Saturday, November 15, 2014

New Zealand's Energy Drink-Fueled Freeride Evolution

New Zealand—Aotearoa: land of the long white cloud, face tattoos and lesser litigious opportunities. As a cyclist, these three seemingly unrelated factors come together to provide ideal conditions for mountain biking…and the more extreme the mountain biking, the better, it seems.

The weather—while a little cooler and damper than southern Australia—in conjunction with some very porous volcanic soil, makes for excellent trail-building terrain. The forests are lush, the soil is easy to shape and the trails are built to last whilst also enjoyable to ride, a balance not often achieved in Australia.

Maori tribal face tattoos debuted on the cycling scene in 2005 when American road cyclist David Clinger famously adorned himself with a piece that generated quite a lot of controversy over in the U.S. His American-based team requested that he have the tattoo removed—he eventually declined and instead moved teams. And while a New Zealand-based team would have done little to help Clinger avoid a lifetime ban (after testing positive for clenbuterol while already on a two-year ban for testosterone and modafinil), perhaps they might have at least been a bit more accepting of his decorative facial art.

David Clinger—former professional cyclist, convicted doper and all-round nice guy.

In the legal world, New Zealand is well known for the difficulty that litigants have in winning negligence suits against operators of dangerous activities. Compare this with somewhere like Australia, where a (now rather unpopular) mountain biker filed a writ against Parks Victoria in 2011 after injuring himself on some tree branches at the You Yangs MTB Park. Thankfully he lost the case, sparing the mountain bike community any stifling over-regulation that may have resulted if a precedent had been set. In New Zealand, by contrast, you could ride off an unmarked kicker on a blind corner, plunging over the side of a cliff face into an active volcano filled with angry sharks—if they put a Red Bull ramp on it, I assure you that many would try—and be quite reasonably expected to take full responsibility for your predicament, given that mountain biking is an inherently dangerous activity.

Among others, this reason is a major contributor to the country positioning itself as a world-leading adrenaline or extreme sports destination. Sports such as Bungy Jumping and Zorbing as well as the almost religious-like pilgrimage tours to fantasy film sets are big contributors to the local economy—nowhere else in the world would a tour operator so easily get away with dropping busloads of over-excited Hobbit enthusiasts at the base of an active volcano for a full day hike to discover the “…vistas of Mordor.”

Basically, the law in New Zealand says that if you’re willing to take part in something dangerous, unlucky enough to hurt yourself and stupid enough to sue the operator, then you’ll be unlikely to win. Basically, it’s the same typical, no-nonsense, good old-fashioned Kiwi common-sense that has brought us innovations such as the bowl latte, the Martin Jetpack and the crazy notion of marriage equality.

Although it hasn’t happened yet, surely New Zealand’s first gay jetpack wedding is not too far off.

On a recent mountain biking trip to Rotorua, on New Zealand’s north island, this focus on adventure tourism was immediately obvious. With its almost endless network of fully mapped, signed and well-resourced trails, mountain biking is highly accessible and the trails are populated by a diverse range of riders, from families on day trips with their children, to middle-aged men successfully managing to relive a youth unfortunately endured in an age before 8-inch coil springs, hydraulic disk brakes and the very notion of a “wall-ride”. Compared to many mountain bike destinations in Australia, the young children riding in Rotorua are equally as likely to be seen hucking off a 6-foot drop in to a slippery chute as trundling along behind Mum or Dad on a trailer bike.

There’s also a sense that Rotorua is fairly skewed toward the more extreme or adrenaline end of the mountain biking spectrum and that the whole town is pretty much fueled on canned energy drinks. Even when driving in from Auckland you can still see the now-faded remnants of the Red Bull wall-ride feature from the 2006 4X World Championships, the track (obviously not deemed rad enough any more) has since been abandoned and is now just a strangely lumpy hillside, almost completely grassed over.

Although now abandoned, the weather-beaten Red Bull Wall-Ride remains embedded in the hillside of the 2006 4X track as a chilling reminder of the fragility of the human spirit—and a life of canned-stimulant dependency.

The landscape of steep, lush hillsides, fast-draining volcanic soil, Redwood and pine forest certainly lends itself to energy drink involvement. As the 2006 Red Bull wall slowly fades, it’s time for another company to fill the void. Perhaps a Monster Energy-sponsored 100-foot gap jump or maybe even a V-energy Double Espresso Kids Trail? It’s never too early to introduce your youngsters to guarana, caffeine and taurine as evidenced by one particularly family-oriented local bike shop (dedicated almost exclusively to kick scooters) that proudly stocked a range of stylish Monster Energy gloves. A little nudge like this is all that’s required to help kids become accustomed to the foul-flavoured, but clearly skill- and image-enhancing, drinks that have contributed so much sponsorship to extreme sports. In New Zealand you can also find a chocolate bar called “Enduro” hinting at just how ingrained in everyday life, gravity-assisted mountain biking has become in this country.

Compared to Melbourne—where you’re more likely to get judged on your adherence to accepted forms of cycling fashion etiquette (such as glasses on the outside of your helmet straps) and correct-height socks with accents colour-matched to your Rapha Gilet—in Rotorua, it’s more about baggy shorts, loose-fitting jerseys, peaked (and more spherical helmets), dropper seatposts and big suspension.

While you might have thought that the smaller wheelsizes (those less than 29” or even 27.5”) were facing extinction, in Rotorua, many trails are actually marked with a recommendation of the wheel size best suited—the basic trend being that smaller wheels are generally considered more suitable for the gnarlier, and hence more desirable, trails.

One New Zealand mountain bike magazine hints that lesser cycling disciplines (specifically road cycling) are perceived by some as an enemy to the fearless, more adrenaline-fueled style of mountain bike trail riding.

And if roadies are indeed the enemy, then the lycra-clad cross-country racers must surely be up on charge of treason in this outright war on fun. Anybody able to derive any sort of sick pleasure from riding up hills, on a hardtail with narrow handlebars and a rigid seatpost certainly ought to be regarded with an extremely high degree of suspicion.

In Rotorua, the mere suggestion of riding your bike to the top of a trail you plan on shredding is usually met with confused looks from the more properly extreme mountain bikers who either take the shuttle bus to the top of the hill or walk up with their bike. To these adrenaline junkies, pedalling uphill is nothing but a torturous and banal exercise in self-propelled manual altitude gain undertaken almost exclusively by fun-hating road cyclists in disguise. Naturally, these sorts of activities should be avoided at all cost as they elicit the notion that the rider in question doesn’t have the appropriately proportioned gonads (either testicles or ovaries) for clearing doubles, railing berms, drifting, hucking, carving, shredding or bombing trails on the way back down.

When travelling to an overseas destination such as Rotorua, it’s best to try and avoid judging the scene based on any pre-conceived archetype of the gravity-inclined segment of the mountain bike fraternity—for example, that of the energy drink-swilling, flat-brimmed-cap-wearing, foul-mouthed, young bogan. However at the Skyline Rotorua MTB Gravity Park (and gondola-style cable car), many of these stereotypes were only further reinforced by the operator’s compulsory requirement for all participants to inhale (or pull as I have been advised is the correct terminology) at least one bong upon embarkation with their downhill bike. Although, to be fair, the Terms & Conditions do provide alternatives for those riders not interested in (or capable of) pulling bongs: if your bike has 6-inches or less of rear-suspension travel and/or a single-crown fork there is the option to instead smoke a spliff in the waiting area or blaze up a compression session on the 5-minute gondola ride to the top of the hill.

With Sign Torque’s Brett Kellett (top) and Kellett Built’s Dean (photographer) putting their local businesses on hold for a week of shredding (seen here on the Skyline Rotorua trails), the Australian economy’s GDP figures will no doubt take a dip this quarter.

Heading out of Rotorua in to the more remote wilderness of the Whirinaki Forest region, the 35km point-to-point Moerangi Trail offers up some slightly more cross-country-focused riding options. There were more than a few occasions where it was reliably confirmed that wooden bridge hand rails were spaced exactly 750mm apart, one member having to very gingerly make his way across each one, lest inadvertently shaving down his handlebars to a width any more unbecoming of an enduro-free-rider.

Even a Dropper Seatpost and 750mm handlebars don’t make the Moerangi Trail any less XC.

It seemed almost impossible that you’d get around this trail on a downhill or enduro bike of appropriately ample handlebar width, although, somewhat perplexingly, at one point further along the route, an empty, weather-beaten Red Bull energy can was discovered half concealed under some leaf litter on the side of the track, evidence that gravity-enduro riders had managed to somehow navigate the trail—perhaps they’d been using prototype versions of the TPC Components Chopper Bar—the ultimate in wide/narrow handlebar technology.

The other giveaway that this trail was not aimed at adrenaline junkies was the smattering of “XXX Danger” signs, which were fairly uncommon on many of on the steeper, gnarlier trails back in Rotorua. These signs offered advanced warning of obstacles such as large trees that had fallen across the trail or sharp corners that would come up suddenly and whose miscalculation could see you drifting off the side of the hill into a stream at the bottom of a rocky chasm. Occasionally there’d be a warning sign for what appeared to be no reason whatsoever, which only served to make me nervous—half expecting to see an angry All Black team hopped up on Monster Energy drink materialise from the lush native bushland ready to rip off our scrawny necks.

Riding a less extreme route such as the Moerangi Trail provides a little more time for contemplation (and a lot less time trying to figure out how to get your arse closer to your back wheel in an attempt to avoid going over-the-bars) and I got to thinking about why New Zealand has become so focused on gravity riding.

One obvious reason is to make up for the total absence of any dangerous wildlife that can make mountain biking more hazardous in other countries. Apparently, there are no snakes, poisonous spiders, bears, mountain lions or angry park rangers in New Zealand.

Even their bushfire danger signs only go to Extreme, which wouldn’t really instil much fear into the canny outdoorsman (or woman). In Australia, our signs do not foretell the coming of the fiery apocalypse until Catastrophic or Code Red. In New Zealand though, there’s rarely a reason not to spark up that spliff mid ride, even at the height of summer, unless of course, you wanted to wait until you’d hiked your bike up to the top of some pants-soilingly steep downhill run to pull a few cones in advance of throwing your leg over the (appropriately low) saddle on your 8-inch travel, bouncy, fun-machine before proceeding to “shred the brown pow”.

So there’s certainly an argument that it’s the inherent safeness of the New Zealand mountain biking environment that has led to the need to add danger to what would otherwise be nothing more than a healthy, fun (and potentially medicinal) recreational activity.

Further adding to the energy drink-charged vibe will be the Crankworx freeride mountain bike festival that descends on Rotorua (down a double black diamond) in March 2015. Previously having been hosted in Canada and France, Crankworx is to mountain biking what CrossFit is to healthy forms of exercise—busier, noisier and with more “whooping and hollering”. This will, no doubt, serve to further support Rotorua’s claim of being one of the world’s most premium (or choicest) destinations for freeride, freestyle, gravity-fed, flow-trail, slope-style mountain biking…and a hot-bed of energy drink sponsorship proposals and negotiation.

As Rotorua continues to rise up the extreme-sports rankings, one thing is for certain—it’s becoming less and less of a destination for lycra-clad, fun-haters with long, fixed seatposts, narrow handlebars and oversized wheels. If you can’t down a 750ml Monster Energy drink in one skull then you should probably just to stick to the bike path. But if you’re looking for somewhere to ride where you won’t be judged for your tribal face tattoos and think you’d like to add a tinge of green to the long white cloud of smoky haze emanating from the ventilation ports on the Skyline gondola, then Roto-vegas is definitely worth a visit. And remember, It’s impossible to get bored in New Zealand because everyone flies around on jetpacks.

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