When the world's best mountain biking festival commits to a 10-year run in a small New Zealand city, you've got to wonder what it is that makes that place so special.
Rotorua is cranking. A small city in the heart of the North Island, it is throbbing with mountain bikers, their supporters and sponsors, gathered together for one of the world's greatest mountain bike events. How on earth did the epic Crankworx festival end up here?
It's a long story we'll make short, because it starts millions of years ago with violent geological forces that dragged the islands of New Zealand to the Pacific Ocean and left it straddling two tectonic plates. Pan forward to today and you’ll see a city settled atop a thin patch of ruptured crust, peppered with bubbling mud pools, steaming vents, and gushing geysers.
From the late 1800s, these natural wonders transformed Rotorua into the country's original tourist resort. Visitors flocked from far and wide to enjoy its mesmerising blend of Māori culture, eye-popping geothermal sights, and the therapeutic benefits of its mineral-rich hot springs and mud baths.
But the city's mix of famous sights and long-standing manaakitanga (hospitality) are far from the only reasons Rotorua has emerged as one of the world's top mountain biking destinations.
Rotorua's off-road cycling revolution kicked off in the early1990s in a forest bordering the city's southeastern fringe. Known as The Redwoods, the vast forest is now the undisputed king of New Zealand mountain bike parks and widely hailed as one of the best in the world.
The park boasts more than 150 kilometres of track threading through the forested hills known as Whakarewarewa, its 70-odd trails ranging from super-easy to outrageous. But this isn't the only place to ride in Rotorua. Another major hub is the Skyline Gravity Bike Park on the other side of town, cut into the slopes of Mt Ngongotaha. And this is where the legendary, annual Crankworx festival has taken place since 2015.
The Skyline's gondola and adventure complex are major visitor attractions all year-round, but when 435 pro riders converge on its downhill tracks and custom-built courses down below, the scene is set for action to make your hair stand on end.
The week-long festival is packed with fast and furious events, from technical downhill races rife with airborne antics and off-camber catastrophes through to the Slopestyle competition in which eight daredevils push the limits of bicycle aerobatics on an obstacle course of epic stature and style.
Four expertly sculpted short courses anchor the Crankworx hub, which also sports an expo area loaded with drool-worthy bike kit. Filling the gaps are food and drink vendors, which fuel up around 35,000 spectators including a whole lot of locals – from all walks of life – who give the festival its local flavour and buzz.
And this brings us to another reason why Crankworx has come here and committed to a 10-year stint to 2027, in a four-stop tour taking in Les Gets in France, Innsbruck in Austria, and Whistler in Canada.
Rotorua's X-factor is a highly evolved mountain biking culture, propelled by a community that backs it to the hilt. And riders from out of town can't get enough of it.
One such rider is Jill Kintner, the reigning Queen of Crankworx. Hailing from the USA, she has visited five times since the World Champs were held here in 2006. Kintner rates Rotorua in her top three riding destinations alongside Whistler in Canada and Bellingham in the USA.
What is it exactly that makes Kintner rate it so highly?
"There’s so much going on. I love the geothermal stuff – it's so amazing and totally unique," says Kintner. "But we come here for biking, and the biking here is just so good."
"I love the loamy trails and big trees. It's all so flowy and natural. And there's good variety, too. You don't have to be Captain Extremo to ride here. You can pick and choose, and the trails keep getting better and better."
And Rotorua's community, according to Kintner, is crucial to that.
"Mountain biking isn't an outlaw sport here," she says. "In other places we have to ride illegal trails, and that's not cool. But here it's embraced. It seems that everyone rides and supports biking – it's ahead of the curve."
With Crankworx settled in Rotorua for a 10-year run, the revolution seems yet to roll on.
About Crankworx Rotorua
- The Crankworx World Tour is a mountain biking festival celebrating the heroes, legends, up-and-comers, and fans of gravity-fuelled mountain biking.
- It has four stops in 2017, taking athletes and fans around the world to Rotorua, New Zealand; Les Gets, France; Innsbruck, Austria; and Whistler, Canada.
- The first Rotorua Crankworx was held in 2015; it is contracted to remain in the city until 2027.
- Rotorua is also endorsed with a Gold Status rating by the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA).