Saturday, 11 February 2012

Kiwi Brevet 2012: Roadie goes riding and pie-eating in the backcountry

After a huge year on the road in 2011 including qualifying for, and riding the Paris Brest Paris and the Lake Taupo Extreme Enduro, I decided to mix things up by entering the mixed terrain Kiwi Brevet.

There were two slightly problematic issues get in the way which I chose to ignore:
  1. I didn’t own a fat tyre bicycle
  2. I have no off-road biking skill or experience
Ride Data:
Distance: 1,096km
Time: 165h 44m 05s
6 days, 21h 44m
Elevation gain: 16,211m
Ride Data: Garmin Connect
Location: South Island, NZ
February 4-11, 2012
This 1100km ride would provide a great opportunity to “gently ease into” mountain biking. Thus, some while after committing to the ride via a confirmed entry I invested on the "green machine" - a lime green Specialized Stumpjumper Comp 29er. I had confidence in my fitness for going the distance, and knew the camping and navigation would not be issues for me with years of tramping behind me. Thankfully we have mountain bike trials popping up like mushrooms around Wellington, largely thanks large to the work of volunteers from the Wellington Trails Alliance. I had intended to rectify my lack of mountain biking expertise by riding trails via extended commutes home from work over January. I thought that would leave me reasonably well prepared as I knew  I had the fitness, and while Kiwi Brevet had much on gravel and off-road on its route, it is (mostly) not highly technical terrain. Getting to a suitable skill level for that shouldn’t take much effort I surmised. However, during a bikeless Christmas I tore the TFCC cartilage in my hand, and spent January healing instead of learning to mountain cycle. I finally got the all clear from the physio 3 days before the start of the event. No problem, it’s not like I would be doing anything hardcore :).

Saturday: Blenheim to Molesworth Homestead Campground (116km)

Not one to let minor issues like no training, nor having no clue about riding off-road, I joined about 40 other starters at the Blenheim start. With a timed obstruction in the course via the Molesworth road closing at 7pm, the biggest question among many of us was: “Will it  be Molesworth tonight or beyond?” I was happy with either outcome. It was either good progress for non-mountain cycler me, or a great opportunity to bank sleep for the rest of the ride.

Road on the way to Molesworth Homestead

In the early stages I was well ahead of the average speed required to get over the Molesworth tonight. As I said “in the early stages” once the sun, heat and hills arrived in earnest it became obvious I would be camping at the homestead tonight. With this reality accepted, I relaxed, had a few afternoon naps and took it easy while saving my legs for another day. Thankfully I found numerous fresh water sources to keep hydrated throughout the day. I do seem to drink like a fish on endurance rides. I quickly learned that, heavier bike, plus camping gear on gravel required less cadence and more leg pressure than I usually apply for 1000km+ rides. This would make overnight recovery a little more demanding than I am used to. I was most likely the last rider to arrive at the Molesworth Homestead but my spirits remained high and optimistic of a big day tomorrow. Once at camp, it was fun looking at some different camping setups. A swim, followed by setting up camp and a large feed of pasta had me set for a good nights sleep.


Sunday: Molesworth Homestead to Okuku Saddle (188km)

The DOC warden kindly opened the gate at 6am instead 7am which meant not only an hour of time saved for the many breveteers, but there would also be no motorised traffic for most of the ride over the expansive Molesworth Station. Once again, my day started well over Wards Pass (1145m)  and Isolated Saddle. I did lose a cleat bolt on my travels, but thankfully was able to rather permanently "borrow" a spare rack screw from Karin? Thankyou. It fitted perfectly, and the push biking to come soon flattened the end of the screw.

@craigofnz at Wards Pass

Then came far too many moments of deflation. I had three punctures in short succession that had me panicking about being stranded. With three tube changes I was now well and truly off the back of the field. In Hanmer, there were no tubes with presta valves. In a fear of more pop and sizzzzz, I bought a couple of schrader valve tubes that I later threw out for without a drill. the wider valves would never be of any use on my rim! Thankfully I had no more punctures for the rest of the ride, although now running at higher pressure to prevent pinch-flats, I did have a little less traction on the dirt. I vowed to consider a tubeless rim upgrade sometime after the ride.

Whilst the food and facilities of the Hurunui Hotel were tempting, I remained determined to make it through Macdonald Downs Station by the end of the day. In hindsight, this did mean some small redefinitions of the word “day”. Once leaving SH7 for the gravel progress slowed. This was deep unrewarding gravel that required much effort. There was little sign of recent traffic to create a good riding line. Where possible I was riding Paris-Roubaix style in a thin corridor of dirt between the road and the grass verges on its edge. Tyre trails indicated this had been a popular choice also used by numerous riders on front of me.

About an hour before sunset I arrived at MacDonald Downs. With the entrance not quite a described in the route sheet, I thought it best to ensure I followed the correct route as had been agreed with the land owner and cross referenced visual features, the map and my preloaded GPS waypoints before entering the private land of the station. The route across the station was easy to follow, although it was feeling a lot more like McDonald Ups than Downs. Reviewing GPS data, it was in fact a net incline of 330m over 20km.  I reached the southern boundary at about 11pm and regardless of every effort to open the gate quietly, disturbed a two other riders that were camping outside the gate. They were shocked I was riding at this hour, which from a road brevet background seemed quite normal to me. I was keen on a water source for cooking dinner so proceeded over Lees Pass and camped near a ford pn Okuku Saddle for the night. It started drizzling, but I was able to cook wrapped up in my sleeping bag, under my Zpacks fly ;).


Monday: Okuku Saddle – Wharfedale – Lake Lyndon (104km)

Day three began with patching tubes over breakfast before a gentle ride down Lees Valley with Andrew Carman and Dean. Some map cross-referencing was once again needed on the entrance, to the Wharfedale as the access road had a large "Private Property" sign on the gate. This of course, being mildly preferable to a rocking chair on the porch and a sign saying "private property, trespassers will be shot.". Whilst the route was largely straight ahead, I paid close eye to maps and preloaded GPS data as gates through electric fences were not always the most welcoming.

Once hitting the DOC managed land of the Oxford, the familiar sight of orange triangles reminded me of much past tramping , which turned out to be quite handy as that is exactly what I would be doing for the next few hours. While the Wharfedale was originally intended to be a road into the Lees Valley it was long abandoned prior to completion. This track was certainly more tramping track than single track! I was a little surprised so few riders had filled on the intentions book as I rolled into Wharfedale Hut for lunch. I was sure I wasn’t reaching the illustrious heights of third place... While the weather was clear, lunch was an inside affair trying to avoid becoming the lunch for the local sandflies - which were more abundant than even on the West Coast.

After lunch, came plenty of pushbiking up the Wharfedale, and bike carries down into stream beds and up the other sides. The last third or so of the route became much easier from my inexperienced mountain biking perspective.

Once on some semi-familiar roads it was an uneventful road cruise to Springfield, aside from disappointment that there no meals being served at Sheffield pub as I passed through. I indulged in a large meal at Springfield before climbing Porters Pass to Lake Lyndon. Several other riders stayed with the facilities of Springfield for the night. My preference was to get this climb done, so my legs could be rested for another day - without starting the day with a climb. With mud from the Wharfedale now drying in my cassette, the gears jumping and everything making a racket. I was convinced I had greater problems, but was unable to see. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have taken my lights off my handlebars, had a good look and cleaned out the drivetrain. As a roadie, I cannot ride even moderately quickly on such a noisy bicycle. As I climbed Porters Pass (939m), the visibility got less and less and eventually down to about 5m. Setting my Ayup lights to brightest didn’t help as then the light bounced off the cloud straight back into my eyes. With no visibility, I took a preference to push-biking once more. Once over the top, I stayed in the shelter at Lake Lyndon, which would save a little time packing up my shelter in the morning. The local residents were busy scratching and chewing away in the ceiling, but with an agreement reached that I would leave them alone if they they left my stuff alone I got a good nights sleep. It was,a little cool at, this altitude so the bag rated to -2C was handy tonight.

Tuesday: Lake Lyndon to Blackball (166km)

I woke to a great view over Lake Lyndon and.down to Canterbury. It was a good spot although the water supply at this location was tricky. I needn’t have worried as I reached a great stream at a rest area a short way down the road. This was also an opportunity to clean and lube my drivetrain for smoother and quieter riding. I really enjoyed the mornings sub-alpine ride, and when nature called spotted a great campsite at Craigieburn which I will likely frequent again in the future. Shortly before arriving at Arthurs Pass Josh & Michele caught up to me and once at Arthurs Pass village a small groupetto of brevet riders that had started their days between Springfield and Castlehill had formed.

After a bite to eat, I was looking forward to riding down the Otira Viaduct with the benefit of disc brakes. My only previous cycling experience here having being utilising the two-foot gear in the opposite direction on my road bike during one of my Paris-Brest-Paris qualifying rides . Alas, caught behind traffic I certainly got to make use of the disc brakes but at a lower speed than I was hoping for :(. Thankfully I found an opportunity to pass some of the traffic after the viaduct as the twisty road pitched sharply downhill. These are circumstances where the superior cornering and handling of a bicycle make them must faster than travelling by motorcar or campervan. A number of brevet riders enjoyed a pie together at pub at Jacksons.

The ride through Bell Hill Scenic Reserve, with its unsealed, yet hardpack surface not only made for great riding conditions, but was a particularly beautiful area to ride. The forest kept much of the heat off and the streams had some of the clearest water that you will ever find. It was a shame later in the day to arrive at the Arnold River with waste from freezing works channelled into the river, and to have the beautiful streams replaced with industrial culverts to prevent road erosion as I rode through to Blackball. I was parched, and regretting not having filled up my water bottles through the streams of the Bell Hill area. I was feeling pretty tired so called it an early day, and headed to "Formerly known as the Blackball Hilton" for my first night of not camping. Also staying here were Josh & Michele, Dean, Paul, Andrew and the tandem of Andy & Tony. While a few others decided to push on to Ikamatua & Waiuta for the night as had been my original intention for the day. A fermented recovery drink went down a little quickly, so was quickly refilled to go with a great meal before bed.

Wednesday: Blackball to Springs Junction (128km)

The day started with a ride up the valley to Ikamatua for a pie and chocolate milk for breakfast before heading for Waiuta. The road into the Waiuta was a scenic forested gravel road which I think is most likely a nicer to ride than drive. After 17km along this road, the next offroad section over the Big River tramping track began. I had initially feared another pushbike grovel like the Wharfedale, but found the track was in in good nick, and generally rideable. By generally rideable, I mean it was a little soft, so if you were on a day trip and not carrying camping gear it was likely to be mostly rideable. With my wheels sinking into the leaves and soft soil, the increased the effort to maintain forward momentum made pushbiking a better return relative to effort. The track was generally pleasant, aside from the noise from the drilling of the mining operations (and thus unease at drinking from the streams) in this alleged "conservation area".

Once through to the more historical and abandoned historical mining operations near Big River Hut, it was onto Military Road, which was a four-wheel drive track made up of fairly large rocks making uphill travel difficult, and downhill travel fun but bouncy. I briefly chatted to Allen and Sue from the tramping club who were exploring the area before bouncing my way down to Reefton - aggravated my TFCC cartilidge injury in the process. I applied rule no5 and kept on riding -  no way I was stopping now,  aside from an interlude in Reefton for shark and chips before heading up to Springs Junction for the night.

Without management onsite, I was lucky to find catch the manager of the Alpine Motor Inn driving in to collect something they had forgotten, which enabled me to get a room for the night. I would have happily camped but I suspected we would be passing through a lot of farmland with unknown camping opportunities for the next few hours. An hour or so later, David arrived and I offered him some motel room floor in the absence of any management to provide another room. A few other riders passed through a bit later and passed up this offer, possibly worried about disturbing my sleep and chose to bivvy at an unknown location for the night instead.

Thursday: Springs Junction to Golden Downs (170km)

With the week progressing, my intention was to pull out a big day to give myself a chance of finishing in under seven days. I optimistically thought I could make Wakefield, or perhaps even Nelson for the day, leaving myself a day to make my way back to Blenhiem. Thursday started well with elevation assistance through farmland on my way to Mariua, before briefly joining SH65 and avoiding oncoming cars passing other cars. It would seem that recycled bicycles would be ideal material from which to make stealth bombers – no one will ever see them! Soon it was off the highway for the gravel through to the Matakitaki, with the scenic highlights being on the Murchison side of Mariua Saddle. I was  finding gravel roads to be my friend by this point, and any tentativeness I had earlier in the ride on such terrain was now non-existent. I felt I made good time as I dropped in the Murchison for flavoured milk, sandwiches and unexpected lost property recovery in the form of forgotten spectacles from a rider in front of me.

After lunch the ride through the Braeburn was pleasant. Nelson Lakes is a beautiful part of the world and I have probably spent weeks tramping in this area in the past. However, once through to Lake Rotoroa I came to what I found to be the most soul destroying part of the entire Kiwi Brevet – push-biking in the afternoon heat up the Porika Track. I love Nelson Lakes. There are many scenic spots in this National Park. I'm just not sure that the Porika Track is one of them. Two brief glimpses of the Lake Rotoroa, no streams and a 4WD track that is more boulderdash that a track. I lost a lot of time up this climb, and no manner of bouncing down the other-side would make up for it. Once down the other side there was a 20km dead straight false flat from Howard Junction up to St Arnaud. It had been a few years since I had been through St Arnaud, but I looking forward to stopping by at “Elaine's Cafe”. Unfortunately it had long since disappeared with it seemed the entire town now being owned by the Alpine Lodge. In protest, I cooked my own meal with allegedly 6-servings of pasta for myself at the Kerr Bay camping area. While cooking I was thinking a lot about  whether to stay in St Arnaud, or to push on into the night.

I felt stronger after the feed – should be expected after six-servings? Having struggled for space to cook among car-camping tourists with goodness knows how much gear with them I decided to push on. A drizzle here didn’t bother me. The skies looked clearer to the north which was conveniently where I was heading. So, over Tophouse and Kerr Hill I went. As the rain returned, I waited for the road to flatten a little before finding a camping spot under the pine trees. I wasn’t the first to have this idea, with the site I camped in looking like it had previously had been well used for many days of camping recently. With the rain falling heavier now, I was pleased to be under the pines. There is seldom anywhere drier than under the pines afterall. I had only made a further 30km beyond St Arnaud and would have liked to have a made a bit more ground but stopping dry and warm would leave me in a better position for a big push the following day.

Friday: Golden Downs to Blenheim (223km!)

With rain and drizzle stopping shortly after I woke, I had a big day ahead of me. I had previously aimed to get the day down to 160-180km left to travel to make sure I would finish today, with a day to spare.  After cutting last night short, it turned out I had 223km ahead of me., which would make for my biggest day of the brevet.

I packed up my shelter, and headed down 88 Mile Valley into to Wakefield in good time. As had become the standard brevet breakfast for me, spotted a bakery and downed some meat pies and flavoured milk. Then it was a quick ride into Nelson where I briefly caught up Chris Charles who was taking photographs of the riders coming through before calling into McDee's for second breakfast.

A lack of concentration on part led to a little double tracking on the way up Matai Valley as I managed to pass through Smith Ford Bridge at a moment with road closed gates open and signs obstructed. A very silly navigation error on my part as I was looking for a ford, even though on all maps and route sheets it was clearly marked as “Smiths Ford Bridge”. Now in a mountain bike park the ride up Dun Mountain was a breeze compared to the tramping tracks, and bouldery 4WD tracks I had been riding on this week. I feared another horrid pushbike up the Maungatapu (following yesterdays Porika grovel). All of these fears proved to be unfounded. For whilst it was steep and did require some push-biking, it was much much easier travel than the Porika Track. How this 4WD track was "closed" and Porika's 4WD track was "open" was completely lost on me. Once over the saddle it was a rapid descent, where it was probably best that my luggage prevented my seeing any heat related colour changes in my disc brake rotors.

Unfortunately there had been a recent stock movement on Mt Richmond Road, and I was unfortunately covered in s#%t on my way down to Pelorous Bridge. This did me think of the ridiculous over reaction the recent "freedom camping" legislation is, when stock are s#&$#ing everywhere, and where they're not, they are transported by stock trucks that spill or dump the effluent everywhere else. Surely this is a much greater problem than a few campers not following good etiqutte? how about handing out free poo bags instead?

Pelorous Bridge, is of course the location of fabulous gourmet pies. This of course meant it was compulsory location for stopping and eating more pies before heading around the tarmac of the Queen Charlotte Drive en-route to Picton.

I had never ridden Queen Charlotte Drive in this direction, but it was just as I had remembered from the road bike. Flat across Linkwater and twisty and undulating through to Picton. It started raining cats and dogs while I loaded up on chocolate milk at the service station in Picton. I convinced myself that another 70km couldn’t be that hard and wore every layer of clothing I had, including my Macpac Event raincoat which had thus far been carried for over 1000km without use.

The first few kilometres to Waikawa came quickly and without effort. This was perfect for granting myself entirely false optimism for how quickly I would make it back to Seymour Square in Blenheim.. As turned I into the southerly with rain and light impenetrable mist the effort required for forward momentum became extreme. In the dark, the undulations on the way to Port Underwood were like the Alps and I was soon experiencing a sufferfest. Using the excuse of lack of visibility and jumping gears due to dust and moisture I became lazy and hoofed it a fair bit.. There were good descents, or at least they would have been if I  could see where I was going. I was definitely a broken rider at this point, and illusions granted to self of cruising along the coast and through Rarangi, all at sea level for a flat cruise to Blenheim were soon proven to be the fallacy they were with one final brute of climb. Port Underwood is an area I had not previously ridden, and I must say it is very mountainous for such a popular cycle touring route. But then, most cycle tourists would not attempt this in a single evening.

I crawled along the flats into Blenheim any finally made it to Seymour Square at 5:50am. It was somewhat of an anti-climax with no-one to greet me and worse still no cafes open for a much deserved big breakfast.

  • Was it fun?
    • Absolutely! The mountain cycle provides a whole load of new places to explore and that is what keeps cycling fresh and exciting for me.
  • Did it hurt?
    • Not so much. The eight day time-limit is generous, and without mechanicals is easily obtainable - even with limited MTB experience.
  • Am I a mountain biker?
    • Certainly not before this little adventure. Am I now? Not so sure. I have much to learn for mountain biking through technical terrain. But I do know it is fun and there are plenty of adventures to be had.
  • Would you do it again?
    • Certainly. Where do I sign up?

1 comment :

  1. A great read, Craig, and a very impressive effort. Well done.
    Cheers, Andrew Morrison.
    PS, from your's and others' accounts, it appears that pies and chocolate milk are the staple for the Kiwi Brevet. That's something I could get used to! ;-)