Field of Dreams If you build it, will they come?

Words by Richard Birkby
Images by Jay French, Neil Kerr & Oscar Hetherington

The view is sublime. Even in the approaching gloom of a northwesterly spring storm, this is a breathtaking spot. As riders, we’re often confined to forests, views constrained by the enveloping woods. Here, that’s not the case. Here, there’s a 360-degree panorama of mountains, rivers, and lakes.

Just ahead of us are what seem destined to become New Zealand’s most Instagrammed berms, cut and shaped lovingly into the slopes of this true foothill of the Southern Alps. Lake Wanaka stretches out before us and the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park are just visible through the oncoming weather.

We’re at the highest point of Bike Glendhu, a new park currently under construction a short distance from Wanaka, in the Southern Lakes. And if the 30 kilometres of fresh trail that the Bike Glendhu team have built are as good as what’s ahead, it looks like riders in the south can look forward to something special.

It’s a project that’s been four years in the making, co-founder John Wilson tells us at the soon-to-be-completed off-grid base area.

While neighbouring Queenstown has long held the limelight, announcements of new trails have been far less frequent in Wanaka. Recognising the need for more trails, and more varied riding in the region, Wilson took it upon himself to explore potential sites for trail building.

“I wanted a site that had some elevation, where people could see a view, and that got me talking with John McRae, who’s the landowner here”, says Wilson. “I knocked on John’s door and asked if this was a place we could ride and get a view. It certainly had that. The existing track was too steep though, so we started looking at putting in a climbing trail, and before you know it, we were planning a bike park.”

That creative spirit means their vision is fast becoming reality. From the summit, we drop into what can only be described as near-perfect flow. Beautifully sculpted corners and rolling grade dips keep our momentum up effortlessly as we descend from the high point of nearly 750 metres above sea level. With the base area 450 metres below us, untold delights await…

But this is no ordinary bike park. Those delights aren’t gained via chairlift, gondola, or bus and trailer. We rode here, climbing those 450 metres on a meandering, gently graded trail that switchbacks its way from the base area, past a bucolic creek, up to a trail hub where the park’s jump line begins (more on that later) and over the shoulder of the hill. Here, riders are rewarded with a short flowy section before contouring round the hill above the stunning Motatapu Valley, from where more switchbacks lead to the summit.

If that sounds like a lot of climbing, perhaps it is. But the ascent is addressed in such a way that at no point did our group, led by Bike Glendhu partner Charlie Cochrane, ever have to cease our conversation due to pinchy sections, too-tight corners, or any of the other factors that cause some of us to dislike climbing. The ascent from the base area to the summit takes approximately 45 minutes at a conversational pace, and demonstrates that the art of trail building extends to climbs as well as descents.

And that art is very much in evidence here. Bike Glendhu engaged Tom Hey’s Elevate Trail Building to plan and build the initial loops. Tom’s team have worked with local build crew Dirt Dynamics to help create a network with something for everyone, and the park will open with a family loop, a scenic cross country loop, and a whole lot of fun stuff that diverges from those.

The site is stunning. Almost a mountain in itself, it’s situated on a hill that’s isolated from the main ranges around it and covers around 1000 hectares of rocky bluffs, streams and gullies, tussock grasses and stands of kanuka and matagouri.

It’s land the McRae family has farmed for generations, and both Wilson and Hey are quick to acknowledge John’s passion and commitment to opening access to this incredible terrain. “We’re so lucky to have a family that are willing to open up their private land and share it in this way”, says Wilson. “John was looking for something more to do with this place, to find a way of sharing it in a meaningful way with more people. This does that in a manner that’s sustainable and brings both an economic and a health and wellbeing benefit to the community.”

Wilson’s bike park proposal provided the spark, and the process of planning and consent was begun. 

“The consent process has been lengthy and complicated”, says Wilson. “We’re changing the use of the land, and we’re working within some outstanding natural landscape, so everything we do has to pay additional levels of respect to that. We’re also a way away from some of the basics, like electricity and water. We’re completely off-grid here—solar powered, and we capture and manage all our waste-water.”

The base area, which will feature ticketing, bike rental, workshop, coaching, and a café, is powered by 62 solar panels. It’s surrounded by new native plantings, of which some 4000 will have been made by the end of 2019, plus there’ll be pump tracks for both adults and grommets to ride or spectate while enjoying food and hopefully a beverage or two.

Back up the hill, Charlie leads us into one of the newly cut black lines named The Dark Matter. We roll over a steep schist boulder and into a catch berm that throws us through 180 degrees before laying out a sequence of bare rock features. The trail is still raw, but the vision behind it is clear; this is enormous fun. Just on the right side of technical, Hey and team have worked some magic here, incorporating natural features such as a series of steep rock rolls and drops, and enhancing them with the odd lip and berm. It’s fast and rocky, and hidden nuggets abound, tight squeezes through rock gardens surrounded by native bush, a cheeky little air here and there for those who look, but always with an out for those whose gaze is too focused on their front tyre, and throughout it all, we’re flowing. It’s one of the best trails I’ve had the pleasure of riding in the South Island and it’s nowhere near ridden in yet. Come the summer, this is destined for classic status. 

Hey spent considerable time exploring this part of the park on his trials moto, linking rock features and stream crossings into something special that highlights the topography and geology of the hill. It’s reminiscent of some of the riding in nearby Alexandra, yet the soil here is less dry, the traction on offer makes the trail more forgiving, and the flow is always there. As we descend, the heavens open and rain soaks the rock slabs on the lower section, yet we’re able to roll them all with abandon, knowing there’s grip aplenty in the dirt below.

The highlight of the lower half of the park is the yet-to-be-named jump line—a seemingly endless series of perfectly groomed features, where table follows table interspersed with doubles and berms, step-downs and step-ups, and all perfectly formed and spaced. And while there’s air aplenty for those who already love it, it’s progressive enough to be accessible and fun for a wide range of skill levels.

“I spent quite some time exploring other trail developments and was really impressed by Blue Derby in Tasmania,” says Wilson. “I loved the way you can build one trail that many levels of rider can enjoy. You can ride a flow trail fast or slow and still enjoy it.”

Our group stops twice on our run through the jump line and there are grins on the face of every rider, from the most ripping, to the air-reticent. Something’s really right here, but the outstanding big question I have pertains to the park’s model. When it comes to spending money on anything other than bikes, mountain bikers have a thrifty reputation. Are riders prepared to pay to pedal uphill?

“I think there’s an education process in play,” Wilson tells me. “It’s a fact that building trails costs money, but there’s no doubt that we need more trails, and the existing network we have is under pressure, so we have to find innovative ways to fund that expansion.” His interpretation of the situation in Wanaka is incisive. Rapid urbanization and a lack of available public land means there’s been little opportunity for growth in the trail network, and with the much-loved trails of Sticky Forest under the very real threat of housing development, the need for alternatives has never been more apparent.

But will riders open their wallets? The signs are promising. “The launch of our season pass has been humbling,” Wilson points out. “We’ve sold more passes than we expected to already, and we haven’t even published a trail map yet, so most of those people don’t know what they’re getting and are purchasing in good faith. Once people see what they’re getting, I think they’ll be happy to pay a little. Once they see the view, they’ll be happy to pay twice as much,” he says with a wry chuckle.

Wilson foresees success coming from a combination of committed riders, local families looking for an accessible outdoor activity, and thrillseekers from Wanaka’s burgeoning tourist numbers. I can see his point: if visitors are prepared to walk for five or six hours to get their ‘gram on from neighbouring Roys Peak, New Zealand’s most Instagrammed location, how many might be keen to ride one of Bike Glendhu’s fleet of new Whyte e-bikes to get a similar snap, and enjoy the thrill of a perfectly constructed flow trail on the way back? What’s not to like about that? Tom Hey, who’s seen a few bike park sites across the globe, was also quick to point out the incredible vista: “It’s been an amazing place to work. Every morning I’ve driven past the hordes hiking Roys Peak. Yet I get that at work! This place has got all that view, plus the trails we’ve been building.”

There’s still work to be done, but Bike Glendhu will open shortly with a comprehensive fleet of very well spec’d rental bikes, a café, coaching, and more. If you’re in the Southern Lakes over summer, this new trail network is already a must-ride, and if Wilson and McRae’s plans continue to be realised, there’s much more to come.