Saturday, March 9, 2024

Getting back to my roots and rocks

As regular readers will have noticed, my cycling volume dropped away considerably over the last few years.  There were multiple factors, including work pressures, my "new road" addiction (and the lessened interest in roads well worn), and that my now 50-year-old body was increasingly not coping with the stresses and strains of sitting on a road bike for hours on end.  

Strictly speaking, I was a cycle commuter long before I ever put knobbly tyres on, and started the slow and sometimes painful process of mountain-biking.  My first three rides were to Red Rocks and then two laps of Karapoti in 1998, which in hindsight wasn't the nicest introduction to the sport!  I hit my peak on or abouts Karapoti day in 2013 (an account and comments that literally just brought tears to my eyes as I reread them).  Dabbling here and there since has generally triggered some relief that hard-won skills had hung around to a decent extent.  But, I never rode so regularly that I was able to experience the stress-free haven that riding on the road came to provide.  

About a year ago, I decided to take a punt by treating myself to a new mountain-bike, on the basis that it would force me out.  As a tip of the hat to past support given by Kashi Leuchs way back in 2011, there was never any doubt that the new bike would be a Yeti, and the shortest travel fully (then the SB115, now SB120) seemed to be a best match to my skills and inclinations. 

(Fortunately,) that strategy seems to have worked a treat, to the extent that virtually every homeward commute this year has involved at least 25 minutes of singletrack.  It has been fascinating to note how over that time, the trails have seemed to become wider, and the trees further apart, and that despite going faster, features that require attention and careful management seem to come at me more slowly.  The virtue of practice, I suppose. 

I haven't yet come a cropper (thanks in no small part to my front tyre hanging on for grim death on a couple of occasions), and the fuller body workout that is MTBing seems to be agreeing well with my lower back.  Cadence is all over the place, I'm up and out of the saddle more, and engaging my upper body and core - all good things, I think.

After a wonderful bit of travel with Sarah and Khulan just before Christmas, commuting, the occasional weekend ride with Khulie and/or Sarah, and a Wellington Anniversary trip to Rotorua, a discount voucher in my Inbox for the Motatapu Marathon event was just the prod I needed to book a trip to Queenstown.  I'd been acting dean throughout January, and since that had pushed my workload through the roof, heading south on the Wednesday seemed a good way of clawing some of that time back. As we watched cars on the Crown Range Road out the window of the plane, anticipation was high!

Shakedown ride - Wednesday evening

Our flight got in the late afternoon, but by the time we'd got to our hotel, and reassembled the bikes, there was still plenty of daylight ahead, and a short ride beckoned.  I needed to buy a whistle for the event, and at the bike store asked for a recommendation that didn't involve shelling out $55 a head for a single gondola ride.  With some loose instructions in hand, we set off towards Fernhill.

After a few minutes on the Link Track, we turned onto the Wynyard Loop climbing trail, which was beautifully constructed on steep terrain, without ever being steep itself.

We lost the scent when that track ended at a 4WD road.  We should have gone downhill slightly to pick up the Fernhill Loop track, but instead grovelled uphill on the road, and ended up in the midst of some humungous jumps.  There were dozens of spectators there, and we joined them for a few incredulous minutes.

Almost everyone we asked for advice was "here for the first time", but we did find our way onto McNearly Gnarly (about half way down) which took us to the start of the Fernhill Loop climb.  From there we rode to the very top of McNearly, before descending all the way to the lakeside, and cruising back to base, all the blood on the inside, and with bikes and legs appearing to have travelled well.  

We celebrated with a 3-foot long pizza, much of which was demolished, with the rest packed into baggies for ride snacks the next day.

Stats:  18km ridden

Day 2 - The Coronet Loop

Contrary to common sense, the Motatapu event wasn't the planned centrepiece of the trip.  Rather, I was most looking forward to doing the Coronet Loop with Sarah.

We had sampled bits of it on previous visits, namely an unpublished ride down the Bush Creek Track with Ash in 2020, and a foray into Skippers Canyon on our Opens on Christmas Day, 2021.  At those times, the loop hadn't been fully established, and I'd been looking forward to checking it out since it had started popping up in my Strava feed.  

As the Canadian's would say, we'd lucked out with the weather - a good thing, strangely.  After breakfast, we drove to Arrowtown, and after a quick coffee and muffin, located the start of the Bush Creek section, and started climbing under gorgeous clear blue skies.  One of the many Motatapu events was coming through here two days hence, and they'd already begun taping off short cuts.  

When we'd ridden with Ash there had been a number of challenging creek crossings which eventually soaked three pairs of shoes.  These had now all been bridged, and to make matters even better, deviations had been built here and there to lessen the gradient.  It was fascinating riding up something we'd only once come down, and trying to piece together years old memories to anticipate what was coming up. 

Having left the beech forest behind, we veered left, and before long were at the start of the Coronet Face Water Race section, with absolutely glorious views over Speargrass Flat and towards Queenstown.

The trail has some serious exposure, and it was kind of nice that the two riders we'd seen so far hadn't appeared along this section - for the time being there's no railing, but it wouldn't surprise me if some sections do have protection added, though hopefully not in response to tragedy.  

After sidling for a long while, we began climbing up to the road crossing - this we had ridden in the same direction, which mitigated the need for memory juggling.  We at a wee rest at the road, and I put up with a few grizzles about the effort required so far.  

Alas, we had a bit more climbing to do before the fun descent of Pack, Track and Sack.  I was curious to see what this was like on a more suitable bicycle.  Our fat-tyred road bikes had been remarkably capable, but I was nonetheless looking forward to doing it with proper brakes, excessive grip, and suspension!

Sarah moments after a tactical walk

We both successfully navigated the gnarliest section, albeit Sarah on foot.  The turnoff away from Skippers Road was a touch sooner than I was expecting, but it did cut out elevation loss.  Figuring correctly that Sarah's mood for climbing wouldn't have improved, I left her to it, giving me plenty of time to enjoy the stunning views from Greengates Saddle.

After chugging some of our pizza, we descended to a nifty old stone hut, very happy with our bike choices.  

We had a quick look inside, but didn't linger.  

Greengates Hut

Next came the climb up to Picnic Rock, and we sat for a while and soaked in the views.  After a bit more riding, including some stream crossings for which some effort was required to keep the shoes dry, we came to the base of the final significant climb of the loop.  Sarah got herself emotionally ready by having a lie down in the stream!

The climb took quite a while, and included sections of trail that seemed to have been built by lawnmower!  Occasionally, I thought I could hear some talking, and then spotted a fluoro orange jersey up the way.  It turned out this was being worn by a drone operator, to whom I spoke briefly before reconnecting with Sarah.  Before the top of the climb I passed a couple of women, who were the fellow's models.  After a brief rest, Sarah and I began the long descent to Arrowtown.

Our next milestone was Deep Creek Hut, which wasn't quite as quaint as the earlier stone hut.  

We soon after arrived at Macetown Road (actually a 4WD road) and began ducking and diving around bogs.  I'd mistakenly assumed we'd immediately joined the course I'd ride on Saturday, but it was quite a while before we came to a "Runners merge with Riders" sign that identified where the Soho descent actually hooked in.

Sarah and I had a bit of a debate at a bridge across the river.  She was reluctant to take it on account of the steps and steep track on the other side.  I'd seen the sign that indicated this was the actual loop, but succumbed to her desire to stay on the "main road".  Minutes later, we came upon the first of very many "Enter Here" / "Exit Here" sign pairs, guiding racers as to how they should cross the Arrow River.  Fuckity fuck.  

When we finished the ride about an hour later, I was rather cranky and was really regretting not taking the dry-feet route.  I got over myself soon enough, but...  ARGH...!

After loading the bikes into the back of our rental (no mean feat, as it turned out, but we were up to the 3D jigsaw puzzle), we set off for Lake Hawea to rendezvous with the Peters family: Steven, Ash, and Brook.  Our first glimpse of the wee one was atop a balance bike, being adeptly ridden no less!  

Stats:  50km ridden, a must for any fit MTBer in the region!

Cafe Ride Friday

The next day, Steven was off to Queenstown then Christchurch, so we were without his company.  Sarah and I dropped Ash's vehicle in Albert Town while Ash wrangled Brook.  Back at home, we were glad to have missed a random heavy downpour, but it had us wondering if our already underway plan would backfire.  Fortunately, the rain amounted to little and was perfectly timed.  We were soon rolling out without coats on!

We rode initially along the lake, before connecting onto the Hawea River Track which would take us to Albert Town.

Three of my favourite people in the world

We enjoyed a nice tail wind, plus a bit of gravity, and a mostly-content Brook.  Sarah and I became useful entertainment at times, with Brook reciprocating for the sake of the adults.  

We were all excited about a second breakfast at the Pembroke Patisserie.  We shared a table with a Tibetan family, who were holidaying from their current home in Canberra.  They were headed to Queenstown and Milford Sound next, and it was both nice to hear about their holiday past, present and future, and to be able to make a few suggestions.  

After driving back to Lake Hawea and catching up with a bit of work (email for Sarah and I, parenting and phone calls for Ash), we were well ready for a late afternoon outing, which included admiring That Wānaka Tree, or rather, gawking at the tourists going crazy over the once-willow-fencepost.  Despite visiting Wānaka a few times, I'd never seen it (or even heard the legend), and the feeding frenzy was something to behold.  

Dinner included an ill-fated order of Firebird Fries.  The menu did say "smothered in liquid cheese", but the order was more like "liquid cheese with fries", and my usually bomb-proof guts started screaming "ENOUGH ALREADY" surprisingly early into the meal.  I did stop before things got too dire, somewhat confident I'd inhaled enough calories to get me through the next day's event.  

At dusk, Sarah and I walked to the lake, and I watched her go for a short swim, during which I sat shirtless in order to minimise the pressure on my stomach!!!  (Yes, I literally took my shirt off to try to make myself more comfortable...)

Stats:  15km ridden

Motatapu Race Day

The event I think of as the Motatapu Marathon has been running the same weekend as Karapoti since 2005.  At first glance, the 8am start time was very civilised, but when we did the morning arithmetic, it still demanded a 5-something alarm.  

To speed up the breakfast process, I soaked some muesli overnight.  I felt a bit bad disturbing Ash so early, but on the other hand it was lovely to be able to say a proper goodbye to her, albeit while we were both a touch sleepy!  

We'd contemplated me driving alone and stashing the key for Sarah to collect later, but in the end, she decided to come with me to the start.  After registering, we had a quick coffee in the car together, before I said my farewells.  I was glad we hadn't started any earlier, as I think I would have felt underdressed, and later, I was glad to be done before the day really heated up.  

Only the day before, I'd discovered that Tour de France organiser, Jonny Douglas, was going to be in the field, and was delighted when he spotted me in the start chute.  A minute later we were rolling over the timing mat together, and a few seconds after that, I was stationary, giving his lovely lady Julie a big hug - a strange but totally necessary mid-race activity!

Jonny and I rode side by side for a while, chatting away - the first time we'd seen each other since a low-key 5 year anniversary celebration of our fundraising trip to France in mid-2023.  He stressed that I should go ahead if I wanted to, but we didn't separate until a longish climb about 7-8km into the event.  At the top, I'd sensed he'd drifted back (or that I'd drifted ahead), and after a quick glance over my shoulder, I decided to press on.

Jonny, on one of Anton Cooper's retired race rigs

The course was pleasant enough for a while - always double track, generally uphill, and in this big open country, the riding was simple, yet arduous.  After the second aid station, the course veered to the left, and we started climbing up a wide valley.  While visually dramatic, it was a real grind - there were regular stream crossings - all eminently rideable, but deep enough that I started feeling bad for my bike.  

To add insult to injury, the 4WD road wasn't seeing a lot of use, and often-times we were riding on grass - very sluggish indeed.  I'd felt relatively strong on the gravel surface in the first half of the race, and a few e-bikes aside, was generally passing people.  I could feel myself slowing down reinforced by the occasional rider who would overtake me.  This was a combination of growing physical fatigue, and I think a bit of a subconscious tantrum over the unmotivating surface.  Nonetheless, it wasn't lost on me that the best course of action was to get this over and done with, so I kept pedaling as hard as I was able!

Good things come to those that do, and that included the Soho Descent.  This was a win-some-lose-some affair, with the double track generally having a good side and a bad side.  The bad included some really muddy sections, which were sufficiently trench-like that it wasn't always easy to pop out of them.  At least bike washing services weren't far ahead.  

Soon enough, I was on familiar territory, namely Macetown Road.  There awaited a surprising effect - bright sunlight plus a white-ish clay from time to time combined to create a whiteout, and as far as my brain could discern, I was riding on an unblemished bit of pavement.  Of course that wasn't the case, but damned if I could tell, and there was nothing for it but to trust my bike.  Fortunately, it was well and truly up to the task, and I arrived at the first river crossing rubber side down.  The same couldn't be said for the half a dozen or so riders I'd seen tending to punctures - so many that it became weird to keep seeing them.

I hated the river section with a passion.  Most competitors were riding the crossings, and I'd flip flop between feeling bad for my bike (and carrying it across), and feeling like a bad racer (and riding through the water).  Even though the latter approach was pretty guilt-laden, it was interesting to note how possible it was to ride even when hubs and the bottom bracket were fully submerged - the modern mountain-bike really is quite incredible, and a sucker for punishment...

Eventually the torture was over, and a short section of dry land was a welcome way to finish.  

I wandered around in a daze for a wee while, but shortly after Jonny's arrival, connected with him and Julie.  Seeing them snapped me out of my river-funk.  

Rather than sift at the finish area, we made our way into Arrowtown, and enjoyed sitting in the sun out front of a pub.  We were visited there by Mark "Willy" Williams, who is an old university mate of Jonny's, one of the driving forced behind Queenstown Trails, and who I'd met at the 2012 Cape Epic.  Not long after seeing Willy, Sarah arrived, and after ducking to the shop, we all agreed to relocate to the Shotover River for a swim - a fitting reminder of the event handily completed.  

Just upstream of the Arthurs Point bridge over the Shotover River

Given Sarah hadn't had much time to catch up with Jonny and Ju, we had dinner together, and there made a walking date for the following morning.  That call enabled me to pack both bikes up - they wouldn't be needed again prior to the next day's flights back to Wellington.

Stats:  47km ridden, and a not-too-shabby 9th place in the 50+ men's category

Mt Crichton Loop Walk

We met the next morning after breakfast, and after a 10-minute drive towards Glenorchy, began our walk.  This was another great opportunity to natter, but also was spectacular in its own right.  We did the loop clockwise, at various times lamenting not being on a bike!

Highlights included more fantastic beech forest, and some pretty crazy evidence of the mining activity of a century ago, including a slot cut through rock to drain the water being used to wash away the hillside.

After Sam Summers Hut, the track got steeper, but no less beautiful.

Not sure if this waterfall was called "Sam Summers Shower" but it might well have been

Surprise of the walk came just before we started descending again.  We found ourselves out in the open overlooking Lake Dispute, which Sarah and I had ridden past on our Moke Lake Loop back in 2021, a few days before visiting Skippers Canyon with Khulie.  I knew the descent from that Lake had been fairly long, and it was amazing to realise how much elevation we'd gained during our walk.  

Lakes Dispute and Wakatipu

The walk back to the car was a good reminder of the previous days' activities, and from time to time I fantasised about being atop a bike.  Once back at the car, with no rules broken, Jonny and Ju dropped us back to our rental.  We thanked them for their wonderful (and surprise) company, and we hoped we see each other again soon.

I dropped Sarah at the airport, before returning to the hotel for the bike bags - much more easily crammed into the car without our additional luggage, and with Sarah's seat rammed forward.  At the destination, one's own bike is a godsend, but travelling with it is such a pain in the arse!!!  

Arrival into Wellington went smoothly, and we caught the airport bus into town, stashed our bike bags in my office, before connecting with Khulie for the drive back to Karori, tired but happy.  

Stats:  8km walked not ridden

* * *

Long term review of my Yeti SB115 purchase is that it has had the desired effect and then some.  It has not only been a great platform for a handful of adventures - this trip and Tasmania the notable ones - but in no small part has been the motivator for them.  In addition, the bike has also hugely enhanced my physical and mental wellbeing through regular commutes between town and Karori, sometimes with Sarah and sometimes alone.  Not only has it been lovely to ride, but it has also taken good care of me, and I'm under no illusion that on a lesser beast, I would no doubt be sporting a few extra scars!  

I may have been a bit rude about the Motatapu course in my description of the event, but it really was a privilege to be able to ride through the various private lands between Glendhu Bay and Arrowtown.  I described it largely as I experienced it, but that of course was tainted by the race-like effort that I was putting in.  Had I been riding at a more sustainable pace (and keeping my bike out of the water), it would have gotten a gold-star rating for sure.  If you haven't had a chance to do it, stick it on your list.  

This was also our first time travelling with the MTBs in our dusty old Evoc and ChainReaction bike bags.  Great success, in no small part due to a pair of after-market mounting stands for the bags (now available as Evoc Bike Stand Pro).  I install in the dropouts while the bike is upside down, and then standing upright on the garage floor, it becomes a breeze to remove (or replace) the handlebar for packing into the bag.  My SB115 clocked in at just under 24kg in the (12-13 years old) Evoc bag, while Sarah's heavier SB130 was sitting at under 23kg in the lighter CRC bag.  Both travelled well.    

Exhibit 2

Motatapu was a great excuse for a long long-weekend away, during which time we clocked up a nicely balanced amount of riding, swimming, walking, and socialising.  The stunning scenery and trail infrastructure were the foundation, but great weather and great people made it all the more enjoyable and memorable.  Thanks to all involved!