10th Mar 2017
20th Moonride – Now part of Rotorua’s history
Words thanks to Jack Shallard of Rotorua
In his weekly Nzo letter of 18 May 2009, Gaz Sullivan said “The Moonride is New Zealand’s (and possibly the World’s) oldest teams race in the dark, having been dreamed up by Fred Christensen sometime in the early 90s”
This year celebrates the 20th Moonride. That makes it a serious survivor in a very competitive arena. It has certainly become an iconic event that has contributed to Rotorua’s history, economy, and world-wide mountain-bike reputation. Some 200 teams have already registered for this year’s event, about 1,000 riders. That is a lot of tents!
The story goes something like this. It all began when Fred, an event organiser, saw an advertisement in a local newspaper. It seems an organisation known as the 200 Club, supported by Tourism Rotorua (now Events Rotorua) was inviting anyone with a bright idea for hosting an event to come to a meeting hosted by Richard Dodds. Fred attended the meeting with his usual passion and the Moonride was born. It began as one of several events in the Mad, Mad, Mid-Winter Festival in July 1994, to be ridden on the weekend closest to full moon – hence Moonride. The Club was looking for activities that would bring some economic activity to motels and other businesses during the quiet winter season. The original concept was to “generate some life during the wettest, coldest, bleakest part of the year” as part of the Festival. The Festival ran its course and, after the first three or four years, the then Cateye Moonride took on a life of its own as a stand-alone event. It has run every year since, apart from 2001.
The first seven events were held in mid-July, They were 12 hour team events, commencing at 8.00 pm on the Friday night and ending at 8.00 am on the Saturday morning. One father who was there as the ‘support team’ for two of his sons in that first event recalls: “From memory there were about 17 teams, making about 85 riders, in the first event at the Agrodome. I think 17 teams but it could have been 27. I recall a 7 somewhere in the mix.” One of his sons was visiting Rotorua for the weekend and got roped in by his brother living here. This will be his 20th Moonride.
The first two events were based at the Agrodome. The third and fourth were at Waipa under a huge marquee with massive gas heaters to dry and warm riders and their clothes. Then it moved to a base at Arawa Park racecourse for three years, also in a huge marquee with gas heaters. The first of these rode into the forest through Whaka Village, past pools, cheered on by residents during the night. Another rode out through the Whaka Village. After five great events, new organisers took over in about year six, but lapsed it in 2001. It had long become too big to run without proper resourcing and sponsorship. The concept was too good to let go, so in 2002 Tourism Rotorua contracted Murray Fleming (Event Promotions) to revamp it on a sustainable basis. MTB stalwarts Graeme Simpson and Gaz Sullivan have assisted in design of some of the tracks since 2002. Gaz’ Nzo has taken on the naming rights this year as part of a re-stating of the event. Several changes were introduced. These included the tent city concept, moving back to Waipa, moving the event to early May (about the second weekend). Also introduced were the 24 hour event, later starting of 10.00 pm on the Friday night and finishing at 10.00 pm on the Saturday night, moving the start time for the 12 hour event to 10.00 am on the Saturday morning. Solo riding (12 and 24 hour) was also introduced. A six hour event was introduced in 2008 or 2009, along with 6 hour solo. The 2012 event was held at Tui Ridge Park but ‘Tent City’ returned to Waipa last year. The event has attracted up to about 2000 riders, about 400 on the track at any one time, and heaps of support team and spectators.
As expected, weather has varied from year to year. Some have been ideal and sunny, others wet and muddy. 1997 was a huge frost with ice on the tracks and bikes freezing up if left outside the marquee. Riders in 1998 will never forget the ankle-deep waves in the marquee at Arawa Park. The move to late March in 2014 will hopefully be witnessed by great riding conditions.
The event has produced some great stories. An example is the bloke who flew up from Christchurch with a few belongings on his back, about 2002 or 2003, rode in from the airport, found a tent to base at, had no support team, rode a heap of laps in the 24 hour solo, won, and was planning to ride to his grandmothers for some shut-eye before flying home. Then Murray heard about it and found a more deserving way of getting him there. Several solo ‘crazys’ (people who think differently from the normal) took part on unicycles in some of the earlier events since 2002. The story goes that one person managed something like 146 km in 24 hours on a unicycle, reputedly a world record. The event has invited all sorts of ‘accommodation’, heating, cooking, and sleeping options – even spa pools on truck trays. And all sorts of riding apparel, some unworthy of such a ‘prestigious’ event.
Gone are the days of carrying one or two heavy motorbike batteries and innovative home-made lights. The days of small lightweight electronically managed LED lights, powered by small lithium batteries, have changed the night-riding world. Some are reputedly so powerful they could burn a hole in the forest – or the helmet and skull if you don’t keep some air rushing past.
This year’s Moonride takes us back a few years to slightly longer, slightly more ‘adventurous’ tracks preferred by many keen riders. Tracks have been carefully selected to ensure a great event with plenty of scope for passing – or getting passed. Red McHale and his team have been casing them to sort out ‘hot spots’. The Moonride has a certain fascination. One veteran put it this way: “Half way around the first lap I think ‘What on earth am I doing here, and I have another 8, 10 or 12 of these to go.’ Then I vow, ‘This is my last time’. Then on the Sunday morning we celebrate with a ‘Moonride breakfast’ and start planning next year’s event.” No doubt about it. This event has a certain fascination and character.