Sunday, February 9, 2014

It doesn't get any easier in the morning, it just changes colour.

Kiwi Brevet 2014 – a series of long rides in pretty places with good people and a hip flask.

103 riders roll out of Blenheim, quite a
sight when bikes are fully loaded!
This was supposed to be a brief account of a ~1100 km loop of the North of New Zealand's South Island, it turned out be less brief.  A brevet isn't a race.  Nevertheless if you finish first you are first to finish, but that is about it.  There is no finish line, you might rip a skid under the clock tower in Seymour Square, you might be met by friends with beers and applause. Mostly though, you will be met by odd looks from normal folk going around their daily business wondering why you are riding a bike laden with gear and smelling quite so rancid.  You will probably finish with a satisfied smile on your face and with many stories to tell.

I should say that this style of riding is not something I am good at; at three weeks prior to the event I had never ridden over 190 km, on any kind of bike, let alone a fully loaded mountain bike with large portions of gravel road and 4WD track.  Because of this lack of experience I went into this not really knowing what to expect, and doubting whether I would even get round.  There was no target time in mind, only the idea that if things went well I might finish within the 8 day cut-off, beyond which riders would be said to be merely touring rather than breveting.  

Voodoo lounge crew roll-out to the start. Jeff's parents
kindly put us up (and fed us) before and after the
Brevet.  Excellent stuff and great company.

I may write a blow-by-blow account of the ride in time, but for now I want to get down some of the more poignant moments.  There was the first few hours in which I felt like racing people and was overcome by my competitive spirit, trying to stick to wheels and chase others down, but beyond that I was just trying to keep on going and enjoy as much of the ride as possible.

A ride this long is unlikely to come without some pain or mechanical failure.  As I type this my finger-tips remain without feeling, with my big toe joining them in sympathy, my right achilles is swollen and creaks at any sign of movement and my knees are quite stiff.  I won't mention my bottom much, but suffice to say it is even less pretty than usual.  

Thankfully I had no crashes, or major mechanicals (a broken chain about 1.5km from the top of the final climb of day 1 my only issue, readily fixed by a borrowed quicklink from riding buddy Andy King, whom I gave a spoke to as payment), this I put down to my relatively cautious riding, although I still made most of my time up on those I was riding with on the descents.  In general though my body held out well, with my muscles not complaining two days after finishing, and only my joints and person-bike contact points showing any signs of wear.

My riding companion for the Brevet Andy
King having been passed by a truck on
the way to Maruia Saddle.
More important than any intricacies and nuances of riding a bike a long distance has got to be how it feels.  Riding bikes has always affected me emotionally, and can bring me out of a rut onto a high, or drive me to some pretty low places.  These roller-coaster emotions are only amplified when riding is all you have to do everyday for a few days.  To merely eat-sleep-ride-repeat is a simple thing to do (both in theory, and fortunately, in practice) and something I have wanted to do for the last 10 years or so.  However I never expected it to be in this form, I had imagined riding for a job where I had nothing else to do rather than riding for pleasure until I needed to sleep.  This seemed so much more beautiful.

There were certainly low points on the way, but never did I really consider stopping, mainly because I couldn't think logistically of how to stop and get back to Wellington.  Mostly the lows were followed reasonably swiftly by semi-ecstatic highs.  I haven't been as happy as I was on the brevet for as long as my memory serves me.  The simple happiness of getting to Nelson and getting a beer at the Sprig & Fern with some dinner on a Saturday night surrounded by revellers was the start of these highs.  We rode the high for another few km post-beer to a bed for night one (180 km down done in under 12 hours).  

On waking up for day two the reality of what we were doing dawned with a sickening thud as knees stiffened and a pulled achilles started to make itself known.  It was at this point that I made the conscious decision to make no decisions within the first two hours of the day. This turned out to be a truism for the whole brevet and gave enough time for joints to loosen and for me to remember that riding bikes is fun.  These pains continued, but by day four had started to lessen in the mornings and become generally bearable.  Maybe longer rides are possible, but not without a more appropriate saddle (Brooks here I come) – I can’t help but wonder if I might be able to ride for 24 hours, maybe later.

Waiuta walking, old wooden semi-steps
removed any hope of flow here, but it all
added to the charm.
Riding through the singletrack and 4WD on the Big River-Waiuta track on day 3 was one of the most sublime mountain biking experiences I have had.  Pain and effort disappeared on the climb as an easy gear was spun while I focused on cleaning the ascent.  It was not terribly difficult, but interesting enough for me to forget any bodily issues.  The descent on the Waiuta track was wonderful, true mountain biking with a bit of scrambling up stream beds and walking up stepped climbs.  The final descent was a steady gradient through native beech forest with a wondrous carpet of fine leaf litter covering a slightly off-camber, well benched and often rooty trail.  Some concentration was required, especially through the small streams that crossed the track, but there was still time to appreciate the vistas to the left and occasionally let the brakes off completely for some freedom.  The buzz of this track carried me all the way to Jacksons and the bottom of Arthur's Pass.

Crossing the Alps is something I have done many times in a car, having first been driven over Arthur's pass when I was 8, and since coming back to drive myself over multiple times for West Coast based field work.  However nipping through in a glass and steel cage does not compare to hauling yourself up Otira Gorge, under the half-bridge and over the viaduct, emerging from the constricting gulch into the high country of wide valleys surrounded by peaked mountains.  These mountains are always in my mind, be it the joys of being in them and being up high; thoughts of deep processes building them for millennia; or how they affect the lives of all New Zealanders. Sweeping down from Arthur's Pass with a tailwind in the baking sun I wasn’t thinking anything so grand though, rather just enjoying where I was and going fast.  Popping up over Porter's Pass I was reminded of my geological background though when I recognised the pass not from the road shape, but by seeing the Porter's Pass-Amberley fault and knowing it intersected the top of the pass.  From here it was a fast downhill run to Springfield.

Vaughan crossing the Alps on a singlespeed. Hero.

Andy walking over a section of missing track on the Wharfedale,
here a slip had taken the track away leaving quite a hole.
Headwinds and corrugations were the things that made me low. The stonking tailwind that we had in the high country soon became a hot headwind on the plains as we turned toward the Wharfedale track.  This headwind coupled by melting roads meant slow progress and a miserable Calum.  Fortunately the stunning bush of the Wharfedale brought me back.  Different from the West Coast bush in an interesting way, much less dense but still lovely.  The track was somewhat worse-for-wear due to tree-fall, but this only changed the way it was interesting rather than making it a disappointment for me.  Following the Wharfedale I had my first and only bivy of the trip, where Andy and I slept under a row of conifers with a clear sky and Islay (Bowmore) whisky to send us to sleep.  Unfortunately the morning reminded me why I don't like bivy bags as I woke cold and clammy, but to some of the best light we had had all trip.  

Chasing sheep through McDonalds Downs
in stunning morning light.
A short stint through farmland had us chasing sheep before some good gravel and sealed roads led us to the highway to Hanmer, all before a proper breakfast.  Another bout of tailwinds saw Andy on my wheel for the 27 km ride up to Hanmer with is ticking along at ~27 kph on the steady climb to the Springs.  

On arriving in Hanmer the weather turned on us, but we still had more to go.  Climbing up Jack's Pass was slow, but uneventful, however rain and sweat had me drenched and I failed to dry out or warm up until after Island Saddle.  Between Jack's Pass and Island Saddle (on the Rainbow Road) lay about 25 km of corrugations (for those not in the know, corrugations are as they sound, think of riding along a sheet of corrugated iron made of gravel and you get the picture).  Another major low point for me here as I felt like I was making no progress and could barely keep my eyes open.  I was getting colder and colder as I became more fatigued and as such my mood continued to dwindle, to the point where I walked all the way up Island Saddle as Andy rode past me, leaving me to my thoughts of whether I wanted to stop at the next hut to end the day early.  I thought that that would likely be the last I saw of Andy, but I don't think either of us would have been that sad about it.  We both knew what we were doing by this stage and knew that both of us could look after ourselves.  We were in it alone at that point.  The way Andy and I rode together but apart for most of the trip made for an interesting form of companionship, helping each other out when needed, but mostly leaving us alone to ponder the world separately.  We shared this with others, but no one else rode at quite such a similar pace to me as Andy and I to him it would seem.

On reaching the top of the saddle and rolling down the hill I was keeping my eyes peeled for the hut and the possibility of a fire to warm me up.  Thankfully when I did see it I made a snap decision to continue on, knowing that it was all (with the exception of some small climbs) downhill to Blenheim and the finish, about 160 km away.  I then stopped out of the rain, took my jersey, vest and jacket off and put on a dry baselayer with my jacket back over the top.  Suddenly my world was so much better.  It always amazes me how much better I feel when I am not cold.  I pulled my iPod out of my bag, knowing that it was still a long way out of Rainbow and that my mood would need to be buoyed rather more than it was to make it through.  On went Scroobius Pip and out came my hideous attempt at something close to rapping/singing along, at the top of my voice, in the middle of Rainbow.  Following this Metallica had me riding a full pace screaming along to every second word until I caught Andy.  I like to think this was my descending skills at play, but there is a good chance he waited for me.

iPod away I was still singing away and in a jubilant mood, with talk between us of continuing through the North Bank and trying to make it through to Blenheim that night.  20 minutes later and Andy was going quiet and he mentioned that he was no longer keen.  I was still wanting to get things done, knowing that I could bivy on the bank if I needed to, but with that thought in mind the rain decided to turn on and within minutes we were both soaked through.  Our decision was made and a 10 km detour to St. Arnaud was made.  A hot shower and bed was much appreciated and with only 120 km left to ride in the morning I was content.

Cutting skids in Seymour Square as I was met by Andy, Jeff and beer.  Pretty perfect end to a quiet event.

The last 120 km took a long time, with a headwind all the way.  Here Andy and I really did separate, I did not feel like chasing him when he left me with ~70 km to go, I didn't have the legs and I wanted to finish alone.  Having that time to myself again to reflect on what had been done was ideal.  Both Andy and I had gone into the event knowing that we would likely not ride together, but it transpired that we were always within 30mins of each other on the road and stayed together every night.  Nevertheless it felt right not to finish with him.  Despite this, once I got to Renwick and within 12 km of the finish I turned on the legs and got aero, with my speed not dropping below 27kph into the headwind and often exceeding 33 kph.  In the end we finished ~13 mins apart, a fair reflection of our rides.

There is the question of what might have been had the rain not come down.  I think I would have continued, but I don't think I would have finished that night.  As can be expected, there are a number of un-resolved "what-ifs" floating around my head, which is already making me think that I might do something similar again...

There was nothing exceptional about my riding on this trip, it’s just riding bikes, which in itself is a pretty amazing thing.

Massive thanks to those involved in organising the event (Kennett Bros, Mondo, Pat and any others), Jeff for putting us up pre and post Brevet, Bob for the open house on the first night, locals for friendly conversation (Reefton in particular), Owen for lending me his rack, sleeping bag and bivy bag, those that I rode with (Pat, Andy, Andrew and others), and the people who help subsidise my living.


  1. Sounds pretty exceptional to me, bro. Great work.

  2. An impressive ride Calum. And what a great report! It seems as though you're well down that slippery slope of doing another one :-). Cheers, Andrew Morrison

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