A tourist, a holiday maker, an outsider if you will, a visit to Nelson was the beginning of my travel plans for 2015. As soon as I arrived in the ‘city’ I was certain there was a story to be had here. I wanted to look into the substantial mountain bike scene from the periphery but also to immerse myself in it and get to know the community and the people in it. An outsider yes, but one visit to the bike shop and a whisper to my boyfriend confirmed it, “there’s something here isn’t there?” I knew Nelson was a city I was going to find easy to learn about and possibly fall in love with!
A visit to Nelson is probably not on everyone’s list of New Zealand mountain biking spots, it certainly wasn’t on mine until we were invited to stay with Ali (aka Trailaddiction / Trans Savoie, Ali). He was there checking out the area and searching for exciting guided holiday opportunities. To give you a bit of background as to how I wound up in Nelson, it was part of my year long trip, racing the Enduro World Series and doing a fair bit of travelling. New Zealand was the first stop on mine and my boyfriend Adam’s list, Neslon was the start of our whistle stop, 3 month tour of New Zealand ending with the EWS race in Rotoroua as part of Cranworx.
On our arrival Ali warned us that he had been in Nelson for two months now and still wasn’t bored or tired of the amazing riding. Ali spends his summers running his MTB guiding company in the French Alps so if anyone knows about good riding it’s him! I planned on spending about four days in Nelson but ended up there for nearly three weeks! It’s an exciting city with an awesome array of MTB tracks for all abilities, heli bike and shuttle opportunities around every corner and the prospect of a gondola lift on the horizon, I had lots to get stuck into.
Nelson is a city (technically as it has a cathedral) but feels like a large town with a great sense of community. As you would expect there are café’s and bars a plenty, a long golden beach is less than ten minutes from the centre of town and the hills and trails are literally the city’s back garden, 2 minute cycle from the town, no more. Nelson has a population of 59,000 of which 16,000 are known to regularly cycle, don’t ask me where I got that statistic from, I just know it was from a reliable source! That’s a lot of bikers, all out there enjoying the best of the New Zealand weather. Nelson is known to be the sunniest place in the beautiful South Island and it certainly didn’t disappoint for 19 out of the 21 days I was there! The other two days were torrential rain but more on that later on.
Out of the 16,000 cyclists, this certainly shows in the town, take a look at the cool bike rack outside one pub, this wasn’t the only one either! One thousand of those bikers are part of the Nelson Mountain Bike Club, another pretty big number when I think back to the numbers my local MTB club at home draws. The club organises numerous events throughout the year catering for everything from cross country to downhill, with a regular Thursday night series of ‘Super D’, basically one long enduro stage, just raced as one race run, I don’t think it ever really caught on in the UK (I wonder why)?
The main event happening whilst I was visiting Nelson was the annual BikeFest, a two week festival celebrating the beloved of all things, the bike! With events covering road biking, urban cross country (yeah, I thought that was road biking too!), BMX, cross country, downhill and of course enduro, catering for all ages, all abilities and any amount of physicality! To get involved with the celebrations I took part in the ‘Top Gun Enduro’, an enduro race as we know it – three epic climbs and three massive descents, the crème de la crème of Nelson, not to mention the gnarliest trails it has to offer! A trail description comes later but the race was run over ‘Peaking Ridge’, ‘629’ and ‘Maitai Face’ the last being a signature Nelson downhill run with the whole day amounting to about 1900m descent! The race was run on one of those wet days I described above, we were all soaked by the time we got to the start of the first stage, still with only 6 withdrawals, the body count was looking good! I managed to crash in the first stage giving myself a dead leg, staying warm I made it down stage two as well but after stiffening up over the lunch break my left thigh was having none of it and I sadly had to call it a day there. Props to the boys and girls who completed all three stages and also to the organisers who had the guts to run such severe trails in the wet, needless to say it went off without a hitch or serious injury, phew!
I have jumped ahead of myself though, I’m meant to be talking about the main bike shop in town. ‘Torpedo 7’ is a branch of a New Zealand / Australian bike and outdoor retailers. We rocked up on the first day to buy spare inner tubes (the flight baggage allowance had been tight) and to find out where to ride. We soon realised we had whiled away an hour chatting to the uber friendly staff, all enthusiastic bikers. We were finding in Nelson that everyone loves to help other people out and the shop was no different, at one stage letting us into the workshop to true up one of my Enve rims.
On finding no-one had the specialist tool, Mark from the store called Brad of B-Rad Bike repairs from down the road who dropped the tool in for us – now that is service and teamwork! We obviously then ordered that damn tool for ourselves which arrived in less than 2 days. Weekly shop rides were on a Tuesday, after going along to one of these Adam and I quickly found ourselves integrating into a cool load of bikers, there was always someone to ride or shuttle with from then on. ‘Nelsonians’ are only too happy to have you along with them to shred some trails and word has it that these guys were ‘shredding harder and more often than anyone else’! Two ladies from this crew had a reason to be shredding long and hard – Raewyn Morrison and Meggie Bichard (above) are both aiming their sights at EWS top 10 finishes this year, the riding in Nelson will certainly set them up well for it.
I was warned before setting tyre on the trails of Nelson not to feel deterred if I felt really slow and thoroughly unfit, all the riders in Nelson were at the height of their summer and had been getting loose on trails in the sun for quite some time now. They were right, just about everyone in Nelson was an absolute pinner but also the most down to earth and inclusive people I have ever met. First on our list of Nelson trail delicacies was ‘Codgers MTB Park’. The park, built on land belonging to the local council and maintained by the club was an excellent introduction into what was on offer here. An array of smooth, flowing trails with a great view of the city and the sea from the top, just what you need for the first ride on your bike after a long journey. Up in Codgers, we also met Nigel, enthusiastic club member and born and bred Nelsonian. Throughout the next two weeks Nigel took us to see other trails in the Stoke and Richmond hills (suburbs of Nelson), even treating us to beer and cake after – I told you these guys were cool didn’t I?!
Armed with the book written by Steve Newport (aka Helibike Nelson), Nelson /Tasman Mountain Bike Tracks and with the approachable people you find along the way you are pretty much armed and ready to experience the Nelson trails. A good second warm up is to take on a lap of the Sharlands MTB park in the Hira Forest. This forest is huge, stretching over squares and squares of kilometres of forest. The trails starting from Sharlands Road are all mapped out and a great loop begins with a 9km fire road climb and then 11km of superb singletrack back down to the valley floor. The MTB club also maintain the trails here, they keep a nice mix of grade 3-4 tracks (so a blue to red runs in English terms) excellent fun in the wet or dry! The Hira Forest is also home to Nelsons downhill trails with riders regularly able to shuttle themselves and their friends to the top, especially accessible if you know the right people and those people own a gate key!
With all appropriate warm ups done, getting your switch back ‘eye in’ and after acclimatising to the sunny Nelson climate you are probably sufficiently prepared to take on some dusty trail gold in terms of ‘Peaking Ridge’ and ‘629’. We rode half of the ‘Dun Mountain Trail’, a historic tramline deep in Nelson beech forest and then hike a bike’d the last part up to the top of Peaking Ridge. At one point in a not so distant history the 45km Dun Mountain Trail accommodated a railway system, allowing pack horses to tow carts up the mountain to collect cromate and return it to the ports.
From the top of Fringed Hill (Nelsons doorstep big one!) after nearly 700m of ascending, the descent of Peaking Ridge starts in relatively flat territory, the first section is near on impossible to negotiate roots, which soon set the standard of what was to come. These roots are huge but immensely grippy in the dry, a rider well versed in hopping and jumping over features, staying as smooth as possible would do well here! The trail soon takes a turn in the downhill variety, presenting the rider with multiple line choices, inviting you to play a kind of Russian Roulette! The roots on this track are insane, there is precious little time on this trail where one part of your bike (or if you are unlucky your body!) won’t be touching a root!
At the beginning of my time in Nelson, I walked at least five parts of this trail, by the end of it I cleaned it all, there is simply no better feeling than that! ‘629’ is a completely different kettle of fish, starting in a similar place to Peaking Ridge, its steep with switchbacks galore over logged forestry land. Although less rooty than Peaking Ridge, 629 is another step up in the gnar department. The top of the trail in the natural bush is relatively straight but steep with precipitous edges and some exposure to the cliff edge. The lower half is well built into a large area of terrain that has been logged in recent years. The hairpins here are crazy tight and what felt like near on vertical, I needed a certain amount of courage to get down them! The locals in Nelson say ‘if you can ride Nelson you can ride anywhere in New Zealand’, that may Just be the locals blowing their own trumpets but I hope they are right!
Once finished with all that pedal power getting up to the ridge at 700m, Heli biking or a shuttle is no doubt top of the list. We went out on Steve Newport’ ‘Big Day Out’ to ride the Rameka Track. Steve runs an awesome service called Helibike Nelson, picking a group of riders up from Nelson centre at 8am, transporting them out to the trail head at the top of the descent and then collecting riders from the bottom. Our day was shared with 15 other riders of all abilities, boarding Steve’s 4×4 minibuses and trailers in a Nelson car park on a beautiful summer’s day we set off armed with sun cream and an appetite for descent.
Steve has been in the business for over 10 years and certainly knows what he is doing. The days plans were well laid out, with various options along the way depending on the groups wishes, so XC loop or just downhill, extra shuttle versus swim in the lake, beer versus ice cream. We chose XC and downhill, a swim and both beer and ice cream! The Rameka Trail starts high in the Able Tasman National park, just to the north west of Nelson, the trail finishes even further west in Takaka making this trail a nightmare to do on your own without a shuttle, a very long, hot road slog followed by an 11km fire road climb before you even got to the top. After an en-route coffee stop and being dropped at the trail head we all went for a loop of the scenic Caanan Downs, this was then followed by lunch and a walk over to Harwoods Hole, a 176m deep cavernous chasm, with no health and safety barriers in sight we managed to walk right up to the edge and if the nerves held peep over the edge, nuts!
Some of the riders missed the walk and set straight out on the descent of the Rameka Trail, bombing down after them we were in single track heaven! The trail begins in native bush high in the Able Tasman national park, it has a relatively flat start where picking out sweet lines and places to pump speed is the order of the day. The woods open out revealing beautiful mountain views towards Takaka and the valley below and the descending starts proper. Delving back into woodland the trail winds down through smooth forest singletrack before hitting a series of open, dusty switchbacks onto the valley floor.
The trail continues down along the riverside with various harder line options thrown in, finishing up as the river meets the road near to the town. A great natural trail with speed making it as hard as you want it, what a gem! High fives all round, we jumped back in the van grinning and sweating and Steve took us down to a cool and shady swimming spot, equipped with rope swings for a breaktaking cold entry into the water! For just $65 what better way could you think to spend your money? When you see him remember to ask Steve about regular Fringed Hill shuttles or a heli bike to the Wakamarina, Kill Devil or Ben Nevis trails. The beauty of heli biking in Nelson is that it will cost you much less than in the more popular and tourist ridden areas, you will have to share the trail with far fewer people and the riding and scenery will be just as epic!
The city of Nelson is looking forward to a bright future where biking is concerned. At the moment it is a thriving, bustling, working town and although tourists are present they certainly don’t show their mark. In a few years’ time it could well be the proud owner of its very own gondola. I met with the main driving force behind the project, Jo Rainey to find out more. What I found out is astounding, Jo, some other keen bikers and an ex gondola owner with useful skills (accountant / engineers) are pioneering the project to buy, install and run the gondola on Fringed Hill alongside their full time jobs! Jo states he wants Nelson to have ‘an attraction’, something people know and remember it for, an exciting and different adventure for the city. The project proposes to have an enclosed gondola style lift taking visitors from a point just 5 minutes drive from town to the top of the hill, 620 vertical meters – longer than the Skyline Gondola in Queenstown! The project is set to cost $15 million and is currently in the planning stage, expected to last 2 or so years with then a year on top to construct. It will have all the regulars associated with a lift, restaurant, purpose built MTB trails and education centre. Jo states the lift will be run all year round, it will be family friendly, bike friendly and enable people to access the great walking, tramping and MTB trails Nelson has to offer.
Jo is aware that the presence of the gondola will automatically liken Nelson to Queenstown further south and its bike park heaving with people. Jo like many of the people I spoke to are not worried that Nelson will become the tourist ridden hotspot though, they know that Nelson has its own identity as a functioning city. The draw of more tourists will be a great boost to the economy and add ‘another string to Nelson’s bow’ but it won’t make it as unrelenting and impersonal as Queenstown is. After a visit to Queenstown I can see and agree with their point of view. From the plans I have seen and with Jo at the helm I am in no doubt that this project will be a success, money wise the lift needs 70,000 visitors a year to be viable and with currently 500,000 per year already attracted to Nelson the future certainly looks bright, I can’t wait to go back and give it a go!
With both the pioneers of the lift project and the hardworking people of the biking community, Nelson is an exciting place to be in the coming years. Personally I loved the town, its large enough to be diverse but small enough that the biking community is really close knit. I’m not the only one to fall for Nelson though, I met many ‘Pommes’ (term Kiwi’s use for Brits settled in New Zealand). Not all mountain bikers though but they are all here for one thing – lifestyle. Nelsonian’s know how to balance life and work, money versus good times. They have their priorities right and are living each moment to the full, taking full advantage of the playground this beautiful country provides for them.
Words: Rachael Gurney Pictures: Digby Shaw/Sven Martin