Bicycle motocross (BMX)
BMX or bicycle motocross developed in California in 1969 as a pedal-powered alternative to motorcycle motocross racing. A decade later BMX clubs began to spring up in New Zealand and major events started in 1980. The craze took off and by the end of 1981 there were 70 BMX tracks throughout the country. Typically these clay-based tracks are around 300 metres long and have plenty of jumps and tight, bermed corners. Races last about 30–40 seconds. They have usually been held on Sundays so as not to clash with rugby.
In the early 1980s BMX Moto magazine described Ashburton’s Trevors Road track as ‘300 superfast metres of clay coated in fine crusher dust. It had it all – the unnerving dip jump, killer whoopdies [series of small jumps], switchback [a steep hill turn that requires riders to zig-zag], and tabletop [a jump where riders throw their bike sideways in mid-air]’. Riders and spectators loved it.
The first New Zealand BMX national championships were held in Wainuiomata, in Lower Hutt, in 1981. The elite men’s race was won by B. Hickford and elite women’s by S. May. World championships were first held the following year. Top BMX riders who have moved on to excel in track or road cycling include Greg Henderson and Chris Jenner.
In 2008, BMX entered the Olympic Games, with medals at stake for the fastest elite men and women. New Zealand's top ranked male, Marc Willers, crashed out in the semi-finals, while Sarah Walker came fourth in the women’s final. Walker went on to win the BMX World Championship in the Elite and Cruiser classes in 2009 and won a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Mountain biking (MTB)
Intrepid cyclists began riding off-road in New Zealand in the late 19th century, some intentionally, some the victims of imaginative road maps. By the 1950s there was the rare off-road bicycle race to be enjoyed and ‘rough-stuff’ cycle tourists were increasingly tackling four-wheel-drive and tramping tracks to connect remote rural road ends. The first purpose-built mountain bikes were made in California in the 1970s and some of these trickled down to New Zealand. By early 1984 local manufacturers were making them.
In 1986 Paul Kennett organised the inaugural New Zealand Off Road Bicycle Race (the first New Zealand national championship race). Run in the rugged Akatarawa ranges near Upper Hutt, it later became known as the Karapoti Classic, now the longest-running mountain bike race in Australasia. The winners of the inaugural race were Tim Galloway and Anne Butler. In the same year the first of many sports mountain bike clubs was formed and in 1988 the National Off Road Bicycle Association was created to oversee national racing events. The International Cycling Union (UCI) sanctioned world mountain bike championships from 1990, for both cross-country and downhill mountain biking. MTB gained full Olympic status at the 1996 Atlanta Games. New Zealand was represented by 39-year-old Kathy Lynch, who came eighth.
Kathy Lynch is a legend within the MTB scene. She won the first of her eight Karapoti Classic titles in 1989, setting a course record in 1994. She also won eight national series titles, came eighth at the Atlanta Olympics and sixth in the 1997 Wellington UCI Mountain Bike Cup. Through it all, her racing trademarks have been loud breathing, even louder expletives and monumental drive.
By the late 1990s there were a few mountain bike races boasting fields of around 1,000 riders (including the 50-kilometre Karapoti Classic and 100-kilometre Rainbow Rage). However, the two most prestigious mountain bike races to be held in New Zealand were the second round of the 1997 UCI World Cup in Wellington and the 2006 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Rotorua.
New Zealand has produced several world-class mountain bike racers since Kathy Lynch. Cross-country stars include Kashi Leuchs (Olympics 2000, 2004, 2008) and Karen Hanlen (Olympics 2012). The two most outstanding downhillers have been 2004 world champion Vanessa Quin and two-time winner of the United States NORBA Cup John Kirkcaldie. Among the most talented MTB racers was Anton Cooper, who won the 2012 Junior XC World Championships. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games he won a gold medal and Sam Gaze a silver; their finishing order was reversed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Gaze was world junior champion in 2016 and 2017, and in 2018 he became the first New Zealander to win a senior UCI Mountain Bike World Cup title.