Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Day 4 - Waiuta to Flock Hill

Distance: ~185km
Time: ~ 11 hours

Day 4 began with waking up reluctantly in a foggy, slightly creepy ghost town. I think the fog also lent the ruined and abandoned buildings a rather poignant air, given the town's history. The night had been cold, but had yielded plenty of sleep and we were all feeling rejuvenated and keen to hit the road ahead. Breakfast included coffee in a tube with fruitloaf - ahhh, such luxuries! I remember texting on this morning that the previous day had been hard, but today held "great promise". With a course consisting primarily of sealed roads with only short gravel sections, there was a very real opportunity to punch out some fast and comparatively easy kilometres. Although the itinerary included Arthur's Pass - a slightly understated decscription of "ride SH73 over the Southern Alps" - we knew that pretty much any sealed climb would be rideable, and that we wouldn't have to deal with the slow offroad sections today.

The ride actually started very positively. A winding valley road lead down a gully out of Waiuta and descended gently and easily towards Ikamatua. As the fog lifted, a pleasant West Coast day revealed itself, with occasional clouds flecking the sky, a complete absence of wind and cool temperatures. This helped the positive vibe, and the mood riding into Ikamatua was very social as we enjoyed rediscovering the ability to propel with mechanical advantage - ie with wheels and cranks - after the previous day's hike-a-bike. The fog settled again as we hit the main road heading along the Grey river towards the coast, and came to Ikamatua. Here more iced coffee was purchased and consumed in vast quantities, and the guns in the service station window suggested that we shouldn't antagonise the locals!

The only serious matter of the morning was dealing with Jan's tendon - thankfully he was able to ride the easy valley roads, but we managed to persuade him to pull the pin and head for Greymouth to avoid a potential emergency. Fortunately, Ikamatua was well situated for this - "follow this road for 60kms and then you can get a bus to anywhere on the island". We made a call-in here to report that Jan was leaving the race - I think the call in hadn't worked at Reefton due to a problem at the other end of the line. With that weight off our minds, we hit the side road heading to Blackball.

This section probably sticks in my mind as the easiest riding of the trip - flat, sealed and straight, with a gentle tailwind. It was also a great opportunity to kick back on the bikes and do touristy stuff - I hope the songs that were sung will never, ever be repeated! We rolled straight past Blackball and headed towards Stillwater. Much to Joel's vocal consternation, there were one or two climbs, but nothing demanding the granny gear or too much effort.

Crossing the Grey river at Stillwater was another one of those "so much water" Aussie experiences. It wasn't very grey - we figured the name was derived from the reflection of typical West Coast skies. For now at least, the sun was shining.

Stillwater seemed to be a bit of a hole. The whole town was apparently owned by someone called T Croft, who ran a trucking company. At any rate, the only source of food was a hotel, which was actually closed. With a long way to the next food stop at Jacksons, we realised it would be very tight for our dwindling food supplies, and so refilled on as much water as possible and hit the road once more.

The West Coast section on Bell Hill road etc is the sort of terrain that memory contracts into a short section, even though it was quite long. Rolling farmland and repetitive scenery defined this section. Suffice it to say that the roads were fast and easy, despite some light rain and a little bit of muddy spray. There were some climbs that apparently led to Bell Hill, but nothing too strenuous. I think Phil began to contemplate the thought of trying to catch the little flightless hedge birds - the name evades me - as a form of early lunch!

As we turned on to Kotoku Bell Hill Road, we ran into Ian, Scotty and Gordon, who had made it to Blackball late the previous night. Joel thought this an apt moment to pull his trademark wheelie - this was his first of the trip, so his discipline had been impressive until that point! After a very modest repaste on the remaining apricot bars (mmmmmmmm), we hit the road to Jacksons. The scenery around here was nicer - lush, with the occasional mountain stream and even a few pleasing lakes to peruse as we rolled past. With an expanded peloton, Phil and I swapped long turns on the front, driven by the insatiable appetites all cyclists possess, and drove the train into Jacksons.

Jacksons provided plenty of food - much to the satisfaction of all! From here, it was a simple matter of crossing the Southern Alps. My big map had warned that the weather around Arthur's Pass was notoriously unpredictable, and I had heard tales of roaring headwinds, waterfalls falling halfway across the road and lightning arking between the hills. With the rain clouds lingering, I was hoping the passage would be a dry one! It was 34kms to Arthur's Pass - and we reassured ourselves that, as a national highway, there'd be regulations on the maximum gradient and thus the climb would be pleasant and rolling. Ah, the powers of delusion....

The climb did start very pleasantly, with shallow gradients and considerate drivers as we passed Otira and lots of side valleys with names like "Deception Valley". As we saw Rodney climbing ahead, we eventually bridged the cap and the gradient kicked to about 10%. We then rounded another corner in the gorge, and saw something resembling a wall.

The signs later informed me that these sections were about 16% average gradient for 2km. It certainly felt pretty steep, and the challenge was keeping the bike in a straight line and not swerving into the cars trying desperately to get past us! Eventually the Otira viaduct loomed ahead. I repressed the excitement of an engineering student who's played at bridge design and tried to concentrate on suppressing the fear. For 700m, I had the awful feeling I was either going to do a granny-gear wobble into a semi-trailer, or off the edge of the viaduct. Looking at the scree slope on our left though, we were greatful we didn't have to climb up Death's Corner instead!

The remainder of the climb looked flatter, but this was actually a visual illusion of the sheer enormity of the surrounding hills - 10% looks rather flat compared to 16%. So it was all uphill after the viaduct to the top of the pass. An easy roll into Arthur's Pass township followed, where carrot cake, chocolate milk and some naughty keas awaited us. With Scotty and Ian, we poured over maps to try and establish a suitable spot to stay the night - they were aiming for Flock Hill. We knew Springfield or Sheffield would still be about 5 hours away, with plenty of hills to come, and so went with the flow in the hope of finding a DOC hut or something.

The descent from Arthur's Pass wasn't much of a descent, but instead an undulating alpine road. The balm of this disappointment however was the amazing alpine scenery which immersed and surrounded us - views over distant snowy peaks which the evening clouded spilled over, Lake Pearson shimmering in the evening light - it was the sort of country that provided motivation for the rider just by being there. The wind was negligible, so we made good time along the alpine road as we headed along towards Lake Pearson. Flock Hill stood on the far side and was too tempting a place to stay to avoid, with promise of a shower, hot food and the chance to do some laundry, we finished up at about 8pm and camped the night on the luxurious lawns to the sound of 9000 lambs mid-weening.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Day 3 - Murchison to Waiuta

Distance: ~150km
Time: ~14 hours

Day 3 began with an unexpected sleep-in following a very deep and satisfying night of sleep next to the river, despite continual harrassment from the sandflies. Apparently Joel and Phil were trying to dodge the responsibility of responding to the alarm clock, while I slept right through it.

After microwaving last night's chips (mmm greasy), we were ready to hit the road and hoped to put in a good day. For the first time in the Brevet, clouds were appearing and the temperature was dropping. We headed south out of Murchison under overcast skies and along the Matakitati valley. The road was very pleasant - a gentle valley road that gradually climbed as we headed south. When the gravel transition happened, it featured a few nice forested climbs followed by swooping descents back down to the river. It boded well for the day! The only bad part was being bitten by a very large insect (weta?) on the thumb - very painful!

We paused on the bridge over the river to take some pictures of the flowing gorge and the beautiful rapids below - these sights are a rare treat, and soaking up the general ambience always leads to a good mood. The road then climbed over the Maruia saddle - a 7km climb with gentle, steady gradients. Here we backed the pace off and rode socially - once again, we were deep in beach forest with numerous stream crossings and mossy overhangs. Gorgeous country to be climbing! At the top, we were passed by a van, but given the rocky descent, decided to overtake it again. Here Joel and I let loose a bit and had a sideways drifting competition down the 3km descent to the main drag towards Springs Junction.

The town of Maruia provided a nice spot for a long food break, although it seemed our dishevelled and grubby appearance was not entirely desirable to the cafe custodians. Hopefully our excessive purchases were. We ran into John again here, and were passed by the Revolution cycles guys, so grubby cyclists dominated the rather smart premises! Jan made the (later regretted) move of ordering a beer for lunch too....

The road to Springs Junction utilised a pleasant back road that ran parallel to the main highway. This was another very social stretch dominated by silly banter while Jan's stomach declared war against cycling. At Springs Junction, we proscribed chocolate milk to soothe it a little. I think this was the only stop in the entire trip where we Aussies abstained from consuming milk, eager as we were to keep moving.

44km of sealed highway then guided us to Reefton. This was great, fast riding. A steady and enjoyable road climb guided us over the Rahu saddle, and a lush flowing descent followed almost all the way to Reefton, parallel to another beautiful white-water river. You could almost ride entirely off the damp, cool forest air! The only concern was the Jan's Shimano XT freehub was making horrible noises and clearly suffering a mechanically violent death. The freehub held for the last 20km into Reefton, where we picked up John again and offered a draft along the fast, smooth road.

After another extended food break in Reefton, where Jan had the cones tightened on his hub and endeavoured to soldier on and tempt mechanical disaster, we eventually hit the road again and headed towards the section that had been filling me with both excitement and trepidation: Big River. The guidebook mentioned a big climb on rough, rocky 4WD trail with "gnarly singletrack likely to break numerous bike parts". It was an ominous description! The 4WD trail itself was immensely enjoyable. The climb was slow - granny gear stuff - but technically challenging, with the trail carved out of the bed rock and frequently littered with puddles, moss and slime. The big Fargos ate up the rocky climb like ravenous two-wheeld Pacmen, and we soon realised we were having an absolute ball. Inexplicably, the pace turned on to the top of the climb, and became somewhat berserk when we hit the short and equally rocky descent. I would rate this section as the most fun part of the Brevet, as we jumped, hucked and hollered our way down a rocky, technical descent with mud flying everywhere and panniers crashing around. We flew past John, Ian and Scotty barely noticing, only stopping at the bottom to tighten up some loose rack bolts from all the rattling! Somewhere in here, I sheared off the bottom fastener on one of my Deuter panniers, so Big River lived up to its bike-breaking reputation. Another similar climb followed, and we kept the pace right up over the rocks to reach the Big River hut.

This is when things slowed down drastically. After a brief argument about navigation, in which it was revealed that the GPS not only didn't work in terms of mapping, but also had an erroneous compass, we trusted the old-school maps and headed along a narrow, rough trail signposted towards Waiuta. Here began the daily horror show. The track, described in the handbook as "expect some walking, but mostly you'll encounter long sections of smooth, dreamlike singletrack" started badly. The first few pinchy climbs made Stromlo's infamous World Cup climb look like a sealed road, as heavy (30kg) touring bikes were hauled metre by metre up rocky chutes. When we eventually reached the first downhill, short rideable sections on a narrow, rooty and slippery singletrack were broken up by sections that were simply unrideable. What was only 12km of trail was going to take a very, very long time to cover, and the sun was setting fast. When we reached St George's basin, the track proceeded to run up a rocky and wet creekbed. It took several minutes of staring at this section in disbelief, checking my topo map and feeling miserable to comprehend that this was actually a trail that the DOC believed bikes could ride. To the top of the next ridge was entirely hiking and lifting bikes over large obstacles. I'd rate this as the most technical trail I've ever walked!!

We reached the top just before sunset, and optimistically hoped that the downhill gradient to Waiuta would make the track rideable. Sadly, this wasn't the case - the track had a horrible camber with slick roots and numerous waterfall crossings which required complicated and slow portage manoeuvres. I really felt for the riders attempting this section alone - what if they fell down the steep slope, and couldn't get out? How could they carry the bikes across these crossings on their own? Joel and Phil were proving their immense strength and experience here, safely guiding us across the creeks and walking slowly down the trail. Nevertheless, we didn't make it down without incidents - I slipped down one of the little waterfalls, and Joel had a frightening crash off the edge of one the steep slopes. We ran over to see him metres below, clinging with one hand to a sapling and the other to his bike. Fortunately neither bike nor rider was damaged!

With darkness settling, we resolved to walk it out under lights. Some small rideable sections existed, but the general consensus was that the track was too dangerous to try riding. At about 10-30pm, we eventually emerged off the walking trail near the ghost town of Waiuta, a former mining town that was virtually abandoned following a shaft collapse in the 1950s. Our next dilemma was accomodation - Jan, like many others in the Brevet, was riding without any form of shelter, and thus needed a roof. In addition to this, his damaged achilles seemed now on the point of tearing - he could barely walk. Fortunately, ghost towns contain abandoned huts, and when we stumbled across an old gold stamping hut, it seemed the ideal place to rest for the night. Ian, Scotty and Rodney rode past shortly afterwards, determined to try and reach Blackball for the evening - we later heard they arrived at 1-30am, much to the annoyance of the proprietor, but it was a fantastic effort to push on through the night after Waiuta. Once again, we slept deeply and peacefully and enjoyed a rather long rest!

Photos to come, I promise... apparently my laptop's card reader doesn't work.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day 2 - Richardson to Murchison

Distance: ~150km
Time: ~ 11 hours

Now that I have access to internet that isn't priced at $2 for a mere 20 minutes, the verbal splurge of memory and reflection of the Brevet can continue unabated and hindering nothing more than university preparation. Hooray. Having to dig back into the past now a little to write, but the memories are fond!

Day 2 began after fewer than four hours sleep, at about 6am in Richmond. Blearily we rose and had a very slow breakfast in the fantastic hospitality of Chris and Bob. Our departure ended up being about 8am, and we were greeted by fantastic riding conditions - cool temperatures, still air and a clear sky. The first section through the Wairua Gorge is certainly a fond memory in the gentle morning air - some crisp, lush valleys, and enough bubbling brooks to enchant any drought-ridden Aussie..... the inner kayaker was tempted by some stunning white water through the gorges! Wakefield arrived as a convenient brunch location, and copious quantities of iced coffee were consumed so our bodies would ignore the sleep deprivation. Here we ran into Chris on his Crosscheck and very cool woollen Swiss jersey. This meeting also resulted in a high speed chase down the highway, screaming to let him know he'd missed the turning into Eighty-Eight Valley Road!

The next section is something of a blur. While it was still scenic, by New Zealand's standards, the road to St Arnaud was somewhat mediocre - dry, boring hills, pine forests and a slight headwind. What made this section frustrating was the persistence of an almost interminable false-flat gradient. I remember descending down from an anonymous range into an anonymous valley, and being somewhat heartbroken to see a sign saying that 20km still remained until St Arnaud! Nevertheless, before I do protest too much, the good surface and easy paced allowed plenty of scope for mid-ride schenanigans.

After another lengthy and enjoyable repaste in St Arnaud - including running into Ian and Scotty , as well as Charlotte (who admirably ordered a beer for lunch!), we headed towards the next great dirt challenge of the Brevet - the Porika track through the Nelson lakes. Personally, as a mountain biker, these bits got me all excited and motivated, even though they'd blow the average speeds through the floor at times. I was not disappointed - the Porika track was a beautiful climb through picturesque valleys, beech canopies (beeched az, bro! - runs away) that gradually became steeper and more technical as it progressed. It was all rideable, and some fun rockgardens demanded some technical attention! I was pretty happy with riding on the drops here - the Fargos were making short work of the rocky terrain. The descent down to the spectacular Lake Rotoroa was equally enjoyable - it was probably my second experience of the concept of brake fade. Washed out, rocky and ridiculously steep chutes were combined with spectacular views. Fun times!

The Braeburn track that followed started in a devastating fashion - I had overlooked the 150vm climb on the profile sheet and conveniently forgotten about it. Grumbling our way to the top, we were treated to the sort of descent any cyclist can enjoy - smooth, fast gravel roads swooping through a beech valley with numerous shallow fords. There was plenty of whooping and hollering going on here!

The road to Murchison via the Mangles Valley was a fitting end to the day - sculpted hills tinged golden in the refracted evening light. We decided a relaxing end to the day at the Murchison camping ground was in order, and found a peaceful spot next to the river. Despite the pestilence of sandflies (that resisted repellents), a very, very contended night of sleep was in order for all....

Friday, February 12, 2010

Day 1 - Blenheim to Richmond

Distance: ~180km
Time: 14 hours

The opening day of the Kiwi Brevet brought a mixture of nerves, sunshine and lots of guys (and a few girls) riding an extraordinary range of bicycles with quirky cycling gear. Phil and Joel's legionnaire hats fitted right into this image, although the choice of bikes was fascinating. We soon realised at the briefing that we were about the heaviest loaded there - the Fargos were equipped with two panniers each, and then some extra gear. There were many scarily light setups to be seen, from carbon fibre duallies to racing cyclocross bikes and everything in between. There seemed to be no common ground on the appropriate choice of bike for the occasion!

At any rate, 65 riders (plus a few passengers) queued into the beautiful Seymour Square at midday, and were greeted by scorching sunshine. Although the weather isn't as hot as Australia, the sun is no less penetrating!

The stage began with a "neutral" (this isn't a race, right?) rollout to the Rarangi beach outside Blenheim. The bunch had a nervous and friendly atmosphere, and a certainly critical mass attitude rolling out of Blenheim. All in all, it was a great fun cruise through the wineries and down towards the beach.

This is where the first piece of challenging terrain hit us, and the first selection of the peleton occurred. The beach trail was a rocky mess with deep sand pits, and the sides were strewn with thorns. Bikes went everywhere attempting to find lines through the quagmire, and the fat tyred machines powered through the sand. It was a fun but taxing beginning attempting to keep momentum going forwards without pushing too hard! We all got through cleanly enough near the front of the field... or so it seemed. The first horror stretch of the Brevet had its consequences!

I flatted both front and rear tyres picking up thorns from the beach trail. Less than 20km into the ride, and two flats down... it seemed an ominous sign of things to come. As the entirety of the field rolled by while we fixed the flats, it was an important reminder that this was a long event, and we weren't racing anyone - there would be time to ride ourselves back in.

From here, we hit the Port Underwood road hills heading towards Picton. They are beautiful and scenic, but also ridiculously steep and unrelenting. As Australians, climbing is usually a small component of our riding, but this stretch featured about 6 climbs harder than Black Mountain or Mt Ainslie. Beautiful coastal views of isolated bays and secret beaches were a relief from the heat and climbing. Once again, it seemed an ominous start to the Brevet! The granny gear was strenuously overworked, and although we picked our way back through the field, the route was frustratingly slow.

Picton provided a brief reprise and a chance to get some more fluids down - we had all drunk around 3 litres in the first 5 hours of riding. The road then became sealed and flatter as it headed past Havelock through to Pelorus Bridge, and the group advantage came into play, as we formed a small team time trial and drove steadily onwards towards Pelorus. On the way into Picton, we'd picked up a Polish mountaineer called Jan who joined us for this stretch. Already though, it was clear that it would be a late arrival into Nelson, despite the time made on the flatter coastal sections around Havelock.

After crossing the gorgeous gorge at Pelorus (not to abuse alliteration or anything), the day's real challenge presented itself - the climb of Maungatapu over the Bryant Range into Nelson. This climb featured a morbid history - historical tales of murder, deception and bloodshed hardly encouraged the prospective cyclist burdened with touring gear and feeling pretty tired already. We teamed up with the lone singlespeeder on the approach until Jan flatted, and then hit the climb proper. We were immediately greeted by steep gradients and rough, rocky terrain, but the cool evening air made the first few kilometres of the 8km climb quite bearable. This was a true test of our climbing ability - it was as long a steep climb as I have ever hunted down in Australia!

As the climb wore on and the sun began to set, the climb became rougher and steeper. The challenge of climbing on a loaded bike began to present itself - simultaneously keeping the front end down on the ground, but maintaining traction at the rear demanded regular sprints to conquer the steep sections or rockiest terrain. One by one, we were reduced to walking some of the steeper pitches as our lights guided us towards the murderous summit. I rode a little way off the front here - masochistically enjoying the challenge and pushing a little too hard - and ran into Charlotte at the top, who rode a fantastic Brevet to finish under 6 days! We regrouped for the descent into the darkness, which provided its own challenge. The descent was steep to the point that we actually experienced the much-discussed and somewhat phantasmagoric phenomenon of brake fade, with numerous rock gardens and pot holes to keep us honest. It was not a fast descent, and was full of risks - Phil, Charlotte and Jan all crashed, with Phil almost falling into the Matai Gorge. This was the first section of a repeating theme in the Brevet - the daily section of extreme mental trial and endurance that would see some riders crack and breakdown mentally.

On the short, violent climbs in the Matai Valley, I ran into Ian Gordon, whose lights had failed and was riding blind through the night. Ian and his mate Scott would ride close to us throughout the entire event! With an expanded peleton, we rolled into Nelson just before midnight and headed straight to McDonalds, where drunk teenagers attempted to steal my bike. There was a sad reflection that the Waitangi day festivities seemed to involve white teenagers getting drunk while Maoris worked the night shifts as security guards to stop them doing stupid things (such as stealing my bike).

What remained was the trip from Nelson through to Richmond on the old bike path - we were all exhausted, and keen to reach the open house. After a few wrong turns, we eventually reached Richmond, only to discover we'd lost the address. After a lot of wasted time and a little abuse from a concerned local, we eventually found the right place and crashed for the night at 2am. It had been a very trying start to the Brevet indeed!

B is for....

Blenheim! We made it in at 2pm on Friday afternoon, leading to a cumulative time of 6 days and 2 hours. So we were about 2 days behind the leaders, but can boast of having had lots of good sleep every night. The journey was exciting of course, and will be described in full detail (day by day) in the vaguely defined future.

It's hard to describe the feeling of finishing something like this - on the one hand, there is the immediate relief, achievement and gratification. On the flipside, there's a quiet denouement - it feels strange to wake up without the sense of purpose and promise of adventure that the Brevet fosters. I suppose the combination of these two emotions means we enjoyed it, and will probably be back!

Physically, we're all appropriately bruised and battered. Phil's achilies tendon is strained and damaged, Joel has some blood blisters on his hands and I've lost some feeling in some of my left hand. Add to this thousands of sandfly bites and 1100km in the legs and we're pretty tired, if on a massive endorphin high!

The terrain was beautiful and varied. It would be impossible to do it justice with flowery words or sweeping poetic descriptions, but hopefully photos will do it justice. It's the blessing of travelling by bike - to go so far, but to do it without detaching from the sense of adventure and achievement. Equally, we met some fantastic people along the road - fellow travelers or just friendly locals. Although we were very lucky with the weather, we still experienced a wide variety of conditions and plenty of challenges - from scorching climbs to foggy alpine descents.

So, what now? We've decided against touring back to Christchurch as everyone's a little too fatigued from the past few days. We'll get the bus back, and maybe do some of the mountain bike trails there - less epic perhaps, but possibly no less fun.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

SPOT links

Leaderboard with everyone on it (so you can see how far ahead they are):

More photos from Christchurch

Singletrack descending from Dyer's Pass
Is the Fargo enough of an all-round bike to be hucked? Ed ponders.....
Phil prefers the uphill.
Even the self-titled "Reluctant Cyclist" looked enthusiastic!

After a punctured tyre we concluded the Quote of the day: "Ed, you're beached az!"

Lorem ipselum


There's an old saying that "a picture says a thousand words". Given that I write too much communicating too little, it might be wise to embrace that. Some photos of Christchurch and riding on the Port Hills. One thing worth noting though is that Christchurch is much more bike friendly than Canberra.... in every sense of the word! An interesting correlation is that we've yet to see an obese person here. Food for thought.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

New Zealand

A lame post in 1.45 minutes to say we've arrived in Christchurch,

Ok, that's all.

Might go riding in the Port Hills tomorrow for some pre-Brevet epicness.

Oh, and we found the best pub ever.

Quote of the day? "Jet lag is just another excuse for lunch"!