Thursday, October 09, 2014

Adventures don’t have to make sense


The view from Bullock's hut
It dawned on my during a particularly rough patch of hike-a-bike on last weekend’s trip to the Snowy Mountains that adventures don’t need to make rational sense. In fact, the opposite is often true.

Leaving Sydney with my good friend Ross at 6PM, we stopped only to fuel up on double-meat meatball subs. Having not driven at highway speed for some time, least of all at night, the journey was a rush. Thankfully Ross took the wheel of his Subaru and he weaved his way through herds of wombats on the final stretch to Lake Crackenback.

We proceeded to fumble around on the dark trails searching for Bullock’s hut, located at a GPS waypoint I’d marked in a high rise building in Sydney, a world away. Fortunately it turned out to be where the internet had told us, and even more fortunately the historic hut was unlocked, providing warm haven away from the frosty mountain air which was settling outside.

This is what night looks like after six hours of bleary eyed Friday evening driving to a place we’d never been. This was adventure.


Curling up in our fart sacks staring up at the wooden ceiling, we went to bed by putting the uncertainty of the journey ahead on hold, knowing that whatever the mountains would throw at us, we could only do our best.

On waking in the morning, my excitement at opening the green wooden door to reveal the vista we’d arrived at sight unseen was palpable. The thin strips of morning sun outlining the door gave way to a beautiful scene that made our seemingly irrational toils to get to the mountains worthwhile.

Waking up to this was adventure.
The bridge where our journey began
My ill-conceived plan, which rivaled even Michi Speck's for sheer half-bakedness, was to bash our way up and over a ridge, crossing from the Thredbo to Perisher Valleys. We’d then link up with some of the cross country skiing trails and head for the geographically misplaced Seaman’s hut past Charlotte’s pass, and deep within the Mt Kosciusko Park.

Ross, who should take no responsibility for the trailless gong-show which ensued, had decided to join in. We’d brought our fat bikes in a last ditch attempt to ride the snow before a spring induced phase change took it on its own adventure to the Pacific Ocean.  The internet tells us that fat bikes are perfectly capable for riding on snow, and after only experiencing sand and trail we were keen to verify these far-fetched claims.

Ross readies his bike of fatness
The adventure began with a sneaky crossing of the rail bridge, following the Ski Tube line up to its tunnel portal, then entering the jungle on the bank above. My limited planning had involved scoping the route online; revealing a 3 km straight line to the trails which I was confident we could knock off in an hour. How wrong I was.

Our ill fated journey
What began as an ironic laugh inducing carry through knee high scrub, become a nightmarish thicket of woods which could only be penetrated through a combination of branch snapping, clambering and profanity.

Beer and skittles to start

Before the proper carry ensued...
After 3 hours and less than 500m progress, upside-down frowns became inverted.
The carrying techniques we adopted certainly wouldn’t be found on internet cycle tip websites, dragging and throwing our fat tired steeds with little regard for paint finish nor hydraulic hose integrity. I’d opted to stash gear in a back pack, which proved to be less cumbersome than Ross’s bike-packed Moonlander. On offering assistance it was apparent that his steed weighed at least one million moon units. Navigating the bush with these bikes was equal in awkwardness to carrying a fine Elizabethan era chest of draws around an army assault course.

Battered and bruised by the ordeal, we sat on a tangle of twigs in a rare clearing and dug into our rations. We’d learnt the hard way that up to 1800m elevation, Australia’s mountains are without the alpine scrub which can be a saving grace in New Zealand. With no clear terrain to measure our progress, and only the recurring nightmare ahead, we made the decision to cut our losses and return to the valley.

While defeated, the prospect of leaving the hellish bush buoyed us, and retracing our GPS track we wrestled and tossed our bikes down the slope, using the slopes distance advantage to full effect. In forty minutes we were back at the tunnel portal and ecstatic, not even a flat tire could deflate the joy of return to the known and comfortable realm of ridable trail. We’d had an adventure.

Ross restores positive inflation
On return to Bullock’s Hut we found a network of smooth trails which while lame under normal circumstances, became a heavenly ribbon of single track; a metaphorical ice-pack for our bush bruised egos. 

No Segways = Hardcore

Jumping back in the Subaru we drove the road to Perisher and scampered up at the first snowy slope we could find. At this late stage of the day there  only slush remained and any attempts to control direction or speed were met with a face full of snow, which was hilarious (at least for those watching). Turns out that you need crisp early morning snow to make any kind of progress on fat bikes.



Ross eats a snow sandwhich
Slushy snow proved super sketchy
For two seconds,Ollie keeps the rubber down
Looking on the bright side, the cool snow was a literal salve for out stick battered shins, and with the drive to the lacklustresw we’d saved ourselves the disappointment of slaving up a mountain with no reward.

Lying awake waiting for sleep back at Bullock’s Hut that evening, I contemplated the nature of our adventure, and how despite being dealt an embarrassing lesson by Mother Nature, I was filled with a warm contentment. We’d failed to complete the route we’d planned, and failed to ride properly on snow. But we were still out there trying something new, some of it that no one else would have done before, and this I feel is the essence of a good adventure.



Thursday, September 04, 2014

Ups and Downs at the Dirty 600

Sunrise over Cessnock - Reason enough to get involved
With the tingly fingers and blackened toenails from April’s Cloudride finally subsiding, the itch had returned and I was well overdue for another bikepacking adventure, if only to break the daily monotony of a blustery Sydney existence.

Since moving from New Zealand to Australia two years ago, I’ve been raving to boyhood chum Tristan about the great bikepacking on offer, particularly in New South Wale’s Hunter Valley. When a gap in his hectic native bird-rescuing schedule opened up, some cheap trans Tasman airfares sealed the deal and he was on a plane bound for Sydney, with adventure bound to ensue.

Elated post-ride Tristan
We’d grown up riding and racing together in Nelson and were pretty good mates, but our bromance was afflicted by the tyranny of distance so more than anything else I was looking forward to spending a good few days catching up with Tristan.  In the past our rides together ended inevitably with broken bikes, scraped knees and the dull lactic pain that can only come from repeated full noise sprints.

With the belly of my own life and work swelling with busyness, riding has taken a stoker seat so I was bracing for some old fashioned punishment at the legs of Tristan. He was coming off a holiday at the Alaskan Singlespeed/debauchery World Championships then a tonne of riding in the Canadian Rockies, so his usual ferocious pace would be even more so.

Tristan arrived on a Friday afternoon to the same weather which had been dampening Sydney for weeks, frequent soggy downpours and a cool blustery breeze that made the prospect of four days in the wilderness less than attractive.  Up till this point we’d decided to ride the infamous Big Hurt, a 750km bikepacking loop heavy with bike carry and leeches. The sheer physical and mental misery I’d been through riding the course last year had forced me to revaluate my passion for bikepacking. But as always seems to happen, the memories faded and when we were running through ride ideas the Hurt came out on top. Laden with single track, the course would have taken us through some remote and critter heavy parts of NSW for Tristan’s first Australian wilderness experience.

Fortunately we reconsidered our position. Thoughts of slick leaf litter laden slopes where one step forward would have resulted in two back (not to mention falling on ones face) steered us towards a less extreme option. As luck would have it, the Hunter’s very own GPX Gandalf (Brad Mertens) had wizzarded up a worthy loop called the Dirty 600, six hundred odd kilometres of road and singletrack which avoided the hike-a-bike that had earned the Hurt its fearsome reputation. 

Brad Mertens in 10 years
Loading the files onto our Garmins the night before, we added some last minute revisions to divert around an irate farmer, and were all set for our adventure.

All aboard the train and ready for adventure!
One of the great things about riding in the Hunter is that so much of it is accessible by train, except when the train breaks down and forces one to stand in the rain waiting for a replacement. About an hour from our destination Morissett, we contemplated the ride but were not keen to say goodbye to the relative warmth and dryness of the train and station too early. Fortunately the wait was short and before we knew it we were rolling out on the course, Gandalf himself coming all the way from Middle-Wangi to show us the way to Coorangbong.

It begins... (Day 1)
Starting with a gentle road climb into the Watagans (which by the third time, some 560 kilometres into the ride, would became the Notagains) the sunshine which had blessed the start of our ride gave way to a misty vapour that forced us to pedal harder and don my Anti-cyclone. This first part of the ride was punctuated by climbs followed by short descents, forming undulating ridge roads which set the rhythm for the rest of the ride. Dropping down into Wyong it was sunny again and joining the trail up to Mangrove Mountain the puddles were ever present. Soon our bikes were slathered in fine particles of clay, a paste which migrated from trail to every part of our body and even via drink bottles into our mouths. Not even the delicious taste of home in the form of an Em’s Power Cookie bar could flush out the gritty sensation.

Rohloff hub cared less about the mud than I did
A welcome stop at the Mangrove Mountain store allowed Tristan to overhear some quintessential Aussie banter, with locals discussing the prospects of weekend festivities, a lingo laiden diatribe that left us in hysterics. Before we could further investigate the culture we were barked out of town by some rowdy blue heelers, a breed Tristan is familiar with as it is the same as his Dusky, the dog made famous in the dusky dog blog.
Who let the dogs out?
Buoyed by the pies and chiko rolls of the stop we rolled through strangely boggy Upper Mangrove and onto the Convict trail, determined to make it Wisemans Ferry before sunset. I’d recalled this section from the Hurt and was overjoyed that I could share it with Tristan, the rocky steps and convict hewn trail becoming increasingly gnarly in the failing light. Boarding the Wiseman’s Ferry in the proper dark, we were carried to the warm bistro across the road, and while the generous portions delighted our hearty bikepacker’s appetites, they failed to comprehend our need for takeaway food, proffering a quiche and cookies in a huge polystyrene containers. Fortunately some spare ziplock bags did the trick, although they didn’t prevent Tristan’s quiche from becoming pureed.

Tristan gets stuck into his dinners at Wisemans ferry

Rolling out to the Upper Colo Campground, we were escorted by Rosco and Gandalf who as instigators of the route were keen to see its effects in person. Tristan and I didn’t have to pretend to be stoked with the trail so far, and as we bivied up to the sound of grunting Koalas and the serene backing track of our fellow camper’s offensively loud dubstep  we were eager to see what else was in store.

Morissett to Upper Colo, 188km, 11 hours, 1707m climbing. Critters of note: Lyrebird, Kookaburra, Koala.

And continues (Day 2) ...
Some minor bathroom related dalliances aside, the second day started smoothly with an invigorating climb to the ridge then more undulating roads and a descent to the Hawkesbury River.
Probably the dullest part of the route, the proceeding rolling roads swayed back and forwards up the valley past picturesque cows, churches, spitting us out at the historic St. Albans pub. 

Large servings in St. Albans bring bikepackers all the way from NZ
A breakfast of epic proportions ensued, with bacon, eggs and man sized toast doused in enough butter to lube our screeching chains. While we’d missed the lamb shanks of the previous night the breakfast was more than fitting of the day ahead. More mellow rolling roads took us up into the hills behind Wollombi, with motivation starting to wane we hit a gnarly descent that got the stoke going.

Dubious water source which may have caused digestive malfunction
The Dirty 600 was not without its own Hurt-like idiosyncrasies, with Brad throwing in a ‘for shits and giggles’ loop up the Boree track to get the kilometre’s and vistas up. It ended up being a fantastic section of trail with the hills just short enough for momentum to be carried. However it was at this point when a cruel digestive ailment struck me mid pedal stroke. Dropping my bike and dashing for the bush with toilet paper in hand, I cursed the evil microbes that had rendered my bacon breakfast to liquid. Taking my time to make sure my stomach was settled we set off again feeling decidedly average, not even the high speed 84km/h run to the Wollombi valley could lift my spirits. Stopping at the store then the pub I picked at a hearty evening meal with surprising disinterest. My digestive disconnect provided mixed feedback to my normally over ambitious gullet. Taking my time I managed to get through most of it, and saddling up again we headed for what we hoped would be our final camp.

Shortly after loudly proclaiming the lameness of Australian hills in comparison to the steep cols of Banks Penininsula (especially as arranged in the Petite Brevet), the road pinched upwards into the sky. Only the small illuminated patch of our headlights kept us from seeing the soul destroying climb ahead of us, and so we stayed on our bikes, winching our bikes up the road, knees and crank bolts creaking all the way. Passing a wombat rescue centre we chose a flat spot and bivied for the night.

Upper Colo to Pokolbin State Forest, 215km, 12 hours, 3371m. Critters of note: Wombat, Deer, Owl.

The final Countdown (Day 3)...
After an early and chilly night, we packed up our camp and wolfed down a packet of Oreos each to fuel us for the descent to Cessnock. Starting up high we’d wrapped up warm, but as the inevitable ridge pinches hit we stripped off layers and stuffed them back in our bags. After a short section of rocky singletrack we picked up speed on the descent, only to execute some high speed swerves to dodge some startled Kangaroos who chose a path through our front spokes as the path of least resistance. Hearts racing, they settled as we re-joined tarseal and took in the awesome sunrise which was happening over a mist shrouded Cessnock.

Sunshine over a misty Cessnock
Not ones to dwell on such niceties, we dove down the hill and into the mist, heading straight for McDonalds where the greasy McMuffins were just as welcome as the warm seats and bathroom sink shower. Turns out the hyper-processed mush had reawakened my appetite which had thrown a wobbly after the digestive malfunction of the previous day. With sun starting to emerge we headed for Kurri Kurri, a combination of back roads and railway track taking us to a park which made for a perfect chamois cream application opportunity for Tristan, whose tired brain now considered the indecency socially acceptable. He has since apologised to any children or old ladies who may have been offended.

Tristan discretely applies cream in a Kurri Kurri park
Shredding through more twisty moto trail amongst piles of consumerist detritus was a new experience for Tristan, and one that left him perplexed given the multitude of garbage collection options available.
Before long we were pointed upwards and sweating hard, grinding up into the Notagains for the final time. Crossing the course where we’d headed for Wyong was a great milestone which was capped off with the heavenly Coke, pies and slices of the Cooranbong bakery. This time Ollie offended some older patrons by scraping mud from his bike onto the footpath and letting out a load profanity laden proclamation that his chain was stuffed.

Heading out for the final stretch, we began singing ‘final countdown’, a cola fuelled ding-dong battle ensued as we circled the Eralong power station. neither of us could break the other and the spirit of congeniality returned for the spin around Morisset Peninsula to the finish.

Pokolbin State Forest to Morisset, 189km, 11.5 hours, 2621m. Critters of note: Bison, Goanna, Fox, Snake, Millions of Kangaroos.

In summary...
Rolling into Morisset after 55 hours of riding, sleeping and eating we were both struck with how pleasant a bikepacking ride could be with fine company and without the red haze that comes part of racing. I’d enjoyed the Dirty 600 more immensely, and while a strong willpower was required to resurrect sleepy limbs form the padded train seat for our short ride home, my body and mind came out the other end refreshed rather than drained. Our relatively fresh state was a sure testament to the fact that we’d matured to the point where we no longer saw the need to crush each other every ride, or maybe we were just getting old!

Despite Ollie's pyscho expression he was actually as happy as Tristan
For those with some time to kill both Tristan and I can wholeheartedly recommend the Dirty 600 loop, or for those just dabbling there are shorter 400 and 200 km routes each taking in many of the Hunter's fine trails. Grand depart is on October 4 so there is still plenty of time to carbo load or at least start your taper!


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Ollie's (Quality) Junk Sale. Everything Must Go!

Times always come in one's life where the accumulation of life's excessive accoutrements  becomes too great to bear. This phenomenon is made worse when one resides in a shoebox sized apartment, as Heidi and I are forced to do in Sydney. Motivated by a suffocating proliferation of components I've decided to have a clear out and sell some fine quality 'lightly used' components via social media. So have a gander at the junk below and make me a realistic offer at oliver.whalley@gmail.com. Happy to sort shipping to either Australia or NZ as require. Prices are in AUD. If I can successfully get rid of the first round then there are a few more to come, and I promise there is actually some good stuff in there, especially for a kleptomaniacal biker!

 SRAM Press fit PF30 BB $40
-Brand Spankers SRAM Press Fit 30 Bottom Bracket 

-Fits 30mm spindle cranksets to mountain and road frames with PF30 BB shell 
-Includes spacers, wave washer and instructions


 Near new Chris King Headset $100

-1-1/8" old School straight steerer 
-Sotto Voce logos 
-Slight cable rub on lower cup 
-Bearings smooth as silk 
-Includes star nut, and mad props from your riding buddies for rolling on the best headset in the biz


 Brand new Shimano XT M780 Rear Derailleur $80

-10 speed compatible 
-Long cage 
-Bad-ass black colourway 
-Show that derailleur munching rock you are boss with this wallet friendly but well performing shiftermatron


 Brand new Shimano XT Ninja Stars $90

-Taken off XT M780 crankset 
-104/64 bcd 4 bolt 
-42t biggie 
-32t middle 
-24t granny 
-Benchmark Shimano shifting 
-Doesn't include bolts 


 XT Bottom bracket to suit XT/SLX/Zee MTB Cranksets $40

-Spacers included for 68/73mm threaded BB shells 


 Crazy light Egg Beater Ti SPD pedals $100

-Includes real Titanium spindles for uber lightness (sub 200g!) 
-Good condition with recent rebuild and little play in cages 
-Doesn't include cleats 


Brand New Egg Beater 3 SPD pedals $130 

-Weight: 278g/pair 

-Includes cleats

  Brand new Shimano XTR Ninja Stars $130
-Taken off XTR M980 crankset 
-104/64 bcd 4 bolt 

-42t biggie 
-32t middle 
-24t granny 
-Benchmark Shimano shifting 
-Includes bolts for biggie/middle 


White e13 Turbocharger bash ring $25

-104 bcd 4 bolt pattern 
-To suit 36T single or double ring 
-Includes long bolts for fitting 
-Perfect if you keep getting a bit rad and consistently huck to chainring

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