Sunday, January 27, 2019

Back to where it all began: the One Day Ahead premiere, and Hobbiton Grand Fondo

With the exception of a month or so of sporadic email correspondence, Team NZ's Tour de France journey started in Cambridge, in early December, 2017.

We were warned by Jonathan, (directeur sportif), that:

Matt, my good mate, Google NZ man and expert vlogger may join us at some point over the weekend and take some footage of our riding using his drone. I'm trying to persuade Matt to join us on the tour to document the trip and assist with vlog daily updates.

Jump forward to early August, 2018, and Matt had arrived back in his home town of Nelson with no less than two terabytes of video data, and immediately got to thinking about what to make of it all.

Matt, about to interview coach, Hayden Roulston, at Hobbiton (December 2017)
In France, we'd quickly become accustomed to Matt's presence.  He'd made it clear to us that we could tell him to piss off, but for whatever reason(s) - his own good management, and our trust of him, among others, we generally responded well to him.

He had a dedicated van, and would film us out of the boot, his passenger window (often while sitting on the door), by drone, and occasionally from the roadside.  Hardly a stop went by without him asking at least one of us how things were going - and he quickly became more than just the guy behind the camera.

Matt was, and is, part of the team.   He not only joined us for the punchy 65km stage in the Pyrenees, but alongside Bill Boakes (usually literally), did as many push-ups each day as we'd ridden kilometres.

While the riders' Tour de France pretty much wrapped up when we got back to NZ, Matt's had only really begun.  While we'd trained our guts out for 6 months prior to the trip, he spent 6 months afterwards diligently finding a story tucked away in the hundred or so hours of footage he had shot. 

Eventually, the word came:  our fourth team assembly would be back where it all began.  Matt's film (and our story), One Day Ahead, would premiere in Cambridge as part of a week-long cycling festival.

Trailer #2 available here

As the big day approached, the excitement I was feeling to see everyone was fortunately dominating the nervousness I had about seeing the film.   Sarah and I flew to Auckland with Bill, and the three of us drove south together to the accommodation Mike had organised on the outskirts of Hamilton - the joys of him having "left [his] job to ride the Tour de France."

There we found Aaron and Sonya, Dr Fish, Jason, Jonathan and Julie, and Mike and his partner Lisa.  There were so many conversations to have, but a warm hug for everyone was as good a place to start as any.

Our arrival has slowed everyone else's departure down a bit, and when we finally arrived at the Good Union pub in Cambridge, my parents, who'd driven up from Wellington, were contemplating their second wines!

Paul and his wife Lena arrived soon after, followed by Cam and his family, and then Stu and his partner Fiona.

After an early dinner, we made our way to the film venue, where I was delighted to find my colleague Trish.  Part of the university's HR team, she'd kept a very close eye on me throughout the awareness-raising project at the university, and it was so nice to know she'd have a chance to keep an eye on me again at this event.

Mere moments before Brett Cotter from the Big Bike Film Night first addressed the crowd, Bruce appeared - his new job at Rocket Lab (yes, the Rocket Lab) and the start of Auckland's anniversary weekend, had meant a less than quick getaway.  We all breathed a sigh of relief, and as the lights dimmed, only the UK-based Dave, and Belgium-based Roger were missing.

The band was back together.

What followed is impossible for me to objectively comment on, though it struck me as a genuine story, beautifully told.  We were all completely blown away by the job Matt had done - the film is more than we could have ever have hoped for.

Brett wrote:
The response from our 150 plus audience was full of praise for the efforts of film maker Matt Jenke from Silver Eye Films. Matt has accomplished so much in this breathtaking journey following these 8 ordinary Kiwi blokes riding the Tour De France riding one day ahead of the pros.  As to be expected the cinematography was awe inspiring, and the story offers messages of comradery, support, and friendship; this is so much more than just a cycling movie!!!
Brett's in his fifth year of taking compilations of short and long cycling films around NZ, so has seen plenty that have not made the cut, and also plenty of great ones.  He'd taken a punt on this, agreeing to screen it sight unseen, but seemed positively delighted with it.

After a short break, during which time Bruce got his hug too, we all assembled on the stage for a Q&A session.

(L-R):  Jason, Jonathan, me, Steven, Mike, Aaron, Bruce, Paul, Stu, and last but not least, Matt

We were asked by one audience-member, how we'd each coped upon return to NZ.  I knew already that the answers were mixed.  Some had experienced at times extreme post-event lows, and for a few, ongoing dampened enthusiasm for riding.

I hadn't had a mood crash, and if anything, had fared better mood-wise in the second half of the year than I had in the first.  Rather, I described an overwhelming sense of relief that it was over - a welcome end to the fundraising, and structured training - neither of which I'd really had enough time for.  But, I also described what is best described as a period of mourning, for the people I'd been with day in, day out, for a month.

We'd entered the fray as strangers, became a team, and emerged out the other end as nothing less than a family.  For several months, I'd grieved in their absence, and being surrounded by them as I spoke had made that simple truth ever clearer.

I'd managed (to my surprise) to keep control of my emotions - throughout both the screening and the Q&A session.  The story Matt told had been sensitively put together, and at times funny - but my inner calm all came to a screaming halt when I met Stu's sister.

Whether the film had shown it or not, there were brief but pivotal moments in France where I alone had looked after him, and he alone had looked after me.  And, the loving bond that formed in no small part due to those moments has helped me immensely in the months since France.  Hearing Stu's sister's take on things overwhelmed me momentarily, well and truly cutting through my brain's general tendency to flat-line my emotional state. 

I was reminded of how I'd felt after my grandmother died, a time at which I'd noted that it was nice to have "normal human emotions", unfiltered by a mood disorder or medication.

After mingling a bit more, the majority of us retired to the motel, and chatted for as long as our eyelids could manage.

The next day, most of us were entered in the Hobbiton Gran Fondo.  After the late-night, the morning nonetheless went smoothly, and just before 8:30am, I found myself on the startline next to Stu and Jason, wearing only my second race number since the Graperide, almost a year ago.

Stu had been keen for a good hit-out, and had entered start wave 1.  I'd decided to join him, and hang on for grim death until Hobbiton, where I planned to stop and wait for the others.

Stu.  Brother from Another mother
And, that was pretty much how it played out.  Hamish Bond proceeded to ride almost everyone off his wheel, and Stu, Jason and I were left in a chase bunch of about 25 riders who were about one minute down an hour into the event.

After a torrid start, I was feeling OK once properly warmed up, but had to chase back on to the bunch a couple of times.  Actually succeeding was an unexpected surprise the second time - unbeknownst to them, I was a beneficiary of the group collectively deciding to ease back after the effort they'd put in had unhitched me.

Predictably, I was the only one of the group to peel off at Hobbiton.  On my lonesome, I enjoyed a big blueberry muffin, and glass of ginger-beer, much to the bemusement of the helpers.

I rolled back around the corner, where I had a better view of the road below.  A couple of small groups - remnants of my start wave - passed by, and I had time for a slash before eventually a few familiar white jerseys appeared over a rise.  I pulled a u-turn, and slotted into a group of 20 or so, which contained Steven, Mike, Paul and Bill.  Of the Team NZ starters, only Jonny had evaded my company!

Also in the bunch was Stu's lovely lady, Fiona.  Before Hobbiton, I'd asked Stu how I'd recognise her, and he'd described her to a T.

Before we all rolled into Cambridge, I had a couple of opportunities to do my best motorbike impression, and pull Fiona back across gaps that had opened up on a couple of short climbs.  It was nice to open the taps, and to feel some of my old power lurking in legs which haven't been fired in real anger for quite some time.

Aaron, Bruce and Sonya were waiting for us at the finish, and for the next hour or so, we all enjoyed hanging out in the sun, continuing the process of catching up that had begun the previous afternoon and had only stopped for sleep.

After prize-giving, the day's farewells began - Stu and Fiona were staying another night in Cambridge, and Jason was heading back to Hawke's Bay.  The rest of us drove to Auckland, and regrouped at Paul and Lena's place for a very lovely BBQ and hours more chit-chat.

It was abundantly clear that we hold a common a desire to keep writing the TDF Team NZ story.  The shared experience (and what an experience!) helped us form deep bonds, and it is clear that everyone is keen for opportunities to be together once more.  Bike riding will ensue, no doubt, but we will also continue conversations about our lives, hopes and dreams, victories and defeats, ups and downs.  Just like families do.

Jason, John, Aaron, Bruce, Paul, Stu, Bill, Jonny, Mike, Steven.  Brothers

One Day Ahead is screening in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch as part of a Big Bike Film Night feature series.  Beyond that, there will no doubt be other opportunities to see the film - I personally hope it'll end up in Air New Zealand's seat-back catalogue, and it wouldn't be out of place in a film festival or two.  I'm also keen to organise a screening or two at work, but all in good time.

Stu, Mike, and hopefully Matt, will be in Wellington on Wednesday 27 February for the two screenings that night, and I'm heading down for the Christchurch show on the Friday, with my bicycle.

In the meantime, many wonderful memories have just had a good polish, a few new ones have been added, and all is well in the world.

I can't wait to see that wonderful movie and those wonderful people again.  I'm excited that so many friends and family who've spurred me on over the years will also get a further glimpse into what went down last July.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Sarah's first 1000km week

As the end to an incredibly hectic year started to approach, I figured it was time to start thinking about where Sarah, Khulan, Kaitlyn and I would be going with our mountain-bikes for short summer holiday.  This coincided with my beautiful 18-year-olds breaking it to the parents that they were both independently heading up to Bay Dreams, a music festival in Tauranga.

Sitting around at home moping would have been one option, but well before the girls had their own logistics sorted, Sarah and I had flights to Queenstown, ferry tickets from Picton, and a week's accommodation in between.

I was excited about riding up the West Coast.  My first cycle-tour, and the first time I'd travelled with a bike, had been in my early 20s, and I'd ridden from Wanaka to Greymouth over four days.  I'd camped one night, ridden solo for most of it.  By Hokitika, I was sick of it, and the next morning rode as far as Greymouth and jumped on a bus...!  Oh how times have changed...!

Sunday 30 December - Queenstown to Wanaka

We still had Sarah's bike box from New Caledonia, and Mud Cycles kindly furnished me with a larger one for my Crowe-Rishworth (my New Cali one had been ditched in Gisborne...).  After handing over the mighty Corolla to my parents, who usefully live very close to the airport, Sarah and I were soon making great use of Air New Zealand's Koru Club buffet, not to mention their barista's services.

The landing approach in Queenstown was absolutely stunning, and it was cool to catch a glimpse of the Crown Range Road out the window as we literally flew past it - I'm a sucker for a good climb, Cat.1, according to Strava - and I'd been looking forward to this one for years.

Before that, we had a bit of work to do reassembling the bikes.  It was great to see a bike stand outside the terminal building, but not so great that the nearby smokers' smoke was wafting in that general direction, and we had to move away.

The assembly process was slow, but successful, and the only glitch was having a bit of trouble with a removable valve core (airports - a track pump is probably the most useful thing you could provide for cyclists who want to ride away at the end of their flight...) which repeatedly seemed to want to hold on to the pump than rather than the tube.  Between the Leatherman pliers I pack, and some chain lube in the pump, I think I finally got it on the fourth attempt - not much fun when you're filling 700x32mm tyres with a small pump.

Ready to roll!
It was midday by the time we rolled out.   I'd always planned to head into Queenstown before looping around to Arrowtown, but hadn't expected to need anything except for some food maybe.  It was a good opportunity to buy a small bottle of wet-lube in anticipation of the rain in the weather forecast though.  (My preferred Prolink chain oil doesn't last long in the wet.)  We ended up stopping by two stores, but between them, we sorted both the lube and I managed to borrow a proper pump.

Our stomachs were still reeling from a rather large breakfast, so we decided to defer our lunch stop until Arrowtown.  The back road through Arthur's Point was hillier and longer than the route back past the airport, but in the context of the trip, both those things were a plus.  Besides, it was a much more interesting way to go.

Shotover jets at Arthur's Point
When we arrived in Arrowtown, we pulled into pretty much the first cafe we saw, and enjoyed a fairly leisurely lunch stop.  I went ahead to get a photo of Sarah coming towards me down the main drag, but only managed to record the great recovery after a low-speed, no-hands attempt which nearly went very wrong...!!

Nice save...!
We had one further stop just out of town to organise a few minor things, and then it was onto the main climb of the trip.

Sarah, 100m into the climb
The bottom section was lovely - reasonable gradients, and plenty of space on the road for both us and the abundant tourist traffic.  With each successive switchback, the views back down towards Queenstown improved, and our sense of accomplishment grew.

I think Sarah mistook the first summit as the highpoint, but in fact, we were only about a third of the way through the climb.  After a 4km section of undulations, things kicked up nastily.  I rode behind Sarah, and became increasingly worried that she was spending a lot of time in the saddle, pushing a big gear at a low cadence.  The road was too narrow (not to mention steep) for me to easily help by pushing, so a litre bottle of water off her bike went into one of my jersey pockets, and I hung the dry bag with her overnight gear off my handlebar.  Then, left her to it, hoping that when we regrouped at the top, her knee parts would still be on the inside!

From the summit, it was pretty much all downhill to our accommodation on the outskirts of Wanaka.  It was steep and fast at first, but once the gradient mellowed out, we found ourselves working into a headwind that negated the gravity-assist, and then some.

We consoled ourselves with a beer at the World-Famous-in-New-Zealand Cardrona Hotel, but only after solving the problem of how to access the beer garden in the back.  As it turned out, we had to wheel our bikes through the hotel building and past the bar - which did feel pretty weird despite being instructed to do so...!

Thumbs-up indeed!
It was about 30km from the pub down into Wanaka, but the ride was not without its curiosities - the bra fence being the most notable.   To be honest, they looked a bit scungy, no doubt having deteriorated in quality since being out in the elements.

Bras, bro!
We were staying in Albert Town, a little north of Wanaka central, and got there via a nice ride along the lake front.  By the time we arrived at our airbnb, it had started to drizzle, and we made do with a local pub meal - it took us a while to click that a restaurant, pub and takeaway shop all seemed to be serviced by a single kitchen, and regretted not aiming for the quieter restaurant environment.

Groceries done for the morning, we had a short walk back to our digs, followed by a solid night's sleep.

Strava:  95km ridden, 5h30 elapsed.

Monday 31 December - Wanaka to Haast

I don't recall when I last rode this route, but it was probably 20-25 years ago - not surprisingly, the details have faded with time.

We made a fairly leisurely start, but were on the road by 0830.  With only instant coffee in my belly, I was keen for some decent espresso.  Hawea was open for business, and I was able to service my addiction at the first cafe we came to.

Lake Hawea
The wind was up, and unfortunately coming from the very direction we were heading for most of the day.  The scenery was gorgeous though, and it was more than enough to distract from the effort.

It was fun riding with Sarah, not least because her presence makes photos of beautiful scenery even nicer.  As we were making our way over "The Neck" between Lakes Hawea and Wanaka, I asked her to please "go back to that driveway and come back towards me".  Unfortunately, she didn't notice the driveway about 50 metres back down the road, and descended for 15 seconds before turning around and grovelling back up the hill!

Fun and games, and great views
The nor'easter wasn't miraculously contained to the Lake Hawea valley, and if anything, it seemed stronger along Lake Wanaka.  We saw a couple of cycle tourists who were enjoying the benefit of it, and a bit later, we got a nice wave from a couple of guys dressed in EF Drapac and Trek Segafredo pro-kit - I suspect they were Tom Scully and Alex Frame out for their last ride in the 2018 kit but my attempt to strava-stalk them that evening was unable to confirm nor deny my conjecture.

Wave of pity?  
As we chipped away at Lake Wanaka, it was nice to see one chap making good use of the conditions, and perhaps a kite he'd got for Christmas.  We definitely seemed to be the morning's suckers!

We had lunch at a cafe between the two Makarora settlements, the latter of which I'd been shocked by when I passed through in the '90s.  It had been my first discovery that place-names on NZ touring maps were not always representative of much on the ground.  I'd continued on and bivvied about 10km up the road, probably hungrier and less comfortable than I would have liked.

L'avion jaune
We'd already left Lake Wanaka behind, and now had the Makarora River for occasional company.

Sarah heading up-river, and three jetboats heading down
Sarah had driven the West Coast with my sister-in-law Saruul a couple of years ago, and wanted to show me the "Blue Pools".  Accessed via a 20-minute round-trip walk, it was nice to break the ride up, and also to see folk out enjoying themselves.

Too windy and overcast for the "blue" to come out?
Aside from a bit of perhaps irrational anxiety about being a river crossing away from our loaded bikes, it was a nice moment, and riding out, rather than walking, made it even better.

Sarah, crossing back over the Makarora River

As we made our way further up into the valley, the scenery seemed to be improving by the minute, and some of the landforms were truly spectacular - the ability of water to shape the land never ceases to amaze me.

Chapeau, Cameron's Creek
The road finally tipped up as we left the river for good, and before long, my trusty steed was straddling the boundary between Otago and Westland.

Haast Pass
We donned our coats largely to protect against wind-chill, but it began a frustrating on-again off-again pattern that would last for much of the next two-and-a-half days.

We were very glad we'd stopped to take a look at Fantail Falls - in this case, I was more fascinated by man-made features, than natural ones.  Dozens of recent visitors had each made a small pile of rocks (or supplemented work of others before them).  I guess on the spectrum of vandalism, this is about as inoffensive as you can get, and no doubt they'll all be wiped away by the next storm.

Fantail falls, and hundreds of wee rock sculptures
The bridge at the Gates of Haast was as frustrating to photograph now as it had been a couple of decades ago, even with the benefit of instant photo review and a companion.  Much better was Thunder Creek Falls, which was a wee way further on, and only a very short walk/ride from the road.

Thunder Creek Falls
I was fascinated to note a rest area with "emergency cell phone reception" which I'd never come across before - a nice solution to a first-world problem.  Coats continued to come on and off, as it was slightly too warm with them on, and slightly too wet without them.  The benefit of the rain was that along this stretch, it definitely enhanced the views.

We arrived into Haast just after 4pm, and soon found our evening's airbnb.   After showers and laundry, we made our way on foot to the local pub, and celebrated a great day's ride with a buffet dinner and a shared beer.

Strava:  140km ridden, 7h40 elapsed; two day running total, 235km.

Tuesday 1 January, Haast to Franz Josef

We rolled out into fairly dreary conditions - damp, and cool - but the worst bit was passing a Havana coffee cart in the driveway of our own airbnb (not to mention venison and whitebait on the menu, too) despite having only instant in our bellies.  The morning's ride would be a long countdown to a cafe...

Shortly after leaving Haast, we passed the turnoff to Jackson's Bay - in some sense, that must be one of the most remote places in New Zealand.  Another time, it would be cool to spend a couple of nights in Haast, and do the 100km return trip out to the end of the road. 

Sarah crossing the Haast River
We followed the coast for a while, with lovely native bush on our right at all times, and a mix of dunes and bush on the other.  At Knight's Point, we stopped to use the loo and take in the views of the sea below.

From there, the road turned inland.  My second night's accommodation on my earlier tour had been at Lake Paringa, and I had high hopes of a coffee there.

Sarah crossing the outlet of Lake Moeraki
The road past Lake Moeraki was stunning, and the hillsides either side of us really steepened up.   Occasionally a big fat kereru would put on a good show for us - it's always a treat to see my favourite NZ bird in action.

While the accommodation was still there at Lake Paringa, there was no overt sign that they were in the coffee business, and we didn't stop to investigate further.  Luckily, only a few kilometres further on was a salmon farm, complete with CAFE in large white letters on their red roof - visible from at least a kilometre away, and no doubt the source of much relief for cycle tourists and motorists alike.

We stopped, and had a second breakfast / huge morning tea / early lunch, and set off in a much more content state.

It never rains, but it pours, and not long after leaving the salmon cafe, we hit Bruce Bay, and were not quite ready to pour more money into the local economy - a shame, because anyone who runs a coffee cart in a place like this deserves people's custom!

Bruce Bay
The next milestone was Fox Glacier.  Just before crossing the Fox River, there was a signposted glacier lookout.  We took the turnoff, and immediately were on a gravel road, climbing away from the highway.  We went all the way to the end, a couple of kilometres from SH6, and then took a bit of singletrack down to a viewing point.

Back in the 90s, I saw both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers.  I remember the walk up the riverbed to the Franz Josef glacier being long - maybe an hour round trip - whereas the Fox viewing point was only a few minutes from the road on the other side of the river.  The extent of the retreat was quite shocking.

What remains of Fox Glacier
Feeling somewhat depressed about the state of things, we stopped at Fox Glacier township and had some afternoon tea.  The mocha I ordered seemed very light on chocolate, and very light on coffee, but at least it was hot.  I was rather envious of the food being served to those around us, but 4 in the afternoon didn't seem like a good time to have dinner...

We had only 30km to ride to our overnight accommodation just north of Franz Josef township, but the road was hilly.

One of three decent hilltops between Fox and Franz

Nonetheless, we cranked it out only to realise it was still too early for dinner in Franz.  We committed to returning, so didn't do any groceries and continued another 6km through to our airbnb accommodation.  There, we found a lovely host, who was happy to wash and dry our riding gear while we went back into town for dinner.  The sound of a Humvee courtesy limousine was somewhat tempting, but also slightly obscene in such a laid-back and natural environment.  So, it was back on the bikes (not that we had any choice with our attire), and a short spin back for dinner.  We grabbed dessert from the supermarket before heading back to base for a rest.

Strava:  159km in 8h40 through to the accommodation, plus a 12km dinner trip; three day running total, 416km.

Wednesday 2 January:  Franz Josef to Greymouth

Our host not only loaded us up with an awesome breakfast, but good intel about where (and where not) to stop for coffee further north.  As a result, we rode straight through Whataroa, but not before being told that our dark coats had caused a motorist to be concerned for our safety.   I was wearing fluoro socks, and a colourful helmet, but oh well, it was about time to take the jackets off again, anyway.

As annoying as the rain was, it did seem to fit...
After Whataroa, we had Mt Hercules to tackle, but thankfully, whoever gave the hill such an imposing name, hadn't spent much time in Wellington, and the 150m climb passed quickly and without any fuss.

Sarah smashing Hercules
The most visually appealing cafe in Hari Hari was the Pukeko Tea Rooms, though we couldn't remember if this was the one that had been recommended.  As it turned out, we needn't have worried.  I chased down a great steak and cheese pie with a date scone.  Sarah liked her scone so much too, that we shared a third one.

A while out of Hari Hari, we passed the Bushman's Centre.  I still slightly regret not stopping, as I definitely had 20 years ago - one of the few details I had remembered.  Otherwise, the riding continued to go well, and the scenery continued to keep us well entertained.  Traffic volumes were a fraction of what we're accustomed to in the Wellington Region, and drivers seemed more patient to boot.

Lake Ianthe

I was about ready for a second lunch when we rolled into Ross.  First order of business was to remind Dad that there's a town with the same name as him...

... and then a short ride to the cafe.  To spite their "No Bikes" sign on the front wall, we made do with the gas station cum convenience store, and a bag of chippies instead of whatever we could have got at the cafe.

We took a back road into Hokitika, peeling off towards Kaniere.  Along Woodstock-Rimu Road we came across West Coast Wildnerness Trail distance markers.  I was initially perplexed as to why these were facing us, but on the other side of the road, only after quarter of an hour stewing on it that I realised it halved the number of posts needed, and they had to be on someone's side...

We shared a pot of tea in Hokitika, and delayed setting off into the rain by perusing a greenstone store.  Sarah's load was a tiny bit heavier when she left sporting a new pair of earrings, but luckily for her, the road between there and Greymouth was almost literally dead flat.

As we settled into our motel room, it was a shock to realise how dated motels have become in a world of airbnb.  After showering, and rinsing our shorts, we strolled back down the road to a nearby restaurant.  The next day we'd be leaving the West Coast, so it seemed appropriate to share a whitebait fritter - or "pattie" - as they seem to refer them to on the coast.

The worst rain of the trip had set in by the time we'd finished dinner.  Sarah went straight back to the motel, while I took a hit for the team and walked down to the New World supermarket.  My coat seemed more effective as a make-shift umbrella, but my boardshorts were pretty soaked by the time I got back to the room with our evening's dessert and breakfast for the next morning.  My shoes were wet already, so that didn't matter as much.

Strava:  180km in 8h30 elapsed; four day running total, 586km.

Thursday 3 January:  Greymouth to Murchison

Day 5, between Greymouth and Murchison, was one of the few days that we had genuine route choice.   One option was to stay on the West Coast and SH6, riding almost to Westport, before turning up the Buller Gorge.  A longer option would be to go to Reefton, and then over Rahu Saddle to Springs Junction, following what had until recently been SH1 up through Maruia.  Shorter than both was the route we took, via Reefton and SH69 connecting it to Inangahua.

We saw very little of Greymouth - really only what was visible from the main road through it, and that wasn't much.  The primary route to Reefton was SH7, but we crossed the Grey River towards Westport, and soon after swung off onto Taylorville Rd.

Sarah about to cross the Grey River, with impressive evidence of upheaval in the background
Shortly after Taylorville, which was complete with a Wellington St, we stopped briefly at a memorial to miners, and opted not to take the bridge across the river into Silverwater (as I'd done back in the 2010 Kiwi Brevet!).

Wellington St, Taylorville
What I hadn't done back in the brevet was do a side trip up to Blackball, and it was one of two things I was really looking forward to remedying on the day's ride.

It was a wee climb away from the "main" road, and before long we came to the only thing I knew to expect - the hotel formerly known as the Blackball Hilton.  I'd seen many pictures of it, and realised I knew nothing else about Blackball at all.

The hotel was open, but there was no one around, so at my insistence, we followed the signs to a toilet at the far end of town - it was part of an interesting community complex which from memory also had a coin operated washing machine.  I was glad for the toilet, at least.

About half way back to the hotel, we had the choice of a convenience store offering coffee, or a curio shop.  We went with the latter, and found inside a lovely woman who'd recently got some spinach and feta muffins out of the oven ("we'll have two of those, thanks!") and was glad to cut a couple of slices out of the also freshly-baked vegan chocolate and chai cake (she explained that without a piece missing, people seemed reluctant to buy a slice).  The downside was she only had instant coffee supplies, but all in all, it was a great choice.

I left Blackball feeling very satisfied indeed, and from now on I'll regard it with fondness rather than envy.

I'm fairly certain the road we were on had been largely gravel back in 2010, when Simon, Tim, Thomas, Chris and I had ridden it in the other direction, on a mission to get to Jacksons in time for dinner.  We had no reason to stop at the intersection with Logburn Road either.

I wasn't expecting the Pike River Memorial.  I admit to being ignorant as to exactly where in South Island the mine was, and had been relying on the paper AA Touring maps (trimmed to include only the route we were using, and thereby saving about two-thirds of the weight of the originals!) so hadn't seen the location on an online map.

I'm really glad we did notice it from the road though - it was a beautiful place, despite it representing something so tragic.  Sarah and I spent about 10 minutes there, quietly looking at the shrines memorialising each of the 29 men lost in the accident.   They were all unique, but at each you could sense the shared grief of the families and friends left behind.

I've been admiring the sign post at the Makara Peak summit for the best part of 20 years now, it pointing to MTB hot-spots around the world.  The similar Pike River Memorial signpost identifies the home of each man lost, from Blackball only 12km away, to Scotland and South Africa half a world away.

As we were leaving, we met two lovely retired women (one of whom had a daughter who had a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington - something she noted after seeing my "sweatshirt").  Chatting with them for five minutes or so was just the antidote to the sadness of the memorial garden.  They passed us ten minutes later, just after Sarah had dropped her chain, and even stopped to make sure we were OK.  I noted that while I tend to shun social contact when I'm touring on my own, I nonetheless enjoy it very much when it happens.

We eventually ran out of back-road, and at Ikamatua, joined SH7 through to Reefton.  I enjoyed seeing the road from Waiuta where Simon and I had emerged from the gnarly Big River-Waiuta deviation, and remembered the forlorn state Thomas had been in.  Similarly, I was fascinated at how close the Soldiers Rd turnoff was to the town, or more to the point, how clear some details were in my mind, and how wrong others were!

The second wrong I'd hoped to right on this day (after Blackball), was at a particular cafe in Reefton.  I was delighted to see the quad-shot bowl latte was still on the menu - I'd regretted not ordering one back in '10, and have admired Tim Mulliner's bravery since.  I ordered it, but it was delivered in a takeaway cup, and it really didn't feel like a resolution at all.  Oh well, I still have good reason to go back to Reefton.

That, and it had a lovely vibe, summarised nicely by the Tour Aotearoa banners still being flown proudly on the main drag.

Bravo, Reefton

The conditions of the first four days had never been terrible, but they'd not exactly been easy.  Tough headwind for the first couple of days, and then precipitation for two days after that.  The stretch between Reefton and the Buller Gorge was quite the contrary - a great tail wind, and we were heading gently downhill.  It felt good to average almost 40km/h for the 50 minute run down to the river, good enough for a couple of strava crowns (for Sarah, who is both KOM and QOM - she must have popped off my wheel just at the right moment)!

I have a confused memory from the bus-trip from Greymouth - I swear we stopped at Inangahua for a quick break, but either the town has shrunk dramatically since, or I was somewhere else.  In any case, Sarah and I definitely did stop for a quick break, and we had a nice chat to a teacher from Hamilton that was out on his MTB.

As it turned out, I'd left something behind, so it was probably just as well we'd spoken to him, and he knew where we were heading.  About 10 minutes later a small car whizzed past and pulled over just ahead of us - the person who jumped out was one of the shop staff, and she handed me my "wallet" - a bank coin baggie, but with my credit card, driver's license, work swipe card (in case we wanted to stash bikes there once we'd jumped off the ferry) and a bit of cash.  Having almost lost the lot, it seemed obvious to hand over $20 to thank the person for chasing us down - she said it was unnecessary, whereas I insisted, and I think we were both very happy with the outcome.  Coming soon after the lovely women we'd chatted to a few hours earlier, I was feeling pretty good about the state of humanity (in this neck of the woods, at least).  Oh, and a tad embarrassed that I'd been so careless with this, of all things.

By the time we finally reached Murchison, we were both glad to step off our bikes.  The final hour had been fairly arduous, but also the traffic volume had been really high - and we'd become accustomed to virtually no cars.

We were staying at the Mataki Motel - well away from the main drag, so nice and quiet, and giving us a nice walk into town for dinner.

Sarah, remembering her late mother, Roza.  
I'd remembered great food at the Rivers Cafe, but they don't do (or weren't doing) dinner.  So, we ended up on the main drag, and frustratingly things took a fair while - we must have been the last diners to sit down who weren't warned about the 45 minute wait for food.  I had to dash to the about-to-close supermarket before we'd got our main courses, and bought too much dessert.  Oh well, we'd had a long day, and had plenty of opportunity to burn a few calories ahead.

Strava:  170km in 8h05 elapsed; five day running total 756km

Friday 4 January, Murchison to Nelson

We started the day with a big breakfast at the now-open Rivers Cafe.  There, we got discouraging intel about the Braeburn Track, and while I was expecting nasty conditions on the road through to Kawatiri Junction, it didn't sound like it was worth risking a puncture-fest on the gravel bypass route (Sarah was running 25mm GP4000s, a race tyre, unlike my 32mm Conti Gatorskins which probably would have been OK).

I'll sometimes mumble, "better to regret something you did, than something you didn't", but it's fair to say I hated every minute of the road through to the Gowan Valley Road, where we'd have emerged onto SH6 had we been a bit braver, or better prepared.

We were committed to some gravel though, and soon after passing the turnoff to St Arnaud, we bore left off SH6 onto the Tadmor-Glenhope Rd.  We had high hopes for it, and, it worked out very well, partly due to Sarah's good management, but also thanks to a wee bit of luck - the gradients were mellow, both up and down, and the road surface was pretty damn good, all things considered.  It certainly wasn't trivial getting through there in one piece, but it could have been a lot, lot worse.

Sarah on Tadmor-Glenhope Rd

We were still elevated when the gravel ended, and we had a delightful run down-valley (and still with a tail wind) through to Tapawera.  Sarah really seemed to have a bee in her bonnet, and I spent a lot of time either drafting her, or dangling off the back and trying to catch back up!

We had a decent lunch stop at Tapawera, before heading north again.  We were riding along the Motueka River, and it looked very inviting indeed.  Eventually the temptation became too much, and we stopped for a short swim.

Just what the Dr (Tumen) ordered
While we were swimming, my GPS was sitting out in the sun, and got up to 42-degrees.  Fortunately, once we were underway again, the temperature reading dropped into the low 30s, but it was still hot, and our shorts dried out pretty quickly.

We took Dovedale and Neudorf Roads, which I knew from the couple of Nelson Calder Stewart races I've done - the first of which was probably one of my best race days ever.   The day started dragging on a bit, but an ice-cream just before Richmond perked us both up, and it's always nice riding on the Stoke ex-railway cycle path.

We were lucky to be staying at the home of the very talented Matt Jenke - our cameraman from France.  The premier of his documentary film "One Day Ahead" is only a couple of weeks away, an exciting prospect indeed.  It will be fascinating to see which bits of the 2 terabytes of video data he returned with made the cut!

But, we weren't there to talk about that, and it was lovely to meet his parents, and have a bit of R&R.  We headed out to a great swimming hole, and Matt and I did a few bombs.

The multi-talented Matt 
After some great pizzas for dinner, everyone was pretty knackered, and we all seemed happy to turn in early - us with the prospect of freshly washed riding gear for our final day.

Strava:  155km in 8h05; six day running total, 911km

Saturday 5 January:   Nelson to Picton (and Wellington CBD to Karori!)

Our Bluebridge ferry was not until 7pm, so there was no great need to rush in the morning.  Nonetheless, we'd had an early night, had a well established routine, and didn't want to put too much further pressure on Matt's hospitality.  He was kind enough to get up to make us coffees though, and farewelled us warmly.  

Our first stop was the Morri Street Cafe, and an hour or so later, we were heading out of town, on another of Nelson's delightful cycle trails (well, the first part of it is, but it gets too damn fiddly towards the end, and I realise every other time, that you're better off on the road).  

The weather gods had saved the best until last, and our only hope was to get over the big climbs before Rai Valley before the temperature rose too much.

We did make good time, and weren't yet ready for a food stop, even at Pelorus Bridge - that suited us both well, since business there was booming.

While we didn't talk about food, we did discuss whether or not to join the crowds in the river.  We decided against it, but obviously both with reservations.  Five minutes later, a gravel road down to the river presented itself, and we didn't let the chance go by again.

The clean, cool water was a delight, and while a dip in the ocean on one of these gigs would be a highly risky move, there seems to be no risk to one's undercarriage bathing in fresh water.

Not long after Canvastown, we were buzzed by an aggressive motorist - I'm generally really traffic tolerant, and will put up with people passing uncomfortably close.  On the other hand, I can't stand overt aggression via shouting or tooting, and it unsettles me for a wee while.

As we approached Havelock, I was still recovering and happened to be keeping a close eye on a ute that was parked on the side of the road - I was nervous that a door might be thrown open pushing us out into the road and was focussed on it.   At the same moment, a young woman was clambering up onto the tray of the ute, moving towards me.  Just as she was about to leave my field of vision, one half of her dress dropped off her shoulder, giving me quite the eyeful.  I chuckled to myself, treating the surprise as a sign sent to me by a puppet-master up in the heavens:  "yeah, sorry about that dick in the van, mate...".   I appreciated the gesture, and all was forgiven.

After whitebait on the West Coast, it seemed fitting to have one of the mussel pies on offer in the cafe - Havelock is, after all, the self-proclaimed green lipped mussel capital of the world.  The pie was a strange experience, and definitely inferior to a good old steak'n'cheese.  But, it's good to know these things.

As we climbed away from Havelock, I watched the temperature peak at about 38 degrees - hot, but actually manageable with the decent airflow that road cycling almost always affords.  We continued our regular habit of stopping to photograph one another with Mahau Sound in the background - this is our third time between Havelock and Picton together (two from Nelson, and one after the Grape Ride last year).

I don't know which sight is more stunning.  Who am I kidding, I totally do xx

I'm certain we've stopped for ice-creams before at one of the wee bays you drop into after the Anakiwa turn-off, but there was no sign of anything, and we were feeling a bit parched and grumpy by the time we rolled down the last hill into Picton.  After grabbing some gassy water from the 4 Square (whose "No Bikes" sign I wilfully ignored), we celebrated down on the waterfront.

Celebrating a job well done

We had a few hours to kill before our 6pm check-in, during which time we got changed, had some cheap savouries and a donut from the about-to-close Dutch Bakery, spent 45 minutes or so in the neat little aquarium next to the Edwin Fox, and finally by chugging down the most tender lamb curries in the land at Plaza India.

We had a much deserved shower each in our twin cabin, and I napped through the worst of the swells in the Cook Strait.  The commute from the ferry up to Karori was not particularly welcome, but our legs were reluctantly up for it.

Strava:  111km in 6h10 elapsed + 7km ride from the ferry, running total 1029-glorious-kilometres!

* * *

When we met about six years ago, Sarah had barely ridden a bicycle since childhood, and here she is with a 1000km-week under her belt - and all the while hauling overnight gear.  I hope she's as proud of herself as I am of her.

I'd like to give a hat tip to Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter, which is a remarkable skin-conditioner and keeps your underneath in good shape - even with a couple of proper washes, neither of us had any problems.  It has seen me successfully through many multi-dayers, including Le Cycle-Tour de France, which was a whole month in a single pair of shorts.  It's great stuff, and I'm only sad we didn't have the energy to stop by the "factory" when we passed through Wanaka. 

2019 has a few treats in store - an extended Waitangi "weekend" in Melbourne soon, and we're going cycle touring in Taiwan in June - Sarah can expect me to haul a bit more of her gear than usual, and put in some reasonably hard efforts on the hills.  In August, I'm racing the Mongolia Bike Challenge, and will need some solid endurance for that.  Before any of that though, we've got a team reunion in Cambridge, for the One Day Ahead premiere.  I cannot wait to see the boys again, nor Matty's handiwork on the big screen.