Defying gravity: Queenstown's Vinny Armstrong on Coronet Peak. PICTURE: JACOB NILZÉN

While most of us were shivering, slipping and stumbling through another Queenstown winter, freeride mountain biker Vinny Armstrong was tearing it up in the Utah desert with a bunch of pals. Now back in the resort, the rider known for her fearlessness on the jumps stayed on the ground long enough to tell GUY WILLIAMS about her plans for the coming year

Outside of New Zealand’s mountain bike community, Vinny Armstrong’s not yet a household name.

However, the 23-year-old’s already a star in the world of women’s freeride, just as the sport’s exploding from a niche category into the global mainstream.

Working a day job as she saves for a full campaign in North America and Europe next year,  Armstrong’s excited about where the sport could take her in the next few years.

As a pathway opens up for women in a sport that until recently had events only for men, her timing couldn’t be better.

But what is freeride mountain biking?

In its purest form, it’s about descending extreme terrain and nailing big jumps and drop-offs.

Think Kelly McGarry, the late great Queenstowner, backflipping a 72-foot canyon gap at the 2013 Red Bull Rampage.

Armstrong, who also com petes in dual slalom, speed and style and downhill events, says
it’s a discipline of the sport comparable to freeride skiing, and includes the likes of Red Bull Rampage.

‘‘That’s where you go out and build your line and then ride down and do tricks and stuff — that’s the competition side of it.

‘‘But there are other events, like Formation and The Audi Nines, where there’s no competition involved, where it’s just riding a line of big jumps, jam-style, and having fun.’’

Freeride has its own category in the Crankworx world series — a four-stop tour taking in Canada, Australia and Rotorua that also has offshoot festivals around the world.

Armstrong’s won the Crankworx ‘Whip-Off’ — a judged event in which riders turn their bike sideways in a jump — three times, the first in Les Gets, France, in 2018.

In May, along with seven other women, including fellow Queenstowner and World Cup downhill racer Jess Blewitt, she took part for the second time in the invite-only Formation ‘progression camp’ in the southern Utah desert.

Armed only with their bikes and shovels, they were photographed and filmed while riding and jumping crazy lines down mountainsides in an event aimed at promoting them and their sport.

‘‘It’s awesome, it’s literally a dream come true, going out and building a line I want to ride and filming it and riding it,’’ she says.

‘‘It’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.’’

Living the dream: Vinny Armstrong

With an MIQ spot booked for July, she spent 10 weeks in the US, staying in the desert for more riding before going on a roadie with a US-based friend and checking out places like New Hampshire’s Highland Mountain Bike Park.

Earlier in the year, she was one of 10 Kiwi women hand-picked to participate in the Future Ground progression camp at Fernhill’s Wynyard Jump Park.

The first of its kind in NZ, the camp was aimed at helping them progress their tricks and

The Auckland native’s been living and working in Queenstown since last December, hooked after spending a couple of months here just before Covid arrived.

‘‘I just really enjoyed it and decided this was the place to be.

‘‘I couldn’t progress my riding and ride at the level I’m riding at now in Auckland.’’

Her favourite spots are Fernhill Bike Park’s Dream Track and Mini Dream, a sort of heaven for freeriders with a range of gravity-defying features that include 20-metre gap jumps.

They are also the sort of place where mistakes are punished with a ride to hospital — not that she thinks about that.

‘‘When I’m doing big jumps and all that big bike stuff, I analyse everything beforehand, and visualise myself doing it.

‘‘With the experience I have, I believe in myself that I can do it, and it’s going to be the best feeling ever once I do achieve it.’’

Looking ahead, the next big event in her diary’s the Rotorua stop of the Crankworx world series, on November 3, while next year she plans to compete in all four stops on the circuit.

She also plans to return to Utah for Formation, Proving Grounds in Oregon, the all-women Dark Horse in Canada, the Audi Nines in Germany and ‘‘any other surprise invitational freeride events’’.

Getting time off work will be a challenge, but she’s determined to pay her way around the world and keep putting her name up in lights until the brands and sponsors come calling.

The pathway to becoming a full-time pro is racking up the results and actively promoting yourself, she says.

‘‘Social media is really big these days — you have to constantly be on social media and putting out new content.

‘‘That’s what brings attention to you as a rider.

‘‘Hopefully, some time in the future, I can ride full-time and really start progressing,’’ Armstrong says.