Saturday, March 24, 2012

New Zealand - Mountain Biking in the Queenstown & Lakes District Area - Hammy's Track, Queenstown Bike Park

Mountain biking is one of the fastest growing sports in the Queenstown & Lakes District area.  There are two main hubs - Queenstown and Wanaka - and both offer different styles of riding and trails which complement the other venue.  This means that the variety of riding here is probably unmatched in New Zealand and is certainly on a scale of continuing development with other leading venues worldwide.  The mountain bike grades in New Zealand are similar to those of the IMBA and details of the New Zealand grades can be found here with the mountain bike code here   There are a number of links to national and local sources of information about mountain biking in New Zealand listed at the end of this article.

 The most obvious venue in Queenstown for mountain biking is the Queenstown Bike Park which can be accessed easily from the centre of town by a short ride to the Skyline Gondola.  Here, the rider has a choice of either riding up the Gondola access road (the 'free option') or purchasing an uplift pass at the Skyline Gondola  A personal recommendation is the half-day pass ($45 adult/$25 child) which enables the rider to enjoy the benefits of uplift and concentrate on developing skills in a shorter timeframe and a more productive way.  Bike rental is readily available in Queenstown and on the hill, with a range of passes and bike hire options for all budgets.

Hammy's Track is a great introduction to the style of riding at the Queenstown Bike Park. You can get a real feel of how quickly the adrenalin rush comes as you watch this short film made by Vertigo Bikes (which can be found on the Skyline Website and the content is updated regularly).  Hammy's Track is a grade 3 track which offers popular and accessible riding.  It is supplemented with a range of optional and - more importantly - avoidable obstacles, these are jumps and wooden 'North Shore' style features at a suggested grade 5 if the gnarliest line is taken.  The Kennett guide Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides describes Hammy's Trail on p336 as the easiest and 'most popular track' at Queenstown Bike Park and offers suggestions on other routes.

The route begins at the gondola terminus.  Mountain bikers use a separate entrance to the pedestrian visitors and a water tap is available here for hydration.  The Skyline Gondola company advises riders of peak congestion times so that riders can plan when they take a break, rather than standing and waiting in a queue. Once through the control barrier, staff help riders as bikes are loaded in pairs on to the specialist racks on the outside of the gondola cabins and the gondola cabins begin their 450 metre vertical journey up to the top station. Again, at the disembarkation point, staff assist riders to unload bikes.  It is a tribute to the attitude of the company that so much effort is placed on supporting all aspects of mountain biking.  Moving outside on a metal balcony leads to the starting point, next to the heli pad, and the views from here are simply breathtaking.  The Wakatipu Basin is laid out in front.  The Remarkables, Lake Wakatipu, Cecil Peak and Walter Peak would be very significant features in any landscape; here they combine to astound.

The Vertigo bike shop is located here and offers bike rental and repair.  Useful interpretative signs are located  nearby explaining the bike trails of the Queenstown Bike Park and the walking trails of the Ben Lomond area.  The best advice is to take a few minutes to orientate yourself, then to allow the time to plan out the route and identify where Hammy's Trail goes.  One way of understanding the relationship of the routes is to see Hammy's Trail as a major artery from which the other trails leave.  Remember that it is the easiest trail, so if the difficulty level suddenly increases after passing a junction, it's not Hammy's Trail!

After leaving the station and heading around the luge track, the trail climbs a little and on the right of the trail - and entirely avoidable -  is a section of  'North Shore', before the trail crosses the gondola access road before entering the start of the signposted trails.

A few small dips and turns later, the first significant junction (Vertigo) is reached and then passed, as Hammy's Trail continues to weave and contour around the wooded hillside before emerging into the open.  Here, the forest clearance allows views of Ben Lomond and the alpine terrain above the Wakatipu Basin.

A series of switchbacks allow a loss of height before the track plunges back into the trees.  

Sections of 'North Shore', always avoidable, tempt the rider to depart the riding line whilst huge berms - banked corners - allow momentum to be retained and, always, there is that overwhelming feeling of speed with the edges of the forest blurring beside the track.  All too soon, the halfway point is reached but not before the rider succumbs to the sheer thrill and speed of the approach.  Breathless and elated, there is time to confirm the next section of the route on the useful interpretative signs which, once again, explain the demarcation of the bike trails of the Queenstown Bike Park and the walking trails of the Ben Lomond area.  

 Breathless and elated, there is time to confirm the next section of the route on the useful interpretative signs which, once again, explain the demarcation of the bike trails of the Queenstown Bike Park and the walking trails of the Ben Lomond area. 

The bike trails are all well-marked with named and graded plaques mounted on posts at the beginning of each trail.

Hammy's Trail rounds a small bermed corner and then continues to traverse the hillside, once more weaving its way around the contours.

 At a sharp u-shaped corner junction, a bench provides a place to enjoy the views while a track descends from here to the Wynyard Freestyle Terrain Park.

Again Hammy's Trail contours into berms before emerging into an open area and another corner. 'North Shore' sections seem to abound as the trees thin again.

The terrain changes into an open hillside dominated by scrub and the trail becomes taut with tight little bermed corners demanding careful attention, rollers to pump through, 'North Shore' sections to twist and follow, and finally into the open to meet the junction with the Original route.

A rider takes the steeper descent of the Original trail.

However, Hammy's Trail takes the route of least resistance, a contouring descent to a hairpin berm, and then a straight run.

Always a contouring descent, until the access road is crossed again.  Then it's down again, back into the trees, around berms and through yet more trees.  Then, the Tour-de-Force, a short sweet descent and dogleg switchback to the gondola terminus.

Why do I love riding Hammy's Trail?  It is the sort of riding that always engages your attention.  There is always a new line to take, another obstacle to overcome, and a different experience each time.  The track has features to challenge most riders:- bumps, dips, berms, tight corners, switchbacks, jumps, 'North Shore', fast rolling terrain, small drop-offs and intricate more technical riding.  Nearly every mountain bike skill can be introduced and practised here...for use on more technical terrain later.  More importantly, Hammy's Trail is the sort of track that lets you get into 'The Zone' easily; you know, that place in the mind where everything becomes effortless and the riding flows...  Add in the stunning scenery and, well, it's an awesome combination!

 Hammy's Trail lends itself to being ridden on hardtails and the full range of full suspension bikes; the only questions concern the skills and experience of the riders.  It has to be said that Hammy's Trail is not suitable for absolute beginners with little or no experience of mountain biking.  There are more suitable routes in the Queenstown area where it is possible to learn how to control a bike in a safer environment, rather than being scared senseless and totally out-of-control on a trail littered with real objective dangers.  A better alternative is to invest in riding skills and tuition; there are a number of local mountain bike guiding companies who offer instruction and guiding products to enable the rider to develop the riding skills and judgement to tackle routes at Queenstown Bike Park in relative safety. Kennett's makes very valuable points and it's worth heeding their advice about Hammy's Trail, 'Lots of grade 3 riders are pushing their luck and breaking bones' (Kennett p336) and 'More riders are being carried out of Ben Lomond Forest than any other area in the country.  Just take it easy, and you'll still be riding at the end of your holiday.' (Kennett p338).

Highly recommended for riding in the Queenstown area, and quite useful for riding at the Queenstown Bike Park is the local trail map which is widely available in the local bike shops.  It has just been updated Good general advice for riding outside of the Queenstown Bike Park is to carry a copy of the NZTopo map for the area being ridden too.  A topographical map for this area can be downloaded at or the paper copy is widely available locally  Topo50 map CC11 - Queenstown

The Department of Conservation office, 38 Shotover St in Queenstown, sells maps and the staff are well-informed about the prevailing local conditions, weather and routes.

What sort of personal protective equipment do you need to ride Hammy's Trail?  A conversation with an older rider last year started me thinking.  I was riding a selection of the graded trails that day and was wearing elbow pads and knee pads when I met this 'guru of riding'.  Dismissively, in front of a mixed group of riders that he was trying to impress, he commented that there was no need for such protection because "you don't ride to fall off".  His attitude astounded me because he was wearing a modern cycling helmet, a piece of protection now widely accepted as essential for safer biking, which obviously he didn't need...because, self-evidently, he wasn't going to fall off and hurt his head!  The contradictions of his own argument escaped him.

Let's look at the issues.  Essentially the sport of mountain biking involves personal judgement, control of a bike on a variety of changeable surfaces and the hazard of collision at speed with hard objects.  The faster you ride, the greater the impact forces and, as a result, a higher skill level is required to mitigate the hazards.  An injury to an elbow or a knee can be classed as a significant injury - for example, a fractured elbow offers the serious potential for shattered bone fragments to damage blood vessels.  What steps can be taken to reduce the risk?  Ride more slowly.  Develop skills and expertise.  Take a course of instruction. Purchasing and using protective armour appears, by comparison, to be the easiest and most widely-accepted option.  Does it work?  Well, to return to my riding guru, he is right in one small respect:- nobody intends to fall off.  A helmet, elbow pads and knee pads offer a reasonable level of protection to the head, elbows and knees if, and when, a rider falls off.  So what else?  Gloves.  Glasses or goggles to keep the dirt out of your eyes, either clear lenses or a lens which deals with poor light situations - it's a heavily-forested area, remember. A first aid kit, but more importantly, the skill to deal with the injuries which arise - a first aider's brain is the most-important piece of kit at a mountain bike trauma incident.