The Lure of Lyndon
Unravelling the checkered past of a high country dirt hit.
Words by Simon Makker | Images by Simon Makker & Sven Martin
State Highway 73 from the West Coast via Arthurs Pass to the Canterbury Plains rates as one of the country’s most picturesque drives. Towering, scree-scarred mountains cloaked in rich blankets of beech forest hold world-class mountain bike trails, while wind-whipped tussocklands, otherworldly rock formations, and a plethora of commercial and club ski fields compete for tourists’ attention along the sweeping highway.
Yet barely 200 metres off the bustling highway at Lake Lyndon, tucked against a steep hillside covered in tussock and matagouri, lies a nondescript little shale gully. It’s a narrow, steep-sided gut with a sudden left-hand hook at the end as it collapses into a small shingle fan, characteristic of many in the Canterbury high country. Over the past seven years, this rocky little nook, hidden in plain sight, has been the backdrop for some of the most iconic photo and video projects in New Zealand’s short mountain bike history, and featured some of the sport’s biggest names.
Even now, as a handful of Christchurch riders breathe new life into the picturesque spot, the feature remains in demand by some of the country’s most stylish riders.
The Lyndon pioneers
Research into who first spied the gully and decided it would be an ideal spot to build a jump has been a mesmerising rabbit hole. As it turns out, Spoke founder Caleb Smith was part of the crew that first put steel shovel to clay in 2012 as part of a New Zealand road trip to promote Easton’s 35mm handlebar.
Smith joined Canadian freerider Graham Agassiz, 10-time DH World Champion Frenchman Nicolas Vouilloz, Coastal Crew shredders/filmers Kyle “Norbs” Norbraten and Dylan Dunkerton, and Kiwis Sam Blenkinsop and Cam Cole to document the road trip.
After the all-mountain terrain of Nelson and Craigieburn, Aggy was eager to swap the hills for some airspace exploration—especially as he’d only brought a downhill bike for the trip. A reconnaissance mission with Dunkerton led to the discovery of the scrubby little gully off the highway and the next day, tools in hand, the team set to work cutting in a run-in, benching and shaping an up-ramp, and removing vegetation from the landing. “It’s a testament to Aggy’s scoping skills, because before he put shovels to dirt, you really couldn’t visualise it,” says Caleb. “The run-in was impossibly short, so three of us built the step-down and the run-in, while Aggy, Norbs, and Dylan built the lip.”
All the ducks were lined up for a great day shooting a never-before-seen dirt feature, but the high country weather had other ideas. “It was classic New Zealand—relatively still in the morning, but the wind picked up more and more during the day,” recalls Smith. “Aggy kept waiting for the wind to drop, but it just kept picking up. A little double-double to berm was built to kill time and at least get some footage in the bag, but the wind didn’t let up and we had to call it quits. Aggy never got to hit the big hip.”
The First Shoot
Several months later, Smith was travelling SH73 with the late, great Kelly McGarry and they stopped to check out the spot. Kelly hit the jump a few times for Smith’s lens, but as he was coming back from injury, couldn’t push as much as he wanted to. Still, with a couple of images in the bag they promised to return together when McGarry was back to 100 percent health. In the meantime, Smith implored Kelly to not tell anyone where it was, then broke the news to a disappointed Aggy (who, incidentally, has never returned to New Zealand) that he’d shot McGarry on his jump.
A few months later, Smith received a text from McGarry enquiring where exactly the Lyndon spot was. “I knew he was with Kurt Sorge, Sven Martin, and the guys on the Teva road trip,” Smith reveals. “I sent McGazza a text saying ‘please don’t go there, mate’, but he was already out of mobile reception and didn’t receive it until afterward.”
Inevitably the Teva crew found the jump and Sorge went mind-bendingly huge on it. As McGazza aptly put it, “Kurt tried to become the first Canadian to get into outer space”. Sven’s photo of Sorge whipping off the hip was so incredible, Smith (Spoke’s then-photo editor) had no option but to run it as a double-page spread in the magazine. “I’d had plans to return with Kelly when he was healthy, as I didn’t think there was anyone local at the time who could do it justice,” Smith explains, frustration creeping into his voice. “I gave Kelly a bit of a hard time about it afterward. It was disappointing as no one knew it existed, but with Aggy and Kurt being super close friends it didn’t seem too bad.”
For six years the Lyndon jump stood deserted, slowly melding back into the tussock and shale landscape, all but forgotten by mountain bikers.
However, during the 2017–2018 summer, Christchurch locals Jonny Eden and Andrew Costain decided to venture away from the regular Victoria Park/Christchurch Adventure Park haunts and into the mountains for a new project. It wasn’t long before the old Lake Lyndon hip was mentioned, and, shovels in hand, the pair headed into the Canterbury high country to see what had become of the iconic spot they’d soon dub ‘Alpine Vale’.
“When we got there and saw it, we were like, ‘yeah, this will definitely still work’,” says Costain. “We knew straight away that we could take this old gem and bring it into the new school of being taller, steeper, and a bit more hectic.”
With misty drizzle cloaking the hills, the pair found the dirt held enough moisture to make some serious inroads. They got to work, digging at least two feet out of the transition to smooth out the up-ramp and make it taller, widening the run-in, and reshaping the lip. At the same time, they shaped and slapped up a fun right-hand hip out of the other side of the gully as a warm-up jump.
“We started working on it, and it wasn’t long before we were like ‘yeah, this is on’,” recalls Eden. “Everything about it was quite sketchy originally, so we focused on tidying up all the aspects of it and making it big and fun.”
To help with the build on drier days, water was hauled from the lake across the highway in a 20-litre weed-sprayer. “Honestly, that was probably the best investment we made,” laughs Eden. “Most days it was really dry out there, so being able to transport water and keep the dirt wet during our build was great.”
After a break over winter, Costain and Eden were back in the high country to continue the project and begin testing the jump. It worked perfectly, although the completely blind landing took Eden some time to wrap his head around. “The lip was so big and I had no one to judge speed off,” says Eden. “It was so scary and you had to hit it a lot slower than you’d expect, because the landing dropped away. You had to roll into a step-down, then brake quite a lot before you hit the lip. Hitting it with no brakes would’ve been death.”
Even once he was used to it, Eden maintains he was scared every time he dropped in. “Conditions were never 100 percent, and because the area is so windy and exposed, you were constantly double-guessing how much you should brake into it. The nearest hospital is also more than an hour away, so that was always in the back of my mind, too.”
The testing done, the pair brought 19-year-old fellow Cantabrian Billy Meaclem into the fold so Jonny had a riding partner to bounce off. It didn’t take long for the 2019 Crankworx Rotorua Speed & Style champion to find his groove and step up the riding level, with the burly hip perfectly suiting Meaclem’s signature whips and style. “Because the jump is so blind, I had to put a lot of trust in what Jonny and Costain had built, and really take their advice on how to approach it,” Meaclem says. “Luckily I rolled out of it pretty clean every time, but it definitely always got the heart going!”
“For me, I think one of the coolest aspects was going out and rebuilding an old spot that other freeride legends have used in the past, and following in their footsteps.”
When history repeats
All the pieces of the Alpine Vale project puzzle were falling into place when another group capitalised on the fresh work. Another small Kiwi crew ventured out to Alpine Vale and shot a video and images of Sam Blenkinsop hitting the jump for a Deity product launch.
Costain, who had caught wind of their intentions and urged them to leave the spot alone, was less than impressed by the situation.
“I grew up in BMX and people were really possessive and aggressive when it came to screwing with other people’s jumps,” Costain elaborates. “Even though we knew they were going to shoot there and we couldn’t stop them, I was really gutted.” While Eden was also frustrated, he admits it’s a grey area, especially as they weren’t the original pioneers of the line.
“If we hadn’t put the work in, they wouldn’t have gone out there in the first place; we did a good job of building it, so they must’ve been stoked on it enough to poach it. If I saw it and hadn’t built it, I probably would’ve ridden it myself,” Eden shrugs with a wry grin.
Despite everything though, there’s still a feeling of unfinished business for Alpine Vale. Before Eden, Costain, and Meaclem rolled their bikes out of the area for the final time this summer, they spent half an hour stacking another foot of dirt onto the top of the lip and steepening the up-ramp. It initially started as a bit of a laugh, but by the time they finished, there were knowing looks exchanged and telltale banter beginning about who would be first to test it.
“We started digging away with the intention of just making it a ridiculous moon-booter that’d put people off, but by the end we were like, ‘dude, this could actually be really insane,” grins Eden. “It’d be doubly scary now and the risk is a lot greater, but I’ll see how I feel after another season in Whistler. I think it could be ‘game on’ next summer.”