We travel to New Zealand to get the inside scoop on one of the best mountain bike events on the planet
Crankworx claims to be the epicentre of culture and competition in mountain biking and they’re not wrong; Crankworx Rotorua manages 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.
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.
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.
Within the past decade, though, Rotorua’s tourism has gone from strength to strength. The trails and mountain biking community is so strong in New Zealand that for the past five 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.
I have visited 'Roto’ a few times before, but never during Crankworx. In fact, I had never been to any of the Crankworx world tour events before, so wasn't entirely sure what I was in for - but it was sure to be a good time. How did a little town known for hot springs and geothermal activity become a hub for mountain biking in New Zealand?
When the world visits Rotorua
The development of Rotorua as one of the best-known mountain bike 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."
“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.
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.
The many faces of Crankworx
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.
What's really cool is all the Kidsworx events - both for those with racing in their blood and those who just want to play. Along with there being plenty of trails to just go and ride, it does mean there is something for everyone at Crankworx.
Eat and drink Rotorua
In addition to all the riding in Rotorua, there is a thriving restaurant scene and exceptional coffee throughout the country: even in rural and remote areas - if only roadhouses in deserted Australian backwaters could be like this!. If there’s a pairing as strong as Thelma and Louise, it’s cyclists and coffee (or cyclists and beer), so it’s worth a mention. We had coffees at Picnic, at the quintessential mountain biker’s haunt Zippy’s (try the veggie bagel), and even sampled an 8% pint at Brew. Nowhere were we disappointed with the quality of the food and beverages. With the relatively recent establishment of Rotorua’s ‘Eat Street’ located on Tutanekai St, there is always a good option for a night out and a quality feed, and during Crankworx week the precinct was buzzing.