Signal Hill has always been a Dunedin drawcard, but these days up to 2000 people each week are flocking there for something other than the view.
Those with a need for some downhill speed are realising Dunedin is a dream place to take their bikes.
According to Mountain Biking Otago’s website, the sport started proper in Dunedin in the 1980s when a group of unidentified men decided they wanted to get out and about and ride their bikes together, rather than just talk about it.
Nearly 30 years later, mountain biking in Otago has taken off and more than 250 people visit Signal Hill each day to ride down its bumpy slopes.
Mountain Biking Otago president Kristy Booth said the number of mountain bikers had increased at a steady rate over the past 10 years and continued to rise.
She believed the popularity of the sport had grown largely due to word of mouth.
Mountain Biking Otago had about 250 members and it was hoped this number would increase further. Signal Hill was Dunedin’s most popular riding area, primarily due to the large network of trails and its proximity to the city centre.
“Families and other people are heading up to give it a go and realising anyone can do it.”It is the sort of sport where during your lunch hour you can go for a quick ride on Signal Hill. It’s unique because it’s so close to the city centre.”
There was a misconception the cost of the sport as a social activity was high.
“If you’ve got a bike then you’ll be able to do it. Racing is expensive and that’s one of the obstacles in getting people to ride competitively.”
She did not have any figures, but the Oceania Mountain Bike Championships in February, which brought more than 200 competitors and their supporters to the Signal Hill course, would have provided an economic boost for the city, as did other competitive mountain biking events.
Cross-country and downhill racing events in Dunedin attracted top competitors from across Australasia and the Oceania championships were used by competitors preparing for the Commonwealth Games.
With the growth in popularity of the sport, Mountain Biking Otago was finally realising a 10-year dream to develop an area at the bottom of Signal Hill into a car park, a kids’ track, dirt jumps and a bike wash.
The work was being funded from donations, grants and years of saving from the group.Mrs Booth’s son is a leading Otago downhill mountain biker.
Calum Booth (18), began building small bike jumps in his backyard when he was about 12.
The Dunedin apprentice electrician progressed to riding the Dunedin trails in his spare time and estimated he rides his bike about 24 hours in an average week.
He got into downhill racing and four years ago he was able to buy his dream $12,500 bike.
He considered one of his biggest achievements his ninth place in the Oceania Championships this year.
In his experience, the Dunedin tracks were “one of a kind” and he was excited to see them continue to be developed and get even better.
“It’s a little annoying to have to share the track with so many people, but it is great for the sport.”
He loved the sport, despite his fair share of injuries.
His most serious injury was a broken radius and ulna in his arm three years ago.
“The faster you go, the more dangerous riding gets. I’ve had a few concussions and broken bones over the years.
“Getting injured is a part of it, if you decide to ride professionally. It’s not if but when. It’s worth it, though.
“Every mountain biker would be lying if they said they weren’t a show off.”
He has no regrets about the sport.
“I’ve met some pretty amazing people. You could name a country and I’ve got a place to stay there.”
Dunedin product designer and manufacturer Stuart Davis and his son Tom are good examples of people new to the sport.
Mr Davis said mountain biking conjured favourite childhood memories for him.He mountain biked as a child and wanted his children to have the same experiences.
After taking his oldest son Tom (11) on a ride down Signal Hill’s Big Easy trail recently, it seemed like his son was keen, too.Tom said it had been great fun and riding down the hill it felt at times like he was “flying”.
“It gave me a sense of freedom and speed. At first I found it hard to turn corners and fell off quite a lot, but it gets easier and now it’s awesome.”
Mr Davis said it was also a great way to bond with his kids.
“I want my boys to have the mountain biking adventures that I’ve had.”
The future for mountain biking in Dunedin seems bright then.
Mrs Booth said following the completion of the Signal Hill reserve car park development, Mountain Biking Otago estimated the number of riders up the mountain would almost double.
As interest in mountain biking continued to climb she hoped Dunedin would one day become a world class destination for mountain bikers.
– Emma Perry
Where to mountain bike in Dunedin
Signal Hill: There is a huge range of tracks for beginner and advanced alike. It also has some of the best views of Dunedin. All tracks are signposted and fairly easy to recognise.
Nichols Creek (off Leith Valley Rd): Tracks for beginner to intermediate riders heading down and intermediate riders climbing the trails. A zig-zag trail through bush is designed to be ridden both up and down.
Whare Flat: Predominantly for advanced riders but still tracks for most skill levels — a network of trails.
Bethune’s Gully: A small mountain bike park, intermediate level riders.
Redwoods/Wakari Creek: Tracks for every skill level, great for families.