Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Tama on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:25pm

Four years ago I wrote a feature article for Spoke Magazine about the South Island skifields that were opening themselves to mountain biking for the summer season. At the time it seemed like we were at the beginning of a “great thing” and I enthusiastically predicted a strong future in mountain bikes on skifields.

Earlier this month Coronet Peak announced they would not be opening to any mountain biking this summer, including the popular Brake Burner event and South Island Downhill Cup. They aren’t the only skifield to turn their back on mountain bikers but they are definitely the highest profile.

This got me thinking about what went wrong and since the announcement I’ve chatted with a few key people about the closure. So, partially as penance for getting things totally wrong, and partially as a cathartic process I thought I’d write something up about what I, and other folk I’ve talked to think “Went Wrong” with mountain bikes on skifields.

Note: I no longer have any commercial interest in Vorb, or any other part of cycle/ media industry.


NOT CATERING TO BEGINNERS
This is the major, over arching problem. When you’re a mountain biking enthusiast and surrounded by other wide eyed addicts it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of cyclists are interested in easy, accessible trails rather than the stuff that makes us grin. There are 1.4 million cyclists in New Zealand and I’d estimate that under 0.2% (2,800) of those have ever entered a downhill race. Even if you add the casual shuttlers, freeriders and technical trail riders interested in epic alpine descents the number of riders interested in full on downhill/ freeride runs is a small fraction of the population.

So, to pack the chairlifts with cyclists skifields needed to have catered to beginner cyclists, people who are after something scenic, cruisey and sometimes exhilarating rather than fast, challenging and sometimes terrifying. I rode one of the “beginner” trails earlier this year on one skifield and it was combination of steep, loose, off camber 4WD and narrow off camber singletrack. Personally I found it way sketchier than the intermediate trail, and I was riding a bike with Totems!

The lack of beginner trails stems from a number of problems:
• It is far easier to build an intermediate/ advanced trail than a beginners trail. Beginners trail need to be wide, and have a very shallow gradient and that requires a lot of time and skill to build properly.
• Most trail builders are advanced riders and will generally create trails they will enjoy riding the most.
• Many of the skifields are in DoC land and need to jump through significant consent hoops to put in trails.
• All the skifields I saw started with advanced trails (for the above reasons) and initially seemed to have the idea that the use of the advanced trails would bankroll the development of beginners trails. Relying on a small fraction of the population to subsidise the rest is pretty much doomed from the get go.


UNSUITABLE SEASON TIMES
Most of the skifields were starting their seasons after New Year, which is when a good chunk of the working New Zealand population are packing their wagons and heading home. Desk bound, childless professionals are exactly the sort of people with the money and interest in riding skifields – and they aren’t allowed out of the office to play until Waitangi Weekend. The after New Year opening seemed to be setup to cater to the Downhill Cup riders who race in January but as I’ve already identified they make up a tiny fraction of the cycling population with a couple of hundred riders at each race.


REMOTE LOCATION
Most of the skifields opening to mountain bikers are clustered around the Queenstown/ Wanaka end of the country which has a population of a bit under 25,000. Dunedin and Invercargill are a few hours drive away, Christchurch is 6 hours drive away – and the rest of the country (over 3 million people) need to fly to get to Queenstown. Compare this to Whistler which is 125km from Vancouver, a metropolitan area with a population of over 2 million people.

What this means is for the majority of Kiwis to ride in South Island skifields they need to book flights, box bikes, rent vehicles, book accommodation and generally invest a hell of a lot of time and energy into getting to where the riding is. This means when they’re there they wants enough to ride to make the whole expensive exercise worthwhile. Which brings me to...


LIMITED TRACKS
Generally cyclists tire of riding the same track over and over, they want variety and they want lots of it. So if there’s only a few tracks to ride at a skifield people are only going to go for one day tops, and then move on to a different area.

Most of the skifields never got past three tracks, and even then that’s classing quite a bit of 4WD as “track”. This didn’t help when it came to generating repeat business. Combine this with the lack of beginner tracks and the menu looked pretty slim indeed.


NOT CATERING TO THE TOURIST MARKET
One thing the Queenstown area doesn’t lack is tourists, the whole area is setup as a gigantic tourist dollar processing factory. However without beginners tracks the ability to put large numbers of tourists on mountain bikes on skifields is limited.

Most tourists are going to be inexperienced cyclists and even if you put them on a full mickey downhill rig they will slowly crawl down any trail they’re not comfortable with and simply not enjoy themselves. Most of Queenstown’s “extreme” activities are tightly controlled and designed to give the participants a thrill and feeling of achievement.


LIMITED INVESTMENT IN MOUNTAIN BIKING INFRASTRUCTURE
When the fields first opened there were grand plans to invest in more infrastructure/ trails, which never quite eventuated. Most of the fields just maintained their current trails or even worse let them fall into disrepair.

No investment meant falling returns for riders who were either disappointed nothing had been added (as promised) or disillusioned about returning as there were no signs of development or improvement.


NOT ENOUGH PUBLICITY
After the initial season some ski fields made the fatal mistake of not telling people when they were opening. One field actually extended it's season for the second year (but cut staff numbers, go figure) - and didn't send out any press releases or do any advertising to say what they were doing. Unsurprisingly most people assumed they were closed over summer.

When your main customer base is 6 hours drive or a plane flight away word of mouth simply isn't going to work.


LACK OF SUPPORT FROM THE MOUNTAIN BIKING COMMUNITY
We as mountain bikers have to shoulder some of the blame. People tend to have a bad habit of saying they’re totally up for something (like doing lift runs in Queenstown) and never quite getting around to it. Skifields aren’t fooled by this sort of behaviour as they know exactly how many people paid for lift passes.
So if you’re someone who talked it up but never got around to riding on a skifield – for shame.


THE RECESSION
Let’s not forget The Recession – which makes people look at their bottom dollar and trim those parts of their business that aren’t delivering. So what may be an emotional decision for us is a business decision for bean counters. They don’t do it because they dislike mountain bikers or what we do – it just doesn’t make them money and in tough times that’s what business really cares about.


So that’s the run down, I’ve probably missed some so feel free to add your own comments. I only hope that other operators may learn from these mistakes. So if you’re ever talking to anyone looking at putting a commercial enterprise involving mountain bikes (or maybe you’re thinking of it yourself) make sure your plan involves catering to beginner rides, as they are your bread and butter and will allow you to cater to the rest of us.

Personally I reckon mountain bikes on Whakapapa/ Turoa over summer would be a winner - but only if lessons were learnt from down south.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby MissChaff on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:37pm

I think club fields are more recession proof and maybe they are the way forward?
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Trail on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:47pm

I think another key factor is the terrain that is involved. Many ski fields are:

1. Above the tree line. This means there is no shelter if the mountain weather is nasty combined with altitude and NZ weather, that will kill a large part of the season. What this also means is that the trails are able to be seen on the hill side from a long way off... which is something else that DOC are not keen on (visual impact and all that).

2. On or near the top of a mountainside of rocks. In summer time many of the ski fields are covered in scree and piles of chunky loose rock. This definitely does not make it easy for people to be able to build trails!!

I think for lift accessed riding to work well (be profitable) in NZ it would need to be:
1. Near a major population center.
2. Be low enough altitude that the trails could be built through trees (less erosion and less impact from weather, shelter for riders, and trees are more fun to ride through!)
3. Have a large network of trails from complete novice through to National DH level.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Bags on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:49pm

MissChaff wrote:I think club fields are more recession proof and maybe they are the way forward?

Possibly, but how many club fields have chairlifts? (I'm assuming the lift accessed component is important of course.)
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Tama on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:50pm

Trail wrote:I think another key factor is the terrain that is involved. Many ski fields are:

1. Above the tree line. This means there is no shelter if the mountain weather is nasty combined with altitude and NZ weather, that will kill a large part of the season. What this also means is that the trails are able to be seen on the hill side from a long way off... which is something else that DOC are not keen on (visual impact and all that).

2. On or near the top of a mountainside of rocks. In summer time many of the ski fields are covered in scree and piles of chunky loose rock. This definitely does not make it easy for people to be able to build trails!!

I think for lift accessed riding to work well (be profitable) in NZ it would need to be:
1. Near a major population center.
2. Be low enough altitude that the trails could be built through trees (less erosion and less impact from weather, shelter for riders, and trees are more fun to ride through!)
3. Have a large network of trails from complete novice through to National DH level.

Good point - I hadn't thought hard about the tree factor. Are the soils in the overseas skifields a bit more loamy? I was just thinking about the dust clouds during the Brake Burner on Coronet - it doesn't take much to powder and blow away.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Scotty on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:50pm

Trail wrote:3. Have a large network of trails from complete novice through to National DH level.

This one is the key.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby j2hyde on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:53pm

None of the club fields are exactly rolling in money, most are struggling to survive. The terrain at most of the club fields would scare the crap out of all but the most skilled of DH riders - steep loose scree not being great for trail building, and ropetows aren't much good for hauling bikes uphill.

Coronet peak probably had the best chance of making it work. The only other viable lift I can think of is the gondola in chch but it doesn't look like bikes will be allowed to use that any time soon.

Southstar on the other hand is practical, available and cheap.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby j2hyde on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:54pm

None of the club fields have chairlifts.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Oli on Sun 20/Sep/09 8:59pm

Tama wrote:LACK OF SUPPORT FROM THE MOUNTAIN BIKING COMMUNITY
We as mountain bikers have to shoulder some of the blame. People tend to have a bad habit of saying they’re totally up for something (like doing lift runs in Queenstown) and never quite getting around to it. Skifields aren’t fooled by this sort of behaviour as they know exactly how many people paid for lift passes.
So if you’re someone who talked it up but never got around to riding on a skifield – for shame.
Everything else you have written here is clear, concise and logical. This paragraph is crap though. "For shame"? WTF?

Perhaps people "talked it up" but simply hadn't made it there yet? Or perhaps they read on Vorb how limited the trail options were so decided they would have a better riding experience elsewhere? Perhaps they were led to believe it was a long term option so were enthusiastic but simply thought, "That sounds cool, perhaps I'll get around to doing that one day..."?

"For shame" is a HUGE (and I believe erroneous) judgement call to make on all those who may well have intended to sample this sort of thing but for one reason or another didn't or weren't able to.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby E Dogg Capizzle on Sun 20/Sep/09 9:01pm

You're bringing this website down Oli. :(
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Scotty on Sun 20/Sep/09 9:04pm

What I wanna know is the field made money out of one of those four years.

Now, was that in the first year because it was something new.

OR

Was it another year? and if so, what made it successful?

THEN

Why couldn't it be replicated?

I still think nzski have gone "naw fuck it, we've made enough this winter, summers just a draaaaaaaaaaag"
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Tama on Sun 20/Sep/09 9:08pm

Oli wrote:
Tama wrote:LACK OF SUPPORT FROM THE MOUNTAIN BIKING COMMUNITY
We as mountain bikers have to shoulder some of the blame. People tend to have a bad habit of saying they’re totally up for something (like doing lift runs in Queenstown) and never quite getting around to it. Skifields aren’t fooled by this sort of behaviour as they know exactly how many people paid for lift passes.
So if you’re someone who talked it up but never got around to riding on a skifield – for shame.
Everything else you have written here is clear, concise and logical. This paragraph is crap though. "For shame"? WTF?

Perhaps people "talked it up" but simply hadn't made it there yet? Or perhaps they read on Vorb how limited the trail options were so decided they would have a better riding experience elsewhere? Perhaps they were led to believe it was a long term option so were enthusiastic but simply thought, "That sounds cool, perhaps I'll get around to doing that one day..."?

"For shame" is a HUGE (and I believe erroneous) judgement call to make on all those who may well have intended to sample this sort of thing but for one reason or another didn't or weren't able to.

I have to admit there's a bit of emotional baggage in there from past event organisation :p

But there is a reoccurring theme of Outfit A opening/offering something for years and years before it closes through lack of support - at which point people pop out of the woodwork and say "Outfit A sucks! I was going to get around to using that at some point or other". If they accepted that if they had supported Outfit A in the early stages then the venture would still be running I'd have more sympathy.

We're not without blame but you're right - that paragraph could be written better.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby Colin on Sun 20/Sep/09 9:10pm

Tama wrote:Personally I reckon mountain bikes on Whakapapa/ Turoa over summer would be a winner - but only if lessons were learnt from down south.

My guess is that wont happen :(

National Park and all.

When some shots for Lord of the Rings were shot at Whakapapa, every piece of 2nd hand carpet in the lower North Island where bought to spread out so the crew wouldn't damage the plants.
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Re: Mountain Bikes On Nz Ski Fields - What Went Wrong

Postby JohnnyC on Sun 20/Sep/09 9:15pm

Trail wrote:I think another key factor is the terrain that is involved. Many ski fields are:

1. Above the tree line. This means there is no shelter if the mountain weather is nasty combined with altitude and NZ weather, that will kill a large part of the season. What this also means is that the trails are able to be seen on the hill side from a long way off... which is something else that DOC are not keen on (visual impact and all that).

2. On or near the top of a mountainside of rocks. In summer time many of the ski fields are covered in scree and piles of chunky loose rock. This definitely does not make it easy for people to be able to build trails!!

I think for lift accessed riding to work well (be profitable) in NZ it would need to be:
1. Near a major population center.
2. Be low enough altitude that the trails could be built through trees (less erosion and less impact from weather, shelter for riders, and trees are more fun to ride through!)
3. Have a large network of trails from complete novice through to National DH level.


:withstupid:

NO skifield in New Zealand has good terrain for building trails, Coronet was ok but still far from Ideal. Overseas skifields are bigger and have more useable terrain with several lifts, most NZ fields would have 1 lift and about 3 trails.
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