By Rich Birkby
I’m sitting at an improbably placed picnic table, high above the glassy surface of Lake Wanaka. To the West, the sun glints on the glaciers which clad the summits of Rob Roy Peak and Mt Avalanche and the braids of the Matukituki river into which their waters flow. To the South is the picturesque Motatapu valley and to the East, the township of Wanaka. It feels I’m on an island in the sky.
The location of this “table on an island in the sky” is the Falcon’s Nest, the summit of pedal-powered bike park, Bike Glendhu. At 743 metres above sea-level, it’s a 409 vertical metre climb from the park’s base area, just visible below us. Perhaps even more improbable is that having pedaled up here, I’m not gasping for breath, but able to take it all in, comfortably. Not because I’ve gained a new level of post-lockdown fitness, but because the bike that got me here is a new Whyte e-160 Bosch powered e-bike.
And it’s my new favourite thing.
Psst. Check out the video of the whole adventure below or, if reading is more your thing, scroll down for the blog and photos.
Today started with a coffee at one of Wanaka’s lakefront cafés, before hitching a ride across the lake to Glendhu Bay on a boat. Just 15 minutes by car from the centre of town, Bike Glendhu couldn’t be easier to get to. And with an e-bike, it would be easy to add in the scenic Millennium Track which starts at the famous Wanaka Tree and ends a couple of hundred metres from Bike Glendhu’s base area. But starting the day with a boat ride across the lake was an irresistible option on a fine spring morning.
The boat speeds across the mirror that is the lake’s surface. This is a fine way to go mountain biking - surrounded by peaks and skimming past native bush clad shoreline. Sheltered Glendhu Bay is the perfect canvas for wakeboarding or waterskiing, but we’ve got dusty singletrack to tear into before we can think about getting wet.
We glide gently into the shingle beach and alight, unload the bikes and pedal a couple of hundred metres up the road to Bike Glendhu’s Base 334 and Velo Café.
Opened in early 2020, Bike Glendhu is the result of local farmer John McRae and mountain bike advocate John Wilson coming together to create a pretty incredible bike park. To-date, the team have built 30km of dedicated mountain bike single-track and continue to add new trails to the network. Their objective is to create a place that riders of all ages and abilities can enjoy – from grommets to grandparents. Starting from the off-grid, solar powered base area where riders can enjoy coffee, great food or a refreshing après-ride beer, the trail network extends into 1000ha of stunning high country. A gently graded climbing trail takes riders to Jack’s Spot, from where a variety of trails descend. And whether you’re the kind of rider who’d appreciate the gentle single-track of the Kakariki loop that allows you to take in the view; like the idea of the flowing berms of Jairolla or the thrills of Hare Time, a purpose-built jump trail, it’s all here and perfectly sculpted by legendary trail builder Tom Hey of Crankworx fame.
But that’s not all Bike Glendhu has to offer, above Jack’s Spot, riders can continue climbing, always at a gentle gradient to take in more trails. A series of switchbacks leads to a flowing descent off the shoulder of the mountain around into the Motatapu river valley. From here, the climbing begins again, this time in earnest following yet more switchbacks above the turquoise waters of the river below.
Now I’m as happy to earn my thrills as anyone, but the partnership between Whyte Bikes and Bike Glendhu is a beautiful thing, allowing visitors to hire a state-of-the-art e-bike to enhance their experience.
The Whyte e-160 I’m riding today has all the features of a thoroughly modern trail bike. It’s long, low and stable at speed and Whyte’s progressive approach to geometry ensures responsive, predictable handling. The 160mm of wheel travel at either end is provided by Rock Shox and is tuned specifically to handle the additional weight of the bike’s motor and battery.
The Bosch motor is controlled from the handlebar and has 4 settings – Eco, Trail, eMTB and Turbo. In Eco mode, riding along feels like there’s a firm breeze at your back, whilst in Turbo mode, you feel superhuman. The eMTB mode is a smart setting, sensing the level of power required to assist you and switching between Trail and Turbo modes as required. It’s easier on the battery life than Turbo mode, yet still delivers all the torque you’ll ever need to climb steep trails.
We wind our way up the backside of the peak with the welcome assistance of the motor whirring away quietly between our feet. E-bikes and Bike Glendhu are a perfect match. Whilst the climbing trails are perfectly graded for regular mountain bikes, on an e-bike, you’re able to cover more ground, more quickly – which leads to more laps. It’s not just about covering ground though, that doesn’t do the Whyte e-bike experience justice. On a bike like this, uphill tracks are almost as much fun as the descents. The bike encourages you to push it hard into the switchbacks and ride their bermed exits high and fast, accelerating out of every bend. Climbing simply shouldn’t be this much fun and instead of the grimaces you might expect from a group of riders climbing hard, we’re grinning. A lot. At times it’s difficult not to squeal out loud it’s so much fun.
Coming through the col in the summit ridge, that incredible view of the lake opens up. We dispatch the final switchbacks to the summit and lay the bikes down at the table. I’ve already opined about the view from here – some places are just special. It’s one of those “no words” moments and certainly a view to rival that from the nearby and ubiquitously instafamous Roy’s Peak. But where Bike Glendhu beats Roy’s Peak hands down is that from here, several kilometres of purpose built single-track descend to the base area.
The descent begins with Baywatch, 1.5 kilometres of flowing descent and swooping berms that barely asks for a pedal stroke in order to keep your speed. If the climb didn’t put a grin on your face, then this certainly will. It’s dry and dusty, but with just enough grip to feel confident in every corner. E-bikes might be great for climbing, but the Whyte carries it’s centre of mass down low which gives it superbly predictable handling in the corners. Its well-tuned suspension give it a really planted feel through the rocky sections and braking bumps and the aggressive 2.6” tires deliver reliable grip.
Mid way down the hill, riders have the choice of continuing the flow, or dipping into something a little more spicy - two black-graded trails, Dark Matter and Methane Train depart from the main loop here. Dark Matter is tight and twists through native bush and a series of rock gardens whilst Methane Train loops out onto a shoulder of the hill and takes in a number of rollable rock slabs that will demand your attention, yet just require you to release the brakes and stay centred to ride.
Regrouping at Jack’s Spot, we drop into Hare Time. The trail team have packed no less than 50 jumps into 1.7kms of pure, unadulterated fun. Each jump is a tabletop which encourages confidence and helps riders to safely push themselves. Between the jumps are plenty of features such as berms and rollers and the entire trail is equally entertaining whether you keep your wheels on the ground or send it to the moon.
A gentle roll back along the banks of the Fern Burn to Velo Café and it’s time for some well-earned refreshments. I wipe a little dust off before taking a healthy draught of Bike Glendhu’s custom-brewed APA, “Hero Dirt”. It’s made for them by Wanaka brewery b.effect and alongside the generous bowl of nachos we’ve ordered, makes a solid reward for a big day on the bike.
Now I wonder whether we could sneak in a cheeky ski session behind the boat on the way home?