Blustery, with a High Chance of Singletrack: Spoke Magazine’s Brett Kennedy shows us his local trails in Wellington, New Zealand

There’s a chill in the air, even though it’s Spring. Rain has been pelting the roof throughout the night, periodically waking me from my slumber. The wind, the seemingly ever-present wind, is pushing the rain in sideways against the windows. It doesn’t look like easing. Let’s go ride!

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Wellington has a reputation for the kind of weather patterns outlined above, yet in the eight years I’ve lived here, I’ve decided that the reputation is not entirely true. Sure, there is a reason that New Zealand’s capital city is known as “Windy Welly,” but on the whole the good days seem to outnumber the bad, at least to me. And coming from the dry, arid, and scorchingly hot summers of Australia, the cooler weather here is certainly a godsend for a mountain biker who loves to ride year-round. I find I ride more in a Wellington winter than I did in an Australian summer. And a bit of wind and moisture never hurt anyone.

Described by the Lonely Planet travel guide as “the coolest little capital in the world,” Wellington can back up the claim with a vibrant café culture, a healthy live music and arts scene, world-class eateries, a compact central business district, and some of the best riding in the country (which, by default, makes it some of the best in the world). The lay of the land makes trails accessible within minutes of the heart of the city in several directions, and there’s no real need to take the car to get to the dirt.

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What’s so good about Welly riding?

Compared to most other mountain bike centres in NZ, Wellington’s biggest advantage is variety. With a great mix of man-made and natural terrain available, rides can be tailored to different levels of skills, or just to mix it up and keep things fresh for even the most experienced riders. The term “something for everyone” is certainly apt when it comes to riding in the capital.

On any given day of the week, you are certain to find a willing riding partner without really looking. You will probably run into other riders out for a quick spin, or maybe an all-day mission. I’ve met some of my best friends and riding buddies just by being on the trail at the right time and striking up a conversation. With such a large and friendly rider base, the local scene is fantastic for finding just the right people to ride with, and to socialise with when the riding is done.

But it’s the quality of riding that led me, and many others, to choose Wellington as the place to be for a mad-keen mountain biker. I love being able to leave my house and be on dirt within five to ten minutes depending on which direction I point my bike. I can link up two or three different riding areas or bike parks without my tyres hitting tarmac. And those same tyres will have touched an array or trails from smooth and groomed, flowy and fast, to technical, rocky, steep, and challenging. My mood dictates how I want to ride, and the trails do the rest. Hard to beat is an understatement.

Five trails you must ride:

Picking just five trails is quite a task when it comes to the riding here. Depending on your level of ability, you will definitely find something to leave you grinning from ear to ear, or maybe with a teeth-clenching grimace after you’ve made it to the bottom of a techy, steep challenge. Here are some of my favourites and some that are just too convenient and accessible not to ride.

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Deliverance

A true icon in the capital, Deliverance is so named for the rugged, hillbilly terrain that the trail was cut in. When you are riding it, you feel as if you could be miles from civilisation and expect to see toothless rednecks lurking in the undergrowth. However, you are tucked into the edges of suburbia, and the exit spits you out just a few minutes from the Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park trailhead/carpark. You can ride from there up the smooth and winding climb of Salvation to the start of Deliverance, and make it part of your Makara ride. Deliverance itself drops straight into a fairly steep and rocky former riverbed, and if you’re not on your game here then it can punish you straight away. It winds its way down narrow singletrack along the edge of the creek, with lots of drops and ledges, rock, roots, chutes, creek crossings, and pinches to test your full range of skills. When you finally pop out into the street at the bottom, there is inevitably a slew of whoops, congratulations, and commiserations depending on how the trail treated you.

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Makara Peak MTB Park

OK, so this isn’t just one trail, but Makara has enough options to choose from that you can do a quick loop or link up any number of options. The ‘Grand Loop’ is probably the best option for newcomers, which will see you on the trails for around an hour to an hour and a half. From the carpark, check out the map board and head up Koru, a gently meandering climb that seems like you’re not really climbing at all. Same goes for Salley Alley, which then is met with the mid-climb descending of Missing Link before the final push to the summit up Aratihi. Once again, this climb offers enough gradient changes to allow you to ride it at a comfortable pace or smash it. The views at the top are nothing short of breathtaking in all directions, with the snow-capped peaks of the South Island clearly visible, the wind farms of the western hills, and right over the city, harbour, and north to the Tararua ranges. Grab a bite to eat and just take it all in before deciding which way to go back down. For a long, fast intermediate blast, North Face is just the ticket, followed by JFK and Smokin, then SWIGG/Starfish to the carpark. Guaranteed to please. For more of a technical challenge from the top, try Ridgeline/Ridgeline Extension/Livewires, or Zacs/Vertigo/Livewires, or if you’re really feeling ballsy Trickle Falls is a hard taskmaster. Actually, if you’re not an expert rider and don’t have a local guide, I’d avoid it and pick one of the other options.

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Polhill

Probably the most popular trails in the city these days, the easy accessibility of Polhill Reserve makes it a must ride for the visitor. From the CBD you can be on the singletrack within minutes. The Transient climb is another one of those Wellington climbs where you don’t really feel like you’re climbing at all, and before you know it you are at the top of Brooklyn Hill, home to Wellington’s original wind turbine and gateway to a number of options. You can head back down the way you came via Car Parts, a twisty blast through the trees, or continue on towards the south coast via Barking Emu. The views along here are just as epic as Makara, but with some different perspectives. I never get sick of looking out over this beautiful city with its rugged hills and bays, harbour, and coastline. From the end of Emu, either turn around for a long descent all the way back to where you started, or head down to Red Rocks via high-speed doubletrack with some nice twisty singletrack at the end, spitting you out on the coast for a ride back to civilisation via the road or a pre-arranged lift.

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Wainuiomata Trail Project/Rata Ridge

Wainui. For this one you’ll have to drive, but only about fifteen to twenty minutes to the north end of the harbour. Out here you’ll find an ever-expanding network of trails in the Wainuiomata Trail Park, all hand-built over the last six or seven years. Like most Welly rides, there is a nice and meandering climb up from the carpark, or you can park at the top of the Wainui hill and ride from there. The best trails in the park are Spoon Hill, 491, and Beeline, but there are plenty of others that are worthy of doing a few repeat climbs to rail, like Freewheel, Towhai Traverse, and Snail Trail. But the real star of Wainui would have to be Rata Ridge, just across the highway at the top of the hill. This is a favourite of us at Spoke magazine to take visiting international pro riders on, and has been raved about by the likes of Jerome Clementz and Mike Hopkins, among others. It’s a rolling, techy, twisty rootfest which has even those guys on their game to clean it all. Some of it has to be walked, but we’re talking a few little pinches, and the fun factor is ramped up every time the trail starts to flow – before slapping you in the face to remind you to keep your wits about you. The descent proper starts after a few kilometres of this, and ups the ante with steeper, rootier, and twistier surprises every few metres after you think you can relax. Never relax! A high-speed fireroad descent ends the fun, and you can cruise back to the carpark at the bottom in a few minutes from the end via the road. One of the best natural trails in Welly and New Zealand, without a doubt.

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Mount Victoria

Mount Vic is a true blessing for Wellington. From the very heart of the city, if you look up you can see it sitting there, just begging you to come up and enjoy her goodness. The trails there are so good that a round of the XC World Cup was held there in 1997, and National series races are still held there to this day. There are nice and wide and accessible walking/riding tracks that suit all levels, but it’s when you start looking off the sides of the steep slopes that you discover the real gems. Riding these is best done with a local to guide you and warn of the impending drops, chutes, and technical challenges that abound on trails like A, V, Damian’s, and Boobies. There are, of course, stunning 360º views from the lookout at the top of the hill, which is also the start of the Super D track and the best place to commence each run down the various combinations. It’s easy to put together a half dozen different runs in a couple of hours, and then roll straight into the CBD to re-fuel at any of the myriad craft beer bars or pubs. It’s a lunchtime favourite too, as you can be out of your office and bombing world-class singletrack and back at the desk in the time it takes your colleagues to eat their sandwiches and read the paper. We are blessed by Mount Vic. Praise be.

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When the riding is done:

There are so many great places to ride in NZ that it’s hard to choose the ideal location to base oneself to live a mountain bike lifestyle. So when I was making that same decision back in 2007, it wasn’t just riding that I had to factor into the equation. Sure, it was right at the top of the list, but living in a town with amazing riding and not much else going for it can only sustain one for so long. Hence, when all was added up, Wellington ticked all of the boxes of a city that could sustain and entertain me on more than just one level.

Known as one of, if not the arts capital of NZ, Wellington has a plethora of theatres, cinemas, bars, cafés, and of course the National Museum, Te Papa. There is a vibrant bar and live music scene, with craft beer not only being served in abundance, but brewed right in the city by some of the country’s best and most decorated brewers. And we all know that mountain bikers love a good brew after a day of amazing riding, so why skimp on the quality of the beer?

There are countless internationally renowned restaurants and so many choices of fantastic eateries that I’m still working my way through them all! And if you like coffee, well you’re in heaven here: Wellington has more cafés per capita than New York City. And yes, the coffee is also recognised as the best in the country and also world-beating.

Five things you must do in Welly:

Only five? Talk about making it hard! Luckily, a lot of the great things to do and see in Welly can be done while you’re out shredding the awesome singletrack, like taking in the views from Mount Vic and Brooklyn and dropping into some of the amazing bars. But you also should get a fix of culture and history, and there is no better place than the National Museum of Te Papa. Located on the stunning harbour waterfront, it’s hard to miss and you can get there easily from anywhere in the city by foot. That’s probably one of the best things about the city, the ease of being able to walk from one edge of the city to the other in no time at all. While you’re down there, you can cruise around the farmers’ markets and food stalls on the weekend, sit around on the edge of the harbour and take in the beautiful sights and people, walk along Oriental Parade promenade with an ice cream or coffee, and just be in awe of the beauty of the city.

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For a bohemian nightlife experience, check out the bars in Cuba Street, many tucked away behind nondescript doors and down or up narrow staircases, leading you into unknown worlds of live music, funky bars, and dancing and dining. For an upmarket but relaxing drinking experience, try the Matterhorn, or for a more grungy kind of vibe the San Fran Bath House is worth a look. Havana Bar at the top end of Cuba and around the corner has a wicked tapas menu, fantastic cocktails, and eclectic DJs and bands. Just near it are Laundry, an old, you guessed it, Laundromat that has been converted to a funky little dive beer bar, and Fidel’s, a café with a sunny outdoor area perfect for a pre- or post-ride coffee or a late night tipple. Midnight Espresso, further down Cuba, is another Welly institution with great food and coffee and old school video games and pinball. There are way too many cool bars and cafés to list, but a few other favourites are the Little Beer Quarter, Golding’s FreeDive bar, and the Rogue and Vagabond. These are all within five minutes’ walk of each other and all offer fantastic atmosphere and some of the best beers you’ll ever taste anywhere in the world.

At the lower end of town is Courtenay Place, hugely popular on the weekends for clubbing among the younger set, but still with some great bars as well. The Malthouse has a huge selection of craft beer, The Library is a very cool and laidback cocktail/wine bar, and Hawthorn Lounge transports you back to the roaring forties with its mix of boho décor and the best Old Fashioneds I’ve ever tasted, made by bartenders who look like they’ve stepped straight out of Al Capone’s Chicago.

Even when it’s blowing a gale and a cold rain is stinging your face, Wellington has a certain magic about it that draws you in and keeps a hold on your heart. It certainly has with mine, and a day never goes by without me commenting or thinking to myself, “What an amazing city we live in.” I came for the riding, and stayed for the riding, the culture, the entertainment, and of course the fantastic people who’ve welcomed me and became my dear friends and kindred spirits. And we’ll welcome you too, anytime.

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Who am I?

An Australian who came the other way (as a lot of Kiwis are wont to move to Australia), Brett Kennedy has been living in the Windy City since January 2007. Initially only staying for a two-month road trip, the lure of the capital’s singletrack and vibrant city life tempted him to stay longer (at least three months). Eight years later, it looks like the draw has become a powerful magnetic force which isn’t going to let go any time soon.

Brett is the Editor of Spoke Magazine, New Zealand’s premier mountain bike publication with a strong emphasis on stunning imagery, design, and content which pushes the boundaries of the typical cycling press.

Photographer Caleb Smith started Spoke in 2001, and has continued to drive the magazine to its position as a world-renowned and respected entity in the mountain bike media stratosphere. His images have graced covers and pages of several international magazines, and they continue to define the Spoke look and feel with the signature style you can see here.

Words: Brett Kennedy Photos: Mike Hopkins, Caleb Smith