When Justin Leov touches down in Rotorua he has one forest on his mind. RideNZ.co talks to the 32-year-old professional downhill and enduro mountain biker about why he loves the trails of Whakarewarewa Forest and why Rotorua has become the heart of mountain biking in New Zealand.
Since switching from his regular top 10 spot in downhill mountain biking to the fast-emerging discipline of enduro racing, Justin Leov, renowned for his level of fitness and strength, has regularly featured in the top-five. He finished third in the Enduro World Series in 2014 and in 2015 took a string of stage wins before being sidelined with a shoulder injury. He recovered from that injury only to be struck down early in his 2016 season with Glandular Fever. We caught up with him back in New Zealand as he neared the end of his recovery.
"It's been a hard road – one of those illnesses that as a sportsperson you just never want to get," he explains. "I've had to completely remove myself from training and racing – stepping away from exercise to recover has been a huge challenge for me. Mentally I have found this one hard also. You work so hard in the off-season to be strong and ready and then to watch your form drop away each week can be really depressing. I'm happy to say now I'm on the mend again and I have the all clear to return to training again. I plan to be back on the circuit for the Whistler round in August. Last season, after winning my first round and leading the series, I was sidelined also when I crashed and dislocated my shoulder. Finishing 16th overall with the missed rounds it looks like my title hopes will also have to wait another year."
For an athlete being forced to stop all means of exercise brings its own set of complications.
"Trying to stay positive was my main focus, but it had its days – sometimes I was in a dark place. The time spent with my family really pulled me through and got me out of bed in the morning. Having two kiddies under two seems to keep you busy, so I'm thankful for that," he laughs.
In 2015 RideNZ.co jumped on a shuttle to the top of Whakarewarewa Forest and discussed why Rotorua has become the beating heart of mountain biking in New Zealand.
"I started my career racing and riding in Rotorua and even back then the trail scene was ahead of other modern places in the country," he recalls. "It's grown so much more with the likes of shuttling in the forest and Skyline Rotorua opening to mountain biking. Trail building is a much bigger industry now as well and with full-time trail builders, new routes and networks just keep getting developed. It is a great time for mountain biking in Rotorua."
We disembark the shuttle near the summit of the forest and a trail called Tuhoto Ariki – named after a feared and revered Maori priest who predicted the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera. Tuhoto Ariki leads us to a new trail: Kataore. A 1.6km Department of Conservation managed ribbon of Grade 5 trail that has riders of Justin's calibre beaming.
"I really like Kataore because it has a raw natural aspect to it. It's not so buff and man made and you need to ride it like that. It's a challenge when wet, but it's why we all mountain bike right?," he asks. "To challenge ourselves and have fun."
"It also brings the upper level trails to Rotorua and this means there is a level of trail for everyone and, more importantly, trails you have to work up to being able to ride well. That, in my mind, is what you want in a mountain bike destination."
Justin said that events like the Rotorua Bike Festival and Crankworx, and the Rotorua community's ability to deliver them in style, kept New Zealand high on the radar as a destination while still delivering that unique Kiwi mountain biking culture.
"I think they're also important to bring us worldwide coverage," he adds. "We are lucky as we aren't in direct competition with the likes of the Northern Hemisphere bike destinations. We can offer the rest of the world an alternative to a winter at home. Come out and ride a New Zealand summer in Rotorua on world-class trails. That sounds pretty good to me."
He said that the fact so many of the trails were rideable all-year meant domestic riders were spoiled for choice.
From Justin's unique position visiting the best bike destinations in the Northern Hemisphere he gets to benchmark our progress better then most. He believes we are on point.
"We are doing a great job actually," he asserts. "Our quality of trail is high and New Zealand is easy to get to and to get around with it being such a small country. I think we will only grow and this is going to be a booming scene in two-three years time. The key is to maintain the relationships with the land owners and work on building more and more infrastructure to make coming here and riding here easy and stress free. In my opinion a great riding destination is one that has great trails, yes, of course, but also has the ease of getting there, the ease of finding the trails and support around both bike and rider while in that environment. Rotorua seems to be leading that right now."
Justin Leov rides for the Canyon Factory Enduro Racing team. You can follow Justin Leov's career through his Facebook page.