Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Mountain Biking: Mutu's mountain of vision pays off

Big tick for Tak who has Rotorua riding high with five-day festival.
Tak Mutu.  Photo/ Ben Fraser
Tak Mutu. Photo/ Ben Fraser

Tourist operator Tak Mutu brought the Crankworx Bike Festival to Rotorua after acting quickly on a piece of eavesdropping.

The five-day festival, a big success on debut in Rotorua last year, returns next week, when daredevil mountain bikers from around the world take to the hills underneath the Skyline gon-dolas on the northern side of the city.

As the old saying goes, you make your own luck in life, as Mutu did. An acquaintance overheard a conversation at a bike park in Australia which indicated Crankworx might be heading to Australia. Mutu's informant got on the phone. Mutu - Rotorua through and through - got on his bike. One thing quickly led to another. Mutu pulled out his personal credit card, and Darren Kinnaird - boss of the bike festival which began Canada in 2004 - was on a plane to Rotorua.

"You got it," Kinnaird told Mutu, not long after arriving. Rotorua was in, Australia was out.

If ever a city deserved a mountain biking showpiece it is Rotorua, a stronghold of the sport. Wander the city and you trip over bike shops and rental offers. The locals love mountainbiking, and visitors are attracted by it. There have been a few key players, but Mutu - whose CV includes rafting instructor and tourist guide - is king when it comes to Crankworx.

The festival involves a number of different high-risk events on different tracks, including the premier slopestyle where tricks are performed off a frighteningly high ramp. To anyone but these crazy and skilled cyclists, there are unbelievable dangers lurking everywhere, including a landing pad that is actually a jagged rock garden on the downhill course.

As I head with the 31-year-old Mutu towards the tracks which dot the hills beneath the Skyline gondolas, he recounts his story.

An "epiphany" helped launch him into the tourist industry. His polytechnic tourism class was on a field trip in the Te Urewera National Park when he noticed a fellow student - "a stoner" - wandering the wrong way. Mutu veered off track to set him right. It took him to a little clearing, and he was suddenly bowled over by the amazing view.

"The native trees, the clouds hanging there - it just hit me. I wanted to be in the industry, I wanted to bring people here," he says.

But the seeds were sown way before that.

On his first day of school, his dad wanted to know why little Tak was wearing a clip-on tie.

"I want to be a businessman," he told his dad.

Maternal influences may have played a part in that. His mother Rae is "a born and bred Kiwi - with mainly Scottish heritage and some Irish, French, Dutch". Her father ran a big construction company.

He has very different influences on his father's side.

Eddie Mutu is a full-blooded Maori from the Te Arawa tribe, and Tak attended the Te Kura Kaupapa o Te Rotoiti Maori immersion school until he was 12. He says it has given him a huge advantage in the tourism business.

"New Zealand is a picture postcard, the lakes, the golden sand beaches - but I can go anywhere in the world and find that stuff," he says.

"What makes us truly different in this country is the culture."

Maori culture has, it can be surmised, also influenced the style of his business. He has surrounded himself with friends and family - it has only just reached the point where he doesn't directly know some of the employees in his custom tourist company. His brother, Tu, is operations manager. A friend from school is general manager. A cousin is events manager. Tak is a boss who is only ranked No7 on the pay scale, earning just $30,000 a year as he takes a long term view of building up the company he acquired from one of his tutors. He runs Crankworx in a similar way, and has not even pulled a wage from the bike festival operation.

It has been a relatively short but intense mountain bike journey. Despite Rotorua's pedigree - it held a world championships 10 years ago - it took a while to persuade Skyline that their site was perfect for tracks.

Once given the chance, Mutu put together his first event in three weeks, which included "giving a box of beers to a mate who owned a digger".

A few years on, Crankworx arrived and looks here to stay. There were close to 35,000 spectators for the five-day event last year. Just as importantly, when 200 volunteers were needed this year, there were 300 applicants.

Kiwi enduro competitor Rae Morrison - who has just scored a contract with a French team - tells the Herald that Rotorua has become the talk of the mountainbiking world.

The 2015 event, which required a lot of one-off investment in infrastructure, ran at a $90,00 loss, from a $1.8 million budget. Mutu says reports suggest it brought $3.7 million into the his hometown's economy.

He proudly tells of a volunteer who put a staggering 500 hours into building some of the tracks.

Tak Mutu knows he is on a good path for himself, but he wants to take as many of his friends and family with him. He mixes standard business practices, such as the need for a 10-year plan, with holistic attitudes that are anything but standard.

"I've surrounded myself with people who think like me," he said.

"I wanted to cut out the shit in my life. I don't bother with people who are very focused on themselves.

"Seeing my friends and family confident about their future is a big driver for me - I want the people I've surrounded myself knowing they will have a warm, dry house," he says. "That is the big driver for me."

Festival events at a glance

Next week's Crankworx mountainbike festival in Rotorua runs from Wednesday to Sunday, and will involve 350 riders including the best in the world. Nearly half come from overseas, representing more than 20 countries. The events are:

Oceania Whip Off

Leap into the air, turn the bike to a 45-degree angle and raise the tyres to the horizon. Developed by Kiwi mountain bike photographer Sven Martin as an unofficial event.

Dual Speed and Style

The love child of dual slalom and slopestyle, a chess match for riders as they battle their opponent and the clock, while trying to execute the most stylish trick-filled run in this head-to-head, elimination-style event.

Rotorua Pump Track Challenge

Competitors duel back-to-back, without a single pedal stroke, rolling into a 13-second rhythm battle with a series of turns into rollers to give themselves enough speed for the finish straight in a time trial.


An airborne symphony of flips and whips - tricks include the cork 720, backflip, double tail-whip and the flip-360. New Zealand's master of the discipline, the late Kelly McGarry, and his building partner, Tom Hey, designed and built this course regarded as one of the world's best. Canadian Brett Rheeder is the superstar of this premier event.


Guns blazing, laser-focus, full-throttle on the adrenaline - riders will catch one last look at Lake Rotorua then drop into a technical quagmire which includes step-ups, bridge-drops and a rock garden to keep the race interesting. The challenge? Finish in under three minutes.

Air Downhill

A new event with 32 jumps - New Zealand's answer to A-Line, the infamous spine of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park in Canada.


Last year's enduro at Whakarewarewa Forest helped launch the careers of New Plymouth's Wyn Masters and Wellington's Rae Morrison, when it was part of the world series. It is not a world series event this year. Seven stages, where un-timed uphill rides drain energy, and the downhill parts are timed.

- NZ Herald

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