I woke at the home of Pete and Steph, after travelling from Wellington to Blenheim the night before on the Interislander and then shuttle. The trip had passed quickly - there were about 10 riders from Wellington, and we sat together, ate from the cafe, and got to know one another a little better.
Upon waking, I had a bit of muesli and toast, and got ready to ride the short distance into town. After a quick coffee and muffin stop, I joined Simon and Andrew McLellan in the shade of a tree opposite the Top Town Cinema, who were kindly hosting the event briefing. We were joined by the Australian trio, all on matching Surlys (?) and enjoyed one of our last opportunities to relax.
At 9:30, we headed into the cinema, and began to get organised for the briefing. We had a bunch of SPOT trackers to issue, as well as waivers to get signed, and a few maps, cue sheets, and call-in cards to distribute. I was doling out the spots, and by the time I'd got rid of half a dozen, I had my system in place. Those who got the one of the ten sourced from NZ were getting there's with batteries "but we can't guarantee that they're fresh - if I were you, I'd swap them out for your own..." Luckily it wasn't the other way around, most of the 55 units had come from the US.
By roughly ten o'clock, I had only Laurence's spot left, and everyone was patiently waiting for Simon to get things rolling. He did, and I could sense the excitement in the air. Everyone was in good spirits, and laughed when he explained that "he'd rather not be told if you're having trouble". This event was not to be a standard one. We were going out into the wilderness, and needed to take responsibility for ourselves. The trackers we were carrying had a 911 button, which would prompt a call from the US operators of the system to NZ emergency services, at which point a rescue operation would be initiated. The "help" button was what Simon was referring to, and would initiate an email telling Paul, Oli and Shona (the event judges) that you were having difficulties, but were not in need of immediate assistance. As Simon had said, it was hard to know what to do with this information, and in some ways would be better not to have it.
At the end of the briefing, Simon passed around a "hat" into which we put koha towards Kiwi Recovery Programmes in the areas we would be riding through. Later in the day I was told we'd raised about $1200 which was an awesome effort. After everyone had left the room, I quickly scanned the aisles for things people might have forgotten, and aside from a single muesli bar wrapper and an empty powerade bottle, we'd all done very well.
We now had about an hour before the start at Seymour Square. I rode with Simon and Andrew to "the bike shop" (whose name I can't remember) to drop off some leftover admin stuff, and then rode back into the cafe I'd stopped at earlier. I ordered another coffee, and sat with Ian, Trevor and Barryn and chatted for a bit. At around 11:40, I jumped on my bike, and made my way to the square.
It looked very cool. There were brightly coloured riders with heavily laden bikes all over the place, and there were a good few well-wishers too. I had a quick chat with Caleb Smith from Spoke Magazine - long enough to discover that his great-grandad (?) was Canning of the Canning Stock Route in Australia. On of the brevet riders that I'd met at the briefing was Jakub, who'd ridden this route over 33 days (losing 40 pounds in the process). Mike Anderson had kindly posted a story of his incredible adventure on vorb, and he was riding the same bike here and was easy to spot. When I went over and told him of his connection to Caleb, he seemed literally delighted and rushed off to introduce himself.
At about 5 minutes to midday, Simon suggested we line up. I got my work voice on, and bellowed "photo time" or something similar. We all lined up across the square with some glorious results! I had a chance to dash out of the line to say hi to Tama and Heather who'd made the trip from Nelson to see the start, and to fire off a photo or two of my own. A couple of minutes later, an unexpected thing happened - the clock tower in the square started chiming 12. And with that, we were off!
We made for an unusual peloton weaving our way through the middle of Blenheim. 64 riders kitted up for 1100km of riding through some pretty remote countryside. Unfortunately I hadn't had much of a chance to survey the variation in set ups, but I'd seen plenty of mountain bikes, cross bikes, and even a Specialized Tarmac loaded to the gunwales. There were light-looking loads, and those that didn't look so light. Whatever was being ridden though, it was now being ridden out of Blenheim!
Crossing SH1 was a little tricky, but the motorists seem to sense something odd was going on, and stopped to let us through. Soon after making it on to the cycle path over the river, I was hit in the face by some liquid, and then again. It became quickly apparent that it wasn't rain falling from a cloudless sky, but jizz emanating from poor Charlotte's rear wheel. She pulled out of the line to get it sorted. Not a great start to an event for her, but probably a perfect event for this to happen in. She was to have days to make up the lost few minutes!
As we wove our way along back-country gravel roads, I made my way through from the rear of the peloton. As we turned towards the beach and headed along a rough track, I caught up to Simon. He asked if I'd mind going up the road to take a few photos as the bunch moved along the beach. It just occurred to me now that I should have simply handed over my camera. But instead, I chucked the chain down a couple of cogs and accelerated away from him.
I managed to find a relatively smooth line in the grass alongside the track, and got passed dozens of people ricocheting off the fist-sized rocks strewn across the track. As we made the left turn at the beach, I was at the front of the bunch, with only 4 or 5 riders 150m ahead. There was no way I was going to catch them, but continued to sprint ahead. As it was, when I stopped, got my phone out of my pocket and out of its protective bag, opened up the camera feature, my 60m lead was barely enough. I fired off some shots until the majority of the riders had passed me, and then jumped back on my bike and rode for a while at a more sedate pace.
The beach section was tough, with sand traps, and rocks again littering the track. Unfortunately the grass along here wasn't a great option. At one point I went blasting through a small matagouri bush and waited anxiously for the tell-tale hiss-hiss-hiss of a puncture. Luckily it didn't come, and I thanked my lucky stars as I bumped along the path.
Finally we cut back out onto the seal along to Rarangi. I said a quick hello to Jonty, Nick and Mike, one of whom was probably among the many riders who'd succumbed to the matagouri. Soon after I rode past Simon, photos safely in hand. Then Chris and Bob. Great to see so many familiar faces!
There was a rather ominous looking hill ahead, and my hope that we weren't heading up it were soon dispelled by a fellow rider. As I finally hit it, I made a grab for granny gear only to find my chain wouldn't drop down. There'd been no need for it while tootling around Blenheim, and so the implications of the loud twang I'd heard on the ferry shifting the front derailleur had only revealed themselves now. Oh well. I dismounted and dropped the chain down manually before leaping back on and spinning my way up the hill.
I really appreciated some thoughtful words from Bill Brierley as I passed him. Basically he told me to look after myself and to enjoy whatever came. I'm pretty sure he was thinking more about my head than my legs. I managed a quick hello to Ian Gordon, Jeff, Trevor and Barryn as I got my incredibly light rig up the hill.
The road was very dry and dusty, and the sun was out in full force, so these first hours were tough. I almost came a cropper on one of the first descents as my front wheel hit a deep patch of dust sending my bike shimmying off line. Luckily I'd spent plenty of time on the loaded bike before the event so was able to instinctively get it back. A few descents later, I actually was eating dust - though still on the bike. I'd caught up to a car, but couldn't get close enough to it to even hear it the dust was so thick. I had to button right off to be able to see anything at all. Near the bottom, we hit some seal, and I was able to pull right up to it, just before it slowed to almost a complete halt to make a turnoff. I was happy to see the back of it! (What a useless expression in this instance... Anyway, you know what I mean.)
Simon caught up to me soon after, and we met a few other riders: the Ventana boys Ollie Whalley and Micki Speck, as well as Mark Renshaw on his Jamis fully, and the indomitable Thomas Lindup. I grabbed second place for a while, with only Andy Reid up the road. As we crested the final major hill before Picton, we were told we were only five minutes down. Thomas and Ollie got away from me on the descent, and I think Micki and Mark must have gone past when I stopped in Picton. I pulled off the course to grab a powerade or two and fill my water bottle from the servo. When I got back to the intersection, Simon was over at the Four Square tucking into some fruit. After a quick gidday I was on my way again.
The next section was pretty familiar to me due to various Queen Charlotte trips and the Linkwater and Nydia trip Simon and I had done a year or so ago. My next stop was Havelock. I think it was around 5:30 by this time, and so there were a lot of people who weren't going to make the Four Square before it closed. I sculled a small tin of Baked Beans and an apricot, bought some drink, and a couple of bars. Simon arrived before I left as did a few others.
Just after Canvastown I was joined from behind by Mark Rayward who'd waited 10 minutes for a couple of pies at the pub. Soon after came the turnoff at Pelorus Bridge, and the start of the Maungatapu Track. This had been talked up a lot, and in particular the roughness of the descent. I dropped Mark on the gravel road, and caught up to Thomas Lindup. He and I started the climb together and nattered away for a bit. I wondered whether I too should have a jar of peanut butter taped to my bike frame.
We stopped at a ford for a nature break and were joined by Mark. I pulled away from them on the last part of the climb, walking the steeper bits, but riding most of it. At the top was Caleb Smith with his camera. He suggested I should jump on my bike, so I did, and rolled over the summit. After probably close to ten minutes of steep and rough descent, I glanced at my front rack to notice that my coat was missing. What a fucking idiot! I'd had exactly the same thing happen on the Skyline, and clearly had learned nothing from it. I put my bike down, and without really thinking, headed back up the trail.
First Mark, then Thomas, confirmed sighting my coat on the descent, and apologised for not stopping for it. Two things were clear - it was lying on a steep bit of track, and it was a long way back up the hill. During my 20 minutes climb I realised a couple of things - I supposed I probably should have kept my SPOT with me, and also that I should have quickly taken some weight of my bike. While the climb might have been a bit slower, the descent would have been a lot faster (and definitely more fun, and probably safer). Tony Bateup and Lisa Savage confirmed I was getting close, and a minute or so later Simon came around a corner with my coat tied around his waist, thereby saving me a couple of hundred metres' walk! I didn't regret going back for it, even though I'd have got it back after a 25 minute wait at my bike. The nature of the event, and in particular self-sufficiency, is key, and I wanted to do it under my own steam, even if it meant suffering for my mistakes.
The walk back to my bike took almost as long, but 35 minutes after realising my coat was gone, I was back underway. I now had a race against daylight. Simon and I had booked a cabin at Maitai Valley Motor Camp, and even organised some catering. The rationale for this was to shorten the day somewhat, and to leave a bit of riding to be done early in the morning before the shops in Richmond would be open. Getting food there late at night before settling down would be hard, but not impossible.
As the light faded I made good progress down the valley. The climb around the reservoir was savage, and unwelcome. The gravel road started to get tricky too with almost all residual light gone. I kept hammering away though which in hindsight was probably a bit dumb. It would have taken me only a couple of minutes to organise my lights, and while I might have arrived a few minutes later, my chances of crashing en route would have been greatly reduced.
In any case, I made it to the camp in one piece, and located the cabin. The owners had responded in fantastic fashion to my request of a couple of days earlier to supply some food. There was a loaf of bread, and a tin of spaghetti, and another of baked beans. We'd bought some spreads on the ferry, so enjoyed plenty of toast for dinner. We'd also been left towels, and so enjoyed a hot shower before firing on some clean clothes.
I made an incredibly annoying discovery in the course of unpacking - I'd left my GPS charger at home. Not only had I made this foolish error, but had made a couple of very regrettable comments during the day. One, to the tune of "putting all my eggs in one basket" was in response to a query about my lack of maps. Another was to Simon saying how much I'd enjoyed the GPS's data during the day - the course shows up as a pink line on the map page, and I get height profiles of what's to come. Well, there'd be no more of that. The unit had been on for close to 10 hours (most of it completely unnecessary) so at least I had some juice left. After ruling out the impossibility of getting the charger sent ahead from home, I fretted for a while before resigning myself to using it on a need-only basis. I'd have to see how I'd get on. At least I had some notes typed into my phone, and had mapped the route at least a couple of times on mapmyride...
With a slightly heavy heart, I set my alarm for 5:30, and jumped into bed.