The Whakarewarewa Forest in RotoruaÂ is absolutely the worst place in the world to go mountain biking. If you ride here, you will go back home. You'll prep your bike for a ride and get yourself to what used to be your favorite local trails. You'll straddle your bike at the trailhead, look down the trail and think "Well, this is a bit pointless."
That's because your local trail doesn't beckon you with the fragrance of spruce. It isn't protected from the sun with a canopy of redwood trees and ferns. Its ground doesn't grip your tires just right.
What I'm saying is that, next to the Whakarewarewa Forest, your local trail probably sucks. I'm sure you love it. I used to love my favorite local trails, too. But within 6 minutes of cruising through the Whakarewarewa Forest, I felt like it ruined my local trails for me. I thought of my usual rides ... mile after mile under a punishing, unrelenting, angry sun through acre upon acre of dried-up Tattooine-like dirt that is practically unfamiliar with concepts like moisture or wetness.
I've ridden in some cool spots like Whistler, BC. But the trails there didn't make me think I'd hate returning to my local trails.
Seriously, This is What It's Like to Ride the Whakarewarewa Forest
I started my ride out by renting a bike at Mountain Bike Rotorua, which is perched right at the edge of the trail area. My Giant Something-or-Other full-suspension bike, some packets of Gu and a map cost me $60 NZ for 2 hours, but I planned to go longer (they promised to make up the difference later). I brought my own pedals and a helmet. Just one thing: I was so eager to get out on the trails that I forgot to get a pump from the staff. This would come back to haunt me. No fault of theirs at all, and everyone was perfectly nice and accommodating.
Anyway, the trails meander uphill, but not consistently. They roll and dip upward. You might gain 100 feet of elevation but climb for 160 feet. Jeep roads radiate up the hill and intersect with the trails. Much of the singletrack is directional, with a general net loss of altitude. I guess locals go up the Jeep roads, then grab the trails on the way down.
So all these trail intersections make it really easy to get lost. And it's easy to lose your place on the map. I made life harder by taking photos of the map before handing it over to my wife so she could hike – the important one came out blurry.
The trails themselves feature lots of changes of direction rather than relatively straight, fast runs. You'll do a lot of steering, and you need to pay attention. There are steep chutes and the occasional drop-off. And you’re going to work hard: I climbed 1,800 feet in about 20 miles.
How was the Rental Bike?
A mixed bag. It was my first experience with a 650B/27.5 wheel. It thought it handled almost indistinguishable from a 26er, which is nice considering the sharp turns and switchbacks. It was also my first time on a 2X11 drivetrain, which I found really agreeable. This one wasn't very well tuned, though, and the chain often wandered in the first two cogs. It probably worked fine in the bike stand, but things change when a drivetrain is under load.
I’ve been on the other side of this equation. There were a few creaks and groans throughout the whole package, too. The Fox fork worked well. Overall, the Giant just didn't have that meticulously maintained feel of my personal bikes – but hey, what can you expect? It's a rental, and it wasn't built part-by-part by a guy like me. And it doesn't get broken down to bare frame and rebuilt regularly like my bikes.
Tell Me About That Missing Pump
Welp. I got a flat. I had a patch kit, but I made the mistake of leaving port without a pump. I nearly brought my own on this trip (I also forgot to bring an SD card for my GoPro, so I took the ill-advised route of one-handed cellphone camera videos).
Anyway, I walked a good way looking for someone with a pump. I went through six riders before finding a few that had pumps. The upside is I got to banter with some nice people. My patch kit and borrowed pump saved the day; the Mountain Bike Rotorua staff seemed inordinately surprised that I used my own stuff to patch the bike up.
I wasn't really thrilled to be out there without a pump, so I tried taking some roads as a shortcut back, and I got really damn lost on all those roads. And my blurry map photo was no help. I actually got to a place where I was clueless about my whereabouts, and I was genuinely nervous. I thought back to my training from Cody Lundin, and cultivated my "party on" spirit – which involved riding back to the last location where I knew where I was – even with legs about to cramp and no Gu left. Sure enough, that got me back where I needed to go. My 2-hour ride had ballooned to nearly 4 ... but the Mountain Bike Rotorua folks didn't charge me for the extra time because of the flat.
So is Whakarewarewa Forest the Worst Place in the World to Go Mountain Biking?
Yes. I have a six-hour race the weekend after I get back from New Zealand. All I can think about is how I'm gonna keep from falling asleep of sheer boredom turning laps on this dry, dusty, barren expanse of trails. I mean, I had strep throat a week before my trip. I haven't been training per se during my two-week trip. But hey – I'm not expected to win. And six hours isn't that long for the physical effort. But man, mentally it will be hell after riding in the Whakarewarewa Forest. I've actually thought about not showing up, but I just can't bring myself to not do something I signed up to do.
I suppose I’ll get over it and start taking my pleasure in my local rides again. But my wife and I have both the phrase “the next time we’re here” already, and you can bet I’ll have some serious mountain bike plans when that time comes. And may it be sooner than later.
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