Words: Anna Beck  Photos: Tim Bardsley-Smith

It was probably as little as 10 years ago that if you asked an Aussie about Rotorua they would mention geothermal activity, or Maori culture. Always a tourist destination, the town— located in the north island of New Zealand—had people seeking it out as early as the early 1800s to experience the healing quality of the hot pools, witness the geothermal wonders and observe the Maori performances and practices.

Within the past decade, though, Rotorua’s tourism has gone from strength to strength and if you posed the question now, many people would be able to list the region’s network of world-class mountain bike trails as a key feature.

The trails and mountain biking community is so strong in New Zealand that for the past three years Rotorua has been host to one of mountain biking’s largest festivals - Crankworx. It brings professional enduro, downhillers, freestyle riders and bike fetishists of all shapes and sizes to New Zealand’s hub of mountain biking.

We had been visitors to ‘Roto’ a few times before, but never during Crankworx. In fact, we hadn’t been to any of the Crankworx world tour events before, so we weren’t entirely sure what we were in for - but it was sure to be a good time.

Tak's Vision

How did a little town known for hot springs and geothermal activity become a hub for mountain biking in New Zealand? The development of Rotorua as one of the best-known MTB spots in the southern hemisphere has been no accident. One of the driving forces putting Rotorua on the map for mountain bikers is Takurua Mutu; owner of Multi Day Adventures, Mountain Bike Rotorua and event director for Crankworx Rotorua.

We caught up with Tak, as he’s better known, for a coffee and a chat before one of the crowning events of the Crankworx festival: the Crankworx Rotorua Downhill presented by iXS.

Tak’s personality eclipsed the room as we met up at his local favourite - Picnic, on Whakaue St - for a couple of espressos (as an aside, the coffee is good; a solid 8/10).

He began by explaining how much he loves his hometown of Rotorua because, “It’s just an easy place to live”. His unbridled enthusiasm for the region shone through as we talked about Rotorua, tourism and one of our mutual loves: bikes.

Tak got his start in the tourism industry when he was 17, working as a raft guide and throwing himself fully into the adventure tourism lifestyle. A few years later he was offered another opportunity as a medic at the 2006 UCI World Championships, held at Skyline. The super gnarly 4X track claimed many victims and he was right there in the midst of it, and he was hooked.

Since then Tak has been busy. He invested in the business himself, subsequently bought out his partner, then began Mountain Bike Rotorua in 2011. But Skyline was no longer used for cycling after the Worlds event.

“In 2012 or 2013 I put a proposal together and a business plan to run a mountain bike park up at Skyline,” Tak says. “Skyline were not interested at all. I took the next year-and-a-half to convince them that this was a good idea, eventually they said, ‘We’ll consider it’. One of the reasons I think it got over the line is because cycling is such a massive thing here in New Zealand. The current government really wants to push cycling, especially cycling tourism because the value of cycling tourists is quite a lot higher than your average tourist. And they stay longer.”

And they stay longer because there is so much to do in Rotorua, from riding at Skyline to the 100+ kilometres of trails at the Redwoods, and more trail networks up the road at Taupo and Rainbow Mountain. Mix the sore legs up with other key features of the region: rafting, bungee jumping, skydiving, hot springs, luge, the Redwoods tree walk tour and a thriving restaurant scene, and you’re set for the perfect holiday mix of adrenaline and luxury. There’s so much to do, and that’s before scheduling Crankworx in to the itinerary.

The Coming of Crankworx

“We put in a bid to host the UCI World Cup, as a bid after Cairns, but of course that was 2014 or 2015,” Tak explains. “Cairns ended up having to ditch it and so at the same time we had started these negotiations with Crankworx, and when that came up we ditched thinking about the World Cup. We said, ‘It’s like the World Cup, but bigger and more fun - and probably easier to organise!’ The other side of it is to push the sport of mountain biking, and what better opportunity to put Kiwi’s on the world stage, and Aussies too? The barriers to racing World Cups in Europe are just massive, and having this on the doorstep is awesome,” he adds. Plus, it’s often cheaper to travel to New Zealand than within Australia itself. That’s it. We’re sold!

Tak gives me a lift to Crankworx that day, slinging my bike into the official event car. En route he takes a call from a radio station, and does an impromptu interview live to air with so much enthusiasm for Crankworx it’s dizzying; it’s easy to see how this guy has been able to put Rotorua on the map as his zest for the place is infectious. I’m buying into the razzle-dazzle and I haven’t even hit Crankworx yet.

Crankworx is an establishment with a long history, some call it the birth of freeride mountain biking following its inaugural event in Whistler in 2004. Since then Crankworx has gone global, with events now in Les Gets (France) Innsbruck (Austria) and, of course, Rotorua. 

Crankworx claims to be the epicentre of culture and competition in mountain biking and they’re not wrong; Crankworx Rotorua managed to cater for everyone, with events varying from the School Cross-Country National Championships, to Liv’s women’s only trail session down the Mr Black downhill flow-trail; to the gnarly gravity-fuelled spectator favourites such as the Pro Downhill and Slopestyle events.

Walking through the crowd, it’s easy to spot different accents as I spoke to other Australians, as well as Americans and Canadians who had made the trip over for Rotorua’s famous riding and Crankworx festival. One fan, Christine from Canda, had been to Crankworx in Vancouver, and stated that the crowds were comparable to the BC event, the vibe was amazing, and that the accessibility of Rotorua made it easy for the crowd to attend all the events.

Accessibility is a huge one, especially if considering Crankworx as a family holiday option. The main events (Dual Speed and Style, Slopestyle, Whip-off championships) are all held a short walk up from the Skyline car park, as is the final of the Downhill. For better access points for the downhill, you can take the short trip on the gondola to half-way up the downhill course. The gondola is open and free for any Crankworx attendees who are demoing one of the numerous bikes on offer at the expo, and is a great way to have a bird’s eye view of Rotorua and its surroundings. Skyline has multiple runs, including the beginner friendly Hipster DH, big air-time Mr Black and National Downhill course The Fuzz.

The expo itself is a little melting pot of bicycle industry characters; pro athletes hang out and purchase burritos among us mere mortals, while exhibitors keep the crowds engaged between big events. All the large brands had displays - Giant, Yeti, Trek - in addition to smaller tents with interesting locally grown products.

In terms of the events, the athletes inspire awe in their ability to pull off what seem to be superhuman feats on the same bikes we can purchase from a shop and feel cool riding up and down a kerb.

We watched the ‘Mons Royale Dual Speed and Style’, a stylistic mash-up between dual slalom and slopestyle whereby two riders pin it down a hill while intermittently doing flips in the air. It’s as wild as it sounds. We were two metres away from the athletes when Czech rider Jakub Vencl snatched a win in the event. 

The 2017 Official Oceania Whip-off champs presented by Spank was next; this time held under lights for the first time ever. It’s a rather subjective event, judged by a panel of whip experts as to who manages to get their bike the most sideways in the air, and then land it without incident. In the 2017 event, Casey Brown and Reed Boggs were victorious in nabbing the whip-off queen and king titles.

We witnessed the awesome scale of the Slopestyle course; it truly has to be seen to be believed, as do the incredible acrobatic feats performed by the athletes. With a tribute to the late Kelly McGarry (McGazza) on course, it was set to be a special event. Nicholai Rogatkin’s winning run was phenomenal; if you haven’t seen it go viral on social media it’s well worth seeking out on YouTube. Crowds flanked the course and the late-afternoon vibe was electric. 

To watch the downhill we made the most of the gondola to get us up the hill, making our way down the course on the perilously steep slopes where even walking proved a challenge. We watched the riders impressively navigate the man-made ramp and rock sections while pondering if there was enough body armour in the world for us to consider riding down the course ourselves. We watched ‘Sik’ Mick Hannah put a suicide-no-hander move on the final jump, and felt the ground shake as each of the top pro men thundered down the final chute on the course. Watching the downhill is a really visceral experience; if you haven’t done it before it’s a must-do for any mountain biker. In the end, Aussie Jack Moir snatched the win, with Tracey Hannah taking the women’s. Aussies on top all around at Crankworx Rotorua.

We left Crankworx feeling inspired, amazed, and in awe of the feats we had witnessed; the athletes are truly incredible and the crowd a collective of mountain-bike kooks. It’s truly a mountain bike festival that must be on the to-do list, and since it’s just a short plane trip over the ditch there’s no excuse to miss out. The spirit of the outdoors and zest for adventure is strong throughout all New Zealand, but when a bunch of mountain bikers congregate in one town for a festival of MTB then it’s really something special.

Now, back in the land of gainful employment with deadlines and domestic responsibilities, we are busy checking flights in our spare time and crafting our next trip to New Zealand’s hottest mountain biking hub. So what’s stopping you?