Monday, November 22, 2010

Petit Brevet 2010; the little monster

Riders ascend Rapaki for the first of many climbs. Photo John 'Sifter' Randall.
Dawning warm but overcast, I rode from home in Mt Pleasant to Hansen Park where a few keen beans were already gathered and fizzing at the bung. Chatting to seasoned Brevet veterans Simon, Jasper, Michi and Sifter (whose bung knee ruled the event out for him), all seemed pretty amazed at the behemoth that Tim had created, but any anxieties were largely hidden by the experiential learning that comes from similarly epic undertakings like this Brevet’s elder sibling.

Ollie and Michi discuss lead-out tactics for the sprint. Photo Dominic Blissett.
Outright excitement was palpable in newbies like Dom and Ross, the latter reporting shakes such was the level of his anticipation. Loaded to the gunnels with gear to house and feed an African nation, they were prepared for any eventuality. All that gear meant weight for the climbs, and their loaded mules cast a stark juxtaposition against the sleek, unburdened lines of my rigid hub-geared Ventana.

Their obvious adherence to the Boy Scouts ‘be prepared’ motto brought about a touch of anxiety in me. Should I have packed some extra layers or even a survival blanket? But with bikes rolling out across the freshly mown paddock at 8AM on the dot, it was clear that my bed had been made, and that now I’d have to sleep in it, or not sleep at all, as the case came to be.

Reserved smiles early on. Perhaps Ollie knew what lay in store. Photo Lance Griffin.
Cruising up Rapaki and onto familiar tracks of Vernon and the traverse, it was good to get in the groove, a small bunch of four forming which thinned to two as we shredded a favourite road descent to Gebbies Pass. Lance and I worked well together, and knowing these early roads well we dispatched Port Levy saddle then Pigeon Bay saddle in quick succession. Here Lance’s choice for minimal navigation bit him in the ass, dropping back then taking a wrong turn only to be seen at Hilltop much later on. He was fortunate to be guided through the fog stricken Double Fenceline Route by the navigationally talented Michi, perhaps the only man I know with a built in GPS function (complete with Google earth compatibility).

In actual fact Michi and I had lucked out, as this crucial section was the only part of the course we had chosen to pre-ride, so the minimal visibility proved to be no barrier. I heard some grim reports particularly from Ross and Dom who’d neglected to take a fog busting fan in their gear and spent six hours exploring the lower couloirs of Mt Fitzgerald.

An indulgent break at the Hilltop Cafe followed. Pie, cake and ginger beer were consumed in great quantities to the point where a coat of bloat had enveloped me like the mist outside. When David and Simon then Michi and Lance rolled in and ate their own pies, I held on for another 45 min, knowing full well that the company on this next stretch would help me keep sane through the long night ahead.

Mist envelops the course at Hilltop. Photo Lance Griffin.
Summit Rd rolled up and down the hill in a strangely enjoyable fashion before dropping down to Little Akaloa where some fantastic conversations ensued about whether the name was a typo that had been perpetuated by lazy cartographers.

Up and down again to Okain’s where I sadly parted company with Simon and Dave. Rather wisely they’d chosen to chill at the backpackers, and their evening of fish and chips, warm showers and soft pillows couldn’t be further from what lay in my immediate future.

Climbing out of the picturesque Okains bay along the seemingly endless but well named Big Hill Road alone, I caught up to Charles who had trooped all the way through without a stop. His first Brevet and he was well prepared, having ridden the whole course the week prior but pulling the pin at Barry’s Bay at 3AM only last week, he was determined that they’d be a different outcome this time.

Dropping again to Le Bons Bay for another climb back to Summit Road, the sealed surface carrying us steeply into the mist. Michi and Lance appeared through the fog on one of the undulations, having missed the Le Bons ballbreaker. I joined them for a final pinch to the Stoney Creek track which descended into Akaroa. Here the afternoon rain conspired with clumps of poop and my tire’s skimpy knobs to make this grassy descent a hair raising experience. With relief we made it into Akaroa, even catching the 4 Square’s closing special ($1.09 Pam’s mince and cheese) a few minutes before closing time.

Already shivering despite wearing all my layers on, I was determined to hit the road and keep the wheels rolling. The mild warmth of all the exertion I could muster was all I could call upon to fight the cold on this long night.

A pleasant ride around Onawae Flat then Duvachelle to Wainui and the rain began to worsen. As if in cahoots with the altitude, a grovel up the indomitable Bossu Road accompanied ever increasing waves of rain till on the exposed tops I was soaked and shivering in the bone chilling squalls.

Rather than any competitive instinct which had driven me this far, my sole motivation to continue now came from a need to get home and out of the dreadful cold. The descent to Little River was steep and corrugated. Rigid forks and shivering limbs made it even more testing, and it was with relief that I made it finally to Little River, where ironically the road that defines the settlement had the look of a monsoon fed torrent. Turning left onto the now swampy rail trail, I was safe in the knowledge that only the flat latter part of the course remained. There was however still a long way to go and a long night ahead.

The seemingly endless sandy stretch out to Ellesmere outlet was where I first experienced what has been described to me by adventure racers as the sleep monsters. Grinding away with only the gusting headwind and driving rain for company the featureless night time landscape lulled my eyes to a sleepy state, and for the first time of many I’d find myself waking with a start, with bike heading acutely off course. Fortunately the rustle of long grass or sticks woke me before I struck ditch, power pole, sea or oncoming vehicle, and I was lucky that the roads and trails where it happened were as straight as an arrow.

The sandy surface dashed any hope of riding, so plugging through the sand I took to opportunity to eat a chocolate bar and crank my IPod, anything and everything to try and keep eyes from involuntarily closing. With relief I made it through the outlet section where the 2 hour’s previous toils were rewarded with a profoundly comforting tail wind. Cranking through the miles free of twist or turn, monsters returned and the regular glances at my bicycle’s speedo proved to be dull company. Even it gave up eventually, succumbing to the road crud and becoming locked as my mind was on the average speed.

Hope had begun to grow now with the lights of Lincoln appearing through the mist. Street light are often bagged for the light pollution cast by their buzzing sodium bulbs, but on this day, very early on a Saturday morning they were a most welcome sight.

Kennedy’s Bush Road is a tough climb at the best of times, and in my sleep deprived state I am embarrassed to report walking some sections, unable to muster enough traction from sodden surface, tires and legs, let alone a line to follow in the darkness from my fatigue addled brain.

Normally the feeling of elation at cresting a final climb would be difficult to contain, and friends will report me regularly whooping in delight when cresting a final climb. No such celebration in this growing light, the easy tarmac kilometres to Rapaki passed in a haze, the final descent I enjoyed safe in the knowledge that it was almost over.

Stopping at Hansen Park to note my finishing time of 5:55AM. No dancing girls.

Ride home and a walk up the hill where a shower of plentiful warmth ensued. Bed.

In all, the estimated 5800m of climbing turned out to be closer to 7500m, the latter being measured on a bike mounted altimeter of one of the 13 to finish (from 28 starters). 21 hours and 55 minutes made for my longest day on a bike ever. At points I was pushing the boundaries of fun into the realms of misery but on reflection it is an experience I’m glad I’ve had.

It may be some time before the memories of this Petit monster fade.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Le Petit Brevet 2010 – what lies in store?

Ollie in the big Brevet. Photo Caleb Smith.
The wildly successful Kiwi Brevet had its inaugural running at Waitangi weekend this year. In running this mammoth 1100km self-sufficient bike-a-thon, MTB legend Simon Kennett unwittingly started a wave of popularity for the randonneuring genre. Participants must combine riding fitness (durability rather than speed) with mental fortitude and a gigantic quantity of food. Success is not achieved by reaching the finish line first, but by completing the epic undertaking, and while saddle sores fade, the memories of long days in exciting and beautiful places live on.

With pleasant memories still strong, it was with no hesitation that I jumped at the opportunity to partake in Tim Mulliner’s take on the theme; Le Petit Brevet. Famous for his bestselling touring book ‘Long ride for a Pie’, Tim had dreamed up a thrillingly difficult course on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsular. In squeezing 5,800m of climbing into only 320km, he’d set a route that would challenge the most die-hard pedal freaks, while still proving achievable for the less obsessed looking to dabble in an epic weekend-long adventure.

And now with preparations for the very long ride almost complete, I can only speculate what will lie ahead on the mixture of singletrack, gravel and sealed roads of this beautiful part of the world.

In the interests of keeping weight down (especially important given the sheer climbing involved), I’ve decided not to take any bedding, and am resigned to ride through the darkness and into the morning’s small hours, hopefully arriving back at Hansen Park at 4AM on Sunday morning.

Proven in the Kiwi Brevet and a recent high altitude touring circuit around Nepal’s Annapurna circuit, I’ll be riding my grinch green Ventana El Padrino, complete with Rohloff hub, carbon rigid fork and Stans Raven semi-slicks. Setup wise I’m passing on the Freeload rack and dry bag, instead paring gear back to a minimum and carrying it in a Cactus pack. All going to plan I’ll be able to get away with the 15L Zero, but if sanity prevails it’ll likely be the 29L Henry. Illumination will be from a borrowed set of Ay-Ups, their 12 hr runtime surpassing any other light setups in my box of tricks.

Ollie's Padrino gets some lovin' before its big outing
The relatively short distance has left me a lot less conservative than for the Brevet, with only essential tools, spares and duct tape, not to mention cash and cellphone finding a place in the pack. I’ll also be rocking a hydration bladder instead of the bottles I used in the Brevet. A Steri-pen will mean I can top up from rivers and dodgy taps without fear of gut rot.

Assorted gear.
Food wise I’ll be munching on One Square Meals (cranberry as I have yet to overcome my psychological allergy to apricot after the Brevet), stopping for a sit down meal at Hilltop and Akaroa if they are open and willing to accommodate a sweaty cyclist.

Perhaps what I’m looking forward to most, is the camaraderie that grows between randonneurs. With almost 40 souls lining up, the mixture of anticipation, excitement and anxiety on the start line will be electric. As these feelings fade with the growing miles, the simple task of covering a great distance in the company of like-minded individuals will forge a sense of community that beats any extrinsic reward.

While the forecast is for light rain and light winds, I’ve convinced myself that it’ll be no more than a cooling mist, which would be innumerably better than the midday roastings we’ve been experiencing recently in Canterbury.

MetVUW's predictions for the first five hours.
Check-in again for a full report of my Petit Brevet experience, assuming I make it through Tim’s pick of the peninsula’s unrelenting climbs!