Around about 1985/86 myself and NZAS workmate at the time Erol Sharpe read a NZ ad advertising Mongoose MTB’s from the USA. Both of us were relatively keen cyclists and had just completed the Steinlager (as it was in those days) Coast to Coast and were intrigued by this new breed of bicycle which up to now we had only been able to glimpse in a few oddball American cycling magazines. Orders were duly placed with Tappers cycle department and the two steel and highly chromed steeds soon arrived. No suspension, 14 speeds, bullmoose handlebars, friction shifting, and Suntour componentry were some of the highlights! The bikes were a hell of a lot of fun and aroused some interest from the local cycling fraternity although most saw them as a ‘Big Boys’ BMX, they were certainly not an instant hit but rather slowly grew in popularity. Over the next couple of years more NZAS employees added a MTB to their toy collection ( Chris Morrison, Graeme Tait and Mike Cooper spring to mind)also my wife Joss purchased an early Pacific model from Tappers and riding around town we bumped into a young Martin Smith who had a Milazo (which weren’t complete Warehouse junkers in those days) Martin became an early mainstay of the club.
From this rag tag assembly the club was born with early informal meetings being held at our old house at 172 Catherine St and the likes of Rob McMurdo of Wensleys fame and John Bath of Gladstone cycles fame becoming early supporters. A number of the slowly developing multisport fraternity were also early members including Murray Thomas and Dave Sutherland. Croz (Blair Crosby) was the first club secretary and was a great source of mirth with some of his wild ideas and theories but also a tireless worker and used to publish our club magazine ‘Fat Chat’ which sadly I have no copies of.
Some of our earliest activities were trips to Macetown, Borland Lodge, Mavora, Pebbly Hills, Omaui, Bald Hill, Bannockburn, Percys Pass, Moke lake and Sandy Point. Sandy Point at this time was seen as a last option and through some confusion we actually rode regularly on the now named ‘Rovers Track’ to Daffodill Bay and back. In fact some of our earliest trail building efforts were on this section of trail which we used for fun and then a regular Monday night 2 lapper Time Trial series.
Eventually Parks and Reserves found out we had been using the wrong area of Sandy Point and directed us to our new home which we all now know as the Sandy Point Mountainbike Tracks, probably the spiritual home of the club (if there is such a thing). Initially we were very disappointed with the new area which we viewed as a scrubby wasteland with little potential for riding. Anyway sleeves were rolled up and with some basic tools we scaped out some singletrack. I well recall the elation on about our second or third working bee when we discovered we had reached 1 kilometre of trail! Over a period of time our network grew to about 3.2 kilomteres of singletrack virtually none of which is still in use today due to the ongoing logging of the area.
In the early 90’s Mountainbiking began to gain mainstream popularity and there was a real explosion of technology and machines available to the consumer as well as dedicated magazines appearing on the bookshelves. Hyperglide chainrings and clusters which no one even gives a second thought about these days provided a quantum leap in shifting performance and when coupled with the now appearing trigger shifting devices brought gear changing to a new dimension. Front suspension began to appear along with some early full suspension models which generally rode like inchworms so it was well into the 90’s that these began to garner mainstream acceptance. Flexstems and suspension seatposts made appearances but never really caught on as well as ‘innovations’ such as elevated chainstays.
Generally our locally produced bikes had been pretty awful. Healing Mountaincats and Worldrider Yaks became available in increasing numbers but were soon overtaken by exotica such as Cannondale, Gary Fisher and Klein out of the States who pioneered the fat tubed alloy bikes which are still common today. From Taiwan Giant bicycles began producing some early full carbon frames with top componentry and which did not require you to mortgage your house to own. Local brand Avanti watched and began to bring out bikes to rival the best imported stuff. This keen competition in the cycle trade continues today where the consumer has a wide range of styles of bikes and price points available.
Our small group began to grow slowly and about this time Dave and Alun Griffiths who along with Gary McKenzie came on board and became regulars. Around the mid 90’s Alun and Gary took over the running of the club and oversaw the continued development of the Sandy Point area as well as other innovations such as night racing.
Our earliest big races took place at the Pebbly Hills forestry block in which we had developed a network of singletrack linked by the rolling forestry roads. In 1989 we held the Pebbly Hills Fat Tyre Classic which to my knowledge was one of the earlier organised MTB races in NZ. T Shirts were printed by my lovely wife and the local field was boosted to about 60 with competitors from Dunedin, Central and Christchurch. A feature of the race was the compulsory wearing of the foam style helmets which was a bit of an innovation in those days. Racing comprised of a Downhill, Cross Country and a Trials event with points being allocated from each to find the best overall riders. The day was finished with a bike throwing competition which from memory was won by Gary McKenzie who had a fearsome reputation for destroying bikes ad gear. Competitors then retired to Tillermans restaurant in Invercargill for the prizegiving and a few beers.
The Pebbly Hills race was a fixture for about 3 years until Sandy Point overtook it for ease of set up. About 3 people used to spend the day before racing marking out and tidying trails so the racing could take place whereas Sandy Point could be set up in a matter of hours. Our major race became a part of the now defunct Southern Series with legs in Queenstown, Whare Flat (just out of Mosgiel) Alexandra and Wanaka and which followed the same basic formula with Downhill, Cross Country and Trials. As well a few one off events such as the Maceton return and specialised Downhill races at Cardrona and the Remarkables appeared. At this stage if you rode a MTB you rode a MTB with no distinction between downhillers, cross country riders or trials afficianados.
About 1991 we held our first specialised Uphill race on the Borland Saddle road which was followed about 30 minutes later by the Downhill Championships. Neil Cleghorn who later represented NZ on the road, won the uphill race with Simon Hunt of Queenstown winning the Downhill. Simon represented NZ at the World MTB champs as a downhiller and of late has been in the news with his exploits as a lawnmower racer at the Lake Hayes Show.
In the same year in conjunction with Waimea promotions and largely driven by the work of club secretary Blair Crosby the first and only Alexandra to Waikaia MTB race was held. This 87 km epic was set on an absolutely stunning course which had a about 13 km of road before a beast of a climb up the Old Man Range at 4700 ft a traverse of the ridge in snow and ice before plummeting down into the Waikaia valley then the swamp and ruts of the Waimea plains before finishing at the Waikaia showgrounds. Some 5 hours and 18 minutes later Dunedin cyclist David Thomson (of Cycle Surgery fame) crossed the finish line in first place followed by Paul Bainbridge of Christchurch with Doug Bath of Invercargill (and later Tour Of Southland fame) taking third spot. The last competitor finished in just under10 hours. Every rider had at least one dicey tale to recount and I think those who finished had a sense of completing an event which has probably been unparalleled in NZ MTB history. Sadly due to logistical problems, safety issues and a huge unpaid organisational load it was never held again. The course is still there………waiting.
The first 3 or 4 years of the club saw annual treks to Borland Lodge at Labour weekend and to the Mavora Lakes area over Queens Birthday weekend. Club members, friends, children and dogs all came along for weekends spent biking, kayaking, running and telling tales (which got more outlandish as the nights wore on). A feature of the Borland trip was our Saturday night Lasagne bake off and over the years a number of epic rides to the saddle in up to knee deep snow.
In 1994 Joss and I moved to Te Anau and the running of the club passed to Alun and Gary. We kept in touch and got some of our students involved in riding many of whom are still active riders today.
It is great to see where the club is today. A dedicated website, Sunday race series which caters for everybody, tracks at Bluff Hill, the 8 hour race, the continued development of the Sandy Point tracks, and still a really nice relaxed and down to earth bunch of enthusiasts to meet and share a love of riding knobby tyres with. Long may it continue!