Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Gravel Grinding; Enduro Specific Roadbiking?

Gravel ready for the grinding
Photo Marcel  van Schie
After a heart warming visit back home to New Zealand to make an honest woman out of Heidi (or rather her making an honest man of me!), then a work trip to Kiribati, I was about ready for a good old fashioned long ride. It just so happened that the trend setting crew at City Bike Depot had planned a trial run of a new concept in road riding: gravel grinding. While I say new, the truth is far from this as for years and years when people circulated the countryside on their penny farthings (or less endo prone safety bicycles), they didn’t feel the need a focus group derived moniker to label their excursion, the very description of bicycling was enough!

So it is understandable then that when gravel grinding started to trend on Twitbox and Instabook, I greeted the concept with derision. The cynic in me saw it is a way to sell another slightly different type of bicycle with fatter tires and vertical compliance. While I’m a staunch believer of the n+1 rule of bicycle ownership, the fact remains that you can ride whatever bicycle you like on whatever terrain, as long as you are willing to accept varying levels of sketchiness and comfort.

Hugh and his crew had put together a 140km loop around Bathurst,  4 hours west of Sydney on the dry side of the Blue Mountains. The area defied its reputation for boganism, with a possie of 15 riders happy to note that the picturesque quiet roads made for some very fine gravel grinding. Very fine indeed.

The bunch of grinders heads out of Bathurst early on
Photo Marcel van Schie
Heidi was aboard a perfect machine for the ride, her well loved Surly Cross-Check, with the only change from commuting spec being a slight drop in tire pressure on her 32mm wide Conti Gatorskins. With cross season coming up I decided some time on my Gates Carbon Drive singlespeed would be fitting, leaving on my 25mm Contis and the 64” gear, mindful that the distance could make a larger ratio overly arduous.  Sydney CX mafioso Rob P. opted for fatter tires and a monster 70” fixed gear, and as we hit the first stretch of gravel with a few skyward pinches, I swear I heard his knees groan in protest, later admitting to taking a number of tactical walks.

The bunch familiarizes themselves with the cue sheets, while Ollie waits for his Garmin to load
Photo Marcel van Schie
Starting at a local sports ground Hugh dished out a cue sheet, thankfully we had GPX backup after the paper melted in the morning mist. We made our way south as a merry rabble, the group amicably parting  when rolling over the stretch of gravel which caused Rob’s first knee trauma. We met this section with whoops of delight, but were shocked to find the experience of riding road bikes on gravel just like riding on the road, only more gravelly. It made a nice crunchy noise as our tires rolled over the rain hardened surface, a smooth and thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The collection of back roads which followed was a symphony of riding delight, cresting rickety old railway passes and darting past historic homesteads, all the while surrounded by the lush greenery of the surrounding farms. Most sections of road we came across less than a single car, which evoked a feeling as if we were in a bygone era free from automotive evil, ambling through the countryside fueled by pure riding joy.

So much natural beauty, even the local spider population were getting amongst it!
Photo Heidi Kahl
The course was not without its challenges, the Olive hill climb making for a particularly challenging stretch, its extended 21% grade teasing with surprising gravel traction, only to let up on standing. By the time we rolled in to Oberon with a mean pie hankering, the sit down was welcomed and we rehydrated with sugary beverages for the final stretch to Bathurst.

Hurtling down a particularly bumpy stretch through a patch of forest, my back wheel hissed with a pinch flat, and I fortunately managed to scrub speed without resorting to secondary braking. A quick change and we were back on the gravel, however the accumulated miles had started to bear their toll on Heidi. When asked which bits hurt, she replied everything, to which silence followed as we crunched the last gravel climb, eager for the downhill run back to Bathurst.

Heidi's post-ride lie down.
Finishing up in seven and a half hours, Heidi starfished on the lush grass of the finish line, quickly rousing herself before limbs stiffened for the ride to where we were staying. Exhaustion quickly faded as we reunited with our buddies and shared highlights from the ride. Both Heidi and I can attest to the joys of gavel grinding particularly in such a beautiful part of the world. But by all means don’t wait to get that gravel specific bike or even for an organized event. The singular thrill of riding skinny tires of gravel is there to be experienced, so drop out some psi, pack a sandwhich and take your road bike out on something sketchy!

Any bike is OK for gravel grinding! Except recumbent trikes, they are never OK.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Enduro Hucks the Ditch

Ollie hooks a wooden berm on his way to finishing run #1
Photo Joshua Nicholson
From my remote observation post in Sydney, I’ve watched the burgeoning kiwi enduro scene with envy. Races seem to be popping up all over the country, followed by the inevitable wave of social media containing smiling faces at the end of epic bar clenching runs. Championed by pinners like privateer turned pro Jamie Nicoll, the scene seems to go from strength to strength. With ample shredworthy tracks and a growing disillusionment with the cross country norm of mass market gravel-fests and mind numbingly repetitive circuits, it is not really a surprise.

Shuttles make for good effort/stoke ratio
Photo Joshua Nicholson
So when the gravity enduro phenomenon hucked the ditch to New South Wales like a supercharged skippy the kangaroo, I was fizzing to get amongst it. The first round of Rocky Trail Entertainment’s Rollercoaster series was held at the trails of Ourimbah, a club built network consisting of all sorts of flowing trails, the perfect setting to introduce the masses to the fun format.

Lumpy tree and shredding rider
Photo Joshua Nicholson
The course started with a shuttle to the top of a gnarly downhill track dubbed CBD after the Sydney bike shop. It started with steep swooping drop into dusty berms, followed by sizable jumps that rewarded bravado rather than finesse, then a fast rocky section and an energy sapping final sprint over ladder bridges to stop the clock. This first trail suited bigger bikes, while the second run was a much flatter pedal fest that left those on downhill bikes suffering through waves of pedal bob and drowning in fullface perspiration. And that was only in the ride to the start! While a bit short at only 12 minutes of time at race pace,  the combined courses made for an ideal mix, with parts of the track favouring pedalling, and others just good old fashioned chutzpah.
Course for the day. Short but sweet.
Photo Joshua Nicholson
I hadn’t raced downhill in anger since the Trans-Savoie in France which was a mind blowing 6 days of riding which left me flowing natural gnar like Sam Hill (at least in my mind!). As such, my expectations of both the course and my own enduro pace were low, but I’m pleased to report I came out pleasantly surprised on both counts. I finished up 7th equal in Elite, and on buckling over my bars at the second stage finish I’m certain I couldn’t have eeked out any more pedal strokes.  The other course of action would have been to get off the brakes, but the amount of time I’d spent with the scary/fun feeling of drifting my rear tire through corners told me that any less braking would have been to tempt fate!

This sign proved prophetic
Photo Joshua Nicholson
Perhaps the coolest experience was just hanging at the finishing tent and sponging up the buzz of everyone’s post-race stoke. While the potential for crashes is high in races downhill against the clock, it seemed everyone kept the rubber side down and lived to tell stories of saved nose cases, high speed punctures and brief off track excursions. With the event selling out with over 200 riders, there was plenty of stoke to go around, and you’d be hard pressed to find a frown amongst the sweaty faces.

So when work and time allows you can bet I’ll be strapping on the kneepads and saddling up my squishy bike, looking  to claw back seconds against the proper brave loonies who seem to float down the trails. Gravity endure is pretty rad and I’m stoked it has made it to Australia!

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Home is where the gnar is

Ollie & Michi  (+ Dan) reunite for some descending action
The festive season presented me with an opportunity to return to the very singletrack which had sparked my passion for technical riding. The New Zealand backcountry routes of Cass Lagoon and Mount Oxford are gnarly root infested trails of unmatched epicness. So epic in fact, that despite the ardouous bike carries required to get to the rideable sections, the question of point is rarely if ever raised. The end of arm pumping inducing trails always justifies the means of back breaking carry.

I had expected that bicycles were to be absent from the break, with family time and wedding preparations the focus. Thanks to fiancé Heidi understanding my need for man-time in the wilderness, I reunited with best-man and bike packing aficionado Michi (who recently became Dr Michi) to shred some of the old favourites. This came as a fantastic bonus, and while precipitation threatened to wash out the adventure, we persevered and were rewarded with giggle inducing slippery trails.

Dr Michi does a post Cass-Lagoon grimfie (grimace+selfie)
With my own El chucho trail bike at home in Sydney, I called upon Michi’s generosity to borrow one of his steeds, a well-loved Rohloff equipped El Commandante (29er hardtail). Sporting skinny race tires, 100mm of travel and an undersized (for me) frame, I adjusted my expectations of pace and fun accordingly, but was pleasantly surprised that the trails still had me descending with an ear to ear grin. Usually 160mm travel at front and back (like Michi's El Terremoto) is a minimum standard for enjoyment of these trails, with fat sticky rubber to keep speed under control. The slick conditions we experienced required smooth line choice that suited the little hardtail. I’m always surprised at their capability in the wet, and they are high on my list of bikes to have if I ever suffered the misfortune of having to choose just one.

El Comm hardtail proved less sketchy than expected
Dan gets enduro specific
Tagging along on our Mt Oxford ride was Dan, who as Michi tactfully put it, was well overdue to lose his hike-a-bike v plates.  The soggy conditions weren’t an ideal introduction, but as we pulled into the car park we were all fizzing, me especially so. This was quickly replaced with the huff puff, and dead armed poses induced by the skyward carry. On summitting the peak some 2 hours later we discovered the trig had been blown off the side, a testament to the savagery of recent wind storms.

Dan tops out at the summit
Manually dropping my seat (which was a surprising chore for my dropper accustomed self) and pointing downwards, I was stoked to pass the first freeriding test intact. Dan however was not so fortunate, riding off line whist trying to clip in and endoing over an unflinching tussock. He’d left his knee pads in the car and as if to prove Murphy’s hypothesis, struck his knee, forcing a painful and cautious descent on the remainder of the long trail back to the car.

Ollie + wet roots = Stoked
Taking care to stop and help Dan through the gnarlier bits, Michi and I proceeded to slither our way down the trail. Riding Oxford was like re acquainting myself with an old friend. My vague recollection of its idiosyncrasies including drops and pinch climbs didn't match the order they appeared in reality, but as the trail edged downwards I remembered why I’d grown to love the trail in the first place. All the things I love about backcountry singletrack was evident; the balance required between cautiousness and bravado, the desperate search for traction, and the rush from making it down sketchy sections with skin intact.

Michi slaying the trail
The day after Michi and I left Dan to lick his wounds, heading for Cass for a long loop in spite of the heavy rain forecast. The trails were damp, even more so than Oxford, but the sensations of rediscover of an old friend were the same. For the eight or so hours we were riding and clambering we were rained on for only a few, with every minute a blissful mix of exertion and elation. The loop had undergone some changes with a number of tree falls and reroutes adding new features. A reroute along the swampy sidle from Lagoon shelter quickly petered out, linking to the dreadful tussock lined and wheel swallowing bogs which my memory had chosen to forget. This was the closest I got to question the rationality of our route, but on reaching the tree line all negativity was quashed. The root gnarled switchbacks to the highway were the perfect way to end the epic Cass loop.

Top of Cass Saddle. Ready to party.
So starting my holiday thinking they’d be precious little biking in store, revisiting some of Canterbury’s backcountry gems proved to be nice Christmas bonus. While the trails change due to slips and tree-fall, just like my life does, it is nice to know that you can always go back and enjoy the simple pleasures which helped grow my passion for riding. It is no surprise then that our wedding ended up close by and sharing the thrill of these trails which will always be my biking home gets me pretty darn excited!

Ollie and Michi reigniting the bromance

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mountain Paddler: Just add water

Ollie's new boat. Just kidding!
For the past month or so this land-lubbing bike lover has broadened adventure horizons to include a range of aquatic pursuits. Living in a beautiful harbour city like Sydney I felt I was missing out on the marine adventures on offer, so taking possession of a water craft became a priority. On the celebrated event of my birthday, the opportunity presented itself to acquire such a craft, and utilising a series of international transactions and liberal use of diplomatic bags, I got the Bank’s Washington DC based aviation specialist to bring me the collapsible craft from Walmart.
Packed up and ready to transport
A marvel of inflatable engineering, the Sevylor Quikpak K5 is a collapsible vessel which folds into its own pack, making it ideal for foot or bike based transportation.  Our current residence bears a strong spatial resemblance to a shoebox, with insufficient room to swing even a kitten, so occupied space is always a concern. Fortunately the kayak manages to squeeze beneath our cream Ikea couch, thus appeasing Heidi’s valid concerns of vanishing living space. At only $240US from the consumer’s paradise of Wal-Mart, the value was exceptional, and given the low price the sophistication of the design complete with included pump and foldable paddle blew me out of the water (so to speak).
Inflation underway
So once or twice a week I saddle up and head down to the water, a short walk down some serious flights of stairs to Sirius Cove. Unclipping and rearranging the pack, which converts into a padded seat, I proceeded to inflate the ‘yak which is a short five minute exercise with the uber volume hand pump (I’m convinced it could seat a fat bike tire with no worries!)

Down the stairs...
And onto the water at Sirius Cove
Sliding into the water and the real adventure begins. I usually follow the bush clad coast in and out of coves, where one is treated to a hitherto unexplored world. Crystal blue water reveals fish and seething kelp, with warped perspective leading to the odd rocky collision which inflatable hull shrugs off with ease. Kayaking has also allowed me to embrace my inner ornithologist, with the silent approach allowing me to observe day to day aviation activities from an intriguing distance.
Paddling POV
While the Quikpak with its uber-wide hull won’t win any kayak sprints, it will potter through significant swells with relative ease, with stability that will allay any fears of an impromptu dip. Besides territorial seagulls looking to dispatch their guano payload, an ever present hazard which lends an element of excitement to explorations are the switftly moving ferries that dart about the harbour. My knowledge of maritime law is limited and I don’t fancy testing give-way rules, so I’m happy to pause or divert course to avoid the turbulent water and ‘yak crushing heft of these craft.
A ferry lurking behind the zoo wharf
Keeping my distance as it dashes to the city
The freedom afforded by the kayak is exhilarating, with a choice in route only limited by ones imagination, allowing me to slide past whatever piques my interest.  Last Sunday Sydneysiders were out on the harbour in force, with a mixture of families fishing to rowdy party boats moored in the cove. It felt great to out in the sunshine amongst the water based revelers.

Sydney harbour panorama
Safe to say I’m pretty stoked with the adventure opportunities afforded by this new addition to the fleet. With time I’m hoping to develop seafaring skills to attempt longer journeys such as the famed home to city aquatic commute. I'll be wary of the limitations of this glorified pool toy and plan to only venture out when  winds rate low on the Beaufort scale, with my Spot tracker as an emergency back-up.  With a relaxed pace and soothing bob far removed from my usual hasty biking journey’s the aquatic treats of Sydney’s harbour are now within paddling reach.


Waves aren't conducive to well composed shots

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Newcastle Overnight, in the rain.

Only those with beady eyes were in the N-O know
Times have been hectic of late, with long work trips away from my Australian home and busy schedules whilst back making it difficult to indulge in the full scale adventures I prefer. This past weekend presented an opportunity to reverse the trend, with the second running of an underground road event dubbed Newcastle Overnight leaving from the harbour bridge at 9PM on Saturday night.

I’d learnt about the event in the best possible way; from a tiny flyer pasted to a sign on the harbour bridge bike lane. With no entry fee, nor prizes and the intrinsic reward which only bike induced sleep deprivation can bring, Heidi and I committed to the 170km ride north. Having ridden none of the old Pacific Highway route previously we were assured new roads and breathtaking vistas, that is we would have been if it wasn’t dark.

The preceding week’s weather forecast showed ominous signs, with rain most of the week and dark menacing clouds the go to sky decor.  Come Saturday I was 100% committed, partly due to the impermeable waterproof barrier offered by my Ground Effect Helter skelters and Rocky Goretex socks. Truly I could ride home to New Zealand along the bottom of the Tasman sea and still have dry toes and bum. Fortunately, Australia is largely a warm place so while the rain bucketed down an in monsoonal volumes (40mm over the duration of our ride), the temperature never dropped below 10 degrees so Heidi and I could avoid at least one of the three points of the Hangry pyramid.

Hangry pyramid infographic- pretty self explanatory
For those not in the know, this simple measure consists of cold, tired and hungry, with only a combination of the three yielding full blown hangry. Since our arrival to the warm climes of ‘stralia incidences of hangry have been significantly reduced, which I can only attribute to warmer climes. Certainly not less ambitious adventures with Heidi setting new standards of personal achievement and awesomeness at each outing!

Heidi + Shirley the Surly
Some 100 other nutters turned out just as the skies opened properly, and after sheltering in a gazebo and getting a low key briefing typical for this type of event, we caustiously rolled out into the roads which were awash with torrents of runoff.

Nutters, every last one of them
It quickly became apparent that riding in normal bunch formation was an undesirable affair, the spray of wheel-launched water directing a stream of gritty water directly at one’s face. I promptly gave up the bunch ride approach and drifted off the front, cautiously checking my GPS for turns till we were on the proper back roads.

Paper map was superseeded by less soggy GPS nav
At one point I missed a turn completely and ended up on the freeway, traffic screaming past at 110km/h. realising the error of my ways I was reluctant to backtrack into the four lane traffic, so had no option but to roll on till an opportunity to cross back presented itself. When it finally arrived, the GPS showed a tiny 50m gap to the old highway and blissfully quiet roads. What it didn’t show was the 30m drop in elevation over this short distance, nor the slippery boulders to be navigated, quite an undertaking in my skittery soled road shoes. Somehow I made it down unconcussed and with bike intact. I was then confronted by a final obstacle requiring bush bashing through vines and scrub in a style akin to that used on Chad’s fault, a particularly heinous vegetation entangled geographical obstacle in the Big Hurt ride. Emerging from the bush and clearing botanical samples from helmet and wheels, I rolled back along the course. From this point on the road was magic, with sweeping corners and mellow climbs that willed the legs to keep spinning, despite the descending mental (not to mention actual) fog.

These eerie markers apparently dotted the route, but I can't recall seeing any!

A nice surprise was the tea stop atop Mount White, where on consuming a muffin I was caught by the trailing bunch who seemed to be taking the whole ride rather seriously. Wanting to avoid getting sprayed in the face again, I made a quick exit and was treated to a solitary ride up the coast.

An amazing tailwind provided a welcome push along the final 60km stretch. I felt as though I was flying into Newcastle, the storm gusts giving pushing me onwards to the final destination.

Rolling up to the bathhouse at a stormy Newcastle beach and the fanfare was typically low key. Certainly no dancing girls in attendance, which seems to be an internationally consistent theme. Looking for the party I backtracked and found the only place open, a grimy Kebab shop with what seemed like a foot thick layer of half eaten wraps of chicken, beef or combination chicken/beef. Shivering on a door-step while I contemplated my next move, I had the company of homeward bound revellers, only one threatening violence. The rest were convinced my journey from Sydney was a fabrication, my GPS log quickly earning their drunken respect.

Searching for a place to warm up proved fruitless till I happened upon the train station and the blissful warmth of the trains. Nodding off in a carriage (thankfully the Sydney bound one), I awoke as the train was pulling away, checking my phone to see if Hieid had made it. Only an hour and a half back, she’d done exceptionally well but by the sound of her voice I could tell she was in a sorry state.  I jumped off at the next station and went to meet her. She was happy to be done with the ride and content to nap on the train after an artery warming McD’s breakfast.

Heidi purges water from her socks on the train ride home
Despite the rain I really enjoyed the adventure. The solitude and beautiful roads, not to mention the simple pleasure of a long bike ride after 2 weeks sans bike was great. Roll on the next (and hopefully less damp) adventure!

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Trans-Savoie - Le Grand Mountain Enduro

In a word, the Trans-Savoie was amazeballs. Ground Effect got the exclusive on my ramblings so head over to their website to get the low down (and down and down x 1000). Shout out to David Martin for the sweet photos!



Friday, September 27, 2013

Pace and a rolled tub at the NSW State Champs

Sid leads the bunch - Photo Dave
The Manly Bike life festival at Sydney’s iconic beach of the same name was well attended by alternative lifestylers, with notable appearances from bakfiet riders, a bike powered juice machine, unicyclists and even the odd recumbent tandem.

Start line staunchness - Photo Dave
For the freaks of a different type the main event was the New South Wales State Championship, and lining up on the front row of the starting grid in my Gates Carbon Drive kit I was ready to bring some single-speed noise to the stacked geared field. Cross wise it has been a pretty consistent if unspectacular season , with a high of a 4th place at one of the Sydney championships and a 20th starting from dead last in a tough 60 strong Elite field for the National series rounds, both at Terrey Hills.

Ollie looks the wrong way - Dave
My form coming into the state champs was largely unknown. A month ago I had an amazing week of enduro racing in France at the Trans-Savoie, then a 760km bikepacking suffer fest at the Big Hurt in Newcastle, followed by a week of hotel bound spin-biking whilst in Papua New Guinea on work.
Chaos - Photo Phillip Gray
Turns out the spin bike did wonders and I darted off the line to slot into 3rd place just behind professional XC weapon and ex-olympian Sid Taberlay. For this first stretch of the race I had the strangest sensation of floating, with none of the suffering I normally associated with cross. Oddly I was going proper fast, as fast as I ever have in a CX race, and no amount of energy sapping sand runs nor momentum crushing off off-camber/uphill corners could rain on Sunday afternoon.

Ollie leads the sandy run - Photo Dave
Such was my feeling of pace that I had the audacity to attack our lead trio coming through the start finish line. Every lap I had seen the two in front sit up, and punching along the straight I pushed a gap of 50 metres, much to the support of the vocal crowd who, like me,  were sick of watching an off road bunch ride. Holding the lead on the run and through the twisty flat back of the course through the trees, it was one of these final corners which would prove my downfall . I pushed my front wheel too hard and rolled off my tubular tire, leaving me floundering in a cloud of very un-belgian dust. Damn.

Antics (and facials) like this cost Ollie the lead - Photo David Rome

Photo evidence of the 'gap' - Photo Dave
A quick analysis revealed the tire was well untruly unstuck, as was my race, and with nothing left to do I shouldered the bike and ran as smoothly as one can in Sidi Dragons to the pits for a lightning wheel change. Back rolling, the ethereal feeling of earlier had gone, whether through the effect of the run or more likely the psychological deflation of doing so well only to let it all slip away.
Barrier of doom - Photo Phillip Gray
To be perfectly frank I’m not all that gutted about what happened and am simply stoked to have a glimpse of the good form that seems to have evaded me since I took up long distance riding in earnest. Through a combination of holidays, the French alps and labored exertion in the prison like confines of the Crowne Plaza, I stung together an solid if incomplete performance.  Not being one to waste a good opportunity, I’ve signed up for the WEMBO 24 hour Worlds in Canberra. After last year’s Scott 24 I vowed to return with a proper (Rohloff and belt drive equipped) bike and give the elite category a nudge. Heidi and a friend Venetia are on board for support, and with a bit of luck I’ll be able to stay awake and eat enough to keep me going for the full 24 hours.