Springs Junction to Otira. 220 kms
I pack up my tent quickly where I pitched it the night before, conscious of the fact that not only am I close to the road but that there is a tourist lodge nearby and I’m sure that that class of people won’t want a grubby cycle traveller camped on their front door step. No other cyclists have passed while I perform this and in no time I’m on my bike and have covered the 4kms to Springs Junction where I stop for an energy drink and other small morsels that I now can’t recall. I’m impatient to get to Reef ton a further 40kms on and over the Rahu Saddle. I need to get there by 9am in order to be on Schedule for today’s ride. At this stage I don’t know where I will end up but in training for the event I left Reef ton at 9am in order to get through the Big River Track and Waiuta Track. So that’s what I want to replicate today. The ride over the Saddle is easy and I role into Reef ton bang on time to find Vaughn just about to leave. He apparently got there last night but must have had a late start.
I grabbed a breakfast of filled rolls, the usual coke and a rather nice custard pie. I pondered on whether to take food with me on this leg through the bush but decided against, packing only a couple of packets of sweeties. I was confident that I could get through the track and out to Ikamatea by early afternoon. When I practised this section I had pouring rain but today the weather was lovely raising my spirits. So without further delays I was off after Vaughn out of town and up into the old Gold Miner’s trails. So far my bike had run beautifully but I was noticing that with the dust my gear changing was stiffer than normal. I worried that I could break a gear cable and toyed with the idea of buying a new cable at the bike shop in Reef ton before I left. But in the end Reef ton residents are obviously not early risers because by 9.30am when I left the bike shop was still not open. I decided to take the chance.
The Big River trail was un-eventful. My thoughts as I cycled through turned to how dusty and sticky that I felt after yesterday’s ride and a night in the tent. I tried to give myself a bit of a clean-up in the Big River but short of stripping completely and dunking myself in the river it was a waste of time. The Waiuta trail (next on the agenda) was pretty much a walk festival with my bike and its slick tyres. However I was pleased to see that rangers had cleared up a number of fallen trees that I had encounter when I was last through so progress was better than expected. Thinking that by now Vaughn must be well ahead I got quite a surprise to find him coming up behind me and lamenting that he had taken a wrong turn and had cycled 10kms off course. I let him go ahead and continued my walk out of the track. The almost deserted gold mining town of Waiuta is at the end of the track and from here a gravel road heads downhill through native bush and out to the main road and town of Ikamatua. I loved this section and the Mercian sailed over the gravel with no problems. My spirits were high because I knew that now I had just the odd gravel road on the west coast to negotiate and then the main sealed road over the Southern Alps (Arthurs Pass) to Sheffield on the Canterbury Plains. Years ago I used to race this leg in the annual Grey mouth to Christchurch bike race and later I used to ride it as a training ride with Nelson cycle buddies. It’s a road I really enjoy in any conditions. When I was a kid of 13yrs my mates and I used to tour through Arthurs Pass during the school holidays.
At this stage of the event Vaughn never ceased to surprise me. I arrived at the Ikamatua store to find Vaughn still there having lunch and getting his stuff together. He left and I go in for multiple ice-creams, drink and filled rolls for later. Andrew Scott and another couple of cyclists arrived as I was about to depart. They asked me how far I was headed. I looked at my h/bar clock to discover that it was only about 2.30pm. It was going to be a strong headwind to Blackball but I figured after that, as we turned east towards the pass, we would be getting a good tail wind. I told them I had no idea, but inwardly I felt so good that I figured that I could get to Arthurs Pass township if I had the inclination to ride the steep pass in the dark. This was a reoccurring feeling for me throughout the brevet. A feeling of only being limited by the amount of daylight hours and whether I could be bothered to pitch the tent in the dark. Putting up with freedom camping each night. My desire to get clean had not gone away. I thought later as I cycled along that if I rode strongly I might make Otira and the pub before it closed. I could then have a meal and a hot shower. I’d stay the night and do the leg to Sheffield the next day.
Well, darkness fell and I was still riding towards Otira at 10pm. Previously I had completed the gravel sections of the course around Bell Hill. This had slowed me down and although scenic I just wanted my shower. After riding for 12hours I was in no mood to be harassed by what appeared to be a particulary viscous sheep dog (big too) while climbing the gravel road towards the scenic reserve. When that dog snarled and headed straight at me what he hadn’t counted on was the fact that just a couple of years earlier I had been riding through Bolivia where stray dogs really are hungry and usually attack in packs. So I didn’t flinch at his head on attack nor did I change direction. His head hit the back wheel with some force, enough to knock me slightly sideways. But that was the end of it, I carried on as if nothing had happened and he went off with a sore snout. I later found that a sizeable chunk of my rear sidewall had been taken out by one of his fangs.
At 10.30pm I arrived at Otira to find that the pub was closed and even more annoying was the sight of 3 brevet bikes parked inside. Happy brevet people having showers and going to bed on silk pillows. I decided then and there that I would have my shower in the morning and a full cooked breakfast. So I pitched my tent in the paddock next to the pub and went to sleep munching on the dinner I’d bought in Ikamatua, Adi’s sausages that she’d given me for the road and lots of sweets.
Riding up to Arthurs Pass was not now an option as I saw no easy way to score a shower up there in the morning.
Otira to Lees Valley. 135kms
I woke up at 7am and packed my tent away. The Otira pub was open and just as I was contemplating my shower and English cooked breakfast Vaughn turned up. Once again Vaughn had taken a wrong turn and ended up backtracking to get back in the game. Vaughn seemed to be making a habit of early starts (4am) and then losing his way later in the day. So while I negotiated a hot shower with the publican and put my order in for a full on breakfast, Vaughn was grabbing fast food for the ride up Arthurs Pass. (Or maybe a push as he was using a single speed).
The shower was like heaven, ample hot water and big cuddly towels to dry myself off on. But what of the three cyclists that I realised were staying when I arrived last night? There now seemed to be no sign of them save from a few puddles on the bathroom floor. When I had finally shampooed and rinsed enough and had retired to the pub kitchen I asked the publican what time they had left.
“4am”he replied. They left at 4am!!! Honestly, what normal cyclists would leave at that time in the morning? Finally it dawned on me that the people around me seemed to honestly be treating this as a race and not a social ride. Well I was happy to do the odd long day but there was no way I’d be getting that keen. I did make a mental note though to ride a bit more seriously when I was on the bike and not amble so much.
While I was eating breckie Andrew Scott and another couple of pedlars turned up, threw some food down and were gone up the Pass. I asked the publican for a coffee refill and decided that I would not stop now until Sheffield on the other side of the Southern Alps. I easily had fuel for the 100kms through, and the weather was sunny with a good tail wind. Then I was on my bike riding up the pass with a good tail wind making the steeper sections easily tolerable. As I rocketed into Arthurs Pass township I suddenly realised that I was required to phone in for the organisers here. So I changed plans and stopped long enough to due this duty, grab some water and observe all the others having breakfast and in the case of one, loose his entire twin pack of sandwiches to a kea. I’ve never seen a pack of sandwiches disappear so quickly into the surrounding bush. Vaughn gave chase but came back empty handed.
The 100 odd kilometres across the Southern Alps went so quickly that I really can’t say too much about it. The bike sang alone with the tail wind. The altitude kept the temperature at bay and I saw nobody except the one brevet rider I past near Flock Hill. Springfield was my next stop for lunch and to resupply for the extended period to come without any services. I packed sandwiches for tomorrow’s breakfast, two big bits of bacon and egg pie for dinner and some cans of fruit for dessert. Then it was back up into the backcountry to the Whafedale Track and Lees Valley. I’d not been along the Whafedale track for a number of years and I had never used the Lees valley route. This is an old early settler’s route North towards Hurunui. According to the blurb all manner of self-propelled vehicles have traversed the Whafedale Track so I was pretty happy when I finally made the track head and was advised by the sign that walkers could get through in 4 hours. I got there at about 3pm so felt so comfortable time wise that I relaxed by using the long-drop toilet. A long-drop toilet with a spectacular view of the Canterbury plains stretched out below.
The ride to the summit of the Whafedale was pretty good and as expected. The rest of the track was horrendous. I don’t know whether all the slips were a result of the Canterbury earthquake or from erosion but big bits of the track were missing and regular bike hauling was required. At times I barely had the strength to drag my bike up the banks or over the obstacles. At times I was truly scared that I would lose my Mercian over the side while perched on a 5 inch piece of track while rounding a bluff.
|Arthurs Pass TownShip.|
It was after losing the Mercian down a steep bank that I realised that half of my dinner was missing from the rear bag. One big piece of bacon and egg pie had jumped ship and was now destined to be weka food. I walked back along the track looking for it but to no avail. Finally the track hut arrived and I signed the register before making the last effort out to the 4 wheel drive road on the other side. By this time I had used the full 4 hours and some and it was getting towards dusk. I would have liked to get to Lees Valley but didn’t fancy putting the tent up again in the dark while being attacked by sand-flies. So I pitched at the track head and quickly got inside to have what was left of my dinner and an early night.
Sometime later I was rudely awakened by Andrew Scott and friends banging about outside shouting “Hello Niel the Wheel, is there a mechanic in the house?”
“Piss off and come back during normal business hours” was my reply. To which they did and I last heard them stomping off down the river bed in the dark after refilling their drink bottles.
They had the last laugh though because I found out later that one of the guys had found my bacon and egg pie and he told me that it was very nice.
Lees Valley to Rainbow Road. 150kms
This leg of the brevet was for me the least inspiring and the most tedious. After packing the tent away the day got off to a bad start when I found that the 4 wheel drive track out to Lees Valley was virtually un follow able as it cut in and out of the river and I ended up following stock trails until finally finding a farm trail that led out to the gravel road leading up the Lees Valley. I heard later that some of the guys trying to follow this trail in the dark got lost. Others were lucky enough to have someone with them that had done the brevet before and knew what to expect. I wondered how Vaughn would go on this section when he came across it.
Stock herding was in process along the Lees Valley when I got there so all traces of cycle tracks had been obliterated by the many hoof prints. As well as making the trail harder to follow it gave me now no evidence as to who was up ahead on bikes and how close they might be. Adding to my lack of drive in this section was weather that could be best described as grey and drizzly. Just to round off my discontent was the innumerable number of farm gates that needed opening and closing. Up and down over one eroded farm hill after another. When what seemed like an eternity I finally popped out onto the gravel roads of the Hurunui hinterland only to lose my way slightly and go too far south to Wakari.
This wasn’t all bad though because by now the wind had changed to a cold southerly and once again would be at my back as I headed north towards Hamner Springs and the rain had not come to anything. I eagerly scoffed pies and apple turnovers in Wakari. Lunch never tasted so good having not had breakfast. I opted on eating all of the food I had left for dinner the night before after losing my pie on the trail. Breakfast consisted of just sweeties. (Not such a bad life, but not sustainable).
Sealed road and a tail wind once again beckoned and I arrived in Hamner Springs in good time and catching up with all the guys who went past me the night before as I camped on the Whafedale. It was here that I made one of the few tactical errors of my brevet. I decided to have a sit down meal at a restaurant and then ride up over Jacks Pass and camp in the Rainbow. The sit down meal was not a mistake, but leaving Hamner Springs that night was. Before the meal the guys riding on restocked at the supermarket where Andrew Scott tried to get me to go 1/3’s on a 3 pack of warm socks.
“What are you thinking about Andrew? I don’t need socks at this stage. I’ll be finished tomorrow evening”.
I then had a nice chat to Ian Depoff during my meal and then headed up Jacks Pass in the now rain bordering on sleet. Andrew and co. had gone on ahead but I soon caught them at the top of the pass putting on every bit of warm clothing that they had. I went past after a brief conversation about what the heck we were doing and should we go back. I had a full stomach and a tent so there was no way I was going back. And they too chose to carry on. I suppose when you have cycled over the Andes in snow storms, crashing in Lama huts you get a different view on what constitutes hardship. But it was cold, and in terms of the event it would become clear that camping up there was in no way a good strategy.
I carried on until dark and then pitched the tent in the shelter of a stock shed. Andrew and co. arrived a bit later on and decided that on account of there being way too much cow shit about that they would camp 10kms up the road at an abandoned hut.
Andrew, I should have bought the socks! It was a cold night in the tent with just a summer sleeping bag and no lama skins to keep me warm.
Rainbow Road to Blenheim. 200km.
One consolation, and there always is one, is that there were no sand flies for the first time in ages. I was packed up and away by 8am. Once again I had to catch the early starters, who had started before dawn in Hamner Springs and were now cruising past my tent. In this case I felt that they had made the correct decision enjoying a bed and hot shower instead of a frigid night and a dung mattress in the tent.
I took no prisoners on my last day and rode by at least six breveters, bouncing from one bounder to the next on the Mercian as they spun their insanely low gears and enjoyed the opulence of their full suspension. Riding on my own for the full brevet had made me somewhat selfish and focused on just getting to the finish line now. I was bunny hoping a group of 4 for a while as they overtook me on the looser sections and I hammered past on the hills. Then one of the 4 blew his rear tyre and I left them to it knowing that they had ample resources and if the shoe was on the other foot I would be fending for myself.
I shot out of the Rainbow Road expecting a tail wind down the Wairau Valley to Blenheim only to find out at the intersection that the cold wind was not a Southerly but a Northeaster and in my face for the last 100kms. I opted not to restock with food in St Arnaud but just to go with what I had and do the rest on an empty stomach.
The gravel road on the North bank of the Wairau was best forgotten with fist size shingle that I almost couldn’t ride through with my slick tyres and one section called circuit road that I’m sure was put in just too personally piss me off. Going up into the hills at gradients I couldn’t ride with my touring gears, just to come back down again to re-join the valley road a bit further along!
My annoyance and reluctance to do this circuit was mainly brought about by the disintegration of my cycle shoes. The right sole of my Sidi MTB shoes had virtually parted company from the upper shoe due to previous wet river crossings and the large amount of trail walking I had previously done. I was concerned at this late stage in the event that without a right shoe I might not be able to finish the event. I had tried to use a toe strap to keep it all together with very limited success. What I needed was duct tape. But in the forest finding some might prove problematic.
The forestry signs indicated 4kms to go of this horrendous gravel and then sealed road until the end in Blenheim, although be it with a strong headwind. At this stage a group of 4 breveters caught me up and over took me without much to say as I swum around in the gravel. If the lack of friendly banter was not bad enough, on passing the back markers kept looking around to see if they had dropped me.
Well it may have appeared rude on my part but on the next gravel hill, and unfortunately for them there were hills, I banged the Mercian in a big gear and wheel spinned past them, rode the last section of gravel in a very sketchy manner and then on hitting the seal put the hammer down and didn’t look up until I had reached Renwick shouting at regular intervals along the way….”Take that”.
In fact I rode that last section so quickly that I past yet more breveters who had stopped in Renwick for something to eat. It was dusk and I wanted to finish in Blenheim with enough time to get a motel and dinner so I hammered on.
And for anyone who cares I finished at 9.15pm and in about 15 or 16th place.
But what was more important to me was that I not only managed to get a nice motel with all the extras but had time to get to Pac & Save before it closed. Back at the motel I spent the night eating bad for me food and having hot showers. I managed in 4 hours to use every coffee sachet provided and watch a couple of movies on Sky.
Would I do it again?
Certainly, apart from minor nerve damage in my right hand I was unscathed.
How would I do it differently?
I would recognise it as a race from the start and would pre book accommodation along the way now I know where I can easily get to. That would enable me to go without a tent and bed roll. I think doing it that way I could not only knock off a bit of time but I’d be cleaner, better fed and have an even lighter bike to pull through the track sections.
Would I change my bike?
Don’t be silly. It was perfect.
Thanks to the Kennet brothers and their friends for organising, what I regard as an awesome event.