THROUGH LOCAL EYES | Phil Oliver - Mountain Biker

Phil Oliver’s a local here in Alexandra, Central Otago. He has been riding mountain bikes since the early 1980s, semi-competitively back in the day, but he is more into trail riding these days, and enjoys lots of the technical trails that we have in Central Otago. Phil is key part of the Central Otago mountain biking community as a guide, mechanic, event organiser and trail builder he knows the Central Otago landscapes like no other, and through this he is a wealth of knowledge of where the new gold of Central Otago lies.

What brought you to Central Otago?

I originally moved here from Auckland 25-odd years ago. I was just sick of the rat race – so brought my wife and kids (they’re grown up now). We came here for the quieter lifestyle, things to do. The kids were out biking, kayaking, motocross stuff like that – just the outdoors and peace of mind with a young family. It was quite neat really.

Flat Top Hill - Mountain Biking - Alexandra

What’s your view on Central Otago and Alexandra as a riding destination?

The riding in Central is so varied. There is so much scope for all types of people. We’re mostly well known for the Otago Central Rail Trail, which is the original great ride in New Zealand. Since then the cycle trail movement has grown with the likes of the Roxburgh Gorge Trail and Clutha Gold Trail, and now we’re seeing growth in options that will connect these trails with Cromwell, Wanaka and Queenstown.

In Alexandra, we’ve got trails along the river, high country mountain climbs and big day out adventures up to 2000m. Brevet riders doing their thing, cycle tourists, and you’ve also got technical cross country, all mountain and downhill trails with big rock features.

You’ll see that we’ve got a geological advantage with our rock features - you can have rock rollers, step-downs, chutes – that’s what make us a bit different to anywhere else I’ve ridden in New Zealand.

There are a lot of the options for mountain biking in the Alexandra and Clyde area, in the basin (Boot Hill and Alexandra Airport) and some downhill trails in Clyde. The local mountain bike club, Mountain Bikers of Alexandra, has signed an agreement with the Department of Conservation for trails at Flat Top Hill Conservation area, which is a new area we’ve started developing. We’ve been building a trail access using the natural rock features, with long winding climbing tracks, and the views along the way are magnificent. You get up there and there are no crowds. On a busy day you might see one other cyclist. So it’s quite cool, you have a chat and find out where they’re from, and how they’re going.

Flat Top Hill - Mountain Biking - Alexandra - Phil Oliver

Tell us more about Flat Top Hill?

We normally ride out from Alexandra, up the backroad past Conroys, across and over the dam. Then climb a track called Purple Haze. It’s a tight little switchback climb, with a few steeper sections that give you a bit of a grunt, and some nice little technical pinches.

Once you’re on the top ridge you get onto some 4wd track, as you go along the top there are some little features left and right, little rock rollers and step-downs. Further along you’ll go through some descending switchbacks, and up to a feature we call the ‘Reign Drop’. It’s quite a neat feature – you’re on a spine of rock and as you’re dropping down you can see the river in the gorge below you, which is pretty spectacular. Then we’ve got a few little berms, before you arrive at our new ‘Black & Blue’ trail which we’ve just finished. The ‘Blue’ meaning it is a little bit easier, and then there is the Black Line, which has some quite big step-downs and rock gaps. It is a fast little bermy track. You can actually pedal up the Blue section too, which is quite nice as two-way track.

There is also the ‘Rock of Doom’ track, which is a Double-Black. There’s a couple of big rock features in there. The trail descends over the ‘Rock of Doom’ and ‘Ledge of Death’, then you drop into towards Lake Roxburgh and the Clutha River. You finish off with a gentle ride along the Roxburgh Gorge Trail and back into town for a pint at one of the locals.

If you want to you can drive out from Alexandra, park at the dam, then do a 10km loop and finish back at the car.

Why do you enjoy riding here in Central Otago?

When I’m out riding basically it’s a place where I can come get some space and I think a lot. It’s a place to clear my head and think out problems. I love riding out here on my own sometimes. It’ still good to come out with mates and have some laughs and a challenge, but I think the best thing is coming out here and just riding on your own. Just to look around and soak in the views. It calms you down and you forget about your worries from your week at work. I just get to think how lucky I am to get out here and ride this.

Is there a good riding community?

We’ve got a strong bunch of riders here in Alexandra. There are two bike shops in Alexandra who have different rides on different days of the week. On a Wednesday night we’ll go riding and there’s 30 odd people. We’ll split into different ability levels, but really we all just go for a ride, then have a laugh and a beer afterwards.

There is so much diversity in the riding styles and people – there’s brevet riders, cycle touring, trail riders, road bikers, and the BMX club is pretty strong, even dirt jumping. The young guys all progress through the different disciplines and find their niche.

Really it’s all social, everyone catches up at the local and has chat, finds out what’s going on, what trails need fixing up, and everyone pitches in. The local club MOA (Mountain Bikers of Alexandra) in the last couple of years have built a few family-orientated trails in town at Boot Hill and the Alexandra Airport, which are great for cross country, or for Mum, Dad and the kids. Boot Hill is great little lunchtime loop, I love it.

Each project gets a different crew along, sometimes we get 10-12 people out building, but there’s a lot of work behind the scenes mapping things out, getting agreements and funding for projects. We’re starting to realise that If you build it people will come. Plus I’m starting to enjoy my trail building more than my riding. I like to build it, ride it and then move on to something new. It’s good.

What about local Alexandra mountain biking events?

There’s been an event series here in Alexandra called the Linger and Die series for 20-21 years that I help organise. It’s held each September and involves three disciplines. On one weekend we have a downhill in Clyde on the Saturday and an Enduro in Alexandra on the Sunday. Then on Blossom Festival Sunday (the last weekend of September) we normally have a cross-country race. People come from across the South Island we get people from Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill, Queenstown and Wanaka.

This year there was another race called the Revolution in August – which has a cross country circuit at Flat Top Hill, a time trial on the Alexandra River Track, and another cross country loop at Clyde including some of the downhill trails. So that’s a new exciting addition to the local mountain biking event calendar.

What about your mountain bike guiding work?

I’ve been guiding mountain biking in this area for about 16 years, I get a real buzz about bringing people here and showing them what we’ve got. The expanse of what we have and the options available. A lot of people come from bigger cities where they don’t have as many options, so that’s why it’s good to tailor unique experiences.

You can go up and do some big mountain stuff on the Old Man Range. There are some beautiful rides up there and you can see right through to the Remarkables and Queenstown, down to Cromwell and Mt Pisa, even out to St Bathans.

We’ve got such huge vistas and it’s great to showcase that to people.

What’s the best season for riding?

Central Otago is on latitude 45 south, so we have pretty distinct seasons and we’re very dry. In summer you’re looking at 30 odd degrees, in Spring and Autumn you get spectacular colours.

In winter we get hard frosts but don’t get much rain or snow on the ground, this means we don’t get much mud on the trails, so dress warmly, and you can still ride all day. It might be a little bit chilly, but you won’t get too muddy.

Central is probably one of the better places to ride in a New Zealand winter.

What’s that smell?

One of the first things groups ask when they come here is ‘what’s that smell?’ The whole of Central Otago is covered in wild thyme. The miners brought it here to flavour their meals, but it’s taken over. When you’re riding it gets on your shoes and tyres. You get used to it, but first-timers get a bit blown away by the fragrance.

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