Thursday, November 24, 2011

Craig gets some singletrack stoke

In this local ruler and recent Timaru 12hr solo champion's own words...
Ventana’s… they are so much fun I can hardly control myself!

Mountain Pedaler out...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Le Petite Brevet 2011 – Sunshine, tailwainds and a thermonuclear steak and cheese

The inaugural 2010 edition of the Petite Brevet was a tortuous experience, so it was with trepidation that I signed up for Tim’s second edition.  Circumnavigating Bank’s peninsula in a rough figure of eight, this year’s  anti-clockwise direction was the reverse of the previous year, and did without the apparently beautiful stretch across the Lake Ellesmere spit.  I’d had the misfortune of traversing this endless sand trap alone at 2AM in the morning in the depths of a southerly, so safe to say it wouldn’t be too missed.
The key difference this year was the weather, with the aforementioned southerly making for a miserable affair last year. For this year’s edition rain threatened to dampen spirits early on, but what eventuated was a spectacularly sunny day that really made a great showcase of the fantastic route that Tim had chosen.
As with all Brevet’s the start is a highlight with anxious newbies mixing with the Brevet gnarled vets, comparisons of bike and tire choice being the default conversation.  Sifter and Megan had come down from Wellington as part of their preparations for the Cape Epic, while Judd form Back of the Pack Racing had made the trip from the US of A, putting aside last minute doubts raised by my report of last years’ experience and jumping on the plane across the pacific.
Gear wise I’d gone for lightweight speed,  a decision driven by the positive weather outlook. Packed into a Cactus zero were a rain jacket, polypro, 3 litres of water, and baker’s dozen of Em’s power cookie bars. This final addition was to be a marked improvement on last year’s nutrition which consisted of lockjaw inducing OSM bars. Em’s cookies made me want to delve into my pockets and wolf them down, an ideal attitude for extended endeavours of endurance like the Brevet.
Before we knew it we were off, and with my ambitious goal of making the Diamond Harbour ferry’s final 11PM crossing for the return to the city any thoughts of pacing or sociable riding quickly evaporated. With 250km of roads and trails, and a robust 7000m of climbing in store, only time would tell whether this goal was realistic.
Straight away adventure racer Ian and I opened a gap, buzzing along the traverse singletrack and onto Summit road past the Sign of the Kiwi. Descending Gebbies Pass we were struck by a block headwind, but fortunately the next section along the rail trail had just enough of a skew to the southerly to give a welcome boost from our tails. The only obstacles on this arrow straight route were the skittery sheep and their ample droppings, the latter leaving Ian distraught at the poo splattered state of his new 29er, barely a week old.
Turning off from the trail through Birdling’s Flat we heeded Charles’ warnings about outlet crossing, and were glad not to be traversing the moonscape at night. The thick pebbly surface hid the only crossing which lay right up against the lake, and with a quick change of direction we were on course and climbing Bossu Road.  Grim memories were rekindled despite the healthy tailwind, and as the driving rain worsened I hoped for my chamois’ sake that it’d clear before too long.
Steaming down the fantastic sealed Kinloch Road descent I made a mental note to come ride the road again, its sinuous curves would surely be heaven on a road bike. Spitting us out at Little River we ducked into the store’s café, pushing to the front of queue to get the greasy fix our chilled limbs craved. I’ve always been greeted by delicious food aromas at this Café, and this time was no different. The threat of an 800m climb on an undigested sausage roll didn’t deter me and I wolfed down the gourmet pastry, promptly pointing my bike skywards towards the mist shrouded Double Fenceline route.
It turns out Ian had spent some time in Little River growing up,  whiling away holidays at his relative’s  farm. While he didn’t say it, I’d no doubts that he was familiar with the spirit crushing steepness of the Western Valley Road climb, shaped as he’d taken an interest in mountainbiking.  A farming contact had informed him that a culvert would be running clear, and as he stopped to fill his bottles I kept climbing, eager to start the Double Fenceline trail.
While I hadn’t pre rode this part of the course, which as for last year was probably the navigational crux of the route, I backed myself at a few key junctions and made it through geographically informed. Just as I dropped on to Pettigrews Road the mist cleared to reveal a stunningly sunny day, with views either side of the peninsula that really did bring on a smile.
Rejoining the tarseal, the route followed Summit Road to Okains Bay which was punctuated by the leg sapping pinches that give the peninsula its fearsome reputation (particularly amongst roadies tall geared roadies). Dropping down to the ocean was a welcome relief, and before two shakes of a lambs tail I was parked up at the Akaroa 4-square, impatiently standing in the queue in my sweaty lycra, Coke and thermonuclear Irvines Steak and Cheese in hand.
At this point I chose to wait for Ian, certain that his company on the remainder of the route would keep craziness at bay. As we saddled up and weaved through the crowds of sauntering Christmas shoppers, the Purple Peak Road quickly signalled its intentions, pitching to 25% early on, then relaxing into slightly less unrelenting grade that quashed any thought of shifting from granny.
My steed for this Brevet was a newly kitted out El Commandante complete with carbon Niner rigid fork, Rohloff and Gate Carbon Drive. Tire choice was a fast and sketchy WTB Vulpine that proved to be a perfect for the par cours. Throughout the ride the bike didn’t miss a beat, the content hum of the ‘hoff complemented the buzz of the belt, and never needed lubing despite puddles, dung and  dust. The only point where I felt out of my comfort zone was on the more corrugated descents, particularly into Pigeon Bay. When the road steepened and under hard braking I found myself wrestling with the road for control. Some more riding on wash boarded roads and perhaps a spot of rock climbing will be in order to build gun strength in the lead up to my bigger goal events, particularly the Tour Divide.
The descent into Le Bons bay that followed was thrilling, and set the tone for the rest of the ride, at least the parts with a downhill gradient.  Wide, open and steep with whoop inducing corners that seemed to go on and on. The descents spat you at a sea level with a grin as the only evidence of the rush.
On the climb out of Le Bon’s I began to count down the eight remaining hills to the finish, a natural tactic I seem to adopt when managing an enormous task such as the one I was presented with. The funny thing was, after this first climb my mind wandered and I threw this approach out the window. It seems the thrill of conquering bay after bay was more than enough to keep my legs and brain ticking over. Okains, Stoney, Chorlton, Little Akaroa and Pidgeon Bay all passed by, each with its own quaint charms that left me eager to return and enjoy the ambience under less hasty circumstances.
By the time I descended to Port Levy it was 7:30PM. My goal of making the 11PM ferry was smashed and now I sought only to make the 8PM sailing. Nature decided to back me with a belting tailwind, propelling me up the climb at a spritely 12km/h. Cresting the saddle with 10 min to go, I dived into the descent throwing caution to the wind, hardly a friendly gesture given the wind’s recent generosity. Despite my efforts it wasn’t to be, and as I reached Diamond Harbour at 8:08PM, I knew I’d have just a bit more riding in store.
The final 30km passed in blissful solitude. With quiet roads and the sun setting, and just enough energy left to knock out the final climb up from Governors Bay to the Sign of the Kiwi.
Along Summit Road then descending Rapaki to complete the route, I stopped the clock at Hansen park at 9:47 PM, exhausted but elated.  Still no dancing girls but this year was different. With sun and favourable winds replacing the dreadful southerly of 2010, I rolled home content with the knowledge that experiences such as this are what makes life rich and fulfilling.
Mountain Pedaler out...

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Escaping zombies in Fiordland

Ollie low on the Borland Saddle climb
All photos Dominic Blissett

With good friend Ross set to enter a lifetime of martial bliss with the lovely Anna, his mates saw fit to celebrate the end of the bachelor lifestyle with a stag party located in a secret Fiordland location. Codenamed Operation McSidey, our transportation down to the drop zone took the form of Dom's Toyota Granvia, which was loaded with gear lunchtime Thursday for the long haul south.

Throughout the weekend Dom displayed excellent endurance driving, steering the bulky van all the way south. Stopping only for feast of pizza at Dunedin's Ra bar, we were audibly assaulted with the rants of a crazy old timer. The 10 hour journey had the potential for high levels of boredom and were it not for the fantastically gripping stories of flesh-eating zombies being blasted out of the stereo we may have turned into the very zombies the tale described.

Ross was already a fan of the riveting audio play We're alive, and by the end of the journey the van was deeply engrossed in the tale and eagerly awaiting the next chapter. So enthralling was the tale that it is  serious contender for space on my Ipod, with the story providing entertainment for some of the long, lonely journeys that lay ahead.

Crashing at the McCulloch's place, we rolled out mid morning, stocking with food and ammunition for the raucous weekend that lay ahead. While the exact details of the weekends events are classified, the zombie story was rather prophetic and by the end of the two days, the level of carnage would blow that of a big-budget explosion addled movie out of the sky.

One part of the weekend I can comment on was a fantastic riding excursion that Dom and I took to the crest of the Borland Saddle. Feeling the itch after so long in a car and then a day of sitting around, the ride was heaven and we had the good fortune of being in this notoriously damp, moose-hiding terrain on perhaps one of the only dry days in a year.

While the sign claimed closure due to snow (small matter for our pedalling steeds), the road up was in great condition, baby bottom smooth and with a relaxed grade that never steepened as it snaked its way up to the 1000m saddle.

Dom had recently taken possession of an SLR camera and I offered to play model, hardly a chore when surrounded the spectacular vistas prominent in this remote part of our country.
Both aboard singlespeeds, the seemingly endless descent saw ridiculous displays of spin-and-tuck which are well known to one geared purists.

Spin, tuck and repeat
We were content to roll back to the lodge up till the point when we spied some gnarly beech singletrack at a fork in the road. It had been some time since my wheels had touched the beech strewn hero dirt, too long in fact, and the gnarly trail we were treated to added an entirely new dimension to the ride.

Delightfully prominent roots broke up the smooth trail, with steep steps and switchbacks proving a stomach clenching challenge with seats up and travel low. At one point the trail sidled past a curious limestone outcrop, and we threaded handlebars between trees and the wall before stopping to investigate the strange feature.

While the trail was bone dry, the bush surrounding it was lush and radiant, with fern clogged gulleys and root littered flats adding spice to the lower parts of the trail. Finishing up with a roll down the river, both Dom and I were suitably stoked, and returned to the lodge beaming with the satisfaction that can only come from premium singletrack.

In our absence the camp had been infiltrated by a posse of human sized gorillas, and the hilarity that ensued as they tormented the inebriated stag left me cautious if I were ever to have my own stag party.

Back in the van and heading north, with the dulcet tones of the zombie apocalypse lulling us into a bacon induced kip, I reflected on the tight bonds that had been formed between Ross and his mates. Surely this reason alone is a good enough to justify this sometimes destructive ceremony, and this was certainly the case for this Fiordland adventure.

That Dom and I had happened upon such a sparkling gem of singletrack was icing on the cake, and the whole Fiordland adventure made for a fantastic long-weekend escape.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Going bush in the St James

Ollie pedals into the endless vistas of the Clarence Valley
With the nation descending into a monotony of rugby reflection, building to an idiotic crescendo with the semi-final showdown, I was left with no choice but to escape for a long weekend. Taking a day of leave I went bush on my El Commandante.

The rough plan was to ride north from Christchurch to Hanmer, camp the night using my yet to be tested collection of ultralight camping gear, then ride the St James cycle route with Heidi the next day. While the backcountry route has been open for a few years now, I hadn't had the chance to roll my wheels along it and jumped at the opportunity when I saw a clear patch through an admittedly cloudy weather window.

El Commandante prepped and ready to leave the man cave
Recently I've been working with outdoor industry legends Cactus and Freeload to develop a lightweight gear carrying solution for longer rides, and the weekends riding would serve as a thorough test of one design. Success would see me adopt the integrated dry bag in events like the Kiwi Brevet and the Tour Divide, while failure would see my lightweight kit scattered on the trail to be scavenged by critters or sharp eyed riders following in my tread.

Loaded to the gunnels and keen to get out of dodge, I pushed north, stopping only briefly to show the guys at Cactus what I'd come up with and get their feedback on constructibility. On a sealed highway, the ride was uneventful with the exception of a spectacular tailwind that saw me pushing 35km/h for much of the 140 km journey, and also the abundance of magpies.

It seemed that in the absence of daytime television to keep unemployed magpies occupied, they took it upon themselves to rally against me, using their ultrasonic screeches to alert buddies kilometers away to my presence. Out of nowhere they would swoop and dive for my head, some with an alarming crack. I did my best not to flinch, and fortunately these critters rated pretty low on the viciousness scale with none actually striking my head. I'd back the legendary 'Mt Pleasant Punisher' in a WMW Smackdown bout any day.

Around Culverden the rain which had been threatening all afternoon set in torrentially, with the wind switching direction to raging headwind just to drive the chilly point home. Finally arriving in Hanmer I scurried into the quaintly decorated Log Cabin for a scoop of chips, and some meat products of dubious origin. I justified the indulgence by rationalising that I'd need to adapt my body to this kind of greasy onslaught for the Tour Divide.

Dinner was a similarly uninspiring affair, with significant deliberation over choice of canned soup. I eventually opted for some Campbell's Chunky, and followed this up with a long spell in front of the precooked chickens until I discovered the beautifully warming air of a a heat pump discharging just above the beer. Pretending to read the fine print on a box of Heineken, I soaked in the warm air while I pondered the storm outside, looking increasingly more like a strange spandex clad homeless person.

Abandoning plans of camping up high, I settled for a damp corner of a campground. I showered under a cold dribble barely warmer than the rain outside, put my wet clothes back on and waited inside for a break in the weather to pitch my tent. Fortunately it went up quickly and proved to be a remarkably comfortable place to be in the storm, especially given its scant 400g weight. The company of Ritchie, Rose and Jackson was also warming, the latter two regaling tales of adventures on their off-road tandem which Jackson built himself.

Uber-tent glistening after a stormy night
Next morning I forced down more dubious canned goods and headed for the substantial Jack's Pass climb. The original plan had been to meet Heidi at the St James car park at 9am, but a corner from the top I heard a car behind and was stoked to see her car dubbed the battleship for its mottled grey paint work, had made it. We saddled up on our bikes and headed for the trail head some 36km away. Assisted by a fantastic tailwind we made short work of it, and as we turned on to the trail proper spirits were high.

Ollie gets in some trail head fettling
The landscape in this part of the world is reminiscent of a barren moonscape, and brought back memories of my time in Nepal where similar dry valleys were common  at higher altitudes. Having raced the infamously cramp inducing Rainbow Rage some 6 times, the scenery had become all to common, but revisiting it I reflected on how it exuded a kind of desolate beauty and emptiness that calmed the soul.

Heidi takes in the vistas
While the St James cycleway itself is rated as advanced on DOC's scale, there was no point where I felt the rush or thrill of a gnarly descent. I reckon that their rating must come from the fact that this amazingly scenic ride is in a very remote part of our world, and the 100km length involved (by the time we had looped back to Jack's Pass) was not to be taken lightly.

Advanced in scale, but not in content
The trail itself was fantastic, using combination of farm tracks, 4wd routes and wide purpose built singletrack. Where a cavernous gully required crossing, DOC had employed all the engineering expertise at their disposal, installing epic swing bridges that made crossing the obstacles a doddle.

Gear wise, my prototype bag was gradually self destructing. The impact of the trail early on caused one of the carbon rods to fracture leaving the bag rubbing on the tire over every bump. Channelling McGuyver, I whipped out a pocket saw and fashioned a bunch of sticks into a base support, locking it down with a zip tie when these began to wiggle loose. While the concept is good I had underestimated the sheer torture a bumpy trail can dish out, rest assured my later developments will have this part up sized.

Dry bag with ghetto modifications
We stopped regularly for snacks including my favoured trail snack an Em's Power Cookie. One of these well crafted nutrilogical concoctions even pulled Heidi from her depths of fatigue. After 8 hours in the saddle the oaty goodness helped her conquer the final climb to the car as cats and dogs began to fall.

All in all a successful weekend of riding with belt drive bike and body going not missing a beat. It was great to explore the St James with Heidi and I was impressed with how she handled the difficult challenge, gritting her teeth and knocking off personal time and distance records not to mention a bit of quality chamois time (some of it soggy).

Belt drive loved the mud
Words can't describe how refreshing it is to pack your belongings onto a bike and escape your normal world and this adventure has only encouraged me to indulge more in these weekend mini-adventures. While a bit socially backward, I'll jump at future opportunities to go-bush, usually aboard a bike and in a part of the world unexplored by me.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Grasshopper and friends enjoy Nelson's trail treats

Sue's 2012 El Saltamontes basking in the glorious Nelson sun

This year’s arrival of spring proper was well timed for number one Ventana tifosi and mother to the Mountain Pedaler; Sue. A stack of new frame designs were incubated over New Zealand’s winter at the North California factory, with the El Ciclon and El Rey released prior to the venerable El Saltmontes (the grasshopper), which finally hatched a few weeks back.

Sporting a multitude of new features including a tapered head tube, press fit bottom bracket, slacker geometry, 3D rockers, an optimised pivot and asymmetrical chainstays, the new frame made for an excellent replacement to Sue’s well loved 2006 Salty, which had seen many states of dirt in the hills around Nelson.

The pimped build was highlighted by Chris King hubs and Hope X2 race brakes

The bike was assembled to a custom spec with fruity bits like a custom Stans/Chris King wheelset, WTB’s ferociously grippy Wolverine tires and a Rock Shox Reveb for gnarly descending manoeuvres. Drive train was largely supplied by SRAM with a custom XTR crankset of 165mm length decked out with a 36 22 ring combo to help Sue conquer the steep climbs Nelson is famed for.
SRAM 2x10 drivetrain used a custom double ring combo up front to suit Sue's climbing style

With the bike assembled, it was only fair that Heidi and I took a trip to Nelson to get the bike setup dialled and of course at the same time sample the blossoming selection of trails on offer.

Saturday saw a comprehensive tour of the Codgers area including Turners, Old Dog new Tricks, IV line, P51, Pipilini and Firball. While some were new instant classics that are testament to the burgeoning skill of local builders, it was the rejuvenated ones I enjoyed most. The new lines oozed flow, with plenty of grade reversals to make excellent use of the elevation on offer. Fortunately parts of each track still payed homage to the steep sketchy fall lines that were the Nelson standard of old, with a few bum clenching moments to keep you on your toes and remind you what it is to be alive.
Fireball road climb was rewarded with a multitude of singletrack descents

The trail network they’ve developed is amazing and I for one will be returning for an extended summer holiday, looping the amazing network together for endless days of singletrack shredding.
Sue descending on the newly buffed IV line to round at a solid day of singletrack.

While Sue obviously loves the tracks, her new Salty with its relaxed geometry, fatter tires and glowing grinch green paintwork suits the evolved trails to a tee. It was with sadness that we left, but rest assured she’ll keep them well ridden in the long summer that lies ahead.

Mountain Pedaler out...

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Winter distractions

Kip' skis after a ridgeline traverse
Photo: Kip Cooper

While my obsession with bicycles is obvious, strapping some bedazzled planks to my feet and sliding down a mountain is a more recent passion. With local bike tracks soggy and damage prone, and ski hills steep and inviting, I took this winter as an opportunity to explore this more gravity oriented mode of personal transportation.

I decided to lock it in early with the purchase of a Chill pass which allowed me discounted access to club fields. While previous experience with their nut crackers had been pretty hairy, and I’d had to fight hard to suppress flinching as the steel frame rolled over each pulley with a finger severing clank. Fortunately several days on the rope tows have helped ease my anxiety, although I’m still vigilant of wayward fingers.

The list of gear required for skiing is seemingly endless, but on reflection less of a burden on finances and time than biking. Before the season began I traded up my sketchy straight skis for some modern carvers courtesy of Tardme.

A number of friends had frequently espoused the joys of back-country touring, using traction boosting skins on the base of your skis to access fresh slopes and fantastic views. Add to the shopping list some skins and a set of Trekker bindings that allowed me to pivot at the toe with my standard alpine setup. Goggles, helmet, shovel, probe, transceiver, jacket and a Cactus Sedition pack to carry it all and I was set.

With a few days on the fields to shape my pretty average skills, and with some fantastic advice from super shredder Michi, I adopted a jet fighter like approach to carving turns, and relished the exhausting combination of strength and coordination that a good descent required. With skills at an all time high, I was keen to give the touring thing a proper whack and so Kip and I headed for Mount Olympus in the hope of finding some gnar to shred.

The omnipotent weather being had dumped a load of fluffy stuff on Christchurch during the preceeding week, so last weekend was always going to be a banger in the mountains.

After Kip showed some Possum Bourne worthy driving skills up the access road, we were greeted with queues as long as the trail of Mitsubishi Outlander underbody trim left on the access road. The field was crowded with punters searching for fresh lines in the wake of the week’s earlier dump. Unfortunately there was none to be had as the lucky souls who’d been staying at the plush Olympus hut had found them all.

Struck with this disappointing scenario, Kip and I decided to take action, strapping on our skins and loosening our boots for a trek to the top. The closest thing I can liken climbing on skins to is hike-a-biking. Doubled over from aerobic exhaustion but making steady progress with the goal of a premium descent ample motivation.

One difference however is the skill required for turning whilst ascending a steep slope, with limited remaining concentration and coordination mustered to wrestle skis into a tight about face. Despite the constant struggle against gravity, touring uphill is an enjoyable experience, and you tend to develop a rhythm and forge progress, till next thing you know you are at the top of a mountain with a spectacular view.

Ollie striding it out on the way up
Photo: Kip cooper

We then strapped our skis to our packs and pushed for the summit by foot, stopping only to take photos that the amazing main divide backdrop begged for.

Booting it to the top
Photo: Kip cooper
Topping out we ripped off our skins and switched over bindings, strapping down boots for the furious descent ahead. Initially intimidated by the sheer steepness, fear quickly gave way to elation as I carved turn after turn in the soft untracked powder. Where elsewhere a nasty frozen crust had formed, this aspect of the slope gave nothing but golden flakey powder all the way down. This was the first and best experience of the day, the serene setting and amazing snow confirming my inclinations that ski touring was indeed all that.

Ollie scans for lines
Photo: Kip cooper

By the end of the day we’d racked up a number of thrilling descents, each fear filled initial moments followed by the elation of swishing down. By day end my legs were so shattered from the combination of sliding up and carving down that I could barely manage a turn. This culminated in a hilarious collision with Kip, a bystander commenting it was only fair given he’d laughed at an earlier biff.

So with plenty of snow still on the hills and the bike season starting to build, it’ll be a hard choice to choose between the slippery slopes or rock strewn trails. Not an undesirable dilemma but one that is only made possible by this great shaky city I call home.

Mountain Pedaler...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Keep calm and ride on...

Touched by the plight of Christchurch's quake ravaged residents, good friends Anja and Tristan are putting on an awesome event to raise funds for those affected.

Called 'Keep calm and ride on' (possibly the best race name ever!) they've tapped into the encyclopedic knowledge of Naseby's awesome trails, as stored in Kila Heppi's noggin.

Continuing a recent them of 6 hour enduros, the race should make for an awesome weekend away, with the famous hospitality of this Central Otago town at its heart.
Awesome un-ridden trails will be the icing on the cake, so there is practically no reason not to make the trip.

I might even shoot for some Sunday morning curling at Naseby's world class ice rink. Sliding a few stones makes for a lovely contrast with the razzle-dazzle of of mountainbiking!

Mountain Pedaler out...

Supersize your Super D

Riders pin it off the line in the Outside Sports Super D
The inaugural Outside Sports Super D held on the 15th of April was a splendiferous festival of descending fun.
Ollie and Michi teamed up with the two Nicks, and the merry band of travellers left Quakehurch for Queenstown, arriving Friday night in time for a catch-up curry with our Dunedin possie. Despite anticipation and the risk over overcooking in the dorm’s Dutch oven we slept like logs, stirring only for hilarious dream conversations.

Up bright and early on the clear crisp morning we prepared for the excitement that lay in store.

Gondola to top. Sweet trails all the way down!
The enduro Super D has a storied history in New Zealand, with the infamous Brake Burner held at Coronet Peak satiating XC, DH and trail riders’ desires for endless runs. NZ Ski’s decision to cut the chairlift cables left riders hanging, and it took the enterprising team of Geoff of Southern Traverse fame and Jim of Outside Sports to resurrect the universally popular format.

Six hours, solos and teams, with gondola uplifts for the 600m descent. Rather than the full on gnarl of DH courses, Super Ds use trails with more mellow grades, with plenty of passing opportunities provided by wide sections of trail and small climbs. The latter are the constant subject of complaint from gravity riders; while the weenies revel in the chance to pull back some of the losses over their rougher spirited brethren.

Boarding the gondola in pairs for the lift the start, the revelry built to a thrilling crescendo with cheers and jeers as riders left at 30 second intervals on the small climb to the start of the descent. Never before have I experienced such a celebration for the start of a race, with everyone stoked to be riding such an epic course on such a beautiful day. As I saddled up on the inside line next to new friend Jono (the first of many gondola buddies), this elation faded in a haze of breathless exertion as we exploded off the line.

Hooking one of the epic berms at the top of the course
Beginning with a fast wide section through mature conifers, the trail threw in some flowing corners, daring you to stay of the brakes. Over a small rooty section the first of the bike high berms began, wide cambered catchers ignored in favour of the tight and loose inside line.

Jumps and rollers began to feature amongst the sweeping berms. Passing into mature beech forest with a tight rooty corner giving way to the flowing jumpy descent, tabletop jumps littering the trail all the way down.

Spat out at Warp 10 onto the halfway skid site, it was down the gears and travel, and up with the dropper post for the leg searing grind up to Vertigo. Mellow at first, the climb eased then pinched again for the final awkward turn into the next trail.

A rush of speed and a string of rollers to double and triple, pump after pump and then more sweeping corners spat you out onto the skid site again.

Sliding round a gravelly hairpin we headed back down Singletrack Sandwich hooking off the trail on a dusty freshly cut line. Slicing through ground layered in golden autumnal leaves this delightful line swept back and then down a series of drops and up a dip.

First attempts with an inside line were foiled by roots quickly becoming too slippery for words, so the safe-ish outside line become the default. Dusty and rooty with speed scrubbing uphill turns, we dropped out on a wide track and pedalled hard to hit the intimidating step down, road gap step up combo.

Gathering speed then slamming on the anchors, it was down with gears and travel and up with the dropper again for the refreshingly mellow switchback climb back to Vertigo. Only the odd rooty pinch tested lungs and legs, before a series of wide switchbacks with sneaky hot lines led on to the final set of jumps.

Double, table, step down, double, step down, all hit at an ever increasing pace. Shrieking into the open steaming round one flat corner and another steep one and we were back on Hammy’s.

Seat up and pedalling like a madmen back to the Gondola base, only a tight inside line and steep switchback to break the rhythm.

An epic course that seemed to strike a perfect balance between gnar and flow, and by the end of my 16 laps (around 9,600m vertical descent) I knew every bump and berm like the back of my 661s.
Ollie shreds a corner on the lower part of the course
Crashes were few but amusing. Singletrack Sandwich seemed to be the bane of my run, and as determined as I was to shave seconds with the off-camber roots of the inside line, the 50-50 odds of making it through rubber side down proved too risky.

On about the 4th lap I was reflecting on the ride up how hot my knees had become. Perhaps it’d be worthwhile taking off my knee pads to air them out? It took an overzealous drift into a steep corner to drop my knee square into the dirt for me to quickly revaluate that position, and knees stayed safely but uncomfortably moist.

My Ventana El Chucho just ate up the trails. A recent switch to some fresh and light WTB rubber gave speed and grip, while the stiff tracking rear end combined with the mega rolling front wagon wheel to give traction and pace. Despite odd appearances which were summed up by a spectator’s baffling call telling me I needed to “swap out the front wheel for the climb”, the 69er proved to be an ideal trail weapon, the unique setup matching (and arguably besting) many of the menagerie of bling setups on show.
Ollie takes the El Chucho to Warp 10
Photo Tess Carney
Counting down the laps to the finish I was determined to maintain pace and recent adventures in rock climbing seemed to have fortified my t-rex arms to keep the dreaded death grip arm pump at bay. Blissfully unaware of my position in the field throughout the day, it wasn’t till my final lap when a friend said I was only 30 seconds back on 2nd place for me to recall that I was actually in a race. I ended up catching the other rider, but finished back in 4th, the confusion understandable due to the staggered starts. Mild disappointment paled in comparison to the blissful exhaustion felt at the finish, a level of stoke beyond the realm of written words.

A much needed shower and we were back up the gondola for a meal and prize giving. Kurt who I’d met trail building in Chile showed supreme gravity defying skills to take the win, reportedly riding all the monstrous jumps with his seat up, bad ass XC style. Solo riders took 5 of the top 6 spots, perhaps the solo riders’ unrivalled understanding of the trail that winning out over the freshness of the teams.

It took less than the a jiffy for me to decide if I’ll be back, and with bit more confidence on the bigger jumps that made the difference, I hope to be footing it at the pointy end of the podium.

Mountain Pedaler out...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Downhill demons confronted at the Diggler DH

Ollie busts a Vic Park huck in the early days
Downhill racing has always excited this XC racer, even going so far as dabbling in the local DH race scene six years ago on first moving to Christchurch. Shuttling the trails in Vic Park made for a perfect way to spend a dusty Saturday afternoon, shredding the hucks and jumps of Old nats, Raadi garden, and Drop track. The weapon of choice back then was an early edition Keewee Stealth hardtail complete with period Manitou Shermans, the latter sporting vice like stiction that can only come from a solid year of hucks to flat.

Back then, my personal issue with gravity riding was a lack of self control. While the thrill of a blistering 3 minute run should have been more than enough, the constant quest for speed and thrills pushed me to try bigger drops and jumps, culminating in the famed Christchurch 40 footer (which actually measures 35 feet).

As a firm believer in the mantra ‘crap happens when you party naked’ it was no surprise that crashes resulted, often leaving me with broken bike or body that meant I couldn’t ride for weeks at a time.

It came to a head with a nasty knee incision that left me hobbling stiff legged for a month, and after this I decreed never to push myself into DH again. While the short intense gnarliness and associated self destruction were a rush, I’d much rather be shredding less exciting XC tracks without the injury induced periods of inactivity.

The catalyst for a change in attitude was an upcoming event which has sparked my passion for the gravity scene. From the ashes of the Brake Burner has risen the Outside Sports Super D, and after a half day of post-Motutapu shuttles at the Skyline Gondala venue I was itching to give the 6 hour enduro DH race a burl. Thoughts quickly turned to preparation and what better way to become accustomed to bike and mindset than a DH race, and the 4th annual Bike Methven Diggler DH presented such an opportunity.
Shuttles Mt Hutt style
Photo Bike Methven
With age comes maturity, and a better (if inevitably more conservative) understanding of risk. I’m confident now that I can roll around a jump or drop outside my ability ignoring the pang of regret that would have prompted the younger Ollie to ‘hit it up’.

There is no denying the fun of a DH race. The sheer challenge of distilling practice runs into the very essence of a trail then swilling this down in an endorphin fuelled dash for the finish. A mixture of elation and exhaustion abounds as you sprint to the line.

And the Diggler didn’t disappoint. It was low key in the truest sense, family run and grom infested, with none of the factory team hype that seems to pervade modern DH. In her first ever race Heidi would be joining in on her hardtail, while Jeff ‘Tenzing’ Collins pulled his X-5 out of the shed, leaving his entirely unsuitable Maxxis Larsens on in a show of cocky tire choice.

The track was relatively easy, or would have been had the weather decided to play ball. While we left the rain behind in Christchurch, overnight showers had left the Mt Hutt trail in a delightfully slippery state, the first steeper section reduced to a traction stealing slither.

The only difficult feature of note was a tight step down, and putting age hardened risk assessment skills to good use we eyed up a line and hucked the gap. Casing at first we learned quickly to sneak in a few pedals prior, landing it smoothly and peeling into the berms below with new found speed.
Ollie clearing the stepdown in his race run
Photo Bike Methven
Gradually the trail began to firm up, with mud pushed from racing lines making higher parts of the course fast and predictable. The exception to this was the wooden structures, which collected tyre shifted mud and rendered the slats slipperier than a greased weasel, kicking the back wheel alarmingly off the edge and into thin air during my penultimate practice run.
The slippery bridge claims a grommet
Photo Bike Methven
Briefing was typically low key, with groms preceding under 17 and women, before senior men took to the course. Suggestions by Jeff and I to shift the finish line to back up the hill (maximising the advantage of our lightweight and widely geared trail bikes) were declined in good humour. We’d have to bring the noise were we to compete with the full on DH rigs.

3...2...1... Go!
Photo Bike Methven
Race runs started from the access road on a rickety wooden ramp, and as rider after rider descended the nerves were running high in a manor I rarely experience at XC races these days.
Ollie heads off on his first race run
Photo Bike Methven
The first run was over in a flash, with plenty of scope remaining to steal back seconds on the next race run. It all came to together for the final, riding what felt like my best run of the day and sprinting to the line with new found stoke in 2 min 40 seconds.

Jeff who was seeded numero uno
Photo Bike Methven
Jeff’s second run was less ideal, ghosting his bike through the first section and requiring the assistance of a gawking spectator to rescue it from the bracken. His best run ended up being his first, a solid 2 min 46 seconds.
Heidi sporting some nose-gnar after a huck to face on her first run
Photo Jeff Collins
She adopts the tripod to avoid the dreaded 'slippery salmon'
Photo Bike Methven
Heidi’s maiden race proved an awesome success. Her gritty resolve saw her overcome a bloody nose inducing huck to face on her first practice to finish a close second in the hotly contested Open womens field.

Timaru local and ex-Canterbury University MTB club pinner Cam took the win in a blistering 2min 25 sec.

With race runs over and complimentary chocolate consumed, Jeff and I headed up the hill to sample some of the other tracks on offer. Although similarly slippery substrates kept speed at bay, the lower section of Bang for Buck proved a highlight. Racing into berms with too much speed, the raised corners would catch drifting back ends and flick them in the right direction, an awesome trail sensation which brought whoops of joy. This track alone would justify a visit in the dry, and I for one will be sure to head out for one of their famed shuttle days when time allows. The Bike Methven crew are onto something special with their Mt Hutt bike park, and as word spreads more and more Cantabrians are associating the Hutt with premium mountain bike trails rather than mass market snow sliding.

Mountain Pedaler out…

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Karapoti 2011– A muddy puncture-fest

Mini-pinner Anton dukes it out with Dirk on his way to the win.
The youngest ever Karapoti winner at 16 years of age!
Photo Wheelworks Racing

The weeks leading up to this year’s Karapoti had been marred by the tempestuous tantrums of Christchurch’s shakey monster. Ravaging the city’s streets and buildings and causing tragic losses of life, it gave a strange hue to my final preparations for this race which had been one of my season goals. With my home made uninhabitable and teetering like a cinder block Jenga tower, I was taken in by good friends Ross and Anna, and even managed to escape quakechurch for the solid ground of Tekapo for the weekend prior.

Perhaps the biggest effect of the quake on me was psychological, and I felt uncertain whether I could muster the motivation to climb into ‘the box’, with doubts circulating in my mind in light of the precious fragility of life brought to the fore by recent events.

I can genuinely say that I overcame this, justifying the indulgence of racing by telling myself that to let the harsh actions of some tectonic forces control our lives would be a failure of the human spirit. The fact was we had survived and should celebrate by doing what we love.

So it was off to Wellington where we squeezed in substantial Thursday ride where another good friend Rhys took us for an afternoon tour of Wellington’s peaks, taking us down trails which were in his preferred steep and sketchy style.

Come Friday, the pounding of rain on the roof of Rhys’ loft suggested conditions would be greasy, and a day of rain induced inactivity left me twitching in anticipation; perfect for a race like the Karapoti.

Starting with the traditional waist high dash across the river, which felt higher than usual especially after the obligatory tumble finding footing on the rocky river bed, it was off on the sealed rode a furious pace.

I was well positioned here and in the top ten, biding my time as we swerved and splashed through monsterous puddles up the gorge trail. It was only a short while after when disaster struck.  A jagged rock concealed in the murky depths of one pond-sized puddle sliced an inch long gash in my front sidewall, instantly deflating it and sending me careening out of control.

Not disheartened, and clutching at memeroies of sub 2:45 times pulled out in spite of similar failures, I executed a frantic puncture fix, chucking a tube in the front and pumping the crap out of it to avoid further failures. In two minutes I was done and steaming off up the Gorge, passing an Australian rider who had also punctured at this cruel early stage. He, perhaps wisely, ended up pulling the pin.

As I hit the hill I started to pull riders back in. One by one winching past them till I was a good halfway through the field. The descent of the Rock garden is always a favourite and I forgave any line choice in favour of descending via the gushing waterfalls that flowed over the fall line, shredding past more riders and stoked for what lay ahead.

By this stage my attempt at a tire boot had revealed its inadequacy, with a giant rubber zit now bulging out of the sidewall and rubbing on the fork arch. Fearing that this friction would lead to a catastrophic tube failure, I made the painful decision to stop and put another boot in. Again it only took me a few minutes and I was off again, shouldering the bike and running sections of the knee crumbling devil’s staircase. Recent adventures in the Canterbury highcountry and Nepal have made the bike over shoulder position second nature, so it was no surprise when I pulled back some of the people that had passed me.

Big ring boulevard is usually one of my favourite parts of the course, and the top section lived up to its reputation, the fast flowing turns making me feel all too much like a bike riding rock-star.  As if sensing the stoke and wanting to keep spirits in check, a sharp rock again claimed a sidewall, this time on the rear. Throwing in my last tube and pumping with all the vigour I could muster I was off again, and set about the all too familiar game of leap frog I’d been playing with the back of the elite field.

The final two punctures came of all places, on Dopers, which is the very climb one must bury oneself to garner a good result. While I should have been seeing stars from anaerobic exertion, I was trackside fixing one, then a second flat, after the first failed due to poor patch adhesion. Turns out it is pretty difficult to get them to stick when the driest thing around was my growing repertoire of puncture related humour.

All repaired and it was off again, climbing Dopers in personal record time and gingerly riding the final descent, knowing well that another puncture would see my bike hurled off a bank and me walking home.

The gorge is always a joy, its delightful downwards gradient giving a profound sense of speed  and with jagged rocks seemingly shifted by the screeds of tires, and puddles shrinking back into the ground I made it safely to the road with inflation at a maximum.

A final surge across the river for the line and I was stoked for the ordeal to be over. 3:11 was well off my goal but the five punctures that got me there were a fair justification for the blowout.
Such is the fearsome tire munching reputation of the Karapoti, there is even a prize for the most punctures which I duly received.  Can’t imagine how the previous year tallied  a record 12 without some sort of mental breakdown.

Thanks must go to the riders who offered up spare tubes, it is this kind of camaraderie which makes mountain biking awesome. Also to Rhys and Muriel who are always so hospitable on Wellington trips.

Michi and I were generously supported by Cactus Equipment for the race, and they have been staunch supporters of this legendary event for some years.

I can say with certainty that I’ll be back to avenge the punctures-fest that was my 2011 Karapoti, and no earth shattering natural disasters will stop me!