Thursday, May 27, 2010

Epilogue




A week later I felt sufficiently recovered to go for a ride on my beloved Cotic. Hearing a strange noise from the front end I stopped to discover in horror that my carbon fork was broken almost right through! It was only really the wheel holding it all together. The next day I tried to use the inner tubes I had carefully taped to my seatpost only to discover that my legs must have rubbed on them sufficiently to put holes in them both. That was OK though I thought because I could patch them with the puncture repair kit I had carried on the Brevet. On opening it I found that the spare chainlinks I had cleverly put in the kit for emergencies, had rattled around so much that the adhesive tube was pierced and all the glue had poured out. Next I had a close look at my chain which I had replaced just before the Brevet. One of the links was split almost right through!

Posting this carnage on Vorb Oli Brooke-White wrote 'The patron saint of bicycle adventurers must have been watching over you.' A thousand thanks to this mythic patron saint and all the great characters I got to know on the trip. It was a truly unique and special experience that I would do again in a flash. And yes I would probably do it all again on a rigid singlespeed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day Six

I woke with a start with a loud scratching just by my ear. In panic I turned on the light and saw something scurry of into the darkness. I scanned the hay wall with my light and noticed many small burrowed holes. This place must be full of mice and rats! Uneasily I went back to sleep.

Getting up in the morning I mixed up the last of my complan for breakfast while Andrew cooked up a brew on his cooker. As usual it took me forever to get ready and Andrew headed of first into the early light of dawn. It was overcast and chilly but no longer raining thankfully. The misery of the Awatere continued though as I slowly got my legs moving. Meaningless climbs followed one after the other. After one final long climb – the Awateres sting in the tail – it leveled out and civilisation started to show its signs. Vineyards appeared on both sides of the road. The end was not far away. Turning of the main road towards Taylors pass – the last uphill of the whole Brevet – I had mixed feelings. It was almost over which was a relief in a way but it was going to be hard to return to normal life after such an amazing experience.

Food

A few hours before, I had decided I could eat no more until Blenhiem Throughout the ride I had been fueled with OSM bars interspersed with welcome chocolate milk and hot food stops in cafes and shops on the way. OSMs had got me through and for that I was grateful but I could eat them no more. I had had enough. I could hardly even look at them. My system had rebelled. I decided to run my body down to empty rather than face another mouthful of dry OSM bar.


The descent from Taylors turned into a final detour along the Blenheim bike paths. Houses started appearing on either side in greater numbers until I realised I was in Blenheim proper. A search for Dashwood crescent took a while but I was determined to do the course properly and I finally found it and popped out onto the main road. Seymour square was just ahead. I imagined the people going about their business oblivious to my presence were cheering throngs welcoming me back. I got to Seymour square and a familiar figure emerged. It was Darren - smiling broadly he gave me a big man hug. So he was ahead of me after all – he had missed seeing the sign in book at the start of the Molesworth.

We headed to a cafe at the edge of the square where Andrew McLellan was relaxing. I was very very hungry and ordered portion after portion from the all day breakfast menu. I have rarely eaten as many calories in one sitting in my whole life. Soon Simon, John and Thomas joined us having finished, along with Darren, the night before. Some of these people I had only known for a few days but it felt like a reunion of old life long friends. I had hardly ever felt as relaxed, satisfied and deeply contented. The Brevet was a concept of pure brilliance and perfection. It was one of the most amazing experiences and weeks of my life. Mr Simon Kennett you are a genius.

We watched Phil and Ann turn up not long after and welcomed them in. They joined us at the cafe smiling and also full of stories and excitement. Eventually we had to go our separate ways – John and Simon to the airport, Andrew, Thomas, Phil and Ann to the ferry and Darren and I back to the car to drive home to Christchurch.
I had managed to complete the Brevet in under 5 days (4 days, 23 hours and 15 minutes to be exact) on a rigid singlespeed. Oliver Whally was the fastest in 4 days 2 hours. Darren had rolled in at 4 days 9 hours in 6th place – a hugely impressive effort. I was happy. Ollie was quoted as saying when he finished 'life changing shit'. I couldnt have put it better myself.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Day Five

Waking up at 5am I looked up – the stars were gone and a cold wind rustled the grass. I rushed to get packed – rain was on the way! As I rode the seemingly endless gravel roads to Hurunui a light drizzle started and I began to think of what lay ahead. We had to get through the DOC controlled Molesworth station between 7am and 7pm otherwise we would be booted out. I was not sure how this would happen but I didnt want to find out. Having lost time yesterday through my wrong turn and general tiredness I realised it was unlikely I would make the cutoff.

In Otira Darren and I had spoken about how a sub 5 day time was on the cards. Now however it didnt seem possible at all. Did it really matter though. My initial goal had been a sub 8 day time and that was easily achievable from here. I had nothing to prove and it wasnt supposed to be a race anyway. Also getting to Hanmer today meant I could have an easy day and soak in the hot pools. It was a no brainer I would cruise from here and enjoy a stress free finish to the Brevet. I was now wet and cold from the rain and my legs were still stiff and sore seemingly taking forever to warm up. There was no way I could go past those hot pools further up the road.
After riding the most boring long straight road of the whole Brevet between Hurunui and Culverdon I pulled into a cafe for breakfast. I took my time ordering vast mountains of food and chatting with the locals – I had all day to get to Hanmer after all. I couldnt stay forever though and I headed out into the drizzle and singlespeeded the long tarseal roads to Hanmer.

I pulled into Hanmer just before midday, a little earlier than anticipated. I started to think that maybe I could still get through Molesworth today? I went to check a few things at the local bike shop. They knew nothing about the 7pm to 7am closure or how long it would take to bike through Molesworth. Hmmm..... not much help. However they said they had seen a group of bikers around 9.00am including someone on a bright green Niner. It would have been Simon. So they were only about 3 hours ahead – impossible to catch but close enough to get me motivated again. The hot pools would have to wait. I jumped on my bike and pedaled hard towards Blenheim over 200km away.

I would first have to get over Jolies pass though, one of the many big climbs interspersed regularly throughout the whole length of the Brevet. Mostly too steep for my singlespeed I spent almost an hour pushing up into the mist. Topping out and descending into the Clarence river valley I headed for the Acheron homestead and the start of the Molesworth proper. Closing in on the Acheron I looked across the valley and was surprised to see two cyclists climbing the slope in the distance. I could just make out the shape of white dry bags – it was Phil and Ann! I crossed the river and signed into the book at the gate of the Station. It made interesting reading. Andy Read, one of the two Brevet frontrunners had signed in at 6.25am that morning. That was only 7 hours in front of me. I scanned the rest of the familiar names in the book until I got to Phil and Ann who had signed in only 5 minutes earlier. I couldnt find Darrens name though – surely he was ahead of me?

I entered Molesworth at about 1.30pm confident now that I would get through by 7.00pm and set of in pursuit of Phil and Ann. It wasnt long before I passed them as they had stopped to get something out of their bags. A few quick words and I continued onwards by myself into the vast country that lay ahead. And vast it truly was. Huge valleys followed more huge valleys with great vistas in all directions. It was time for some music and I turned my ipod on.

Music

I had decided to take music with me as I knew there would be certain sections of the Brevet where it would be a great motivator. I had many albums worth of music by Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcombe – two old time Appalacian mountain banjo pickers and singers. They sang haunting murder ballads and strange death songs. The sound of the banjo a direct conduit into weird other worlds. This was my choice of music for the West Coast. For Molesworth though I had selected the St Matthews Passion by Bach. The melancholy grandeur and beauty of it seemed right for this landscape. I turned the Passion on and pedalled into the immense empty land ahead.


I passed a few cars that had taken advantage of the 7am – 7pm opening of the road. They quickly thinned out and I found myself on my own, winding slowly along. The weather had improved after Jolies but it looked like it was deteriorating again with low cloud and mist obscuring both the very tops of the mountain ranges and the ends of the mighty valleys that stretched of to seeming eternity in various directions. Not being able to percieve the edges of the country made it seem limitless. On I went and started to feel more and more alone and small. Slowly it was as if the many layers of civilisations accoutrements and illusions were peeling away and being left way behind. The signs of human existance ebbed away – there were no fences, no houses, no animals or trees, no structures of any kind as far as the eye could see except for some lonely looking power pylons. And you could certainly see a long way for this land was immense and overpowering. Even the gravel road started to peter out turning into two thin scratches across a rocky land. I felt more utterly alone than I probably ever had in my life – an absolutely tiny figure traversing a vast and desolate land with no apparent end.

A car approached – the last one I would see until I was well out of the Molesworth. It was an old very beaten up Japanese car. Inside were a young couple with barely any clothes on. As they passed I noticed she had her bare feet on the dashboard while picking a banjo. He was driving and smiled at me as they passed. I imagined she must have been picking a Dock Boggs murder ballad and his smile seemed more like a half mad toothless grin. Pull yourself together I thought this is a bike ride not a bad remake of Deliverance.

My grip on reality was slipping. The landscape, 1000km of riding in four days, lack of decent sleep and the sheer aloneness of it all was affecting me. Nature was no longer the nurturing mother we like to think of her as but she now seemed a terrifying, utterly inhuman thing within which we are but an insignificant, irrelevant and infintesimal part. The protective layers we armour ourselves with against this truth – beliefs, objects, buildings,civilisation and culture – were all gone here. The last vestiges of humanity I had seen – the cars – had heating, air con, protective metal shells, windows like TV screens and comfy seats. My seat was definitely not feeling comfy and my puny singlespeed that I had to power myself through this inhuman and indifferent universe did little to buffer me from its otherness.

I climbed up to Isolated saddle which then descends into Isolated flat – some of the most appropriately named pieces of landscape I had ever come across. Aria 39 'Erbarne dich, mein gott!' came on and I totally lost it. This was pathetic and embarressing! I hoped I would not see any more cars as I was a truly abject and pitiful sight. It started lightly drizzling and the low cloud brooding all around me seemed to be thickening as I crept bumping across Isolated flat. I crossed a bridge and soon after the road started to climb. I had totally overlooked the fact that I had to cross Ward pass before getting into the head of the Awatere valley. The drizzle got heavier and the temperature dropped as I climbed into the cloud. A final look back at the immensity of the Molesworth revealed nothing – no signs of life at all as far as I could see. It felt like I was the only living being left in the world.

The climb up was long and just ridable with my gearing. I was hoping that the landscape was going to be more aminable over the other side. However it was in fact worse. The rain had really set in and a cold head wind developed. The landscape became plain ugly. It was no longer the desolate but sublime majesty of where I had just been. Instead the head of the Awatere was a wasteland with no form or legible structure. It was lumpy and repetitive with small climbs and descents all blurring into each other. When was this going to end! I was getting very wet and cold. I stopped and put on virtually all my clothes and wet weather gear and continued on. I was still cold. Eventually The DOC hut that finally signalled the end of the Molesworth came into view. I stopped to talk to the DOC ranger standing in the doorway. It felt strange (and a relief that people still existed) to come across another person in this dead wasteland. I asked if he thought the weather was going to improve. He said who knows and added that we were over 1000m above sea level just to emphasise how isolated this spot really was. I could hear and smell the cooking of bacon and eggs in the hut behind. I thought of what I had for tea – energy bar lightly garnished with tinned tuna – yum!!.

Around the corner was the original Molesworth cob cottage with a bike leaning on it! Out came a bedraggled and cold looking Andrew McLellan. I was very surprised to see him. When had he passed me? The last time I had seen him was when he was being sick on someones front lawn in Murchison. He didnt look much better having stopped to shelter from the weather and have something to eat. I could see a fire roaring away inside. Tempting as it was I knew that if I stopped I would never get going again. I headed down the road towards the Hodder into the cold wet headwind. I had asked the ranger how far the Hodder was. He had looked at me strangely saying it took him nearly an hour to drive there by car incredulous that I would try to bike there in this weather at this late hour. The Brevet had hardened me up though – no wimping out allowed!

Hours later I started to regret my gung ho attitude. The Awatere was an awful, unattractive world with interminable climbs sapping energy and resolve. It was getting dark and I was getting tired – very tired. I started looking around for somewhere to bed down but there was nowhere. I had trialled my poncho tarp on the back lawn of my house one sunny weekend strapping it over my upside down bike and pegging it down. Out here in this wet, cold, dark and desolate landscape with virtually no real shelter it held no appeal at all. I kept on pedalling. I saw a haybarn someway of the road. Struggling up to it I found it sealed up solid with gates and wires. A paranoid farmer obviously did not want any wet bedraggled bikers enjoying its comforts. So I kept going as darkness set in.

I had been cycling alone for so long that I almost jumped out of my skin when someone silently appeared from behind out of nowhere. It was Andrew McLellan also heading for the Hodder. His small LED light was as pathetic as mine and progress was excruciatingly slow as we rode together squinting hard to see what was ahead. It was good to have company though and I babbled on to him inanely.

After an eternity the poles of the Hodder suspension bridge came into view and to our great relief a haybarn as well. This one was not secured off and even had the central block of hay removed to form a pleasant well proportioned room. We were going no further and bedded down for the night. It was as comfortable as any 5 star hotel with a soft hay covered floor and a roof protecting us from the rain lashing down in the dark outside. As I lay down to sleep I thought back on what had been quite a day. It was 11pm and I had been riding since just after 5am with only two relatively short stops, I had survived an encounter with a couple of banjo playing hillbilly axe murderers and had had a strange mad semi mystic revelation on Isolated saddle. Wow and I had thought the Brevet was just going to be a nice bike ride through the country.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Day Four

Getting up well before 5am we cooked our breakfast and got ready. Darren and I were on the road by 5.45am. It was still lightly raining and dark but it was good to start the day with someone else. We both walked up the Otira viaduct (I had no choice) as dawn came. Peering over the edge to the swirling waters a very long way below in the early morning half light and mist was one of the truly magical moments of the whole Brevet. I was enoying it all hugely again. Rolling into Arthurs pass at 7am we just missed Tim and Thomas at the shelter. I took of my raincoat expecting the east coast of my home to be typically warm and dry. Darren headed off – it would be the last I would see of him till the end. Realising my mistake as I rode out of Arthurs I stopped to put my coat back on. It was still very cold. Simon and John rocked past having just left their Arthurs pass digs. Once again I watched them disappear into the distance. A bit further up Chris rode past. I told him Simon and John were not far ahead and he zoomed of like a man on a mission.

I settled into a comfortable rhythm knowing it was a long way till the next stop in Springfield. I expected to do this section on my own so was surprised to catch John at the top of the Grassmere straight. He told me it was not turning out to be much of a downhill from Arthurs. I had to gently break it to him that Porters pass is actually higher than Arthurs so technically it was actually an uphill. He drifted of the front and I settled into my own rhythm again. Time passed and the weather improved enough for me to finally take of my coat. As Porters pass finally came close I caught John again and we crested the top together. He big ringed it down the other side leaving me to spin my silly low gear. It was alright though, the event was long and difficult and we all accepted that we needed to ride it at our own pace.

At Springfield John was sitting at a cafe by himself. Where were the others? I joined him and ordered a very yummy pasta. I could see John looking longingly at it. He texted the others only to find that they were at another cafe in town. Simon, Thomas, Tim and Chris rolled up to join us and we got ready for the next big section. The original goal of Hanmer for the night now looked out of reach so Simon rang to book a motel in Culverdon. We had to be there by 11pm or they would shut. It was just after midday now so it seemed possible...maybe? We set off on a gravel road detour but before long Simon turned around – he had left his camelback in the cafe. I saw John waiting further up the road and told him what he already knew. They both caught me at Sheffield and like deja vue I watched them disappear into the distance again. I didnt realise it at the time but this was the last I would see of them all. The last 400 or so km I would ride on my own (with the sole exception of one 10km stretch). It would seem in retrospect to be a slow and inexorible passage into my own heart of darkness. But this was in the future, for now I was heading for the Wharfedale, an enjoyable and fun singletrack I thought I knew reasonably well coming from Christchurch.

Overconfidence or tiredness saw me make my first really dumb mistake. I rode past one of the turnoffs going into the Wharfedale. As I rode on and on the wrong way a little voice in my head started getting more and more insistent – you are going the wrong way! Hauling out my maps and GPS I thought I didnt need made me even more confused as to where I was. The panic at losing so much valuable time made it difficult to think clearly. I finally worked out what I had done wrong. I was a long way from where I should be. I backtracked very angry with myself. My cellphone in the bottom of my pack started going off. I realised how many people were watching me go wrong in the virtual world. Sorry to all those that texted and rang but there was no way I was stopping to answer. I was a man on a mission hammering along trying to make up for my stupid mistake. I powered up the climbs that led to the Wharfedale at a speed that was not really sensible but I was mad and determined to limit the damage.

I rode far more of the Wharfedale than I had in practice with a loaded bike. I was taking risks in my effort to make up lost time. I thought I had probably lost about 45 minutes so making up that sort of time was really a lost cause. Getting to Culverdon with the others was now only a remote possibility. I zoomed past the hut barely looking at it and emerged out onto one of the bumpiest sections of the track. It was a relief to my well shaken body to finally reach the smooth gravel of Lees valley. Very long straight sections of road stretched of into the distance. I squinted my eyes to see if I could see any cycling specks in the distance but no. I was on my own. I relaxed back into a steady rhythm. I had done this bit in training a month or so ago so I knew to expect a long rather boring gravel ride and so it was. The last thing you do before turning off into the private McDonald Downs land is climb Lees pass. The sun was getting low in the sky as I slowly climbed. Peering back down the vast valley from where I had just come I thought I saw some cyclists moving in the far distance. I looked again but couldnt pick them out any more. Was I starting to hallucinate? Certainly the solitude, intensity of the event, lack of proper sleep and strange atmosphere of it all was starting to affect my state of mind. I had to stay focused!

I had done many of the McDonald Downs mountain bike races in the past so I should of known what to expect. However I was hoping we were going to somehow bypass all the hard terrain and simply head downhill to Hurunui. Well no I was about to be reaquainted with the mega sized country that is McDonald Downs. After the turn off from the Lees valley road it was straight into a big climb that was too steep for me to ride By the time I had pushed to the top it was getting dark. Putting on my rather pathetic light I rode on and on through big valleys, up unridable climbs, down epic downhills. Hours passed. I kept thinking I recognised some areas but it all seemed the same in the dark. Finally I came out by a shearing shed I remembered as the prize giving spot at the races. I looked up at the homestead on the hillside as I passed and saw a solitary figure silhouetted in the window watching me pass. I realised there was a good chance they had followed my progress through their land on the website. The GPS tracker in my backpack was a great antidote to the loneliness I was really starting to feel now.

Further along the road I had had enough. I found a comfortable spot in some soft grass and drifted of to sleep under one of the most amazing starry skys I had ever seen. I was in a state of blissed out but totally exhausted comfort.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Day Three

Just before 5am I had had enough and got up. Darren followed soon after. I mixed up some complan to get me going and started packing. For some reason (probably severe tiredness) this was a slow process and Darren headed off before me. At about 5.45am, still pitch dark, I set off up towards Rahu saddle. I saw two taillights ahead. Couldnt be Darren or was it Darren and someone else? I slowly reeled them in – it was Phil and Ann. They told me that 5 minutes after I left the Mariua Motel the cyclist had rung up to cancel his booking. Oh well I was glad to have made it to Springs Junction – it was far further than I had dreamed I would get after one and a half days. Leaving them behind I climbed steadily to the top of the saddle. It was starting to rain. I stopped to put on my coat. The further down I went after the top the heavier the rain became until it was a proper West Coast drenching. I contemplated stopping to put on my rainpants I had taken just for this eventuality. Soon though it thankfully stopped and I rolled into Reefton. As I pulled in I saw a line of bikes outside a cafe. Time for breakfast. Looking in I found Darren, Tim Mulliner and the biggest surprise of all – Thomas Lindup.

We had heard that Thomas almost made it to St Arnaud on the first day – a prodigious feat that had left us in awe. It had obviously taken its toll though. I noticed the jar of peanut butter was gone. I ordered the huge 'workingmans breakfast' and the obligatory chocolate milk and scoffed it all down. The others headed of before me and I stopped of at the 4 square for supplies before being on my way.

We were now heading into Big River and Big River – Wiauta. I knew these would be by far the hardest sections of the whole Brevet. I was relying on my workingmans breakfast to get me through. It started with a good gravel road climb before turning into a scenic but rocky track. I was expecting to catch Darren as I knew this would not suit his skinny tyres. Rounding an early corner I spyed a rider ahead but it was not Darren it was Thomas. I caught up and we rode the many hours into Big River together. I enjoyed riding with him as I had ridden the vast majority of the Brevet on my own so far. He told me stories of his 24 hour world solo championship efforts battling legends like Tinker Juarez. It was fun. He would get away from me on the bumpy downhills – a combination of greater skills and the 29inch wheels on his beautiful Niner bike – but he seemed to slow afterwards to let me catch up. It was great to have company and good conversation.

Eventually we popped out by the Big River hut finally catching Darren impressed that he had stayed away so long. We had a bite to eat and I warned them of what was about to come. Thomas headed of ahead and Darren and I followed walking far more than riding. We passed Thomas a little further up as he had stopped for a snack. It was beautiful country for a walk. I was enjoying it immensely. After what seemed like a very long time we started heading down. I could ride more of it than Darren so we bid each other goodbye (for the time being). After struggling through some very dodgy stream crossings the track improved enough so that I could just about ride it all. Popping out into Waiuta a fast gravel road downhill followed to the main road and Ikamatua. I was glad to get through this section safely and decided to have a bit of a break buying and eating huge amounts of food at the shop.

It wasnt long before Darren joined me. He showed me his feet which were giving him grief. I had never seen anything like it – cracks all over the sole. He thought it was trench foot and lamented that it might force him to pull out. I hoped he could push through. Eventually I decided it was time to go with a very optimistic goal of making Arthurs pass in mind. As I was ready to set off Thomas, Simon and John rolled in appearing surprised to see me. I headed off first but it wasnt long before Darren passed me and pulled away rapidly out of sight. The tarseal and gravel road section to Jacksons was not going to be ideal for a singlespeed being long and flat. I would have to spin fast to make it in a reasonable time.

Passing Blackball without stopping then crossing the Grey river I turned off for yet another gravel road detour. I looked behind and saw a large peloton bearing down upon me. They caught me just before a rise. It consisted of Simon, John Tim, Thomas and Chris Tennant Brown who I had not seen until then. I realised he was the owner of the mysterious red tail light I had followed into Springs Junction. Simon told me he had my Eftpos card I had left in Ikamatua. I didnt even know it was missing. He gave it back and I thanked him profusely. What an idiot I was! I would have been without any money and would have had to do the rest of the Brevet on 2 OSM bars. They headed off into the distance ahead splintering into smaller groups as I watched.

The next long section into Jacksons was one of the worst of the Brevet for me. I was on my own again and it seemed to go on and on. My mood changed and it started to rain. I felt like I was going excruciatingly slow and I was getting sick of being spun out in a stupid low gear. I had had enough of this singlespeed thing – I wanted gears! Long wet empty gravel road stretches that all looked the same followed one after the other for hours on end. Mist hung around the brooding hills of the West Coast all around. I became convinced that my slow speed would mean that the rest of the Brevet field would catch me but looking back I saw noone. I expected to have a few down times in the Brevet and this was one of them.

My mood brightened as out of a single lonely looking house in the middle of nowhere a kid came hurtling out on a BMX. We raced each other wordlessly side by side down the road grinning like fools before he finally gave up and headed back. Wow – I needed that. Eventually I rolled into Jacksons in the dark and wet hoping desperately that it would still be open. It was with unbelievable relief and gratitude that I saw bikes lined up outside and John tell me that they had asked them to keep the kitchen open for me. The very friendly and accommodating barman cooked up a burger feast fit for a king and I ate heartily. Darren told me he had booked a backpackers for us two in Otira. The others were still heading for Arthurs pass but Otira was absolutely fine with me. They all left and once again I thanked the owner for keeping the pub open just for me and I went out into the dark and rain.
The Otira backpackers up the road was perfect. We had the whole space to ourselves, a hot shower and the owner had left us eggs, baked beans and mountains of toast bread for breakfast. We could ask for no more. Life was good again.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Day Two

After a fitful nights sleep I got up at 5.30 AM realising I wasnt going to be able to sleep any more. It seemed to take me forever to get ready though. My legs were stiff and sore and my brain was only working at half speed. Our very generous hosts offered breakfast which I gratefully accepted. I said goodbye to Trevor, Barryn, the three Aussies and Jan not realising this would be the last time I would see them. Finally rolling out onto the deserted early morning roads at around 7am (the latest start of my whole Brevet) with Darren, Laurence and Guy not far behind I was feeling good. About 5 minutes later a car slowly rolled up next to me and wound down its window. I looked at it – a police car! Quick check – yes I had my helmet on – had I done something else wrong - was I speeding? No, this guy was a fan! He seemed to know all about the Brevet and wanted to take my photo. Zipping up the road he parked and I posed as best as I could. He wanted to get it onto the Brevet website. I began to realise that maybe this thing was bigger than we all thought.

GPS Tracking

One of the great innovations of the Brevet for a NZ event was that we had been issued with GPS trackers. They continually updated our locations on the website allowing friends and family to closely follow progress. This caused a real buzz that we didnt fully appreciate until the end. The policeman – Rob Hambrook – was one of the many followers. It made what seemed like a very solitary pursuit (especially for us solo riders) into something far larger. It was strange to feel we were being continually watched by many from afar.



After the photoshoot Guy, Laurence and Darren disappeared into the distance. It didnt seem to take long before they were out of sight. I didnt expect to see them again. I turned off the main road for a pleasant gravel road detour Simon had arranged for us. Coming round a corner there was Darren fixing a puncture and further up I saw and passed Guy and Laurence. A bit surprised that I was unexpectedly in front of them I pulled into the Wakefield store to stock up. Looking back I saw Simon Kennett and John Randal ride up – what were they doing behind me? Before long six of us were there – Simon, John, Darren, Guy, Laurence and me. I was keen to get moving and I left them eating and chatting and headed towards St Arnaud. It was the last I would see of Guy and Laurence. The next section saw a number of us swap places. John was first to catch and pass me. Further up I repassed him as he was applying butt creame to his nether regions on the side of the road.

Butt Maintenance

Butt maintenance was an essential task on the Brevet. Saddle sores were to be avoided at all costs. I later found out that one of our number had had to pull out due to severe saddle sores – ouch! One of the unique things about the Brevet is that you can ride up to someone you hardly know and start a conversation by asking them about their butt. I cannot think of any other polite social situations where this would be considered normal. However condition of ones butt was a preoccupation of us all. Mine certainly ended up very sore and I was continually changing position to try to get comfortable. I looked forward to climbs where I could stand and relieve pressure. I never developed a proper saddle sore though for which I was immensely grateful to my appropriately named Assos chamois creame.


I watched John catch another cyclist further up the road. I wondered who it was and later found out it was Tim Mulliner – the Maungatapu camper. He must have had a very early start. Darren caught me then Simon. I wondered why these strong geared riders werent leaving me for dead on these tarseal roads. The reason was simple though. The road up to St Arnaud is mostly a false flat and there was a bit of a head wind effectively nullifying the advantages of gears. In fact on one climb I left Darren behind however just before the turn to St Arnaud he caught me back up again, this time in the company of Andrew McLellan who I had not seen till then. We powered into St Arnaud with me doing my best hampster on speed imitation again in an effort to keep up.

A pleasant cafe break ensued with Simon, John, Tim, Darren, Andrew and me. Being in such illustrious company I started wondering how many were actually ahead of us. Simon thought it was only about 5 or 6. I started to feel my up till now dormant competitive juices start to stir. I was doing alright, riding with some legends and feeling OK. With this in mind I gulped down my food and drink and was the first to leave the cafe and head towards the Porika track that I had recoinnoitred a month earlier. It was a gentle downhill tarseal before the track though, not good single speed country. First John and Tim went past, then Darren and finally Simon and Andrew. The Porika track couldnt come fast enough. A highly enjoyable but rough climb the Porika winds its way through native bush gradually steepening as it gets to the top. I loved it. I had caught Darren and we both crested the top together. I knew I would leave him on the very steep rough descent to Lake Rotoroa as my MTB was far better suited to it than his skinny tyred tourer. So it was and I sped through the DOC camp by the lake and headed up the next climb on my own. At the top was the single best downhill of the whole Brevet. The Braeburn track is a perfect downhill gradiant, beautiful sweeping corners through pristine mature native bush with refreshing easily ridable crystal clear stream crossings punctuating the dry slightly dusty gravel track. It was effortless mountain biking paradise. It ended too soon and a series of winding undulating tarseal roads led to Murchison.



I joined Simon, John and Tim at a cafe and watched Darren and Andrew turn up not long after. Service was slow though and the others headed off before my burger had arrived. My competitive juices were really flowing now though so I asked for my burger as a takeaway, put it in my back pack and headed off. Passing another cafe around the corner I saw the others had stopped there and Chris and Brenda had just turned up. I headed up the Matakitaki alone.

Before long a peloton came roaring past consisting of Simon, John and Tim. They were hauling ass and before long they were out of sight. This was becoming a common theme – the others were riding faster but the only resaon I was keeping up was although I was generally the last to turn up at a cafe I was often the first to leave. I knew this was not sustainable in the long term – you need to regularly rest and carboload. There was one notable rider missing from the peloton. I kept looking behind me for Darren expecting him to catch up any minute. Matakitaki and Mariua saddle was beautiful riding through native West coast bush. Pleasant hours ticked away. Life was good. Eventually I rolled back out onto the main road. It was starting to get dark so I turned on my two Fenix lights only to find one of them was not going. I remember reading that running them for too long on turbo mode risks blowing the bulb. Maungatapu downhill must have been too much. Worried that running my last remaining light on turbo would similarly blow it I set it on low and rode into the night. I was getting very tired. Around the corner a sign – Mariua Motels in 3.5km – that will do me. Rolling in I saw Phil and Ann happily settled into one of the rooms. Unfortunately the owner had no rooms or more correctly he had one but a cyclist had booked it and not yet turned up. He tried to phone him to no avail. Then being very helpful he tried to phone the Springs Junction motels for me but also no reply. It didnt surprise me, it was late and most sensible people would be getting ready for bed. Thanking him for his help I decided to press on to Springs Junction and rode back out onto the main road. Up ahead was a red tail light dot. I was sure it must be Darren having passed me while I was in the Motel.

We turned of the main road for another Simon Kennett gravel road detour. The red tail light ahead was going too fast for me and it slowly eased off into the darkness. Once again I was totally alone, riding along an empty indulating gravel road in amongst pitch black mature beech forest in the middle of nowhere with my very meagre light barely illuminating a small patch of gravel just in front of me. Time went very slowly and I felt adrift in the dark immensity all around.

Eventually, well after 11pm I pulled into Springs Junction exhausted. Luckily it was a nice night and I rolled out my sleeping bag on the lawn outside the Motels and settled down under a vast dome of stars. The now cold burger I had carried from Murchison tasted great and I got ready for a well earned sleep. Next minute there was a rustling in the bushes behind my head. A cyclist was rumaging about in the dark – who the hell was it? He came round the corner – it was Darren! as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He had been behind me – who was the owner of the red tail light then? We both tried to sleep on the lawn but were continually awoken by the trucks that seemed to be manouvreing only metres from our heads.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Day One

The morning of the 6th Feburary dawned. I drove to the outskirts to drop of my car at a preordained spot passing John Randal, Simon Kennett and a few others powering along on their fully loaded Brevet bikes in the other direction – this was getting exciting. Briefing was inside a local cinema. All 65 entrants lined their bikes along the front by the screen while we sat in the seats staring at them and listening to Simons briefing. I scanned all the bikes. The variety was huge – rigid 29ers, crossbikes, tourers, hardtails, FS bikes even a Surley Pugsley. Some had standard derailleurs and some had internal hub gears but......but no other singlespeeds! I was the only one. Did they all know something I didnt – had I made a terrible error of judgement? Also my gear, which I had thought was quite minimal, looked positively bloated next to some. The ones who had opted for no sleeping gear like John Randal and Simon Kennett seemed to be carrying very little on their already ultralight carbon rigid forked machines. There was nothing for it though – what I had was what I was taking and what was going to happen was going to happen. I was relaxed. No turning back now.

We all assembled in Seymour square awaiting the noon start. It was another chance to chat and check out the bikes and gear. Thomas Lindup had some strange looking object taped to his frame. Darren went and spoke to him coming back to tell me it was a jar of peanut butter for emergencies. If it had gone you knew he had hit trouble.

We all lined up in the sun, the town clock struck 12 and we were off. The start was neutral with us all rolling along as a group. And what a strange looking group – not the tight aesthetically coordinated colourful roadie pelotons or the baggie clothed nonchalantly casual mountain bike groups or even the overlaiden panniers everywhere tourers but a collage of them all and more babbling along, excited like kids on the first day of a school camp. The neutral start and easy going mood abruptly finished as we hit the coastline and ploughed headlong into sand, stones and matagouri. This was suddenly hard work. Those on fat tyres were making the easiest going of it (relatively) while the skinny tyred brigade started slipping back as they struggled to keep momentum sinking into the soft surface. Luckily I had gone the fat tyred way with 2.25mm UST tubeless Schwalbe knobblies so I found myself easing past quite a few of my fellow breveters. I rode with Simon for a while. He told me of how he had ridden with some singlespeeders in the Great Divide race and how they had done well. I felt a bit better about my choice. He had been partly influential in my choice writing on Vorb how he hoped some singlespeeders would enter.
Looming up ahead though lay the first real test for my single geared outfit – the Port Underwood road. The contour map indicated over 1500metres of climbing before Picton. A number of people I had spoken to talked about this section in hushed tones as if the pain it had inflicted was a memory they would rather repress. Just before the climb began we finally popped out of the sandtrap onto a flat tarseal road. Most of the brevet seemed to zip past me with blurs of smiling faces and cheery words as the mountain wall got nearer. Alright for them I thought with their silly low granny gears. Darren pulled up next to me for a brief chat. He had been slowed in the sand with his skinny tyres but looked ready to hammer now. We wished each other well and he rapidly disappeared into the distance. I fully expected this would be the last I would see of him on the Brevet.

Different ways to approach the Brevet.

Darren and I had taken what seemed like diametrically different approaches to the Brevet. He was obviously going for speed while I was going for comfort (relatively). He had a skinny tyred drop handled racing/touring bike with aerobars and minimal gear. Proudly he had told me his sleeping arrangements consisted of no more than a lightweight bivvy bag and a tiny piece of sleepmat foam for his shoulders. Being a bit of an insomniac he only expected to snatch a few quick hours sleep very occasionally by crawling into his bivvy bag in his clothes. If the weather was bad he was just going to keep riding. This was way too hardcore for me. Unlike Darren I had zero expectations of doing this thing fast. Hell I had choosen a singlespeed! I had big volume tyres to take the edge of bumpy stuff but I knew they were going to slow me on the 50% of tarseal the course had. I had way more weight in terms of gear than him and I knew Darren was generally faster than me on a bike anyway. I was going to be happy to do it within the 8 day cutoff rather than treat it like a race. Darren had told me he reckoned a singlespeed would add at least a day extra time ( I thought it could be even more). I had given him a lift up to Blenheim but we had not even mentioned a lift back – we both knew without actually saying it that he would be days ahead of me at the end. I was therefore quite relaxed as I watched his green top disappear up the road.

Then the climb began. More riders sped past me and I began to wonder how close to last I was. As I rode along for the whole Brevet there were a few things I tried to keep repeating in my head as a mantra. Keep eating, keep drinking and pace yourself. Dont get sucked into going too fast trying to keep up with others and dont think of it as a race! There were many times in the coming days where I ignored this sage advice but that is for later. So up the Port Underwood hills I rode repeating this mantra in my head in what was now killer 30 degree plus temperatures weaving from side to side in search of shade.

Strangely enough as time went on my slow uphill crawl had me passing riders that had zipped by earlier. On one slope I pass Phil and Ann both riding FS bikes with freeload racks front and back with white dry bags on them. We exchange pleasantries as I passed – I would see them many more times in the coming days. For much of the Port Underwood road I was riding close to the 3 Revolution cycle boys – Jonty, Nick and Matt as well as Jeff Lyall and the three Aussies Phil, Ed and Joel. Up and down into cute picturesque bays we rode, I would pass them while they stopped to take photos then not long after they would wind there way past me again. The last climb before dropping down into Waikawa bay was the longest. I had to resort to walking towards the top and had a brief chat with Jeff Lyall who was riding a Santa Cruz Superlight remarkably similar to the one lying forlorn in my garage at home. Finally dropping down to Picton I stopped at the first shop I found to refuel. Not long after I was joined by the 3 Aussies, Phil and Ann and a few others. Refueled I headed off again passing the Revolution cycle boys and Jeff relaxing in a cafe futher up the road. I waved as I passed not knowing it would be the last time I would see them.

Social Side of the Brevet

There are many things about the Kiwibrevet that made it a truly great event but one of the best was meeting and enjoying the company of like minded people. The Brevet was approached in many different ways either as a group or pair glued together for the whole time or alone like Charlotte Ireland and myself. Each had their own stories and experiences but we all crossed, intertwined and shared in many ways. Some I only saw once, others I crossed paths with many times but it was never predictable. When you rode away from someone or they rode away from you there was always a sense you may not see them again. The whole social side of it was one of the Brevets great joys.

A pleasant undulating road followed which turned into some long flat drags as I headed towards Havelock on my own. I had looked behind me at the end of one of these long straights and not seen anyone so it was a real surprise to be caught not long after by three riders I had not seen up till now – Barryn Westfield, Trevor Woodward and one other. They were moving quicker than me but I decided to spin as fast as I could to keep up. We rolled into Havelock just as Phil and Ann were leaving. I left them all to continue on while I went in search of a cafe. Relaxing and refueling with chocolate milk, pies and coffee I was joined by Laurence Mote, Guy Wynn Williams and Nathan Mawkes. Although I was enjoying the company I was keen to keep moving. I left them to it and headed off.

At Pelorus Bridge I joined up with the three Aussies and the Polish rider Jan who were already there and we all rode up the gravel road towards the duanting Maungatapu climb. When they stopped to help Jan with a puncture I left then to it fully expecting them all to catch me on the climb ahead. Rounding a corner there it was, the 700 plus metre Maungatapu climb, probably the longest single sustained climb of the whole Brevet. It started of steep and loose. I was on the verge of what I could ride and almost got of and walked many times. On and on it went. I caught Charlotte Ireland about a third of the way up and we rode together a while. Further up we both caught Phil and Ann. I was down to walking now and it was starting to get dark. Around another corner we caught someone else who had been fixing some bike issues. Finally the top came. It was pitch black now. With my two Fenix lights on full turbo mode I left Phil and Ann and the others behind at the top. The descent was long, loose and steep but I could just ride it all OK. Eventually it leveled out somewhat and the riding got a little less technical. On a wide flat corner I passed a fellow Breveter who had setup his tent and was cooking some nice smelling thing on his portable stove. I wondered if I should have also packed a tent and cooker, it certainly looked immensely appealing at this late hour. Accommodation options started preying on my mind – hopefully something would be open in Nelson at this late hour.

Further down the road I saw a red tail light ahead. Slowly I caught up. Hold on... that figure looked familiar....was it.... yes it was! I pulled up next to Darren totally surprised to see him again. We talked. I had caught him because he had had to walk all the way down the Maungatapu because of his skinny tyred bike. Maybe my fat tyred MTB was not such a bad idea after all. We rode together and were caught by two others – Barryn and Trevor – how had they got behind me? The last part of the Maitai valley is a gentle tarseal downhill – a singlespeeders nightmare (especially with a silly low 32-19 gear). The four of us powered down this section at well over 30km/hr with me desparately spinning like a hampster on speed at the back drafting millimetres from tyre in front. I did not want to be dropped.

In Nelson after waiting forever in a queue in a severly understaffed McDonalds we got pies from the after hours service station across the road. Phil and Ann joined us and told us they were of to their prebooked motel. I started to realise how disorganised my accommodation arrangements were. Chris Burr and Brenda Clapp had offered their house in Richmond to all Breverters as a place to stay but I had not really listened as I doubted I would get anywhere near Nelson on Day one. Luckily Barryn had been listening and had noted the address. The four of us – Barryn Trevor, Darren and me – followed the bike paths to Richmond rocking up to Chris and Brendas place just after midnight. Brenda and Chris were already there and told us we were the first to arrive – another surprise. What a way to finish the first day, a hot shower, comfortable house and great company. Over the night others turned up – Guy and Laurence, the three Aussies, Jan and a few others. It had been a truly great start to the Brevet – better than I could have imagined.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Riding the inaugural Kiwi Brevet on a single speed

Prologue

On the 20th September 2009 I had a classic mountain bike crash going over the bars and breaking my collarbone. People proudly told me I was now a true cyclist; a rite of initiation finally completed after nearly 20 years of mountain bike riding and racing. Strangely enough unlike them I didnt see this as a positive at all as I was now stuck inside recuperating with my bike gathering dust.


There was something to cheer me up though, an intriguing event was announced – the Kiwibrevet - a 1100km unsupported bike ride around the top half of the south island through some stunning country starting in early Feburary 2010. This was something truly out of my comfort zone having never done any sort of multiday endurance event like this in my life. I emailed the oganiser Simon Kennett saying I might, maybe, possibly be interested. He obviously thought such a half assed indecisive note was unacceptable and promptly put my name done on the website as a confirmed entrant. All right then I was committed!

In early November with my shoulder barely healed enough to ride I joined a group of 33 friends for a 3 day road bike tour around the West Coast. With days of 160 km, 100 km and 105 km it would be a good test of my capabilities and a kick start to my training. Well it ended up being a severe wake up call – I was dropped by the whole group on day 1, I grovelled up slight up slopes and only sheer bloody minded determination stopped me from crawling into the tail end Charley van. I collapsed in total exhaustion in my motel room at the end of day 1. Minimal riding over winter, out for 6 weeks with a broken collarbone means you end up quite unfit – not exactly rocket science but a reality check for my own self delusional vision that past fitness somehow magically endures. This Kiwi brevet thing was going to be whole magnitudes harder – was the idea that I could somehow complete it a great na├»ve mistake – what was I thinking? I had about 11 weeks to get ready from what felt like a virtual standing start – was it possible?

Preparations

On the Kiwi Brevet website Simon had links to all sorts of sites full of inspiring stories, ideas for gear to take, endless discussions on bike choice, tyres, wheel size, bags, panniers, backpacks, etc, etc. Quickly becoming obsessed with this I spent many a happy hour thinking, planning, trying to anticipate all possible eventualities, writing and rewriting endless gear lists, researching the pros and cons and most importantly the weight of each item I contemplated taking – this was fun! Slowly it all started taking shape, a delicate balance between taking enough to keep relatively safe while keeping weight and bulk to the minimum. Early on I decided I would take sleeping gear (no accommodation anxiety for me) – a Macpac Epic 450 bag, Neoair sleepmat and a lightweight poncho tarp that I worked out I could sort of string over my upside down bike – Oh how I hoped it wouldnt rain!


The big decision though was what sort of bike to take. I had two mountain bikes – a lightweight XTR equipped 2008 Santa Cruz Superlight FS bike (a great bike) and a rigid Cotic Simple 26 inch wheeled singlespeed. The Superlight was probably the sensible choice but the Simple was my main go to day to day bike – I loved it like a child. In my heart of hearts this was the one I wanted to take. Everyone I spoke to (with the sole notable exception of Dayle McLaughlan) told me I was mad, stupid and/or crazy. Many tried to talk me out of it but I persisted however not without some waivering. A few times I temporarily changed my mind and was ready to take the Santa Cruz but the Cotic kept whispering its siren song in my ear. It was irresistable, I would ride the Brevet on my Cotic Simple single speed.


Spending way more than intended on lightweight stuff I was feeling relatively confident I was prepared in terms of gear. Getting fit enough was the next challenge. Long rides were in order. On the blog Simon wrote that you didnt need to do more than 15 hours a week – whoa thats about twice as much as a big week for me. Yes I would have to step it up. Long but enjoyable rides ensued mainly around Banks Penisula but I also ventured further afield. As a trial I loaded up the Cotic with my Brevet gear and rode through the Wharfedale then a couple of weeks later I rode the Lees valley/Okuku pass loop described in the Kennett book. Finally I drove to Murchison and rode Porika/Braeburn taking a photo of my bike at Lake Rotoroa. On the drive home I decided to drive into Waiuta and ride a bit up the track. My God this track was hard! I got about a third of the way towards Big River hut before turning back to my car in a state of apprehension. I had barely ridden much of it and some of the washed out gulleys were hard enough to negotiate on foot let alone with a fully loaded bike. This section was going to be tough and slow. These long rides were all hard but none were more than 120km. I would need to average almost 150km a day to meet the 8 day Brevet cutoff. It was not going to be easy but I would have been disappointed if it was.

Getting Close

One of the group on the November roadie tour was Darren Tatom. I had told him about the Brevet and his name appeared on the confirmed entry list soon after. Darren was a formidible rider, very fast up a hill with an ability to start strong and just get stronger as time goes on. He had been a front runner on the tour consistantly towing the peloton along at speeds I could not maintain drafting at the back. In addition he told me he was a chronic insomniac and was planning to ride right through the night if necessary. The Kiwi Brevet seemed like an event tailor made for him. I predicted he would be a contender for fastest time (even though it was not supposed to be a race). Giving Darren a lift up to Blenheim for the start he told me of his training – 200km rides, overnight trips, carboloading with beer in local pubs – he was ready but was I?
Detouring via Taylors pass on the way to check it out we turned up at Blenheim a bit late. The owners of the backpackers we had booked were gone but had left a note about which rooms were ours. Only problem was the room I was supposed to be in was full (of smokers) – a good start. Luckily searching around a spare room was found and a restless nights sleep followed. Darren and I met another brevet rider also staying there – Nathan Mawkes. The stories he told us of his epic lone bike tours through China and Tibet had us inspired, our own adventure was now very close.