A cycle trail through the Ashburton District could be a major money-spinner for the region’s economy and LDR reporter Jonathan Leask looks into the push to resurrect a project that previously failed to get any traction.
The idea has been rolling around for years and a fresh push to develop a district cycle trail has the backing of local bikers.
Linking up the existing bike trails to form a loop around Mid Canterbury is an idea that gets Dean Harrison’s wheels spinning.
“It would be a fantastic way to get people exercising and getting people out in the countryside exploring the district will open up a lot of opportunities.”
Harrison started the Phat Bastards cycling group in 2019 as just a few mates using biking as a sociable and low-impact exercise.
The group has steadily grown to number around 50 and they regularly ride along the Ashburton River Track and Mt Hutt Bike Park each week.
The bigger picture of a district-wide ride is something Harrison believes is achievable and would be a massive asset.
The district’s reasonably flat rolling plains could make it a trail suitable for all abilities, with options to detour for more technical rides along the way, Harrison said.
“We have the existing trails and it could link up perfectly and we have places it can be that isn’t intrusive on the landscape and you don’t have to bike on the road.
“The distance between the townships and trails is easily doable in a day with a reasonable level of fitness, and a lot of middle-aged riders are utilising e-bikes.
“The opportunity is definitely there and it’s an outstanding idea.”
The Ashburton District Council is in the early stages of exploring that opportunity, again, and the project has been given an extra push during the development of a new economic development strategy.
One of several submissions requesting a district cycle trail be part of that strategy came from Rakaia Community Association president, Neil Pluck.
He proposed exploring a trail linking Rakaia to Methven and Ashburton along the Rakaia River terrace, the Rangitata Diversion Race, and Ashburton/Hakatere River stopbanks.
“Ashburton District is lagging behind on this product and has a huge amount of infrastructure already in place that only needs a few mods and extensions to have an outstanding, unique-to-New-Zealand trail working all year round for our greater good.”
Rakaia River Holiday Park owner, Tanya Hulme, also told the council it is a missed opportunity that needs exploring.
The holiday park gets a lot of visitors carrying bikes and “there is a great opportunity to create a bike track linking areas of the Ashburton District”.
“We think it’s worth exploring further.”
The idea for a bike trail has received support from councillors.
“This doesn’t have to cost the council a huge amount of money,” councillor Richard Wilson said.
“We are not suddenly going to go and build a two-lane bike track right around Mid Canterbury.
“The facilities are there, the organisations are there, it’s just a joining up of them.”
Councillor Russell Ellis compared it to the bike skills park that recently got the go-ahead in the Ashburton Domain – a community-led and funded project on council land.
“That sort of collaboration can work for the bike trail too,” Ellis said.
A cycle trail had previously been looked at by the Braided Waters Cycle Trust and its project files are now in the council’s possession to analyse where they got to and “if there is merit in continuing”, compliance and development group manager, Jane Donaldson, said.
“We know Mid Canterbury has some passionate cycling groups and capable community organisations, and if the idea of a district bike trail is to be further developed then council will investigate all options and partnerships to make that happen,” Donaldson said.
The investigations are in the early stages so it is too soon to know if anything will be ready for the long-term plan process next year, Donaldson said.
District-wide ride resurrection needs drive
Kelvin Holmes believes it’s a fantastic idea to resurrect the district cycle trail idea.
“There is an awful lot of work that has been done already.
“It is still a bloody big job, but I still think it’s one worth doing.”
Holmes, a former councillor and current Methven Community Board chairperson, was behind the original push for a district-wide cycle trail as part of the Braided Waters Cycle Trust.
The idea was launched when Prime Minister John Key announced a $50m cycleway fund in 2009.
It had more than 50 applications, but only 18 projects were funded – with Ashburton missing out.
The trust was established to drive the project and while it missed out on the Government funding, it remained intent on developing the cycleway.
The trust was granted $80,000 by the Ashburton District Council in August, 2010, for track development, but work ground to a halt following the Canterbury earthquakes.
With the wheels in motion, it was a concept that was pursued, but without significant funding and the Canterbury Earthquakes grinding progress to a halt, it faded into obscurity.
It was the catalyst for the Ashburton River and Lake Hood trails being developed.
Experience Mid Canterbury had looked to relaunch the concept in 2019, but it didn’t gather any momentum.
The trust was wound up in 2021 and it gifted $102,443 to the Ashburton District Council to distribute over 10 years to groups involved in the repair and maintenance of walking, hiking, cycling and mountain bike trails in the district.
The funds are distributed annually via the council’s grants scheme.
“We were going to go from Rakaia to the Highbank power station, up to Methven via the RDR, across through Staveley to Mt Somers and back down the Ashburton North Branch River stopbank to Lake Hood – about 150km.”
It was being designed to be a series of day trips between the townships and was called the braided rivers because it went up the Rakaia and across to the Ashburton River, Holmes said.
“A lot of the groundwork has been done.
“We had contacted all the existing farmers along the RDR at that time, and along the Ashburton North Branch stopbanks.”
Landowner concerns about providing public access to private land is a hurdle that remains.
The other is the risk of putting assets next to waterways, given the increasing rate of flood events.
And then there is crossing any state highway, other roads, or river which will present issues with traffic management, risk, health and safety, and added expense.
The economic benefits of the trail could be huge and make it all worth it, Holmes said, creating jobs and bringing people into the district to boost the economy, but to get to that point “is not cheap and it’s not simple”.
Cycle trail users in 2022 brought an estimated direct economic contribution to regions of more than $950 million according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment.
Since the idea launched in 2009, there has been a lot of development of individual trails across the district, he said.
The likes of the Methven Walkway being upgraded and plans on its expansion means the task of linking up the townships isn’t as big an obstacle as it was, Holmes aid.
“But it’s still a big job.
“It’s good the council is taking the initiative but ultimately I feel it won’t work if it’s the council driving it.
“The only way it’s going to work is with a lot of community buy-in”
The Braided Waters Trust was planning to essentially divide the trail into sections, and get community groups to become stewards of their local section.
“Ashburton, Methven, Mayfield and Rakaia Lions would oversee part of the track.
“It all doesn’t have to be done at once either, it can be staged doing a section at a time.”
Bike Methven focused on development
Even though a district cycle trail would be great, the Bike Methven has its own development priorities.
The club has a 10-year development plan it is working through for its Mt Hutt Bike, club secretary, Clare Harden, said.
“We have a 10-year strategic plan and a good committee leading that.”
It includes developing new tracks and working with DOC to expand the park into DOC land.
The park started in 2008 and in 2015-2016 logging caused the loss of several trails which is when Bike Methven formulated its 10-year plan to re-establish its trails and expand even further.
The park has 42km of trail network, offering a range from a family-friendly cross-country loop to the single-track, double-black diamond (extremely difficult) trail.
The park is already a destination — and a growing one at that.
“We have increased [patronage] by 100% for the last eight years, and maybe 200% last year.”
Despite the rapid rise, there is nothing in the strategic plans to suggest a change to a commercial business model.
“There is no need for us to change and we are not going to ever charge people to go to our bike park, it’s free for the community.
“It was built by the community, for the community and there are some pretty passionate people that want to see it stay like it is.
“We are open all year around and people can bike any time.
“It won’t be commercial it will be community-run.”
Regular users are encouraged to become financial members of the club and there is a donation box but they generally rely on funding grants and their larger pay-to-enter events.
The economic gain is expanding and developing the park to make it a stay-over destination rather than a day trip, and is being aided by the Opuke Hot Pools opening up, Harden said.
The concept of a district cycle trail has come and gone over the years and “has potential” but Bike Methven is focused on its plans, Harden said.
“It’s not really on our radar because we are about downhill.
“We like hard, fast, technical tracks.”
A flat track connecting Methven to the Mt Hutt Bike Park, as part of a cycle trail, “isn’t something we would use”.