Thursday, December 27, 2012

West Coast or bust! Longest Day 2012

Over the last few years around mid-December, I've had pangs of guilt about not taking part in Tama Easton's brain-child, the Longest Day Ride.  The reasons have been simple - at this time of year, I usually want a bit of a rest, and even though what you do is up to you, riding from dawn to dusk will be a tough day regardless.

Leap to 2012, and the short-list for tandem challenges had the Longest Day right near the top.  Simon had done Nelson-Christchurch with his Bros on the triple a few years (decades?) back, and knew what a pleasure riding a very long way on a tandem could be.  Ha!

We figured Top-of-the-South would make a nice location for a ride, and with Picton so handy to Wellington, we started investigating options for a point-to-point ride from there.  Somewhere on the web we discovered dawn in Blenheim was soon after 5am, and dusk was just after 9:30, giving us 16 hours and change to play with.  But, how far could we travel?!  I had visions of us riding to the West Coast until the official knock-off time, and then turning around and riding back to the place we'd most recently passed through.

We soon ruled out aiming for 500km, and as humans are wont to do, we pencilled in the next obvious choice, 400km.  Lo and behold, Picton to Greymouth via Queen Charlotte Drive and Punakaiki clocked in at 396km, so this became the incumbent plan.

I described this to Dave Sharpe on one of our regular rides, and he wondered outloud if he'd be welcome to join us.  "Wonderful!" was our response.

In the meantime, finding transport back from Greymouth was proving next-to-impossible.  The various rental companies had a hefty vehicle relocation charge, and that aside, there didn't seem to be anything we could fit a tandem inside of.  Flying was never considered for similar reasons.  At one point we were thinking about hiring a regular car and buying a cheap mattress to line the car roof with and just strapping the mofo down.

We considered asking friends from Nelson to do the shuttle from hell for us, and also to recruit a driver from Wellington, but even getting a van in Picton was proving difficult.  Finally Simon hit the jackpot, the scheduled 9am St Arnaud to Picton shuttle would pick us up in Murchison at 8am on Sunday morning.  Now, how to get to Murchison!

The most direct route from Picton is a "mere" 187km, but if you chuck in a side-trip to Westport it then becomes 383km.  By the time we added a visit to the Pacific Ocean at Rarangi, and the Tasman sea in Westport itself, google maps had us at 400km on the dot (literally!!!!).   Plan H was a go!

We were now only about a week out from the event, and we managed a 100km ride with Dave in the Wairarapa.  It was meant to be 200km, but even half the distance had been hard.  Had I been riding my roadie, I'm sure I would have been feeling much more confident, but the prospect of such a long tandem ride was stressing me out immensely.  I don't think I've ever been so nervous about a ride.  No backing out now...

We were on the 8pm Interislander on the Friday evening.  I met Dave at Revolution, and we rolled down the hill to the Railway Station, where we collected Simon, and were soon all checked-in.

Dave's lovely wife, Keryn, was there to see us off, and farewells made, it was time to board.  

We were fortunate to have a very smooth sailing, and we emerged from the stern of the ferry shortly after 11pm feeling well.  Soon after that, we were checked-in at Atlantis Backpackers, and setting our alarms for sparrows'-fart.

I could hear Dave up and about before my phone rudely went off at 0430.  A Longest Day event surely followed The Shortest Sleep.  Dave had not slept well, by virtue of Picton's rail activity through the night.  I collected all my gear and relocated to the kitchen to get ready to ride.  Dave had thoughtfully brought some espresso along to share, and I'd made up a loaf of bread with various combinations of peanut butter, nutella, honey and jam.  

We fired our stuff into a locker, and at about 0510 we were rolling out, only 10 minutes behind schedule.  We rode out of Picton in a light rain, though I was distracted by a hot spot on my right sit-bone.

Simon and I got ourselves in a bit of a tizz on the merits of a second pair of shorts that I didn't have, and the less said about that, the better!  (Sorry mate...)

We were pretty wet by the time we reached Tuamarina.  I was on front of the tandem by this stage, largely to try out the different saddle.  Consequently I made the casting vote to stick with our plan to visit Rarangi Beach by swinging left over the railway lines.

It was about 6km out to the coast, and Simon and I walked the final 200m along a gravel road.  Dave had ridden and he and I watched Simon head down the beach to dip his fingers in the ocean. 

Coast #1
We were back on SH1 briefly before making a right turn at Spring Creek onto SH62.  This spat us out on SH6 a kilometre or so from Renwick.  It had stopped raining, and we now had pretty much perfect conditions: overcast, cool, and a sweet tail-wind.

We didn't need to stop in Renwick, and were soon plugging away up the Wairau Valley.  Dave was able to ride alongside us quite a bit due to the virtually non-existent traffic. 

It didn't seem too hard to ride at 40km/h in these conditions, and consequently we were making good time.  I enjoyed passing through the corner at which my bro had bought a house a few years back.  We'd spent almost an hour there waiting for his real-estate agent to call in an area with patchy cell-phone reception!

By now, I'd switched my cell-phone/camera from a plastic bag in my pocket to Simon's pocket sans bag.  After years of riding with him, I know he barely sweats, let alone works up a lather like I regularly do!

Coats off, but arm-warmers still on

The first real hint that this was no cruise in the countryside came when we zipped past the Argyle Power Station.  Usually I'd have doubled back to get a decent shot of the cool canal leading from the dam, but had to make do with a lame shot which would remind me of the loss!

Dave boosted once the road started to kick up out of the Wairau Valley.  For the first time, Simon and I grabbed the 36t chainring that had caused so much  difficulty!  The climb was over fairly quickly, and after a quick photo-stop at the first Tophouse turn-off...

... we were underway again.  Dave was sitting in the shade waiting for us not long after.

The cloud cover had gone now, and it was quite hot sitting in front of the General Store at St Arnaud, home of huge carrot-cake pieces.

On account of the tailwind up the Wairau, we were ahead of schedule, so enjoyed a nice break.  Jackets and arm-warmers were now stowed in my Revelate saddle bag, and we all applied sun-screen to necks and arms before setting off.

After only a few minutes' riding we crossed the Buller River, itself only a few minutes old, for the first time.

The road through to Murchison was great tandem country, and Dave occasionally had trouble holding our wheel.  To add to his frustration, every now and then we'd stop to swap seats, mainly to give Simon a break from captaining.  My bum issues had eased, strangely, but it was nice to have a spell on the different front saddle.

We were still ahead of schedule when we hit Murchison, which allowed us to get stuck into a list of tasks.  First up we went to the 4-Square, not only for our next lot of snacks, but to get something for the evening.  Simon dropped that at our room at the Mataki Motel while Dave and I set up camp at a nearby cafe.

Dave had sent a parcel to the motel, and I ducked back there to move it and its precious contents - a change of clothes for each of us - into our room.   That done, it was time to hit the road again.  I was surprised that leaving Murchison was easy - I'd expected it to be psychologically very difficult, but my brain had obviously committed to our plan, and it might as well have been a straight line.

The road between the Nelson and Lewis Pass turnoffs was busy, and there were some idiots driving.  We got tooted at by a campervan, who just happened to have a queue of six cars behind him (it must have been a male, right?).

Crossing the Buller again
Dave stopped for a slash immediately after the Lewis Pass intersection, and Simon and I cruised while he caught us up.

 We continued to collect kilometres, with Westport getting ever closer. 

We had a great stop in Inangahua, where I had a very nice ice-cream and a bottle of powerade.  The store owners were happy to natter and fill our bottles with spring-water.  We also met a cycle-tourist there and chatted to him for a bit.
I jumped on the front and found that each time I did so, I felt more comfortable there.  We'd had a headwind since St Arnaud, and I enjoyed pushing into it knowing how useful it would be on the return trip.

We passed the very cool Hawks Crag overhang...

... and generally enjoyed the stunning scenery on offer.

Slowly but surely the gorge opened up and we knew the coast wasn't far away.  The wind became a cross-wind near the Greymouth turnoff, and was actually behind us for the last stretch into Westport. 

We rode straight through town...

... and after a bit of ducking and diving, picked up a rough gravel road out to the beach.  Again, Dave and I watched Simon take a hit for the team.  (His) fingers duly dipped in the Tasman Sea, it was time to find some kai!

Coast #2!
We were soon waiting on greasies, and not long after, our bellies were full.

My fish and chips were already salted, but I had a supply waiting just in case.

Miraculously, we were only 20 minutes or so behind schedule by the time we were Oscar Mike.  Getting going after a break is always hard work, and the headwind through to the Greymouth turnoff made it worse still.  But, we knew the shape of the road, and as we swung around to the northeast, the tailwind we were expecting kicked in!

The wind gave us a welcome boost, and it helped to offset the greasies sitting uncomfortably in the bottom of my stomach.  Despite that, our legs were holding up remarkably well given we had travelled over 300km already.

The sun was also at our six, and the light conditions in the gorge made for some stunning sights.

Lower Buller Gorge
The local light conditions weren't so good though, and Dave ended up with a nasty jolt through his wrist.  I asked Simon to call out impending bumps as early as possible, and I'd relay this to Dave.  It was odd to be literally stuck in the middle of all this.

Warning is good, mkay!
We made great progress through to Inangahua, but were slightly disappointed to find the shop closed.  It wasn't the end of the world though, and great for our schedule as we didn't stop for long.

We'd remembered some nasty bumps lay between us and our beds, and it seemed to make sense for Dave to ride at his own pace back to Murchison while Simon and I cruised after him.

We literally had to cruise for a bit, because no sooner had we farewelled Dave, than we got stuck on a stretch of road that was perfect tandem territory.  We trailed him 100m or so back until the first incline of any note, at which time he was goneburger.  

It turned out the hills had been much steeper in the opposite direction, and consequently the distance was ticking by.  We started trying to predict when we'd finish.

Another missed photo-op on the outbound journey had been a very rustic stables.  I asked Simon what he thought about stopping.  He wasn't keen, but slowed right down so I could get a snap.  The photo's terrible, but it reflects how I imagined I'd feel so late in the day.  On the contrary, I was feeling pretty damn good, and now with many hours of tandem riding under our belts, Simon and I were functioning really well on our long bike.

Near the top of the Buller Gorge was a rather battered sign reading something like "if you don't fit under this sign, turn around".  The sign north of the bridge just ahead was in pristine condition, but this one looked like it had been smacked by a vehicle just a little too high.  Presumably moments before it turned around, bound for Reefton and Rahu Saddle! 

As the kilometres passed by, we started to enjoy our almost complete achievement.  We weren't even going to need to fire up the lights!

About 5km out, with 395km in our legs, I had a look at my GPS unit, and reported to Simon that we were riding at 45km/h.  Astounding, since we were still riding upstream.

For 9:20 on a Saturday evening, Murchison was looking very quiet indeed. There was certainly nothing open that would have been worth a stop on our way to the motel.

Dave met us on the doorstep of our room, and he reported he'd only recently arrived back.  I celebrated our arrival by taking my shoes and helmet off, and emptying my pockets.  Some chocolate milk and peaches, and then a hot shower followed soon after, and then a deep sleep that comes easily after a long day in the saddle.

Soon after we'd surfaced in the morning, Simon got a phone call from the St Arnaud shuttle, asking us where we'd been the previous morning!  How the booking had been screwed up remained a mystery for the timebeing, but we were very relieved to learn that they'd still come to pick us up.

I'd developed a sore throat the previous day, and I was pleased to note it hadn't worsened overnight.  Presumably it was dehydration related rather than being the onset of a cold.

We had a fretful wait on the main road, especially as we weren't sure what would happen with our connection through to Picton. 

Toothpaste and Fisherman's Friend
Eventually a van showed up, and while the driver fuelled up, we loaded the tandem and Dave's bike onto the bike rack at the front of the trailer.  The van returned just as we were finishing, and we piled in.  The driver was a friendly man, despite his wild goose-chase the previous day (during which he'd locked himself out of the vehicle).

The St Arnaud transfer was a piece of cake, and the trailer was simply hitched onto another van.  Simon chatted with the driver, while Dave and I had our own conversation rather than strain to join in with the one occurring at the front of the van.

The drive to Picton didn't seem to take long at all.  Relatively speaking, we made rapid progress.  We disembarked outside Atlantis, and retrieved our gear from the locker.  Then we made for a cafe, and enjoyed a late breakfast.

I guarded the bikes outside the superette, and was quite amused by the "No Bikes" sign in the window.  Not for the next day or two, at least.

We'd brought our original ferry booking forward to 1pm, which meant we didn't have long to wait after swinging past the bakery.

I was shocked when Simon, a teetotaller, grabbed a table in the bar on the ferry.  The air-conditioning was tip-top though, and it made a nice spot for another very calm sailing.  I treated myself to a beer, and enjoyed the cold, savoury drink.

Most of the crossing was through a very thick fog, but the captain knew where he was headed.  Keryn collected Dave from the ferry terminal, while Simon and I were riding after Sarah had discovered a flat tyre.  We spun away up Glenmore Street, though I wouldn't go so far as to say merrily.  Simon stopped abruptly after the Karori tunnel, and announced he'd walk from there. 

I jumped on the front, and it was nice to be able to stand on a whim!

Ash and Steve, and then Jolene and Kaitlyn, visited that evening, and it was nice to describe some of our day, all 400km and just over 16 hours' duration of it.  It was nice to reflect on the brilliant time I'd had with Dave and Simon, who'd made wonderful companions.

Just before going to bed, I really loved seeing Simon's comment on one of the photo's I'd posted to Facebook during the day.  I know his benchmark of a good endurance event is to not be physically destroyed.  And we weren't.  I'll let him  (almost) finish this story off:

Thanks, mate. Sharing a bike ride that long requires good company, most def. Sharing it on a tandem, wrenching saddles with every pedal stroke and barking instructions for 16 hours - that's like testing a friendship to destruction! Having succeeded, it feels like brilliant madness. But I never want to do that again, this year.

PS:  as of posting this, the fundraising page for the 2012 Longest Day Ride is still open.  If you enjoyed this blog, one way of recognising this entertainment might be to drop a dollar or two into the coffers, which will make their way to Arthritis New Zealand in due course.   Here's the link.  Cheers!


  1. Nice work, John, Simon and Dave! And thanks for the telling of the tale, Sifter.

  2. Another great write-up in the bank - thanks!
    One minor correction...we were actually a whole hour behind schedule when we left Westport. The return to Murchison was planned to be a 4hr 10 mins warm down (with 25 kph pace, taking weary legs and over 600m of climbing into account). As it turned out, we covered the return in 3hr 20 mins, making up almost all of our deficit. For me personally, that was a most enjoyable final 3 hrs. Legs felt good, scenery was excellent and we were pretty much in synch. Sorry, but I'm already thinking about next year's longest day.