After two years of bike bags everywhere toiling in sheds, garages and back closets, it’s well and truly time to dust them off and set sail for trails over yonder. We’ve been itching for an excuse to head back to Rotorua and get lost in the Whaka forest, and we think we’ve found it.
There is a run this spring where you can ride the Whaka 100, see a stadium rock concert and catch Crankworx without exhausting all of your annual leave. Where else in the world can you race a marathon XC, watch the world’s best freeriders take to the sky, go to a stadium show and finish off with a relaxing dip in a natural hot spring?
Springtime in Rotovegas
The North Island of New Zealand during spring is simply lovely. With temps hovering in the low 20s, the flowers are blooming, and you’ll probably see newborn lambs bouncing around in the fields as you make your way down from the airport.
“A few years ago, we went over there the week after Cape to Cape (in late October), and the weather was just magic — it was so nice, and the trails were in great condition,” says Giant Australia Off-Road Team rider Jon Odams.
This time of year, the sun stays up to around 7 pm, so there is ample daylight to pack in a full day of riding, a white water rafting trip, some zorbing, and a soak in a natural hot spring.
Rotorua sees about ten days of rain per month this time of year, so you’re likely to have a wet day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t ride; just zip up your rain jacket and head out for a rad day in the Whaka.
“We are blessed in Rotorua to be an all year round bike park. Thanks to our soils which the pros like to call “hero dirt”, they drain quickly when it rains, some trails will get tacky with moisture and no matter what the conditions, it’s hard not to leave the Forest with a smile on the dial,” says Tak Mutu from Mountain Bike Rotorua.
Come to compete: the Whaka 100 – October 21-23
Attracting nearly 3,000 riders, we don’t know if the Isuzu Whaka 100 is the biggest mountain bike event globally, but we also can’t think of many others that have to print 3000 number plates. Founded in 2007, a year after Rotorua hosted the UCI World Champs, the Whaka 100 started as a challenge to organise a 100km race without using the same trail twice. And as the network grew, so did the race.
The Whaka 100 comes from the sadistic mind of Tim Farmer, who revamped the course to be one of the most challenging XC marathon races on the planet, covering 100km and 3,200m of climbing. The route takes in the spectacular Lake Rotokākahi (Green Lake), Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake) and it incorporates some of the most famous trails in Rotorua.
“It’s become a bucket list event, and regardless of your level of fitness, your skills, or riding style, there is something there to challenge yourself,” says Mike Cockin from Nduro Events, hosts of the Whaka 100.
“So many of these long-distance events have to utilise a lot of farm roads and dirt roads to up the distance. But we sit on such a unique trail network here in the Forest. Other than a couple of climbs, we can smash out huge kilometres on the hand-built singletrack that people love to ride,” he says.
This has long been the flagship event, and it’s a physical challenge even for the top tier of marathon racers — but it’s also only a small portion of the race. They are taking it one step further this year with the 160km Whaka Miler (160km=100mi), but there are also 50km, 25km, 10km, and kids events. There’s singles and pairs racing, and even an e-MTB category too. The Whaka 100 has always been designed to be a challenge, so don’t expect the organisers to take it easy on you if you sign up for the shorter races.
“We don’t hit the really steep black runs, but the course does delve into the more technical side of things,” says Cockin. “With all the singletrack, it’s not smooth rolling trails, and that’s part of the challenge because you have to be switched on all the time.
But an event that is difficult just for the sake of being difficult isn’t going to bring people back year after year. The course is challenging, but it’s not unreachable, and there is still plenty of fun built in.
“The Whaka is more technical than a lot of XC marathons in that it is mostly singletrack, but it would still be fun for someone who doesn’t have a tonne of experience. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun for a more seasoned rider,” says Odams, who podiumed in the 2019 event.
“There is so much support for the event out there. You’ll come to major intersections in the Forest, and there are heaps of people making noise, and there are obviously lots of jumps and fun bits of trail. There is a lot of hollerin’ in the Forest that day.”
There’s also a fat tyre crit, the Shootout MTB ITT, and there is a full expo in the Waipa car park.
Come to spectate: Crankworxs Rotorua – November 5-13
And then there is Crankworx, a mainstay in the Rotorua events calendar. The Flow team has been on the ground for many a Crankworx, and to be frank, it is nothing short of a good time.
Mutu from Mountain Bike Rotorua was the Crankworx Event Director for the first two years, but as he puts it now, he’s just a “dude hanging out enjoying the atmosphere.”
“Crankworx has really moulded into a festival where you want to go and hang out for five days, if not for the riding, and seeing the top riders in the world compete, but even just to go sample all the different foods.
My little family and I spent probably two days hanging out in the bottom expo zone, just listening to the music, and then when the music wasn’t playing it would cut to the live feed. There was also a food provider there that did this Japanese Pork Belly Roll that was phenomenal,” he says.
With Crankworx happening over at the Skyline Mountain Bike Park and events running for five days, there is ample time to head into the Whaka Forest, spend some time on the shuttles, or bang out a lap of The Forest Loop. Then you can pedal over to the festival area for some food and beverages, and watch Harriet Burbidge-Smith, Dan Booker, and David McMillan throw down. We hear there are some surprises in-store this year with the tracks and courses, and with so many folks around to spectate, Rotorua will be buzzing.
“There’s always a group of people you can find to go for a drink with, meet up with, or go do one of the other activities around Rotorua (like white water rafting, or bungee jumping). Or you bump into people at a bar or sitting at the table next to you in a restaurant, and they turn out to be riders, and then you go out riding the next day, and you make a bunch of new friends,” says Cockin.
New Zealand has been slow to reopen its border to the world, but Crankworx still ran last year, albeit in a slightly truncated capacity. The international athletes were still shipped in, and went on to compete in the Summer Series to make the two-week quarantine worthwhile, but Crankworx Rotorua ran without spectators. Australians are already allowed to jump the Tasman, but in July 2022, NZ’s border restrictions will be phased out, and the rest of the world can join in on the fun.
“Ten years ago, mountain biking was already popular in Rotorua, but it was only well known with those who bike. Today, everyone in Rotorua, even those who don’t bike, know about the Forest, know how good riding is here and know that it is one of the most popular bike parks on the planet. That has led to an awesome culture where people are jazzed on riding and love to engage. I expect there to be a lot of frothing bikers in Rotorua, and I expect there to be a lot of good times had on two wheels,” says Mutu.
Extra Credit: Stadium Rock Concert – November 12
Also happening in town on November 12, Six60 is performing at the Rotorua International Stadium.
Having played Bluesfest and shows around Australia, you may already know the Kiwi group, but their roots/reggae/soul/rock fusion is bound to get your head bopping. And as you can see in the video clip below, they know how to put on show.
“If you haven’t been in a couple of years, Spring is definitely the time to come because a whole bunch of new trails have been put in, and a bunch have been rebuilt,” says Cockin. “If you’re saying, ‘eh, I’ve done Rotorua,’ it’s definitely worth a second look.”
There is a lot going on in these two weeks, and with the Whaka offering the event you can come to ride, and Crankworx offering the spectacle to watch, AND the border will be open to the world, RotoVegas truly be living up to its name.
Photos: Graeme Murray / Red Bull Content Pool, Destination Rotorua, Kike Abelleira / Crankworx, Jay French / Crankworx, Kurt Matthews / Whaka 100, Cam Mackenzie/ Whaka 100