A mountain-biker who crashed in thick bush on a hill above Wellington had to be airlifted to hospital after going for a ride while the country is in alert level 4 lockdown.
Sunday’s rescue comes as debate surges over what outdoor activities should be allowed during alert level 4, with surfers being heavily policed and given warnings over the weekend, which some have called “discriminatory”.
Cycling and mountain biking is not specifically banned under any regulations, but police, the Ministry of Health and mountain bike clubs have advised riders to avoid activities where they could be injured and need to be rescued, and to stay local.
Life Flight Westpac rescue helicopter crewman Mike Beausoleil said they were alerted to reports a mountain-biker had sustained a serious leg injury near Brooklyn wind turbine in Wellington at about 1pm Sunday.
The rider had come off on the track, and was about 200 metres below the summit in “thick native bush”.
“We winched a paramedic down to treat them, and then winched them both out.”
The rider was flown to hospital with a “serious leg injury”.
Beausoleil said it was not his place to comment on if people should be out riding such trails.
“We are just there to help people when they need it.”
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According to fitness app Strava there were scores of riders on similar trails above Wellington around the Brooklyn wind turbine on Sunday.
Under new lockdown rules unveiled on Friday, “walks and other activities like cycling or scootering are fine”, provided a 2-metre distance is kept from others.
The official Covid-19 guidance continues: “Stick to simple outdoor exercise, and avoid activities where you can get injured or lost. For example, don’t go swimming, surfing, boating, hunting or tramping.
“It’s important the emergency services remain available to support the response to Covid-19.”
It does not specify mountain-biking as an activity where one could get “injured or lost”, and it seems mountain-bikers are using this to justify heading out on rides.
Health Minister David Clark has come under fire for driving to a mountain bike trail in Dunedin.
Christchurch too has seen riders flock to the hills since the lockdown was introduced.
On Sunday the app Strava showed 82 riders completing Rāpaki track – a steep, gravel trail leading to the top of Mt Vernon, and a gateway to other walking and mountain biking tracks.
Up on the hilltops 72 people completed the Bowenvale Traverse, which takes riders along a narrow track high above the city towards Victoria Park, with steep drops in sections to the side.
Of Sunday’s riders, many were travelling vast distances, including one who rode 42.5km through the hills over a two-hour period.
None of the riders spoken to by the Herald on Rāpaki track had driven there, all said they were riding well within their limits, and that they were out doing exercise not only for their physical but mental health.
Mountain Bike New Zealand has advised riders to follow Government guidelines and ride locally and safely, a message echoed by Wellington Mountain Bike Club.
President John Baddiley said the injured rider was on a single-direction track known as “Carparts”, which they’d ridden “plenty of times”.
It links the wind turbine to the trail network in Polhill gully, and met the guidance given by Mountain Bike New Zealand, Baddiley said.
“The accident is a reminder to everyone that accidents can happen, through all forms of exercise, and that we all need to be careful at all times,” he said.
Christchurch Singletrack Club chairman Murray Anderson said the club had closed its own private tracks during the lockdown, and advised its members to stick to “extremely easy tracks” on the flats, not take any risk that could see them needing medical attention, and avoid single trails where they could come into contact with others.
Police have not responded to questions from the Herald about if any mountain bikers were spoken to across the country on Sunday.
On Sunday police gave warnings to about a dozen surfers at Piha, on Auckland’s west coast, while surfers were also seen up the coast at Muriwai.
The heavy policing of surfing compared to other outdoor activities – which carry much higher risks of injury – has sparked a strong backlash online, many calling it “discriminatory”.
A petition has been launched calling for surfing to be allowed in “reasonable conditions by experienced practitioners” in their local area while abiding by the rules of the alert level 4 lockdown – keeping minimum 2m distance and taking extreme caution.
“To allow participation in other higher-injury-risk sports while banning surfing is discriminatory,” the petition reads.
“It is also causing a high level of confusion and tension amidst New Zealand’s seaside communities.”
Mountain-biking cost the country nearly $20m in ACC claims in 2018/2019 – the country’s ninth-costliest sport, while surfing did not make the top 20.
The rationale that surfing was banned due to the Coastguard not operating did not make sense, the petition said.
“While this rule may make sense for some water sports, as any experienced surfer knows, we are more likely to be the ones doing the rescuing than being rescued.
“Anyone who has surfed for long time knows that surfing is a low-impact and low-risk sport when practised in reasonable conditions by experienced practitioners.
“Sustaining serious injuries or needing any sort of rescue services while surfing is the exception, not the norm.”
Half a dozen surfers spoken to at Christchurch’s New Brighton beach told the Herald if mountain-bikers were allowed to head to the hills, they should be able to surf their local breaks.
They all lived in walking distance from the ocean, and had years of experience in the ocean.
“The waves here are very safe,” said one surfer, who declined to give his name.
“I don’t think people who don’t surf understand – I feel safer out here than riding a bike.”
But the view is not consistent across the country, with many surfing clubs calling on surfers to refrain from the sport during the lockdown, including Māori Bay Boardriders in Muriwai, Raglan Point Boardriders Club – which called for surfers to stay off their world-famous surf breaks, and Gisborne Boardriders Club.
Development officer Flo Bub – also a keen mountain biker – told The Gisborne Herald while he understood the desire to get in the water, the situation was “bigger than surfing”.
“For people who surf it’s a part of their lives. It’s really hard not to go for a surf but hopefully this is a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.
“Behave as if you have Covid-19. You wouldn’t climb ladders, go mountain climbing or surfing then. Don’t treat the crisis as a holiday.”
On March 25, day before the country went into lockdown on, a surfer suffered severe spinal injuries surfing Gisborne’s Wainui Beach and needed to be airlifted to Middlemore Hospital in Auckland by the Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust.
The Department of Conservation, Mountain Safety Council and Fish and Game have all advised against outdoor activities during the lockdown.
The Ministry of Health has not responded to questions from the Herald around the rationale for allowing mountain biking but not surfing.