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October 2016 Issue
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Tramping on wheels

Thanks to an investment in tracks and cycle trails, mountain biking is on the up. Photo: Jonathan Kennett

Mountain biking has gone from oddity to super-popularity.

By Jonathan Kennett

It wasn’t easy exploring off-road on the early boneshakers. But then, there weren’t many roads, and New Zealanders have always been adventurous. Explorer A P Harper biked over Haast Pass in 1900 (65 years before the road was completed) and then contacted The Press to warn anyone from following in his tyre tracks. It would have been an arduous trip, even with a modern-day mountain bike.

In 1982, the first mountain bikes trickled into New Zealand. They were fat-tyred, multi-geared, and tough. The following year hundreds were built by local manufacturers: Healing in Christchurch and Morrison in Hastings. By 1990, the trickle was a tidal wave, and in 1991 the first mountain bike guide book was written. Within 10 years, mountain biking had become a mainstream activity.

Throughout the 1980s, hardy pioneers attempted almost every tramping track, pylon road and stock route in the country. People bike ‘n’ hiked the Copland Pass, Browning Pass, and the Southern Crossing. Like A P Harper, these fat-tyred explorers would sometimes return saying “Never again!”

Land managers, such as councils and the Department of Conservation, quickly began writing policy for bicycles, allowing access to some tracks while closing others. In the case of national parks, mountain bikes were not differentiated from motor vehicles, and therefore the formation of new parks was a blow. Bikes were banned from the Bridge to Nowhere in 1986, and the Heaphy Track in 1996.

From the mid-1990s onwards, volunteers began building mountain bike tracks, mostly short and squiggly, but fun. There are now more than 1000 tracks sprinkled from Waitangi Forest in the Far North to Bluff Hill in the far south.

The most significant milestone of recent years has been the New Zealand Cycle Trail – a $100 million project to build Great Rides around the country. Some are easy rail trails, such as the Hauraki Rail Trail (83km), which is currently being extended 36km to Miranda Springs. Others, like the popular Timber Trail (85km) in the central North Island and the Alps 2 Ocean (300km) between Lake Tekapo and Oamaru, are adventurous, but manageable for most experienced cyclists. And the toughest of all, the spectacular Old Ghost Road (85km) on the West Coast, is proving just as popular with trampers as mountain bikers.

Meanwhile, regulations in national parks have been softened and access reopened to the Heaphy Track (off-peak season only) and the Bridge to Nowhere.

New opportunities have led to a boom in bikepacking. By using quiet country roads to link the Great Rides, bikepackers are creating adventurous new trips. The ultimate, launched in February this year, is the Tour Aotearoa, a 3000km journey from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

With an estimated 270,000 Kiwis now mountain biking, and the number and quality of tracks improving, expect to see the growth of cycling continue over the coming years as more people escape to the hills in search of fat-tyre freedom and fun.
– Jonathan Kennett is a Wellington based cycling historian and guide book writer

Hullaballoo on the Heaphy – the mountain bike debate

When the Heaphy Track was part of the former North West Nelson Forest Park riding it was not only legal, it was considered the ‘holy grail’ of mountain biking.

Come 1996, and Kahurangi National Park, the legislative gavel hammered: mountain biking was not an accepted, or legal, activity in national parks. Thus biking on the Heaphy was banned; the outcry was loud and far-reaching.

In 2010, the Conservation Authority relented. DOC was permitted to amend the park’s management plan to allow a three-year trial for mountain biking on the Heaphy in winter. Again there was an outcry, this time from the tramping purists arguing that bikes in national parks were intrusive, and much more.

DOC monitoring of that first trial concluded that mountain biking impacts were in fact minimal; socially, physically and ecologically. Right now, a DOC review is considering a further management plan amendment to extend mountain bike use on the Heaphy into the shoulder seasons, from April 1 to November 30 (Easter excepted).

In recent years some six million dollars has been invested on the Heaphy; track surface and bridge upgrades for bikers, and three new huts for all users. Some in the tramping fraternity are tetchy about this, complaining the Heaphy’s backcountry values have been compromised, and that the harder track surface gives their feet blisters.

Nonetheless, a DOC recreation analysis paper states that because huts on the Heaphy have just a 25 percent occupancy rate, there is capacity for increased use and extending the mountain biking season could help achieve this. Yet bikers travel faster. They stop one, maybe two nights, some ride straight through, so any payback for DOC’s huge investment here is unlikely to come from bikers’ hut fees.

Despite the debates dual-use tracks can, and do, work, and this Heaphy development also typifies the growing phenomenon of mountain biking, use in national parks notwithstanding. It also raises the gnarly issue; in the wake of growing visitor numbers to our national parks, be they tourists, New Zealanders, trampers, mountain bikers or whoever, who should pay for visitor facilities?

– Kathy Ombler