaton says that “applications to charitable trusts helped us do the rest, although we actually only spent around $10,000 building the six kilometres of track.”

In 2006, Seaton had built the first 800m of track and in 2007, after the success of the Nationals Track building project at Bethunes Gully, MTB Otago volunteers headed to Nichols. Most Sunday mornings club members spend time track building at ‘Mountain Bike Church’. For the last five years, the Corrections Department has also been involved. Every week, two van loads of workers have done a day’s track building. “The PD supervisors have been fantastic and kept the group on task,” says Seaton. “When it got too far for the PD crew to walk up the Switchback Track at Nichols, they were happy to move over to Waikari Creek and start building there.”

By the end of 2009, a zigzag track, complete with rock walls and sections of boardwalk, snaked up above Nichols Creek through native bush. In terms of hours of work completed – the Corrections Department spent 5000 hours, club members 1200 hours and Seaton ‘gestimates’ that he’s done around 1400 hours work.

The beginner tracks and car park at Waikari Creek has been another monumental undertaking. A lot of people have pitched in on this one. Tim Cleminson and his crew started the project. The Corrections Department have been on site for two years, EDI Downer donated road millings and Jason Low from Pitch Design created the trail signs that the Dunedin City Council had made up. Greg Leov built the car park using the club digger, Fulton Hogan donated signage and the track has been funded almost entirely by public donations. The community really “owns it” says Seaton.

The Waikari Creek tracks are shingled and sheltered from the weather, although it is not advisable to ride in the forest during high winds. Beginners, including small children on mini bikes, can roll around the Redwood Loop while intermediate riders can take on Weir Two, Slytherin and a new trail that is tentatively named The Screamer.

Seaton says his future will revolve around track building and a bit of mountain biking. “We’ve got a long-term plan to build a 50km ‘Three Peaks’ track that will circumnavigate Dunedin,” he says. “It will be a combination of mountain bike tracks, along with some sealed and unsealed public roads. It will hopefully include views from Swampy Summit, Mt Cargill and Signal Hill.”

Another well-known mountain bike star in Dunedin is Justin Leov – New Zealand’s 2012 National Downhill Champion. Like Seaton, he is quietly spoken, rather humble and passionate about mountain biking. Signal Hill is Leov’s home base training track. It was once farmland, before it was planted in trees, with the first mountain bike tracks built there over 25 years ago. Leov explains, “the downhill track is great in the wet and in the dry, but when it’s in between…it’s one of the hardest tracks in the world.”

Today, thanks to the ‘Big Easy’ climbing track, which was built by Justin’s Dad, Greg Leov, Signal Hill is no longer the exclusive domain of downhillers, dirt jumpers and 4X riders. A 4X race track is wide enough to accommodate four riders at a time – Signal Hill has the only track in New Zealand that meets international standards. The ‘Big Easy’ zigzags at an easy gradient up hill and it even passes a site of National Historic Significance. The Opoho trout hatchery – a series of rock-lined pools built in 1868 were re-discovered during the track project.

Leov’s father Greg started a shuttle service in 2009, which runs between Logan Park High School and the Signal Hill top car park every Sunday. In 2010, his 12 seater van and trailer continued to transport riders who, as a group were averaging 140 runs a day. By April 2011, due to a growth in numbers, a 22-seater bus was needed and the service expanded to include Wednesday nights. In January 2012, the average number of runs completed on a Sunday has increased to 300.

Justin Leov was in primary school when he started riding motocross bikes. While he was at high school, he turned his focus to pedal power. He credits Geoff Hughes, a teacher at Marlborough Boys High for sparking his interest in mountain biking. Leov enjoyed cross-country and road riding; however, it was downhill racing that really had him charging.

“Beyond the technical skill base, downhill is both physically and mentally challenging. It’s a real head game done at high speed,” says Leov. “At the top level, it’s all about how fast you can go, and it’s never just one thing: it’s hundreds of little things that all add up to give you that fraction of a second.”

Leov moved to Dunedin with his partner (now wife) Tory to open a bike shop in 2009. His parents moved from Blenheim to help with the shop while Justin competed professionally overseas. The whole family was surprised to discover the world class riding so close to the centre of town. “As a mountain bike destination, it’s completely underrated,” Leov explains. “I think it’s because of our bad weather reputation in winter. Many people remember their student days and the hovels they lived in, they don’t realise there are plenty of tracks that dry quickly!”

Godfather of Otago mountain biking Hamish Seaton on the Nicolas Creek Track

Godfather of Otago mountain biking Hamish Seaton on the Nicolas Creek Track

Leov, has spent thousands of hours riding mountain bike tracks all over the world and he rates the ‘community feel’ that can be found around Otago. Top riders like Jared Graves from Australia and Leov, decked out in their full-body armour will still say ‘Hi’ and walkers and riders of all levels share the tracks.

AOK Social Rides are another highlight of the Dunedin mountain bike scene. Every Saturday afternoon, up to 60 riders meet at a prearranged spot, divide into groups according to skill and fitness level and explore back roads, forests and mountain bike tracks around Dunedin. The rides are free, everyone is welcome and the chat over refreshments at a café or bar afterwards is an essential part of the afternoon.

John Fridd started the rides in 1999 to help Dunedin riders prepare for the first AOK Rally, his answer to the annual Otago Goldfields Cavalcade. Why not a bike rather than a horse? The multi-day AOK rallies between 2000 and 2006 took up to 300 riders through many of Central Otago’s wild areas, with riders ranging in age from 9 to 75.

Fridd says he got into mountain biking because it was more fun than running. “You can still work on your fitness going uphill, then have fun going down,” He says.

When the AOK rallies ended, the weekly Dunedin rides continued, and Fridd has now handed over the social riders reins to Kevin Thompson.

The Saturday rides can be anywhere, from out on the Otago Peninsular to Aramoana or the Taieri Plains. AOK riders have also been on multi-day rides at Bannockburn, Naseby, the Catlins and they explore the hills above the Otago Central Rail Trail in the Hyde-Waipiata area each March. During the latest weekend away, 22 riders got to explore Otematata Station near Lake Benmore.

Between the new track networks, social riders and national champions, when it comes to mountain biking, Dunedin is quietly leading the revolution.

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