Steep downhill learning curve

Olivia Caldwell tells of her experience mountain biking in Queenstown Bike Park. Access by scenic gondola, it provides world class trials for all abilities

For a girl who gets just a little bit frightened at the thought of plummeting head first over the handle bars of a mountain bike, Skyline's gondola-accessed bike trails were always going to be a challenge.

But it was a challenge I readily accepted from mountain biking co-ordinator Brad Rowe.

From the bottom of the gondola I began to realise that I had, perhaps, bitten off a little more than I could chew. The hill I was about to take on was so much steeper than I remembered.

Concentrating on looking not at the hill but rather the views over Queenstown, I couldn't help getting progressively more nervous with each metre I rose in the glass box.

The gondola gives riders access to nine different trails: Hammy's, Vertigo, Original, Single Track Sandwich, Armageddon, Rock Garden, Thingymajig, Ant's Track and Grundy.

Arriving at the top, Mr Rowe greeted me with a giant smile, knowing I had absolutely no idea of what lay ahead.

Looking back, it was probably the best way to go into it - blind.

But I loved it. Aside from a small graze on my left knee, a near miss in the alpines and a small incident involving me coming off a plank that I thought I was good enough to attempt, I managed to ride through incident-free.

Paul Angus at Vertigo Bikes kitted me out with a pretty neat bike, the Giant Reign, some knee and shin protection and gloves.

I waited to feel the jitters in parts of the so-called "amateur" course, but the bike's suspension wore the brunt of it and I came out feeling more confident for my second run.

Confidence can sometimes breed cockiness and I darted ahead of Mr Rowe and right into decent-sized tree trunk.

Putting on my tough face, I continued around Hammy's well-caressed corners and equally enjoyable downhill sections.

One thing that stood out to me was the calibre of riders around me.

Just when I though I was being daring, picking up some speed and taking sharp corners, a nearby rider would bring me back to reality by zipping past me quicker than I could say "It's my first time".

Another thing that stood out was, of course, the views.

There were spots on this track that even if you weren't gasping for a breath (you should be), you would stop just to take in how special this inventive trail really is.

At one point, I was staring at the Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu and the next I was on the ground laughing and waiting until my guide realised he'd lost me in his dust.

My second run was three times the speed of my first and my third even faster, so it gives me confidence that, in time, I'll be taking it to the next level and, perhaps by the end of the season, a level above that.

If you thought going downhill required no physical fitness, you were truly mistaken.

Each run averages 6km, leaving my arms feeling like I've just done 100 press-ups and my legs like they've endured 1000 squats.

So, without the gondola taking me back up the hill, I don't think I'd feel quite the same about a second and/or third run.

I like to play it safe when it comes to my sporting choices.

In hockey and cricket you usually have time to act, and a tennis ball rarely does a lot of damage.

But there was something about the rush of coming down that mountain on a bike I was barely in control of that worked for me.

Typically me, I get myself into something I have no idea about, come out injury free with a giant smile on my face.

I'm now on the lookout for a bike to pursue my summer fling. 

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