Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day 6 - McDonald Downs to Molesworth Station

Distance: ~150km
Time: ~11 hours

Day 6 began with a very cold and rather damp start. After several mugs of coffee, the distinct lack of food became apparent and the first priority was getting some breakfast down - which couldn't happen until Culverden. It was also dawning on our rather fuzzled minds that it'd be a race today to get through Molesworth before 7pm, although the opportunity of a sub - 6 day time was still tangible enough if conditions were favourable.

The morning ride was foggy and a little dreary, and it was quite hard to leave behind a comfy shearing shed for another day of saddle sores and tired legs. Rodney was having some trouble with a muscle tear in one of his quads, and was uncertain about going the distance. He also advised that the 60km stretch of Molesworth could take 5 hours to cover, a prediction that was echoed in Simon's guide to riding the stretch. It was a slightly ominous (and exciting) prospect, and thrilled the racer within.... (ahem). The morning bike inspection required lots of lubricant after the mud the previous day, and I discovered that my rear brake cable was sticking from the mud - this is where having a release on a drop bar level comes in handy!

Fortunately the roads into Culverden were nice and easy, with only a few passing hills. In the flatter terrain, we dragged long turns on the front with riders who were bonking hard and harbouring thoughts of eating anything that moved. I remember doing a 10km turn from Hurunui to Culverden, motivated only by the thought of food and consuming food as soon as possible. Such noble and mighty motivations we fostered within...... a charity ride rolled past on the other side of the road by contrast. They, at least, were riding for more than the satisfaction of an empty belly!

Culverden arrived and brought with a very nice bakery, which we duly invaded. It was also rather *cough* humid *cough* inside.... a nice change after long company in the presence of smelly male cyclists. With this and food as distractions, it was a very pleasant breakfast. We loaded only lightly on food, knowing Hanmer was not far ahead, and hit the road again.

The roads into Hanmer were easy and a little boring. There was a little bit of traffic that eased once we turned off towards Hanmer itself. It was good to get away from the cars - shortly after we travelled this area, there was a deadly head-on collision on the same stretch of road. After a nice little gorge climb and some flat country, we rolled into Hanmer springs, only to be harassed by more sandflies and bitten again by the big painful ones.

At Hanmer, we stocked up on food for the next 205km, as well as refilling bottles. We knew well that this would be the last food and water for a while, and thus didn't hold back on our purchases. The downside would be lugging this weight up the next hill! It was probably 1.30pm that we departed the tourist haven, without visiting the hot springs. Jollies Pass started nicely with pine forests and the tormenting lure of some nice trails. For now though, it would all be uphill.

The pass was a bit of a brute of a climb. There was a kilometre or two near the start of a relentless granny-gear gradient. After what seemed an age, the climb flattened out a little and offered fine views back over Hanmer and south towards.... something. Eventually I reached the top, which was more of a plateau leading towards the Molesworth / Rainbow country. There was plenty of mist about, and we'd read the forecast of rain. I sat down, read some of Simon's book and waited for Phil and Joel to crest the climb.

Joel was walking - the climbing loads had blown another two nipples and his rear wheel required more attention. Fortunately he'd stocked up on nipples in Hanmer, and the repair wasn't too costly. Nevertheless, the clock was ticking, and we rode the next section to the Acheron Accomodation House at rather a ferocious pace, aided by a slight tailwind. This section was great riding - an undulating, fast gravel road through massive, intimidating valleys and next to a gushing river. Acheron did not take long to emerge on the horizon!

We entered Molesworth station at 3.15pm, which meant a 3hr 45m timetrial was in order to traverse the 60km before the road was closed - that's fairly fast fully-loaded off road. The pace over this distance was torrid. This country was indeed big and intimidating - endless valleys popped up with a winding road, followed by a corner, then another endless valley. The weather was holding though, and we were making good time.

After a few grinding climbs and sharp descents, we eventually bore away from the river and headed over a barren and desolate pass. This was the appropriately named "Isolated Saddle", which provided endless views over three river valleys. I spoke to a friendly DOC ranger at the top, who said that his colleague at the other end was aware we were coming, and assured we wouldn't be kicked out. With that relieved from our minds, he pointed out the road ahead - a long drag over a grinding flat (Isolated Flat), then a brutally steep climb over the hills in the heart of a rainstorm (Ward's Pass).

Isolated Flat was one of the most brutal sections of the Brevet. It was actually a false flat, in true Brevet standard, and quite a grind. Additionally, it was one of the roughest roads I've ever ridden. Strewn rocks all over the surface disguised deep and jolting corrugations. The sight ahead was no better - the rain was hanging over Ward's Pass, and given our proximity to the powerlines, I was praying that there wouldn't be any associated electrical activity.

Our luck and patience held out over Isolated Flat, and we eventually began the climb up Ward's Pass. It was steep and grinding, but all rideable. At the top, we took a token picture of the pass - not very scenic, given the weather - ate a little food, and decided to smash out the remaining distance to the end of the station. We were low on water and downright exhausted, looking forward to a reprieve.

After a steep and sketchy descent from Ward's Pass to the Awatere Valley, the wind swung around to become a headwind, the road remained brutally rough and full of annoying pinchy the climbs. This was immensely tiring and unwelcome at this point! Eventually, we rolled through to the end of Molesworth and the DOC station at 6.56pm. We refilled on water, had a chat to another friendly DOC ranger and a couple on a mountain tandem, and decided to be slack tourists and crash for the night in the pleasant camping spot, rather than try and push on to Hodder Bridge. The sub 6 day time was out the window, but with such an enticement as a nice, green campground under willow trees and next to a bubbling brook, who could blame us. It was a very pleasant camp knowing the next day would be cruisy, comparatively short and mainly downhill, and dinner was consumed with great relish.

Friday, March 5, 2010


A little off topic, but tomorrow I'm doing a 100 mile race - 8 laps of Stromlo. It'll be on a singlespeed race bike which weighs less than 10kgs.

It's funny how much easier this task is, comparing it to the Brevet. We were doing those kms every day with triple the weight, long distances between food and water and no certainty about the terrain ahead.

I guess this is the sanitised mediocrity of circuit racing though. Adventure by bike in an entirely predictable form, where food and drink await you every 20km on the table and you can foresee the next lap and plan ahead with certainty and without that inherent danger and adventure of an unknown and varied route.

This race itself is small and the 100 mile crew is fast, so it'll be a fun jaunt on the bikes. I keep extrapolating these thoughts though to the 24 hours of Adrenaline "World Solo Championships", which seems to be more about hype, bragging rights and the appearance of adventure. Although there will be some great battles towards the sharper ends of the field and some deep performances, I can't help but feel that 24 hour racing (and endurance racing in general) is slowly selling out and sanitising the adventurous soul and spirit of mountain biking.

Sounds like it's time to head to the mountains again....

Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 5 - Flock Hill to MacDonald Downs

Distance: ~150km ?
Time: ~ 13 hours

We awoke in the grey, early morning light at Flock Hill station to the continued bleeting of 9,000 traumatised lambs. It actually had a certain rhythmic quality that complemented the idyllic setting, not unlike the sound of waves.... just a little more traumatised. It soon dawned on us that there wasn't going to be much of a dawn - it was a foggy, cloudy morning in the mountains.

Riding out from Flock Hill, we were immediately confronted with a climb that doesn't actually get marked on any maps. This was part of the false descent from Arthur's Pass - the big descent to flat valley plains takes a very long time to arrive. Crossing the top of what I called "Pearson's Pass", it was clear that the cloud was very settled down on the Canterbury plains, and was obscuring the big peaks surrounding the alpine road. The other problem with this terrain was the complete lack of perspective it granted - straight sections that appeared flat would often be considerable climbs, and the rider would be foundering in small gears thrashing against an invisible gradient. This was because it was very difficult to have a reference of what "flat" actually meant in the high country. Anyway, the alpine scenery continued in increasingly heavier fog with lots of climbing. I had the vague feeling we were hitting Porter's Pass when discerning the signs for the various ski lodges through the fog at one section. As we climbed, visibility dropped almost entirely to zero. Unsurprisingly, there are no photos of this section, although I'm sure we missed some fantastic views.

Porter's Pass itself was not a strenuous climb, and at the summit we were surprised to read the signed elevation - it was actually higher than Arthur's Pass! Scotty and Ian disappeared rapidly into the fog on the descent, while we descended slower, a little concerned by the slippery corners and limited visibility.

The run into Springfield and Sheffield on the Canterbury plains was entirely forgettable. It was damp and cold, and very easy riding. One benefit of the wet mist was that we didn't need to drink from bottles - we were breathing in enough water vapour to deal with hydration, as frequent pee breaks evinced! At Sheffield, we stopped eventually at the pie shop after realising there wasn't a service station or supermarket there. Needless to say, the pies were fantastic and were consumed with great rapidity, with seconds ordered shortly thereafter. The only bad news was that Joel had cracked an aluminium nipple in his super-high tension race wheels, and there was no bike shop for a long time to come.

Refueled, we headed across the Waimakiriri gorge and towards the Wharfedale. The river itself was very impressive - braided rivers don't exist in Australia, and the power of the main channel was intimidating. We were thankful for a good bridge! The riding around here was all pleasant, easy cruising, although we were anticipating a bit of a slop fest on the Wharfedale.

The climb up the Wharfedale actually started innocuously enough, meandering firstly through farms and then up into the Oxford forest on a good fireroad. I'm sure there were nice views over Christchurch to be had here, but the sky was a uniform white all around us, so we enjoyed the lush forest instead. The start of the singletrack was very promising - a steady, rooty climb with good flow, nice bridges and only the occasional hike-a-bike.

Naturally, this deteriorated as the trail continued. While the majority was, to steal Simon's words, "long sections of flowing, dreamlike singletrack", there were also sections of unrideable slop or exposed slopes that severely chocked our progress. Still, the majority of the trail had amazing flow, and riding the downhill sections on the drop bars was an absolute blast and a very enjoyable experience.

After a while, we ran into some DOC workers out on the trail, with whom we had a quick chat and established that Scotty and Ian were a little way ahead (and taunting us). The trail would be a tricky slog over to the saddle, they said, and then a fast descent to the hut and the Townsend river.

The route over to the saddle contained a fair bit of hiking, and this began to play on us mentally - with the slop and the mud, it seemed to be another Waiuta, although not as bad. After some sketchy exposed sections, gnarly downhill runs and another broken pannier backboard, we eventually bounced out at the Wharfedale hut, and took the wrong trail down to the river. We ran into Rodney here, and returned onto the correct trail and did some more hiking before finally reaching the fords. Joel and Phil, in true Aussie style, we determined not to get their feet wet (this is New Zealand!!!!!) in case of trench foot, so the crossings took a while. A rocky and frustrating trail eventually ran us out to the Lees Valley road, and the promise of higher average speeds.

I think it was late in the day when we started out on the Lees Valley road. Fortunately, being flat and not too severely corrugated, it made for much faster riding than the Wharfedale. We had the plan to gun through the private land section before finishing, and thought hopefully of Hurunui or Culverden. We caught up to Rodney again and rode on the endless valley road towards Okoku pass, searching the endless hills for the sign of a low point to cross. Oddly enough, we were only about 30km (as the crow flies and the Weka dreams) from our camping spot the previous night!!

The climb up Okoku Pass certainly looked epic, winding its way up the side of the barren and foreboding hills. Apart from a standoff with a cow midway up, it failed to live up to its appearance. We discovered at the top that there was still another pass to cross before the private land, as well as fording the Okoku river. Another of Joel's aluminium nipples broke, but fortunately we were able to "borrow" some from Rodney and, after a quick replacement and tru, were back on the road.

The Okoku river fords were thankfully very easy, as was the subsequent climb up Lees Pass, and we moved on eagerly as dusk settled. The next section was deceptively hilly, with constant undulations, but a good road surface. We settled into Ayup lighting and pushed on into the rain, dodging the rabbits that seemed obsessed with our lights and avoiding the accusing gazes of thousands of sheep. Somewhere along here I pinch flatted against a large rock (rabbit?) and another tube change was necessary - an unwelcome slowing down! We realised Hurunui and Culverden were out of reach for the night, and were preparing for a miserable and wet night bivvying in a ditch on the side of the road.

Miraculously, we saw Rodney ahead, who was with the owner of the McDonald Downs property, and had been very kindly offered the use of the shearing shed to sleep in. It seemed like an amazing deliverance and the prospects of sleeping inside under shelter heavenly. After some of Rodney's fantastic blackberry tea, dinner (from the Sheffield bakery), a shower and some shedding of wet clothes, it was time for a very deep night's sleep.