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How to Build a World-Class MTB Destination

December 18, 2015

Over two days, Mt. Buller played host to the ‘who’s who’ of mountain biking throughout Australia, and further abroad. Crossing the ditch to speak to the delegates on Day 1, Dave Donaldson, Deputy Mayor of the Rotorua Lakes Council, shared invaluable insight into the evolution of one of the best mountain biking destinations on the planet today, Rotorua NZ.

We caught up with Dave after his talk to find out a little bit more about his involvement in the development of Rotorua as a world-class mountain bike destination. Dave spoke about many things: the plan to grow mountain bike tourism’s contribution to the Rotorua District GDP to NZ $1 billion by 2030; how they have managed to create strong relationships with the local Maori community; how to build a world-wide reputation within the mountain bike industry, and so much more.

In 2013, Rotorua was named by Red Bull’s magazine, the Red Bulletin, as one of the top eight mountain biking destinations in the world. When you consider that Rotorua lies at the centre of one of the southernmost countries in the world, and that the population of Rotorua sits at just 65,000, their inclusion in the top eight might at first come as a surprise. But when you factor in that an average of 10,000 visiting bodies sleep in Rotorua beds every night, there has to be a good reason why.

The reason?

Well it boils down to a well-coordinated combination of reasons, and in Dave’s talk he covered more than a few. But the first thing mountain bikers think of when they think of Rotorua is trail. Rotorua is home to 150km of single track, 10km of gravity trail at the Skyline Gravity Park and over 80km of additional trail on DOC land. That’s a lot of trail. And the best part…it’s not all about quantity.

Mountain bikers in Rotorua first started building trails in 1989 in the Whakarewarewa Forest – home to the famous towering stand of Redwoods. Back then, mountain biking was a niche sport: 10km of trails were maintained by the few local riders who started the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club.

2015 singlespeed champs rotorua

2015 Anzac Centenary NZ Singlespeed Champs

Dave Donaldson got involved with the club originally because of a running injury, finding the bike to be much kinder on the knees. He joined the club and in ’94 cop-opted as Club Secretary, going on to become Club President from ’95 -2003.

At that time, Dave worked as a police officer in Rotorua. It was his role in the police, he said, that led to the realisation that in order to understand the people of your community, you first needed to understand their culture, and ideally their language.

Creating Strong Community Relationships

Management of the Whakarewarewa Forest has changed hands a number of times, Dave said, but was returned to the Tangata Whenua (the people of the land) in 2008, under a Treaty of Waitangi Settlement. The one condition being that the public still had access to those trails for hiking, horse riding and mountain biking.

Dave spoke about the importance of respecting Tikanga Maori (Maori custom) and the integral part local Maori played in the building of Rotorua as a world class mountain biking destination.

“Tikanga Maori is important for enriching our trail network… The growth in Maori participation in outdoor recreation in Rotorua over the last twenty years has been simply outstanding.”

The growth of Rotorua into a world renowned tourism destination was gradual. In Dave’s own words, “The development of Rotorua was ah…what they call ‘organic’, which is – I think a flash – word for ‘ad hoc’…”

Mountain Biking in Rotorua has grown to be such a successful and sustainable industry through the creation of world-class trail, through the forging of strong relationships within the community (and on a National level), and by ensuring that their reputation is treated with the same degree of importance as their brand.

And as Dave said, it helps that a good portion of their 65,000-strong population is passionate about mountain biking.

That first club has since grown and expanded. There are now five clubs in Rotorua supporting mountain bike riders of every discipline and division. Women’s groups are in full force: groups like Frocks on Bikes and Revolve Cycling are growing and are well supported among local Rotorua riders.

Dave Donaldson is the coolest mayor in rotorua

Opening of the 'Green Corridor' through Rotorua's CBD making transport by bike even safer and easier.

But passionate riders are not enough on their own. Transforming your city into a world-class mountain bike destination, unfortunately, doesn’t come cheap.

Funding a World-Class Mountain Bike Destination

The Rotorua Mountain Bike Club receives direct annual funding from the Council, which they then leverage to local businesses in order to gain additional funds that they put towards the ongoing maintenance of pre-existing trail, and the development of future trails. The Skyline Gravity Park, on the other hand was 50% funded by the Government Tourism Growth Partnership Fund, a $225,000 investment from the NZ Government. Dave explains that governing bodies are more than happy to provide funding when strategy is precise and well developed, and when the benefits to the local community – and indeed the country as a whole – are reflected in the outcome of that spending.

For an industry that grew ‘organically’, Dave and the many hands that have worked so hard to create this destination have clearly honed their craft.

So much so that they have recently gained the attention of one of the world’s premier and most exciting mountain biking events, Crankworx. Making its first stop in 2015, Crankworx was a huge success, and has been secured for 2016 and 2017.

But an event like Crankworx isn’t cheap either.

“Crankworx is incredibly expensive to stage. Mainly around the live production of the event, not so much the course construction – because that’s what we do – but live broadcast, and then sweating over the right weather when it comes to slope-style day; whether you are going to have to spend another 50,000 when you go to another day and lose a lot of your walk up tickets… We are the only venue that charges tickets for entry. That’s part of making the event sustainable.

“We think if you pay money to go to a footy match, well, why can’t you pay to come and see world class riders?”

Sustainability is not just about creating events with the potential for longevity, or about creating trails that will last for many years to come, but about working with the environment in such a way that it aims to protect and preserve what is naturally, already there.

back flip at crankworx rotorua

Brett Rheeder's winning run at 2015 Crankworx Slopestyle event. Photo: Benn Bathgate

Reducing the Impact on the Environment

As far as the environment goes, you might first think a trail network of this size would be promptly damned by the Department of Conservation. And it took some time to convince them that mountain biking was a better alternative, to other ‘unwelcome’ activities in the bush.

“The Okataina Scenic Reserve has been shut to mountain bikers for a number of years, the only people who got in were hunters and dope growers. DOC realised that the more mountain bikers that went through there, and the less ‘unwelcome visitations’, the better…and that if the trail is built right and we ride responsibly, the impacts will be minimal.”

Building a trail in the right way means working with world-class trail builders. Clubs and local volunteers work closely with the likes of Empire of Dirt and Southstar Trails to create trails that are not only spectacular to ride, taking you in amongst the stunning natural environments, but that are carefully constructed so as to minimise the pressures put on the native flora and fauna, all the while adhering to strict IMBA guidelines.

Why Travel to Rotorua?

Rotorua is clearly worthy of its many accolades. But then why should you visit NZ instead of making the jump to Whistler, or Fruita, or Nelson?

Rotorua clearly has its key points of difference. Sure it might smell like a bad fart (Dave’s words – paraphrased – not mine), but that’s just an indication of the awesome geothermal network waiting to soothe sore muscles. Rotorua is also one of the few destinations that you can ride all year round. And fortunately, the only thing likely to cause you injury in the bush are magpies, or a poorly timed grip on the front brake going like clappers down a rock garden.

Oh, and the dirt? Well, the dirt is better than dope.

But Dave, we are sure, would tell you to go to all of those other destinations. After all they each have a completely different set of experiences to offer. As Dave said, they are not looking to deter anyone from going to Nelson or from riding other parts of NZ or even Australia. As Dave said, “the more mountain bikers there are around the planet, the more likely they are to come to Rotorua.”

Dave Donaldson riding mtb in rotorua

A big thank you to the team at Mt Buller for putting on a fantastic event and to the Mt Buller Chalet for accommodating us.

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