There are some universal truths about mountain biking road trips with like-minded friends. They’re fun for people of all ages and abilities, there’s generally something for everyone, and if you go into them with a curious and cheerful outlook you’ll have a blast.
It’s July 2020 and I’m off for an exploratory trip to the Coromandel with my best friend Hasely. We’ve never ridden any of the tracks there and our plans are wide open, defined largely by what looks good on the day.
The beauty of a road trip is hours of fun with some of your favourite people, plus there’s all the joy of riding new trails. And you never know what you'll find.
What we found at our first stop, Te Aroha, was Gum to Native and System of a Down, magnificent, slippery, rooty tracks for an intermediate rider to plumb the depths of their ineptitude.
"Gum to Native! My workmate Lester says this is worth riding," I exclaim upon seeing the sign.
I'd sailed past his desk days earlier and stopped to talk about my upcoming MTB road trip.
"Where are you going," says Lester, immediately clicking into Trailforks.
"You should go to Te Aroha," he declares, zooming in. "Gum to Native is good," he says with the airy confidence of someone who ploughs over difficult trails with ease.
So Hasely and I take that advice.
Gum to Native is a 254m uphill singletrack grind (mind the ledge!) and my winter-softened muscles are embarrassingly lazy on this hilly climb of evil.
"I think this must be the top," Hasely says a couple of times, seconds before the track starts ascending again.
"I don't know if I'd be in a hurry to do this again," he concedes once we reach the Gum to Native summit.
But within minutes his eyes are shining, his back tyre making a pleasingly fast skidding sound as he rips over roots, down drops, around turns and over roots on the intermediate-to-advanced descent System of a Down.
Would you do Gum to Native again, I ask a second time.
"I think so. If I were fitter."
I would too, wanting to see how it felt with lean muscles and grippier tyres, especially over System of a Down.
Overall, Te Aroha is a good park for improving your fitness and if you want to session or charge through more technical areas. The clay, rock, roots, shingle, leaf-fall and mossy surfaces are perfect for fine-tuning your winter riding skills. And beginners can hone their abilities on the likes of Main Trail, Rock Hampton, Moonlight Bridge and The Water Tank Trail.
Next up is a twilight ride at Black Hill in Waihi. It's a fast, flowy park through pine trees and around a lake/river. There's plenty of traction on this day, the ground covered in pine leaves, and a good mixture of climbing and descent.
The trails zig-zag across a hill and if you come in hot on a 29er, you'll need to be in the right gear and take broad turns on the corners as you ascend Le Grinder. Winner Hill is a 121m descent, fast, fun and mildly rooty. If you want something easy for the whole family, try the Ngatokoi Loop, which can be accessed from the carpark.
From there, we head to the Hot Water Beach Top 10 Holiday Park, via the alluring Purangi Winery at Cooks Beach.
There are currently 18 tracks at Whitianga MTB Park, and that's where we go the next morning.
First impressions are good, with Field Mouse, a paddock next to the car park, offering a skills loop for children and adults. Ride around the outside or over the see-saw, drops, or along the mountain biker's equivalent of balance beams.
But we want to explore the forest. The soil is puggy, yet whoever maintains the trails has been throwing time and money at them. Outdoor carpet, shingle and crushed shells have been liberally applied, and there's fresh soil everywhere, evidence of recent improvements, as we do Quarry, Chicken, Tank and Park Lane.
Gee, that was quick. Some of the tracks aren’t on TrailForks or Strava, and we’re not sure where to go. We try what we think is Orion’s Belt, and it’s short yet playful. I'm so sorry Hasely, this is a kids' park. But still, aren't the volunteers working hard?
Then Tophat is a bit of a surprise. It's a short, sketchy, off-camber track with narrow channels between trees.
We head up to the advanced tracks at the summit. First-up is Rumble. By the bottom, I'm slightly pop-eyed with enjoyment. This is a welcome change: Tight, steep clay berms and a bridge that pops you out over another track.
On the way back up, an Italian-Argentinian rider starts talking about our next intended ride - the double-diamond Hi Octane. "But it's steep, so steep,” he says. “And there's a cliff right there that you can go off. And you can't get back up, it's too slippery. You should try Flyer. Ees good."
Flyer is indeed good if you are fearless on a high-velocity downhill with no impediment to speed. In fact, it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to stop, even if you want to. Envisage a straight-line bulldozed downhill track with minimal grip – that's Flyer for the first 100 to 200 metres.
A second round of Rumble is a breeze after that, skidding around corners and feeling quite comfortable over the looser particle clay.
From there we head into Swinger, another advanced track, but more groomed, with a track-builder hard at work on a berm as we roll through to Nuts and Bolts.
There are other tracks, but our next mission is calling.
"Well, Whitianga was a wildcard," I say to Hasely as we head back to the carpark. "I don't know how to classify it now."
Then it draws us in again, because at the bottom, there are petanque pitches, a BMX track, pump track, bathtub boats, a "tea" tree hung with kettles, BBQ area and all manner of activities and artistry. This is a great playground for the whole family and people of all skill levels.
But Whangamata Ridges Mountain Bike Park, with 41 trails, is the place everyone has spoken of, and that’s where we're heading next.
From the start it's clear that we'll have an enjoyable ride.
Underfoot, it’s hard-packed and grippy. No soft mud or greasy surfaces at present on these well-established, fast-rolling trails.
Many of the outer-reach expert tracks are closed for milling, so we stick with the nearby offerings, bobbing in and out of Jellyfish, onto Aqualung, Pipi Run and Cruiser.
Tube Cruiser is a fun ride with progressively bigger drops, while Pipeline is a frothy flowing run around berms and over jumps. Anaconda starts with a chute that spits you out onto a quick descent during which you can launch off tree stumps and well-built drops.
Fritz takes us up to Tsunami, which we head down before turning off to Undertow. The two tracks offer hard-packed flowy goodness with jumps, drops and groomed berms.
One of the nice things about travelling with friends is that they each bring something different to the experience.
Hasely has homing pigeon instincts and he notices everything, even when he's tearing along at top speed. It happens disconcertingly often when we're halfway along a trail.
Why are we stopping, I ask, coming to an abrupt halt behind him.
"Look at these cool puffballs," he says, studying the ground.
Hasely, why are we stopping?
"Look at that kereru!"
Why are we stopping?
"I thought I might do that jump."
Why are we slowing down?
“That hill looks interesting. Should we drive up it?”
But sometimes he just lights up and rides, and now looks to be one of those times.
We're homeward bound, along Hauturu. Stymied by the better part of a year off the trails due to a smashed up shoulder, covid and winter, I've been slow, unfit, undercooked, but I'm finally hitting my straps. This will be a good run. A Strava-worthy run.
We're streaming along in that perfect feeling of flow when you're at one with your bike.
Then Hasely screeches to a halt mid-trail.
What are we stopping for?
"I saw a morepork."
There is indeed an owl in the tree next to us. Hasely takes photos and we ride out. I want another crack at Hauturu, this time at pace.
We ride back up then glide on in.
Everything feels right. My Trek Top Fuel is skimming along like a champ. Then I grind to a halt, Hasely's blocking the track and staring peacefully into the same tree we’d stopped beside minutes earlier.
What are we stopping for?
"Old mate, The Morepork, was flying in front of me again,” he says with interest.
"Do you want to try to do a fast lap of Hauturu?" he asks, resuming at a slow roll.
"No, I give up. Let's return and do Bluebottle. That looked fun"
It's mid-afternoon and we'll only have a twilight taster of Moanataiari in Thames.
It’s a well-signposted pine and native forest, and although the tracks are littered with dead punga fronds on this occasion, the trails underneath are firm and grippy.
Outback Loop and Dragon's Tail are a pleasant cross-country ride through native trees, which emit that fantastic earthy smell you notice on colder days, then we enter Pit Fall – a quick downhill run, much like Flyer in Whitianga, but shorter and grippier.
It’s nearly dark, so we finish with St John's Run, a fun downhill trail with nice berms, drops that get bigger as you go down, and easy options around all the harder features.
And just like that, the weekend is over, already another memory.
But there will be more, and they don’t need to be governed by the season. In the central-to-upper North Island alone, there are a number of MTB parks that barely show the effects of winter rain – for a start, places like Woodhill in Auckland, Craters of the Moon in Taupo; Whangamata and many of the tracks at Whakarewarewa Forest (Redwoods) in Rotorua.
New Zealand is an MTB wonderland, with the Trailforks app showing 4616 trails covering 9695 kilometres, and plenty more that haven’t been uploaded.
There is so much to explore on road trips, from townships and countryside to cafes, bars and local activities, and you’re sure to find new, favourite trails along the way. Go hard or go easy, and ride constantly or intersperse it with other activities – the choice is yours.
So what are you waiting for? Grab some friends, gear up, pack your favourite bike and away you go!
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