There are certain things that you go out of your way to do for family. Taking a trip across the globe to visit them in their hometown is one of them.
I’ve known Andrew and Brendan for quite some time now and despite being from the same small town in South Africa, Andrew Neethling and I only met through racing bikes overseas, probably at Lugano World Champs in 2003 as members of the South African national World Champs team. Since that time he has lived with me or visited me in all the places that I have lived in. Laguna Beach, California and in Bend, Oregon when he was based in the USA or passing through between Norbas and World Cups. Brendan and I also go back a long ways, long before we started shooting photos together for “work” we had a few European adventures or misadventures together. Over the last five years though we have all succumbed to the relentless demands of life and work on the road, racing bikes for them and documenting it for me. It also didn’t help that I moved to the other side of the world.
When the time finally came that all three of us had a spare few days in the busy start of the season schedule we jumped at it. Brendan had just wrapped up the last of his #DEATHGRIPMOVIE shoots across the globe and Andrew was starting on a new endeavour and life adventure with SCOTT. I had been nagging them for years to come visit us me in Nelson, New Zealand and finally it all fell into place.
I have spent the last ten years travelling and shooting bikes all over the world and when it came time to pick a new place to live, (winters in Oregon were just too long and cold) after a lot of “research trips” Nelson at the top of the South Island in New Zealand was chosen. It checked all the boxes; beaches, mountains, community, trails, people, culture and breweries. As the sunniest place in New Zealand and surrounded by three National Parks, it’s already an attraction for most visiting tourists but it is the amount and variety of long, technical and steep bike trails in town and the surrounding area that make it a no brainer must visit for travelling mountain bikers. It offers longer and steeper runs than Rotorua on the North Island and a greater variety of trails with a less “resort” feel than Queenstown further South, basically the perfect town to live in and base myself for the southern hemisphere summers.
While we could have gone anywhere for this “radventure,” inviting them to my new home town felt like the proper thing to do. During the season we never get a chance to catch up and hang out like normal people. Having them as guests meant sharing all the simple delights and routines from home. All the locals secrets; the best breakfast spot, best coffee shop and of course the local post ride pub and fish ‘n chip shop.
With Brendan needing to get back onto his downhill bike for the upcoming World Cup season and Andrew needing to get to Rotorua for his new Crankworx commentary job we only had a few days to take advantage of what Nelson offers. John Parkin, another mutual friend to us all was also out in Nelson, escaping a cold European winter so it was decided to make the most of their visit and do a little filming too. With only three days there was no time to get acclimatized and ease into things, my proposed cure for jet-lag was straight into a day of shuttle runs on some of Nelsons finest in town trails. We hooked up with a local crew and thanks to Hamish we ticked off Fringe DH, Smasher, Keyboard Warrior, Supple Jack and Putakari in one afternoon. This would normally take two days of pedaling to do, read that as “spoilt rotten.” The cameras came out sparingly that day as the real reason I invited them to Nelson was for the following two days riding.
While Nelson itself has great trails, the real gems lie hidden nearby on the fringes. No visit to this area would be complete without riding some of the epic native natural kiwi bush trails. These are rugged tramping (hiking) tracks. No trail sculpting tools have been used to make it easier for bicycles, there are no smooth bits, no berms, no shaped jumps just an old trail scraped out by goldminers 150 years ago to explore the upper reaches of the Wakamarina River and the peaks of the Richmond ranges. It seems these miners knew a thing or two about building trails, the radius of the turns and gradients that made it possible to haul up karts and mining gear is also perfect for bikes that translates into amazingly flowy bike trails especially when ridden downhill. The old trail carved into the ancient beech tree forest has over time naturally evolved into a classic bucket list epic ride. Long descents peppered with roots, drops chutes and hundreds of fern clad twisty turns. It is usually a big five hour pedal one way but since I wanted to give the boys the true kiwi locals experience we used the most practical form of uplift- a helicopter.
In some areas Helidrops for mountain bikes are a big deal that takes a lot of planning, logistics and paperwork with bookings set up long in advance. In Nelson we make ride plans for the next day over beers at the pub and all it takes is a quick call or text to the local helicopter pilot and for less than it takes to fill your car with diesel you can get whisked up to one of the many awesome mountaintops in the area.
With some low cloud cover in the valley the boys were getting nervous that we might have to do the full pull pedal which adds over a 1000 meters and 14 km of climbing to the ride if you do it without a heli. Luckily for them the sound of an approaching turbo prop could be heard up the valley and soon enough a chopper swooped in with reports of blue skies and a clear peak landing above the inversion cloud layer.
Now we must remember that Andrew and Brendan have spent most of their riding lives and now careers riding man made tracks. Mostly machine built widish tracks with line of sight and rideable features that are mainly designed for going fast. Now this track that I had planned for them was nothing of the sort. It’s a full on wild jurassic park ride or rather I should say; Lord of the Rings movie set ride. (A scene from Lord of the rings was actually filmed in the river at the trail end) Natural features with roots everywhere and surprises around every corner.
It took a little bit adapting for the guys, a few blown turns and adventures down some embankments but soon enough they were enjoying this different style of riding to what they have become used to. Andrew was loving the wider 2.8 tyres with lower pressure, giving him supreme grip on the loamy leafy mossy surface. Andrew and Brendan took turns leading it out switching it up each time one of them blew a section or turn. Every now and then we would stop at some sections and they would analyse it like a world cup track, identifying and trying out different lines to see which was fastest.
Despite it being a heli drop, it is still a two sandwich ride and with three big descents and a pedal out it’s always a long day. We filmed a lot on the first descent allowing us to just enjoy the infamous final descent of Wakamarina all the way down to the river. High fives at the end and a fish ’n chips stop on the way home ended the day with Andrew and Brendan finally starting to shake the Jet Lag. There’s nothing a good ride cant cure.
Waking up early again the next day for a completely different Nelson experience. This time a little east of town at the Nelson MTB’s club newly acquired Wairoa Gorge facility. It has an interesting history; previously a completely private bike park for a multi billionaire who has a few other crazy bike parks like this spread around the globe. It has now been made accessible to the public by the Nelson Mountain Bike club who provide the shuttle services.
Imagine what you could accomplish if you had 50 trail builders working full time for five years on a block of pristine NZ bush with a drop of over 1000 meters. All of the trails have been 100% hand built by some of the most skilled trail builders in the world. Besides some dynamite and pneumatic drills for the rock breaking work no machinery or diggers have been used giving each trail a unique hand built feel. With around forty trails and 100km of trails ranging from grade three to grade six extreme it is like Whistler for trail bikes, only better. More like disneyland for bikes.
After three big days on the bike it was time to sleep in for a change then sample the rest of what Nelson has to offer, the cafes, pubs, breweries and beaches. Brendan and Andrew decided that every epic web edit needs a closing boat scene so they commandeered or more like hijacked the biggest boat (not very big) they could find for the obligatory burnout doughnuts or the maritime equivalent for the closing scenes.
It may have only been four short days that we spent together but away from the races it was quality time and we all vowed to make it a regular annual quest. Chasing trails and sinking beers (and boats.)