Wanaka, though, is where the people live. Similar to Queenstown, there’s a lake, mountains, and a downtown that runs straight into the water, but the Wanaka vibe is distinctly local. People greet each other on the street. You hear as many Kiwi accents as international ones. And all the slickness of Queenstown is counteracted with a bit more Wanaka casual. This is a mountain bike town.
Dan McMullan, a buoyant Kiwi with shaved head and a propensity for overusing the Kiwi catch-all “-yeh”, met Jeremy Berger and me on the Wanaka waterfront. Dan runs Wanaka Bike Tours. When asked who’s the best mountain biker in Wanaka, a coy smile crossed his lips and he demurely avoided answering the question. At the end of tours Dan likes to grab ice cream and do a twenty-foot bridge jump into a churning river (we willingly joined). He also spear fishes and dives for abalone (paua, in Kiwi terms). He humbly acknowledges that his girlfriend’s a better surfer than he. Of all the Kiwis we encountered, Dan was top crop. He guides half- and full-day tours, and also coordinates multi-day tours, but today, Dan was taking us for a short ride.
Like surf spots, every mountain bike trail has a name. It’s a colloquial cartography, and where mapmakers named locales self-referentially or based on topographical landmarks, mountain bike trails tend to rise from the experience to be had on the descent. Dan led us up a steep slope, he on a Giant Reign, we on Giant Stance full-suspension bikes, then confirmed that we were ready for Sticky Forest, a beguilingly named single-track park cutting through the pine forest on the outskirts of town. We postured and tested the brakes; Dan took off down trial.
The South Island is nothing if not a sanctuary wilderness made playground. And perhaps the best way to gallivant through the spoils of the landscape is on a mountain bike. The trails, on a weekday afternoon, were essentially bare. The forest lay still, outside occasional exultant screams that came from a few riders careening through adjacent tracks. We were a five-minute drive out of town, and any vestiges of society turned from pavement to packed dirt and stray pine needles.
After our first few descents, Dan paused in a clearing and pulled a stick out to draw on the dirt. He’d sensed some hesitancies in our riding. He wanted us to be better, or he wanted to speed up the ride. Either way, he gave us a quick primer on how to get the most out of our mountain biking experience. We took heed, then continued onward down the trail, with more confidence and greater fortitude than before.
Get Horizontal: Try to get your torso as parallel to the top tube as possible. Position your elbows in push-up position and settle your chest over the bars. It’ll feel like your center of balance is far forward, but fight the fear of flipping over the bars; you probably won’t, and this will help with steering and bike control. Don’t sit back over the seat or lean back, you lose precious control of the bike.
Follow the Question Mark: Cornering is all about entry and exit angles. When entering a corner, set yourself up by turning out away from the corner (if it’s a right turn, you’d angle left), then turn into the corner. Your path should mimic a question mark “?” (bottom to top), and it’ll help maintain momentum and get you around the corner without jamming you up.
Turn with the Shoulders: Since you’re over the front bars, torso parallel to the top tube, your shoulders are lined up with your bars. So, when you turn, aim your sternum at your exit, and the bike will follow. It’ll feel dramatic at first, but once you trust your body to steer you right, you’ll corner much more smoothly, using the lean of the bike, not just a turn of the bars.
Look Up: As with nearly everything involved with speed, look to what you’re encountering next, not what you’re covering now. It takes some getting used to, but eying the exit of a turn or your next bend will get your out of your current situation faster and leave you more mental time to prepare for the next navigation.