I came close to giving up mountain biking forever on a fateful day two years back. Deciding to have a crack at a jump some local kids had built in the park, I soon found myself sailing over the handlebars and hitting the ground so hard my teeth shook. How terribly sad, I thought. A 38-year-old man lies alone in a park, seriously winded (therefore moaning very quietly), his bike tangled excruciatingly around his ankles. But I was not alone. Two tracksuited women and their dogs watched me with a mixture of morbid fascination and pitying embarrassment.
But it wasn't to be my retirement, I'm in for the long haul. It won't be long before my own children are laughing at my crashes.
There are the old stalwarts of the mountain bike (MTB) scene in Auckland, and then there are the trail-blazing new kids on the block. South-east Auckland has mirrored what has gone on in the north-west of the region, and now offers as much variety, including ever more options for younger riders. With some of the most active grass roots volunteers of any sport, mountain biking in Auckland is in good shape.
Here's the lowdown on the 16 best spots - north to south (roughly) - to get off-road in Auckland.
A favourite lounge-on-the-beach spot for many Aucklanders, most are unaware that there are MTB options too. There are two 5km tracks - the North/South Coast Loop and the West End Trail. Expect more of what you've become used to - great views, rich wildlife and a great place to swim afterwards.
The Lookout MTB Track at Shakespear Regional Park certainly falls into the "family" category, and at only 3km long, it won't tax even the youngest riders. There are some stunning views along the half-hour trail.
Woodhill Mountain Bike Park
There are few who would argue that the mecca for mountain biking in Auckland is Woodhill Mountain Bike Park. Out there you can take your pick of more than 130km of trails, varying from rolling and fun to downright scary.
Even in the rain, it never gets slippery due to the sandy trails, which makes it easy, fun and relatively safe in that if you crash and end up lying in a heap, it won't be long before someone finds you.
Unfortunately all of this convenience takes some of the sense of adventure that most mountain bikers enjoy, as does the cover charge.
The park can be found at Restall Rd, off SH 16, Woodhill. Kids' and adult bike hire from $15, helmets $5 (includes entry). Entry: Adults $7, Youth (5-10) $5, child $2.
As it states on the Auckland MTB Club website: "To many of you, the knowledge that there are 14km of fully legal, tough, twisty single track on the North Shore will be a bit of a surprise!" It's the Royal Albany Mountain Bike Trails, and those trails are nestled in the bush behind Massey University.
Riverhead Forest isn't far from Woodhill, but it's almost the polar opposite in terms of track type. Out here a decent shower of rain can make the hard-packed clay trails so slippery and stodgy you won't be sure whether you should be riding on it or wrestling in it. The knobbles on your tyres pick it up, it gunges around your brakes and pedals and chances are you'll end up throwing your bike and yourself into the stream at the bottom just to get the worst off.
For this reason Riverhead is generally just for summer riding. However, there will be no one to take your money at the gate, and your adventurous spirit will be fulfilled.
Opened in October last year, the Sanders Road trails are Auckland's newest. Overlooking Paremoremo Creek and the upper Waitemata Harbour, Sanders Reserve has 22km of mountain bike trails, including a 500m trail especially for children under 10. It is high up on the Paremoremo peninsula, so you get panoramic views of the Waitakeres, Herald Island and the city. Turn left, not right to the prison entrance, into Sanders Rd and drive to the end. Check out the kids' bike loop, and for older children and adults there are plenty of bike track options suitable for mountain bikes - the tracks are unsealed and bumpy.
Another triumph of the determination of members of the local club. Situated in the grounds (and beyond) of the Onetangi Sports Park, the trails here have been fashioned and maintained by the Waiheke MTB Club. There are great options for adults and children, making it a fun day out. You can sling your bike on the ferry too.
Inner city MTB riding, right under our noses. The Auckland MTB Club has worked with Auckland Council to develop these trails.
Perfect for children (Training Wheels trail, a 600m easy ride) and more serious riders (Twist and Shout - 1.1km challenging, narrow and twisting trail). Great for after-school/work rides.
Comprising of 199ha of rural landscape, Puhinui Reserve occupies the southern portion of the Puhinui Peninsula.
The Ecological Bush Walkway/Cycle Track falls squarely into the "family" category, with easy, fun, wide trails. South of the airport, with access from Prices Rd, Manurewa.
One of the newest mountain bike trails in Auckland and still a reasonably well-kept secret, are the trails at Totara Park in Manurewa.
It's mostly narrow single track snakes back and forth over the large expanses of Totara Park, and occasionally dips into pleasant little glades of native bush and over creeks.
What becomes obvious is that they probably weren't built by a mountain biker, with some of the berms sloping the wrong way, but it's fun, and there's plenty of elevation which means you get a fair workout on the 15km of trails.
There are a number of ways to get into the park, but probably easiest is from Charles Provost Drive in Manurewa, or start from the top on Redoubt Rd.
Located on the pohutukawa-fringed Whakakaiwhara Peninsula, which juts out into the Tamaki Strait, Duder Regional Park is a 162ha coastal farm park. The Duder Farm Loop is a 4km trail through rolling countryside, not enough for the serious MTB rider, but great for the family.
Whitford and Maraetai Forests
A brilliant area in the Auckland region for serious MTB riders, the trails in these forests are looked after by the dedicated and organised Pohutukawa Coast Bike Club.
As it stands, to ride the trails you have to become a member, which gives you a permit for access, along with purpose-built shuttle trailers to take you into the choicest bits.
The club is also set up to cater for road bikers and multisporters when interest grows and have started working with Council to develop a "pump and jump" track at Te Puru.
Look out for the weekly ladies' rides.
Another ideal spot for family MTB outings is the 6.9km of trails at Tapapakanga, just south of the village of Orere Pt. Mostly through farmland, a moderate level of fitness is required. There are great views across the Firth of Thames.
The Hunua Ranges lie about three quarters of an hour south east of Auckland. It has been to the detriment of many a hiker and MTB rider who underestimated the size of the ranges - they cover almost 250sq km, and can be difficult to navigate if you're the type who plunges into the bush without noting in which direction lies the sun.
Nevertheless there are some great mountain bike tracks in here, with much of it undulating terrain. There are, however, a few back-breaking uphills followed by screaming downhills. The Auckland Mountain Bike Club never stops beavering away in the Hunuas, and both amount/length of trails and signposting is much better than early days of riding here.
Almost 90km from Auckland, the Waharau Park extends from the Firth of Thames to the eastern foothills of the Hunua Ranges. It's a solid day trip, but also one of the more spectacular, with stunning views out over the Firth. There are three trails, varying between 4km and 18km.
Puni MTB Park
The Puni MTB Park is located near Pukekohe, with directions best found on the Franklin MTB Club website. Ranging from grade 2 to grade 4, the trails are perfect for family outings, and make the most of the area, zig-zagging through the forest.
Dedicated locals have been sculpting the area for almost 10 years.
Kids' Bike Jam
Thousands of kids every year get hot, sweaty and muddy in the Kids' Bike Jams, one of the biggest mountain biking events for youngsters. Get your kids to Woodhill Mountain Bike Park, Auckland (May 20) or Pukete Farm Park Hamilton (May 27) to have a go.
Aimed at 5-13-year-olds who are competent off road on a two-wheeler (adults accompany 6 yrs and under). Courses range from generally flat and not much tricky stuff, 2.5-3km, to real tricky stuff like roots, rocks (up to 10km) so kids can find one to suit their ability.
To register and for course information, see kidsbikejams.co.nz. Entry from $25 to $30 per child.
Need to know:
There are many clubs, but the Auckland Mountain Bike Club is probably the best place to start if you're new to the sport and are a bit wary of striking out on your own. Alternatively check for clubs in your area. There are really active crews leading rides in various places around Auckland, and trips away to other parts of the country. The website is up-to-date and useful. Check it out at aucklandmtb.co.nz
Bike, helmet, water bottle and you're good to go, but you can accessorise all you like. Now is a great time to buy a bike, with fantastic specials on now that the summer season is winding down. Mountain biking is great all-year-round, just pick the tracks that are naturally drier.