Time: 14 hours
The 2010 Kiwi Brevet was an innovative event in many ways. An 1100km self-supported back-country tour of New Zealand’s scenic South Island, the route featured 50% dirt, gnarly singletrack sections, punishing climbs and, of course, amazing scenery. In the words of the first rider home, Olley Whalley, the ride would inevitably be “life-changing shit”. An 8 day time limit was imposed, but this was not a race – rather, a challenge to push personal limits while immersed in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
I headed over to this epic ride with two workmates, Joel and Phil. We went with the intention of riding as a group, with each bringing unique experiences and skills to the event. We’d have to manage our food, water, bikes and minds over the distance and take some challenges over the way. A repetitive theme of the Kiwi Brevet became the “daily horror show” – a soul-destroying section that could break minds, bodies or bikes, and would push the limits of our mental endurance.
The opening day of the Kiwi Brevet brought a mixture of nerves, sunshine and lots of guys (and a few girls) riding an extraordinary range of bicycles with quirky cycling gear. Phil and Joel’s legionnaire hats fitted right into this image, although the choice of bikes was fascinating. We soon realised at the briefing that we were about the heaviest loaded there – the Fargos were equipped with two panniers each, and then some extra gear. There were many scarily light setups to be seen, from carbon fibre duallies to racing cyclocross bikes and everything in between. There seemed to be no common ground on the appropriate choice of bike for the occasion!
At any rate, 65 riders (plus a few passengers) queued into the beautiful Seymour Square at midday, and were greeted by scorching sunshine. Although the weather isn’t as hot as Australia, the sun is no less penetrating, and 36 degree temperatures would bring a hard start.
The stage began with a “neutral” (this isn’t a race, right?) rollout to the Rarangi beach outside Blenheim. The bunch had a nervous and friendly atmosphere, and a certainly critical mass attitude rolling out of Blenheim. All in all, it was a great fun cruise through the wineries and down towards the beach.
This is where the first piece of challenging terrain hit us, and the first selection of the peleton occurred. The beach trail was a rocky mess with deep sand pits, and the sides were strewn with thorns. Bikes went everywhere attempting to find lines through the quagmire, and the fat tyred machines powered through the sand. It was a fun but taxing beginning attempting to keep momentum going forwards without pushing too hard! We all got through cleanly enough near the front of the field… or so it seemed. The first horror stretch of the Brevet had its consequences!
I flatted both front and rear tyres picking up thorns from the beach trail. Less than 20km into the ride, and two flats down… it seemed an ominous sign of things to come. As the entirety of the field rolled by while we fixed the flats, it was an important reminder that this was a long event, and we weren’t racing anyone – there would be time to ride ourselves back in.
From here, we hit the Port Underwood road hills heading towards Picton which traverse the Marlborough Sounds. They are beautiful and scenic, but also ridiculously steep and unrelenting. As Australians, climbing is usually a small component of our riding, but this stretch featured about 6 climbs harder than Black Mountain or Mt Ainslie. Beautiful coastal views of isolated bays and secret beaches were a relief from the heat and climbing. Once again, it seemed an ominous start to the Brevet! The granny gear was strenuously overworked, and although we picked our way back through the field, the route was frustratingly slow.
After one final, granny-gear bending climb through the picturesque hills skirting the sounds, Picton provided a brief reprise and a chance to get some more fluids down – we had all drunk around 3 litres in the first 5 hours of riding. The road then became sealed and flatter as it headed past Havelock through to Pelorus Bridge, and the group advantage came into play, as we formed a small team time trial and drove steadily onwards towards Pelorus. On the way into Picton, we’d picked up a Polish mountaineer called Jan who joined us for this stretch. Already though, it was clear that it would be a late arrival into Nelson, despite the time made on the flatter coastal sections around Havelock. Once again, we were treated to the sort of scenery that people travel thousands of kilometres to witness – the afternoon sun shining across still sounds, surrounded by towering green summits.
After crossing the gorgeous gorge at Pelorus (not to abuse alliteration or anything), the day’s real challenge presented itself – the climb of Maungatapu over the Bryant Range into Nelson. This climb featured a morbid history – historical tales of murder, deception and bloodshed hardly encouraged the prospective cyclist burdened with touring gear and feeling pretty tired already. We teamed up with the lone singlespeeder on the approach until Jan flatted, and then hit the climb proper. We were immediately greeted by steep gradients and rough, rocky terrain, but the cool evening air made the first few kilometres of the 8km climb quite bearable. This was a true test of our climbing ability – it was as long a steep climb as I have ever hunted down in Australia!
As the climb wore on and the sun began to set, the climb became rougher and steeper. The challenge of climbing on a loaded bike began to present itself – simultaneously keeping the front end down on the ground, but maintaining traction at the rear demanded regular sprints to conquer the steep sections or rockiest terrain. One by one, we were reduced to walking some of the steeper pitches as our lights guided us towards the murderous summit. I rode a little way off the front here – masochistically enjoying the challenge and pushing a little too hard – and ran into Charlotte at the top, who rode a fantastic Brevet to finish under 6 days! We regrouped for the descent into the darkness, which provided its own challenge. The descent was steep to the point that we actually experienced the much-discussed and somewhat phantasmagoric phenomenon of brake fade, with numerous rock gardens and pot holes to keep us honest. It was not a fast descent, and was full of risks – Phil, Charlotte and Jan all crashed, with Phil almost falling into the Matai Gorge. This was the first section of a repeating theme in the Brevet – the daily section of extreme mental trial and endurance that would see some riders crack and break down mentally.
On the short, violent climbs in the Matai Valley, I ran into Ian Gordon, whose lights had failed and was riding blind through the night. Many people have written about the way that the universe redeems itself at the times needed most. Between a broken light, a massive bonk and a puncture that required some MacGyver tube-fitting, Ian needed that help that night in the Matai Gorge. With an expanded peleton, we rolled into Nelson just before midnight and headed straight to McDonalds, where drunk teenagers attempted to steal my bike. There was a sad reflection that the Waitangi day festivities seemed to involve white teenagers getting drunk while Maoris worked the night shifts as security guards to stop them doing stupid things (such as stealing my bike).
What remained was the trip from Nelson through to Richmond on the old bike path – we were all exhausted, and keen to reach the open house. After a few wrong turns, we eventually reached Richmond, only to discover we’d lost the address. After a lot of wasted time and a little abuse from a concerned local, we eventually found the right place and crashed for the night at 2am. It had been a very trying start to the Brevet indeed!