by Mike Ferrentino
Rotorua is a strangely aligned mix of New Zealand's Maori heartland, a geothermal wonder, a huge tourism machine, and an incredible network of singletrack. Busloads of tourists disgorge at hot spring resorts, at re-enacted Maori villages, at steaming geysers and bubbling cauldrons of mud, at sheep shearing exhibitions, while at the same time, a different tide of visitor vectors in on the continually expanding network of trails snaking through Whakarewarewa forest.
I first rode here in 2002, on assignment for BIKE. Photo editor David Reddick and I had been invited down to New Zealand by a guy named Jeff Carter, who at that time was running a fledgling tour operation called Southstar Adventures. Much of the riding was pretty rustic by most standards, but even then the early trails in the Redwoods at Whakarewarewa left us with grins plastered all over our faces. On that trip we also met Gary Sullivan. Gary had lived as a national caliber track racer, a graphic designer, a world traveler, and at the time was fully immersed in the Rotorua mountain bike scene and just getting rolling with a clothing company called N-Zone – functional but cleanly styled mountain bike wear, lots of wool, "made in New Zealand from sunshine and Grass" as stated on their labels.
Over the past few years, Gary and his wife Glen have become a second family to me. I suspect they are the second family to half the mountain bikers in New Zealand as well. It is impossible to go on a ride in the forest at Whakarewarewa with Gary and not meet several new people, from national caliber racers, to tough old pig hunters, to the deputy mayor. They are deeply entwined in the fabric of mountain biking in that town, have been since mountain biking began there, and Rotorua is similarly a core thread in the tapestry of mountain biking in New Zealand. Changes have happened along the way – the network of trails in the forest has expanded massively (part of a novel cooperation between the Maori tribe that governs the forest, the timber operators felling trees there, and the local tourist industry realizing just how much of a draw this forest is becoming), and Gary's clothing company has changed in name to N-Zo – but every time my tires touch dirt in Rotorua, it feels a little bit like home.
Riding with Gary is never really as mellow as he says it is going to be. He looks like a mild-mannered fifty-ish year old guy, turning grey hair, black baggies and a bit of a hunch to his back when he rides, but the old track racer legs are still there and he has this turbine smooth high cadence spin that deceptively just whittles away at me, while he maintains an ongoing verbal stream of information about local politics, trail conditions, movies watched, books read, invasive species, idioms of speech, typography, old drag racers and whatever else comes to mind. Then, just after filing my legs down to nubs on some climb, he points to a trail, says "we're just gonna pop in here", and disappears. It helps that he knows the trails in that forest like the back of his hand, but still, for not being a particularly flashy rider, he sure does get around pretty damn quick. And, because I am a washed up old racer who does a poor job of ignoring dangling carrots, I try to keep up.