Friday, November 30, 2012

Moreton Island: Land of Signs and Curious Creatures

Sunset over the Wrecks
As Heidi alluded to in an earlier blog, she’d had her fair share of following me on biking adventures and made a compelling case for a relaxing weekend in a place where inertness is embraced ; ideally a beach . Since our big move to Queensland, a quintessential Aussie beach camping trip was always on the cards, and when a weekend presented itself Heidi and I took the opportunity to board the Micat; a ferry with a disappointing lack of feline features, bound for the much lauded Moreton Island.

In an small concession which accommodated my bicycle obsession, Heidi agreed that we could at least ride our bikes to the ferry, and guided (or rather misguided) by my Garmin GPS, we proceeded along a perplexingly complex path to the ferry terminal. I’d been newly reunited with the GPS after a shockingly long warranty stint of almost 3 months, and am certain Heidi and I could have got us there in far less time had we trusted maps and our internal compasses. All the satellites and electronic wizardry in the world aren’t a substitute for good old fashioned maps, and as we finally approached the sea with tell tales signs of dirty roadside lunch joints, seagulls and fishy smells we knew we’d made our destination.

Bikes strapped onto the Micat
We were joined aboard the Micat by a plethora of four wheel drives, each laden to the gunnels with enough alcohol to drown a Great White shark, amongst a collection of children’s play sets and ridiculous inflatable camping couches which stood in stark contrast to our minimalist setup that fitted into a backpack each.

We weren’t however completely without our own beach accessories as we’d brought along two snorkel and flipper sets which were regifted by a work colleague. Resplendent in neon green and blue, we strapped them to a Freeload and donned them to explore the shipwrecks which had been sunk in the bay for precisely that purpose. They proved to be a ticket to an exciting underwater world, and having never snorkelled before I was blown away by what the Island offered.

Ollie attempting to smile through the snorkel
On arrival, any plans of exploring by bike were quickly quashed, with a deep loose sand which offered such a poor riding surface that we pushed our bikes to the campsite and left them there for the duration of our stay, much to Heidi’s delight! With the scorching mid day heat starting to beat down, the beach was the only option and the cool inviting waters more than satisfied, while the aquatic life that swarmed in the shallow water was just amazing.

Scouts gawk at the Moreton Wrecks
Our snorkelling experience began with nervous hyperventilation, not trusting that the snorkels length would provide access to important oxygen. After this passed, we faced an issue with goggle fogging, and after working out that periodic de-misting was required, we could see clearly underwater and navigate the jagged, limpet clad iron wrecks with a degree of safety. On seeing my first fish my reaction was startled one, jumping out of the water and pointing furiously to the oddity to Heidi only a few meters away. She dipped her goggles underwater and had a similar excited response. We now understood what snorkelling was about and why people went through rigmarole of squeezing their faces into rubber masks and walking backward in ill fitting rubber toe-extensions to get their sub-water fix.

We spent the next hour circling the sunken hulls, swimming amongst swarms of tiny fish, gazing in wonder at large colourful characters which could have starred in Finding Nemo. This snorkelling proved to be the highlight of our weekend and I wholeheartedly recommend the experience if you get the opportunity. It was certainly made more pleasurable by the warm waters, and I can’t imagine it’d hold the same appeal in frigid southern seas. I only wished my camera was actually waterproof, rather than just pretend as I discovered in the Tour Divide, as I would have been able to share some of these underwater sights.

Tuckered out from snorkelling, we returned to the beach and lay in the sun, passing the time till an acceptable hour for first dinner. This was followed by a nap then second dinner, and I was quickly growing to appreciate the relaxing approach to passing the time that Moreton offered.

Heidi laxes out on the beach
It seems the tendency to bring a tonne of stuff didn’t escape our camping neighbours, who had brought a cow worth of meat and nothing to cook it on, having banked on a campfire which is banned under the island’s strict fire laws. As we drifted off to an early 7PM bed time, fuelled by a second dinner food coma, we heard them drunkenly rant about their dire situation. We were both too sleepy in our tent and bivy to offer assistance.

Camping in lightweight style
An interesting observation of Moreton Island we’d made was the abundance of signs, proclaiming all sorts of shouty instructions which stood in stark contrast to the laid back atmosphere that the island oozed. Ferry landings, speed limits, pet bans and fire restrictions were all proclaimed loudly, and while I didn’t find them offensive, it was certainly curious to see such that a place with such natural beauty needed so many signs to be enjoyed by everyone.

Signs for Africa
This island’s view on the signs might have been different however, as on a walk to an inland desert we found the sand starting to swallow a ‘use walking track’ notice into its dry sandy stomach.

The Island protested to this particular sign
One of the things I most enjoyed about my time at Moreton, was the chance it afforded us to sit quietly and look at nature, which was very close and supremely interesting. After dinner, we were visited by a gaggle of lizards which came to snaffle up food crumbs, slithering stealthily through he bushes and working in teams to retrieve their evening meal. In the morning, we watched a Kookaburra bludgeoning an insect to death on a branch, then swallowing it whole. We were only treated to this spectacle due to the cover afforded by the tent. To have time to just sit and look at nature was fantastic, and hopefully we’ll get time to do more of this on future touring adventures.

The camping trip afforded us the time to sit and watch nature
Packing up our camp and boarding the ferry, we were sad to be leaving after such a short time, but our lives back in the real world were calling and living on a beach watching lizards, fish and Kookaburras certainly doesn’t pay the bills. Fortunately we got to ride our bikes back home to Toowong, and were treated to a roaring tailwind that blew us through the port, then outer suburbs, then city with none of the navigational dramas of our journey out. Moreton Island was a thoroughly enjoyable adventure and one both Heidi and I will be looking to repeat in a different wilderness location in the near future.

Moreton diappears into the distance

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Storms, snakes and sleeping at Mount Nebo

Heidi does her best cycle touring pose
Heidi and I are pretty much fresh off the boat in Queeensland, and so are taking every opportunity to get out and explore this new place where we find ourselves living. Given my obvious obsession with bikes, Heidi has graciously resigned herself to our wheeled steeds accompanying us on most holidays in the future. So in the interests of seamlessly integrating the pinnacle of transportation that is the push-bike with our holidays, we have decided to dabble with cycle touring.   

Ollie follows suit

We were familiar with the pannier laden exploits of tourists pushing their unprenouncable bikes across the endless headwind battered plains of New Zealand. They were often glimpsed from the seat of a car as we zoomed past with bikes strapped to the rack. Questions came into our mind like where they were going, where they were form, and what luxuries they must be carrying to explain the seemingly excessive baggage. My experience with touring thus far has been of the hasty variety, not really taking time to enjoy the scenery, but cramming in food and miles in an effort to make the next town as quickly as possible. My natural disposition is to want to do things fast, so to see if I could do slow touring was a bit of a personal test.

For me, it is a natural instinct to want to explore the high points of new places first, and I like the idea that standing atop a summit in a new place will provide an appreciation and view of surroundings that you simply can’t get from the flat plains. Mount Nebo was within striking distance of our new home, and so we resolved to leave early afternoon and push for a mountaintop campground, staying there a night then returning the next day. A sampler of cycle touring to see if it was something we could dig, and if I could refrain from turning it into a race, because not everything is a race.

The reality of Mt Nebo, a 40km ride from central Brisbane didn’t quite provide the expansive views we’d expected. A meer hillock by New Zealand standard at 538m a.s.l., the epic undulations leading to the mountain top were not to be underestimated. And at the summit, rather than a panoramic view of the sprawl below, we were enclosed in an eerie tropical tunnel with thickets of palms and twisted vines so stout I was half expecting tarzan to come swinging across the road in full cry.
Rocket booster panniers
For bikes, with my Tour Divide bike awaiting a new wheelset, so I opted for my singlespeed instead. Heidi’s Surly Cross Check eats this kind of ride for breakfast and we strapped on some Freeload  racks, dry bags and panniers to pedal off into the warm but not unbearably hot afternoon.

Gear wise we’d gone minimalist. We’d toyed with taking my uber light Z-packs tent but given the rain forecast and the likely dampness for the second person (me), we swapped this out for the Black Diamond Mesa. We took a cooker, pots, sleeping bags and mats, and enough food to ensure a food induced coma at our camp, just in case the hill wasn’t enough to do this.

The climb to Nebo undulates in the true delightful sense. As if the early civil engineers had playfully wielded their scale rules like paintbrushes, the road pitched up then flowed down in a whimsical fashion. Delightful, at least at first.

The view from one of the lookouts
We’d stop at viewpoints along the way to admire the views to the valley below. Often the road was perched atop a great cliff which afforded a sense of exposure that really added to the vista. I found these regular breaks (usually absent on normal rides), were a great way to embrace the touring mentality, and they certainly helped reframe the experience for Heidi. While I’d feared the hill would have been a sufferfest for her, she was still smiling at the summit, only requiring a single emergency snack stop en-route to our camp.

Heidi gets some emergency snacks
Arriving at the cross roads at the summit, light was fading and a storm was approaching, and after failing to locate our campground we flagged down a friendly local who pointed us in the right direction.

Even these directions weren’t sufficient for our navigational numptiness, and with the first heavy drops starting to fall we made a quick decision to stealth camp at a trail head, hoping that any enforcement officials would take pity on our predicament in the face of the impending storm.

And storm it did, with bright lightning flashes lighting up the sky and deep thunder rumbles echoing through the dense forest. I’d last experienced such epic precipitation on a ridge top in New Mexico, and fortunately the lightning never got as close as it did then.

Thankful for the shelter of the walker’s rest, we set up the cooker and prepared our food, a delicious green curry with a desert of giant jelly pythons.

Heidi chops vege by headlight
Dashing through the rain to our tent, we sealed ourselves in our fart sacks and dozed off, a check of the clock informing us of our early nap time of 7PM. A bedtime more akin to our grandparents, but perfectly respectable for intrepid bike tourers, especially with the thundering storm bearing down outside. There is something about being in a dry tent with a storm outside that makes you sleep well, and when the light finally woke us a 6AM, we’d both had a thoroughly good kip.

Packing up, eating breakfast and rolling out, we stopped to sample an Australian pie (nothing on Sheffield) and climb then descending the last few pinches to home in Toowong.

Heidi fearlessly tackles the steep descent
And shreds one of the numerous sweeping switchbacks

Arriving at 10AM we’d had an excellent adventure in a relatively small amount of time. Both Heidi and I really enjoyed the experience and are looking for new destinations as we speak. Safe to say that a few more sedate paced cycle tours will be in store!

Friday, October 19, 2012

24 Hour Race for a Supporter

Ollie thought it might be interesting for me to write about being a feeder/supporter for a 24 hour race to share my thoughts and observations.  So that is what this post is about.

When Ollie first mentioned going to Canberra for the National Australian 24 hour race he didn’t explicitly say that I needed to go with him.  It wasn’t till further in to our conversation about the race that I found out it is compulsory for solo riders to have at least one support crew.  That’s when I figured I was going to Canberra.  I was excited to be going away for a weekend and being a part of another adventure with Ollie.  But as the time drew near I started to dread the race realising that it required me to be awake and functioning for the same duration as the race.  Not that big a deal, I know.  But not your holiday weekend away, sun bathing and napping on a tropical beach which, by the way, we haven’t been to yet. 

After our exciting taxi ride to the venue and a good night sleep in our trusty wee tent we rose to a lovely morning in Canberra.  As Ollie started assembling his bike I asked him my final questions mostly about what should happen upon him finishing the race.  I suspected he would be super out of it. I was a little worried about packing up everything and getting him back to the airport. 

As Ollie mentioned we were in the line up with high profile solo riders.  They started to arrive and set up camp and I watched with curiosity.  Jason English had two tents and so many supporters I lost count.  I think they were mostly family, his mother checked in on me at 1am to say if I got cold to come down to their tent where they had a heater.  Isn’t she a nice lady.  I’m pretty sure it was his Mum anyway.   Other riders had their table brimming with food and sagging under the weight of what appeared to be thousands of drink bottles.  Because of our travelling situation we decided to take our food with us from Brisbane.  It didn’t look like much in comparison.  But Ollie was confident it was more than he needed.  Turns out at the end of the race he’d only eaten about half the food that we brought.  Also, most of the other solo riders had multiple bikes.   
Ollie is such a hot shot now with his tent label.  

Ollie being interviewed before the race.
The start of the race was very fast but soon appeared to settle and Ollie seemed to just be ticking away, sticking to his eating regime and getting work done.   At around 8 hours he started to fade and at 9 hours he pulled in to our pit saying he needed heaps of food and that he was falling asleep.  This is when the spread sheet feeding plan went out the window.  We pumped him with caffeine and stuffed his pockets with food and off he went again.  Previously when supporting Ollie at a 12 hour he requested coke and didn’t go back to drinking water for the duration of the race.  I didn’t think that would be the case this time, but I thought he might want a second bottle of coke and then go back to the water or Gatorade.  Little did I know that the caffeine had taken effect strongly and all he really wanted to was water.  Unfortunately every second lap he passed through the camp at an alternate place, so I wasn’t near the tent where I could just swap the coke for water.  Anyhow, he seemed in great spirits after that until 1am.  It was raining and his lap times where getting considerably slower.  I took advantage of the longer lap times and had at 30min sleep.  It was so cold I put Ollie’s sleeping bag inside my own for warmth.  Fortunately Ollie wasn’t having any problems staying warm on the bike. 

At around 2am I was almost back on schedule with the spread sheet feeding plan and was about to give him his first treat, a bag of snake lollies.  Instead though, he pulled in and said he needed a break.  WHAT!  You’ve been riding for 14hours and you need a break?!?! You gotta be kidding me. (Sarcasm)  He was going to lie down on the grass floor of our tent and curl up, but I got his Ground Effect bike bag and he laid down on that.  I covered him in his jackets to try and keep him warm.  He said to wake him after 10 minutes.  As soon as he lay down he was sleeping deeply. I could see his eyes moving beneath the lids and he was twitching.  I figured 10 minutes wasn’t long enough.  He had the lead by over an hour at this stage, so I wasn’t worried about him loosing places.  I was worried about him getting cold though.  I thought about using the sleeping bags... but he was so heavily caked in mud I decided not to.  After 15mins I woke him.  I tried to say something comforting and positive, but was unsuccessful.  I told him it would be easy once the sun came up and that was only four hours away.  He responded with a cheeky grin who’s meaning can be interpreted as “yeah, you go ride out there for ONLY four more hours, till the sun comes up”.  None the less, he didn’t procrastinate.  He got up and went straight back to doing what Ollie does best, riding his bike when actually it would be so much nicer to stop.  His mood was hugely improved after his nap and he continued on till day light without drama.

At the end of each lap he would pass by the feed station twice, once on his way in from a lap and once on his way out for the next lap.  We used the first passing to swap drink bottles and pass food, the second for clothes or for me to quickly give him an update on where the competition was.  Later in the race we didn’t really need the second slot, so I’d just stand there at the side of the track trying to think of something to cheer as he rode by.  I found heckling difficult though.  So many of the standard ones I have picked up from fellow hecklers at bike races just were not appropriate.  “Put it in the biggie”  “Get off the brakes”, not really that kind of race.  “Good job”  “You go you good thing you”, so cliché.  Finally I decided to go with the “you know you love it”.  This turned out to be a winner even getting a smile out of him. 

During the night Ollie was riding pretty closely to a guy named Callum.  Callum’s father was supporting him and we were often waiting at the feeding stations together, chit chatting about our riders and general other stuff.  It was nice to have some company. 

I was slightly confused about the finish of the race.  In other 12 hours I’ve attended at the finish you need to complete a full lap before the 12 hours is up.  Not the case here, you only have to start your last lap before 24 hours.  Ollie was a little disappointed when I told him this and in all honesty he probably could have sat out the last lap and still won, but he was a good sport and did it anyway just to be safe.
There were two guys doing a running commentary and handing out spot prizes throughout the duration of the whole race.  At the finish line they were interviewing winners of prominent categories and as Ollie finished they pulled him aside and talked to him for a couple of minutes.  It was pretty obvious he just wanted to sit down but he humoured them anyway.  Finally they let him go and we went back to the tent so he could have a sit down.  He was surprisingly functional.  I sent him off for a shower while I washed his bike.  He instructed me on how to pack his bike, which wasn’t too hard after all.  Prize giving was prompt and speedy.  Then we were in a taxi back to the airport. 

So much drool!  While we were waiting for our flights Ollie leaned on me and promptly fell into a deep sleep.  When he awoke and sat up there was a small lake of drool on my arm.  Later we moved seats to be closer to the gate for Ollie’s flight.  We sat and again he half leaned/lay on me and fell asleep.  I was also very tired and set my alarm so I could sleep as well.  I was just dozing off in a seated position when a dribble of drool fell and landed on Ollie awaking him and me.  With so much drool and wearing our scruffy clothes from our long and tiring weekend we must have looked like retarded homeless people waiting for our flights.
Ollie at the airport in Canberra after his 24 hour race,
creating a puddle of dribble on the floor, rather than my arm. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mud, sweat and goo at the Scott Australian 24hr champs

Sunrise and set are always great times to ride the Scott 24 was no exception
Photo Sportograf
It has been a goal for some time to race a solo 24 hour in the traditional multilap format, so when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to partake in Australia’s premiere event, I leapt at the chance.

In a way, these events are a more respectable form of mountainbiking, distinctly lacking in the hobo-esque characteristics of bikepacking. With a support crew to feed you every lap there is no need to hoard food on your bike and body, you only have the chance to accumulate a single day of stench as opposed to multiple days, and the shorter format means you don’t need to bivvy in roadside ditches.

But on the flipside, the repetitive nature of a lap course can be mental torture, as rather than the profoundly motivating prospect of an end of day destination, you must force your body to endure lap after lap of the same features, and this would prove to be one of the hardest parts of the race for me.

The support I had to get to this race was amazing, with personal supporter Ground Effect and co-organiser Sarah from Canberra Off Road Riders Club (CORC) sorting out an entry and even a personal marque on the prestigious pit row. When I plonked down my Tardis bike bag right next to international legends of the sport Matt Page, Cory Wallace and the indomitable Jason English I was aware the field was high calibre, and was stoked to be racing amongst it. My employer Beca also provided generous support to fund flights from Brisbane to Canberra, which was a god send given the short notice before I committed to the race.

Travelling with Heidi as number one fan and chief supporter, we arrived in Canberra to take the first taxi off the rank. On only his second day, the driver was pretty green and hadn’t heard of the Mt Stromlo venue, and had no clue how to drive us there. As if to up the stakes in ridiculousness, he couldn’t operate any of the three GPS devices in his car, and proceeded to speed whilst swerving between lanes and talking to his friend on the phone to get some directions. I guess I take it for granted that a taxi driver will know where to go, or at least have the nous to work it out, but when the vacant circling got ridiculous we forced him to stop and I grabbed the GPS off his dash to find our destination.

Taxi driver leads us on a magical mystery tour!
Safe to say that when we arrived we were happy to say goodbye and parting with a heavily discounted fare we left the taxi driver to his own devices (probably autocide).
Initial impressions of the venue were shock and awe. With a live band and a playing field full of tents with sponsor’s flags, the CORC team weren’t doing things by halves. After a greasy all day brinner (at 9PM) which contained my yearly allowance of vitamin B (bacon) I was ready for bed. Heidi and I pitched the tent for the first time since our holiday in the USA and I had a peaceful sleep, me twitching occasionally in anticipation of the ride ahead.

Ample serving of vitamin B

Sideways Ollie eats a banger
In between assembling my El Commandante, talking shcmack with new friends, briefing Heidi on my detailed feeding schedule spreadsheet and being interviewed by the Canberra Times  the morning flew past, and by the time 12PM rolled around I was well and truly ready to mount my steed and ride into the sunset.

Misty morning at Mt Stromlo
Un-pro Ollie does all his own fettling
It seemed my hopes of slipping under the radar were idealistic, with a commentator interviewing me prior to the star filling the crowd in on some of the more interesting parts of the Tour Divide. It is crazy what a small world modern electronic media has reduced the world to, and I often felt that awkward feeling where someone knows you but you’ve never met them. I was pretty stoked at the buzz it created though, and hopefully my presence and some of the yarns I spun will encourage some others to embrace their inner hobo and give bikepacking a nudge.

From the start, the pace was surprisingly sedate and for the first couple of laps yo-yoing my singlespeed on and off of the lead bunch were a blast, whooping and hollering as we took in some of the great singletrack which permeated the Canberra course.

Pretty sure I was making this much air. At least in my mind.
Photo Sportograf
To minimise the boredom I’d feared and maximise the space between riders, organiser Russ had strung two laps together, and he spoke about how they’d kept the average rider spacing at 45m, as they’d found any less really detracted from rider experience. A true testament to how well CORC run an even, with a great focus on giving the riders the best experience.

One of the best moves I’d made was to not have any time display on my person, and without the constant reminder of apparent dilation of time as the hours rolled on, my mind was clear and I found I really enjoyed the simple challenge of heading out and knocking off another lap, just focusing on one at a time.

Early on everything was going well with my riding, I was sticking to my feeding plan and steadily munching away at bagels, B&E pie (for more vitamin B) and bananas. But as the laps wore on my stomach protested to the point where anything more than a goo would raise a wave of discontented stomach acid.

Heidi tried her best to make the food she offered appealing
I’d feared the sleepmonsters which I’d experienced in Tour Divide, and they brought their leaden eye-weights about 9 hours in. Wanting to hit back with conviction I stopped and downed caffine pills and Coke and while this had the desired effect of keeping me awake for the next 14 hours, for the next few my heart rate was racing and mind circling in a way that is quite rare to my coffee deprived body. Fortunately it calmed down and when normality resumed I felt relieved to have escaped both the monsters and a heart attack.

Early in the evening the rain began to pour, and unfamiliar to the moody weather of Canberra I donned my Helter Skelters and jacket thinking I’d be able to ride through the sludge with impunity. Sure enough the very next lap the sun returned and all I succeeded in doing was getting sweaty and losing a bit of time donning my rain garb and then removing it.

The rain returned with a vengeance in the wee small hours, turning the second lap into a quagmire that became a true test of mental and physical perseverance. In some places bogs were wheel deep and only careful and lucky line choice could save you from a mud sandwhich. With motivation waning and questions about the point of it all rising in my mind like lumps in the sticky mud, I took the decision to take a power nap, curling up in the fetal position on my bike bag and catching a blissful 40 winks.

I’d asked Heidi to allow me 10 minutes, but she felt so bad at my shivering and muttering state that she let the clock run to fifteen, and even then on waking me I asked her if she it was sure I’d used all the precious time.

The tent village by night as viewed form the top of the hill
Photo Sportograf
The turnaround in attitude on the back of the nap was profound, and with only that tiny amount of sleep I’d reframed the race in my mind and started to feel stronger all the way till the first tendrils of light grew form the horizon. Once the sun had risen I knew I’d make the full 24 hours, and even managed to push hard in my final few laps to make the best of the cutoff.

I can attribute least some of the good sensations I had in those early hours to the exceptional performance of the belt drive setup in the muddy conditions. Running singlespeed with the Gates Centretrack setup proved to be a source for much internal smugness, only heightened by the crunching, chain-sucking gnash of derailleur gears as the wimpy cables and chains of other riders succumbed to the bog which consumes conventional bicycle transmissions. The design of the mud ports effectively cleared all the mud from the belt and the system ran silent and smooth for the duration of the ride. I’m stoked to be able to use the system especially when it performs so well in difficult conditions.

So by the end of it all I was pretty tired, and although a bit wobbly on my feet Heidi remarked at my surprising coherence. Catching a plane for work the next day was always going to be tough, and still know I’m feeling the effects of sleep deprivation. I feel guilty for demanding so much of my body for it to stay awake and it can certainly rise to the challenge, but for some reason it still wants to keep riding, 2 days later which is less than ideal at 2AM with work the next day.

So after dabbling in the 24 hour race format I can say that they are a pretty enjoyable experience, especially at a well run event and great course as at the Scott 24. An awesome support crew who will even have the sympathy to let you sleep for 5 more minutes was just the icing on the cake. I’m definitely keen to race a few more and with the scene as popular as it is here in Australia I’m sure the opportunities will present themselves. Who knows, I might even throw on a Rohloff and race for the world title at the same course next year!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Back on the horse at Hiddenvale

Ollie ponders the early break on the start line
After an extended break from mountainbike racing post Tour Divide, my thoughts about returning to the XC racing fold were mixed. On one hand, there is no denying the rush of a rowdy elbow to elbow mass start, and sheer elation of finishing up a ‘short’ race after an hour or two on the limit. But on the other, I rate the sheer adventure of bikepacking pretty highly in terms of riding joy. Cresting ridges and dropping into exciting unexplored terrain, all the while with the profoundly motivating requirement for food, shelter and survival at the forefront of your mind.

But when the opportunity to race at one of ‘stralia’s biggest marathon MTB events came up, I couldn’t say no to a day in the sun. The Flight Centre Epic is held at Hiddenvale, about an hour inland from Brisbane. Turned out that my good mates at Ground Effect were an event sponsor, and kindly hooked me up with an entry.

Ground Effect -supporters of grassroots MTB and all round nice people
At a relatively short 87km, and with the unrelenting Queensland sunshine in fine form, I was assured of a fun day on the bike. After a month or so of devoted attention riding my Gates carbon drive equipped Ventana El Commandante, I feel like I’ve got the hang of riding it in the dusty and loose surface that seems to prevail here in Queensland. Races like this are a great way to explore tracks in new places. Taupo’s Huka XL, the Whaka 100 and even the Nelson Mammoth all thread together a seamless loop of the best trails, and what better way to ride them than in on go as fast as you can!

Andrew and Ollie talk race plans
Mr Andrew T. again offered up a ride to the venue, and Heidi came along to act as official photographer and chief supporter, proving exceptional in both roles, even holding back from eating post race sandwiches despite a ravenous hunger.

I’d thrown my helmet in the singlespeed ring, which was curiously lumped amongst the ‘special’ categories starting dead last, along with super oldies and clydesdales (>100kg). Some 18 ‘special needs racers’ had entered which is pretty good SS field, and I knew nothing of the strengths of those making up the class. Being a bit rusty on XC racing tactics I opted for the approach that you can only pull off if you’ve got the legs to back it up. While it is rare that a marathon is won on a start, it can be a bit of a psychological blow for competitors when they are gapped off the line, and this is what I proceeded to do, boosting ahead to the categories that had started earlier and using their proliferation as camouflage. Fortunately my legs were up for it, not even wavering when the climb moved from gravel road to singletrack and I was forced to ride proper offroad over logs, rocks and critters to pass the slower riding masses.

Seems like the endurance XC scene is massive here in ‘stralia, and with more than 2000 riders over the weekend’s events the scene is vibrant with the kind of buzz that seems to be escaping the NZ scene, especially with the popular shift to enduro and Super D racing of late.

The course itself was very well suited to singlespeeding, with the exception of a depressingly long 8km sealed road section which spun my legs into a dizzy mush, and a few knee poppingly steep pinches, the course was teeming with fun and flow.

A first loop of close to 50km was dispatched in a couple of hours, and while I’d been sitting comfortably enjoying the company of other riders and the sketchy loose surface, my efforts had caught up with me and a twinge of cramp struck as I rounded the turnaround point and headed out for the final 37km loop.

Fortunately the second loop offered up an even better array of singletrack that helped distract me from the growing disquiet in my legs. Whereas for the first couple of hours I was bounding up climbs with ease, the cumulative fatigue had reduced my cadence to a slow grind, as if pedalling through treacle.

A stop to refill my bottle and wolf down some lollies offered a brief buzz, but as the grind returned all I could do was dig deep and hope that my previous efforts were enough to hold off the posse of singlespeeders biting at my heels. As it happened, it was more than enough and I crossed the finish line about 5 minutes ahead of second to take a solid result and earn a well deserved sit down.

Crossing the finish line
The course conjured memories of Gunnison’s Growler, both in terms of singletrack delectability, length and the stinking heat. Fortunately the lung punishing altitude of the Growler was not at the Epic, and with no post-race sneezing fit I could enjoy a tall milkshake in the shade.

Ollie’s dust induced african american legs
While my body had performed admirably, only faltering towards the end, I felt my bike had served me graciously most of the way. Some adjustments to the carbon drive ratio on my El Commandante have meant I have been able to squash the back wheel into the seat tube, thus unleashing a bodacious level of flickability hitherto unheard of on a wagon wheeler.

Smiling post race. Note dust eyeliner. Very chic.
My Ground Effect threads were great too, plenty of wicking from my Road rage top helped with the heat. My Juggernaut shorts complete with leg vents (definitely activated for the race) are just the perfect fit, their tailored crotch quashing my fear of ‘baggie-snag’ and making them a realistic choice for racing.

Saddling up and riding at the Epic proved to be fitting re-entry into the XC scene. Far from being a bucking bronco it was a fun day out and I can’t wait to explore further afield and see what other ‘stralian races can offer!

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Dingo stole me baby!

A sunset view from our Brisbane apartment, with Mt Coot-tha in the backgorund
For those not in the immediate loop, it may come as a surprise, even a shock that Heidi and I have pulled up our tent pegs and jumped over the ditch to ‘stralaia.

Motivation largely came from a desire for new work and recreational challenges, and the location we decided to pitch our tent was Brisbane, a city with an entirely undeserved reputation as Australia’s bogan capital.

After arriving, it was with trepidation that we explored the immediate world around our apartment, which my work had kindly put us up in for a month to allow the dust to settle.

What immediately struck us was the tremendous number of people out and about at all hours of the day, mostly using an uber-smooth bike super highway dubbed the Bicentennial bike path.

A rare quiet time on the bikepath

Stretching for almost 20km up and downstream of Central Brisbane on both sides of a lazy river at the city’s heart, the path was a great introduction to the city, allowing us to explore without the snarl and rush of traffic.

And explore we did, clocking up multiple laps up and down the river, crossing most of the bridges and linking up loops, all the while coming to terms with this new place which would become our home.

Having brought only one bike over on the plane with me, my singlespeed, and having reached the limits of fun spinning up and down the mellow bike path grades I also ventured out for a few runs, and was stunned to see morning groups of runners almost as numerous as the bikers. Clearly Brisbane was doing its best to cast off the flubber which has earned the country the dubious honour of world’s second most obese nation.

Early indications are that the H grade commuter race is as intense as anywhere, even rivalling the infamous Ferry Road drag strip. I can’t wait till I get my road bike to throw my hat in the ring and take on some hi-vis clad punters, and if I get sick of this there are plenty of hilly loops and a bubbling criterium scene to get stuck into.

Addicted as I am to the spinning of knobbly tires, it was only a matter of time before I explored the trsils, and with an old friend Andrew (a kiwi expat with 2 years in Brisbane) as a guide, I got the royal tour around the extensive maze of trails at Gap Creek behind Mt Coot-tha. I’m only just coming to terms with the criss crossing network, but already I’ve found the joy that can only come from shredding forest singletrack.

Singlespeeding the Gap Creek trails

The trails well built (apparently to IMBA standards), with the surface a curious mix of loose kitty litter over hardpack and plenty of dust (think Vic Park in the summer). A few rocky sections, structures and log rollovers thrown in keep things gnarly. Still sitting on the fence with tire choice (TC), with the Race Kings I’m rolling on doing okay, although a bit under gripped through some of the higher speed corners.

Elevations are a bit small with the biggest hill in riding distance, Mt Nebo just shy of 500m, but the well designed trails make great use of the limited height, and there is always a straight up the guts approach up the access roads if you are looking for a brutal hill climb.

Incidentally these same access roads make for great descents, with the large water bars at seemingly ridiculous intervals making for great jumps that kick you high into the air. While there are no landing transitions to speak of, the humps have just the right amount of kick to practice whips. While with seat up and weight forward I’m yet to approach the steez of the superstar riders at the Whistler Whip-off, I’m definitely improving. This will no doubt come to the relief of my poor XC wheels which have been taking a hammering from sideways landings.

I’ve tried a few of the steeper climbs on the singlespeed and come up short, my feeble legs no match for the grade and loose surface. Everywhere else the mono-gear is awesome, with no super high speed sections and plenty of corners and bumps to pump off. In summary the trails here are pretty awesome and this is only one of the riding areas with several around town yet to be explored.

Temperature this time of years is divine, a cool fifteen degrees in the morning reaching highs of mid twenties, all of which feels suspiciously like a New Zealand summer.

Warnings about the deadly critters inhabiting the forest are widespread, but as yet I’m yet to encounter anything more threatening than a vampire turkey lurking around the carpark outside work. The morning bird chorus is more of a remix of death metal yells, with the shrieking of various random birds bordering on annoying.

A deadly vampire turkey lurking outside the office

While I’ll be cautious about the more deadly critters, there is always the risk of being overzealous, with a work colleague regaling a tale of a recent immigrant whose reaction to a snake sighting caused an amusing but painful incident. Steaming down a trail he spied a brown snake (the ones to avoid) and his immediate reaction was to jam on the front brake, pitching him over the bars and supermanning onto the very snake he was trying to avoid. Apparently he got away bite free, but a broken collarbone was a fitting memento. Hopefully I’ll be able to avoid a similar reaction when my snake encounter comes!

So far Brisbane has rocked our socks, and if initial indications are anything to go by, it’ll be a fantastic base for exploring Australia and further afield.

Will keep you posted.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Carbon Drive's angle on the Tour Divide

It is no surprise to many that I ran the uber-durable Gates Carbon Drive on my Tour Divide rig, and when I finished up in New Mexico they were pretty stoked that their system had passed the rigourous Tour Divide test with flying colours.
Paul at Gates got in touch and asked some interesting questions, publishing some of my less rambling answers on their blog. Check it out if you are interested in another angle on the epic ride.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tour Divide 2012 - Ollie's epic bike adventure

If only the Tour Divide was that easy!
The crazy idea...
The Tour Divide is an epic 4418km journey along the American Continental Divide. Beginning in the snowy climes of Banff, Alberta and ending in the saliva sapping desert of New Mexico at Antelope Wells, the journey is punctuated by 31not in-substantial crossings of the divide.  As a self supported mountainbike race, riders carry all their gear and spare parts along the route, resupplying with food and drink where possible and camping wherever they care. After six years of the event, it has come to be known as the pinnacle of the strange but addictive discipline of bikepacking.
I’d first learnt of this epic journey from the experiences of New Zealand mountainbike legend Simon Kennett, who had ridden the event’s precursor, the Great Divide in 2008. He recorded a respectable time despite sickness and oppressive heat and I was in awe of his accomplishment. I didn’t even consider that I’d be capable of such a feat till I dabbled in Brevet riding (which coincidentally Simon instigated) several years later.
Lining up in Blenheim for a 1100km jaunt along scenic back roads around the top of the south is a world away from the Tour Divide, but the combination of adventure, joy, suffering and elation I experienced in the Kiwi Brevet served to spark a passion for bikepacking, that could only be truly satiated by an assault on the Tour Divide. After viewing ‘Ride the Divide’ a documentary film of the 2008 race, I was convinced to make the Tour Divide a priority, and more than a year out I began preparations in earnest.

My Tour Divide rig in its early development stages
The preparation...
Spreadsheet after spreadsheet, counting grams, thermal ratings and volumes I narrowed down a list of gear and tested it at every opportunity. Bike wise I was pretty sorted, a Ventana El Commandante Hardtail 29er which had served me dutifully in 12 hour races and Brevets, with a Rohloff 14 speed internal geared hub providing transmission.  The latter has proven to be practically indestructible under the legs of bearded world ultra-tourers named Hans, and would provide unmatched reliability for the very long ride.
Another unique part of my setup was the Gates Carbon Drive, replacing the chain with a lube-less toothed rubber belt akin to your car’s cam belt. I’d ridden the system for a few years on a singlespeed with great success, and it lent itself well to the long days in potentially adverse conditions such as derailleur chewing, well clogging mud.

An ultra lightweight tent, mat and sleeping bag meant I could rest and recover even in adverse weather, and some bags from Revelate in addition to a custom made handlebar bag kept all the stuff off my back and on the bike, saving my butt from any excess pressure.
While it is usual for mountainbikers to obsess over gear, and I won’t deny this is one aspect of mountainbiking I relish, a bigger focus I was aware of was the need for mental preparation to keep happy and motivated for the long days of suffering that potentially lay in store.  For this I had two final hit outs during the summer. First up the Great Southern Brevet which threw up all kind of issues with my bag designs, as well as some snow trudges, epic climbs and long solo days to test will power. Secondly was the 2012 clockwise Kiwi Brevet which was a breeze compared to the gruelling Great Southern. With gear carrying sorted I dabbled for the first time in riding an event with only my own wandering thoughts for company. Turned out it wasn’t too bad and I finished up knowing I’d have the mental fortitude to ride at least some of the Tour Divide alone.
Final preparation consisted of a few weeks at altitude in the smug bubble of Boulder, Colorado. Hosted by some incredibly hospitable friends, this town served as an excellent base for final training and testing, not to mention packing on the few pounds I’d be expecting to lose over the course of the Tour Divide.

Oh Canada...
Lining up outside the YWCA in Banff on a chilly morning, it was a fantastic to be at the start line and ready to start what had been such a long time in the making. I rolled out towards the singletrack in such nervous haste that I didn’t even get a chance to give my partner Heidi a farewell hug!
Kiwi's looking staunch pre-race
 Straight away the pace was hot, with rookies and veterans alike surging ahead to make their mark and split up the record 100 strong field. By the time we’d hit the first gravel road section, a small lead group had formed, and pressing on this thinned further to leave a multinational trio, Craig a friendly cabinet maker and ITT veteran from  Calgary, Adam a dentist and rookie from Missoula and  myself, a rookie and civil engineer from New Zealand.
While it was early days, it was clear that there were two distinct approaches already, the 'ride fast and rest more' approach we’d adopted, or the 'ride slower and rest less' philosophy of those behind.
Craig and I were both from an XC racing background, and ended up distancing others over the proceeding day’s passes, many of which were snow bound due to high snowfalls and some of the worst conditions in the race’s history. Using a combination of sliding, CX remounts and skiing we gapped other contenders into Eureka, the 2 horse town that served as the start of the Montana section.

Snowy, cold, Montana
Shivering in the Eureka Subway, we wolfed down toasted meatball subs and contemplated our options. It was early, 4PM, too early to stop riding for the day, but the weather was abysmal and the prospect of several more high passes and a damp camp deep in bear country tempered our enthusiasm. Eric and Adam arrived and were clearly intimidated, opting for hot showers and soft beds in a nearby motel. Craig and I weren’t phased and set off into the bellowing storm fuelled by the bravado of our daring move. As the race played out, this proved to be the crucial break and we wouldn’t see any other riders again. It was here that I was most thankful for my tent and warm gear, as despite the deluge outside I got a good night’s sleep, if a little jumpy at the rustling of unidentified wildlife in nearby bushes.
Waking early we were off, riding muddy roads in the dark, till we gradually climbed to altitudes where the rain turned to sleet and then snow, and our measured cadences were reduced to stumbling through snow fields. The Red Meadow Pass was particularly snow stricken, and it wasn’t so much the climb as the descent which took almost 5km of tiresome pushing before the soft snow became thin enough to be rideable.
Rain gear was well used in Montana
The resort town of Whitefish proved to be warm oasis in the stormy sea, and the gigantic syrup and bacon laden breakfast I’d promised myself at 3AM that morning proved to be a great reward.
The state of Montana made up a disproportionate amount of the Tour Divide course, whether it was the snow or just the newness of Divide routines, I felt as if the long days in this state made those in southern territories seem like a breeze. Just as well then that the roads and trails here were some of the best of the route. Rolling climbs which flattered and sweeping descents that teased you to ride sans brakes, not to mention the technical treats of the Lava Mountain Trail outside Helena, which came just as interest in the gravel roads began to wane.
Dropping into Helena, my front brake had developed an alarming disposition towards not-functioning, and when faced with 1500m descents over some of the higher passes, the lonely rear stopper began to howl with heat build-up, and would occasionally stage a stop work protest of its own.
It took several days of riding like this, the latter with the rear swapped to front to ease the braking burden till I made it to the famed Outdoorsman bike shop in Butte Montana, where we were treated to snacks and free service from Levi Leipheimer’s brother Rob. With brakes bled and a fresh set of pads, we could shred the downhill again. Whether through luck or sheer pace,  we seemed to time our crossing of crucial bottlenecks in the course to perfection. The insanely steep Fleecer descent was delightfully tacky, the Banack back road which had historically been an 18 hour mud slathered slog was a dry 6 hour tailwind assisted blast, and out of Lima we were treated to a ferocious tailwind which meant our speed didn’t drop below 35km/h for close to 5 hours. Surely the omnipotent weather being was viewing our Divide journey with favour.
Post breakfast stoke at the Montana High Country Lodge
Idaho & Wyoming
Resupply was starting to become an issue however, with long distances between towns and precious little space on our bikes for food, Craig faded one evening as we crested the last Divide crossing before Idaho. Pulling up at a motel around midnight the proprietors couldn’t be roused so we bivyed in the car park, only a pulverised muffin for sustenance.
Waking early we were determined to get to food, and after the spirit crushingly sandy slog along a converted rail trail Craig faded badly and left the course for a proper feed. Digging into reserves I pushed on, and riding for the first time in the race alone, I convinced myself that I was fully capable of maintaining the gap all the way to Antelope Wells 3000km away. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to test this resolve, as on entering the Teton National Park a road closure on the route due to an auto accident forced a rest at the roadside for almost 4 hours. By the time it was open again Craig and I were back together and agreed to reform the ‘dream team’ for the long ride ahead.
Now properly in Wyoming, our next big obstacle was the Great Basin, which proved to be challenging only by its sheer mind numbingness rather than any physical demand.  At one point midway through this empty desert Craig and I became so disinterested that we agreed to attack the course. While this less than sustainable strategy kept boredom at bay and took us to the route midpoint of Rawlins in haste,  we paid the price with physical suffering rather than mental angusish.
My body had held up surprisingly well thus far, but I’m thankful to Craig for his experience with Achilles tendon injuries, as without the remarkably efficacious taping he’d prescribed I’m certain I’d still be lying on the road in agony back in Elkhorn Hot Springs (day 5).  By limiting the motion of this most  infamous of tendons I was able to pedal in comfort, and after some adjustment to cleats and pedals I’d also managed to dodge the knee pain which had arisen as I compensated for less dip in my pedal stroke. We’d also both discovered to wondrous apparent healing powers of Ibuprofen, which when taken at night at the end of a long day of pedalling, would melt away aches and pains from ass, quads and hands, leaving us both feeling like we were back on day one and pedalling with vim and vigour. Rest assured I’ve not found the magic pills to be as effective in everyday life and have discontinued their use,  thus quashing any fear of addiction.
Pulling into Rawlins for a quick refuel of pizza and endless fountain Pepsi, we skipped town with the aim of making Colorado that evening. Alas our efforts were foiled by sleep monsters, a phenomenon usually reserved for the sleep deprivation junkies known as adventure racers. Often it would hit mid morning, but never with such lead eyed persuasion as late at night, and often on a fast pedal free descent I’d find myself physically straining to keep eyelids ajar for fear of free riding off course and off a cliff. While caffeine pills proved effective during the day, I was reluctant to use them late at night, lest the buzz eat into precious sleeping time. Craig seemed to be plagued by the monsters worse than I did, and this night close to Colorado we peeled off the road and set up camp before they could win the battle for his consciousness.

That morning after pedalling through the famed tunnel of trees that is Aspen Alley, we descended then climbed into the centennial state, stopping for breakfast at the Brush Mountain Lodge. A Tour Divide institution,  this year the infamously hospitable Kristy was replaced by Matt Lee and his wife Katie. To be able to join this legend of the route for a delicious breakfast of pancakes, burritos and watermelon was a great treat, and we took the chance to compare notes on strategy and course conditions at this midpoint of the race. It shows a true passion for the route that it wasn’t enough for Matt to ride it seven times, he also choose to return with his family to support the racers on his family’s holiday.
Since the Banff depart, I’d been looking forward to Colorado, and it didn’t disappoint. From the hip but quaint ski town of Steamboat, to the epic mountain passes that followed. One pass offered up a wildlife highlight when we encountered a showboating beaver tending to his high altitiude dam. Only that morning I’d been telling Matt how it was the one critter which I longed to see but had escaped my gaze thus far.
Pushing on we made it to Silverthorne, and a string of resort towns with bustling economies that made a stark contrast with the slower placed settlements we’d toured through thus far.  We took all the opportunities offered  by the multitude of services, stopping at every convenience store along the way for drink and food, as well as at a bike shop to swap front tire with back and tend to other minor mechanical concerns.
Breckenridge signalled the end of the developed stretch and with the flattering climb of Boreas Pass we were hurtling down the Gold Dust Trail, an exceptional piece of flowing singletrack that kept us stoked for the rest of the long day, including through an exceedingly long headwind drag to Salida.

Arriving at close to midnight, we checked into a motel and showered away the days of accumulated grime and sweat from our weary limbs.
The next morning, we ascended the gradual slope of Marshall Pass, like much of the route its forgiving grade was due to its history as a railroad route.  The section following this consisted of long rolling climbs and oppressive heat as we gained elevation and crested a few more passes. Fortunately for us, the route was rarely trafficked, but when a vehicle did pass I was thankful for my buff to shield lungs from clouds of dust.
We were especially relieved when entering the last stretch before La Garita we saw a bright yellow grader leaving, his handy blade work removing some of the fierce corrugations that were less than appealing on my rigid fork. After a long dry stretch that included a number of dips in roadside streams to cool down roasting cores, we pulled into La Garita with no water or food to spare. Only a restaurant icon on my GPS gave us hope, symbolising a resupply point  which we hoped had cold drinks and ice cream and had been dreaming of for the past eight hours.
At first glance we were heartbroken. The store was locked and not a soul in sight, and so I sheepishly knocked on the door of an adjoining house to plead my case. The first response (a barrage of barking from a guard dog) didn’t bode well, but shortly after Jill the friendly proprietor popped through to open the shop, and the sandwiches, ice cream sandwiches and sodas she dished up were heaven for our parched lips and shrinking stomachs. Turns out we weren’t the first emaciated biker’s she had come across. She was clearly thankful for our business to supplement her core clientele of local ranchers. While we were drained by the oppressive heat, she seemed entirely unfazed only ruing the fact her trees were dying. Turns out the water being trucked in couldn’t stretch to keeping her garden alive. Their wells were dry after the almost decade long drought the region had been experiencing.
Following a theme that was becoming more familiar and less diffuclt, we rose from our sun baked stupor like phoenixes spurred on by the sugar coursing through our digestive systems. With light fading we joined the back road to Del Notre, shredding an awesome natural dual slalom track that had formed with the combined erosive effects of nature and 4x4s. Riding side by side with Craig we duelled through the sand berms, recalling our snow riding balance once the sand became too loose to float over. Del Norte allowed a final chance for resupply, and we headed up to the base of Indiana Pass to begin the largest climb of the tour at first light.
With a climb to 11,910 feet, I wasn’t expecting an easy start to the day, but like many other climbs I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the epic ascent. 

Rare footage of Craig and Ollie riding.
Pinning it to the top of Indiana Pass

What made this pass surreal was the environmental destruction that had been wrought by gold miners on the top of this mountain. Their Summitville mine seemed to have removed half of the picturesque mountain top, replacing it with deep earthen scars and a legacy of toxic chemicals that required intervention from the federal government’s Superfund. While the equally epic descent to Platoro quickly erased my disgust at the sight, the distaste has stuck with me and led to change in personal outlook regarding mining. We really are very fortunate that so little of our pristine New Zealand wilderness has been pillaged as Summitville has.
After only a pop tart and other small snacks for the entire morning’s climb, I reached Platoro with a monstrous hunger, and just as well the river lodge at the end was offering the Bigfoot breakfast challenge. Consisting of a stack of 5 huge pancakes, three sausage patties and two eggs, the challenge had never been completed and success would mean a free breakfast, a T shirt, and the respect (or disgust) of my fellow diners. While the waiter almost didn’t take my order, refusing to believe I could stomach the sheer quantity of food, I finished with 6 minutes to spare, and spent the feast to settle coaching some Texan diners there for a fishing holiday on how to approach the challenge. Key to success was ample use of syrup (almost two jugs worth), but unfortunately they couldn’t replicate my success. But with a hundred Divide riders hot on our heels, I was sure that the feat would be repeated. So accommodating were the staff that they agreed to send my T shirt back to New Zealand, as while the heft of the starchy breakfast was easy to stomach, a souvenir T shirt of my conquest of the Bigfoot challenge was just dead weight for this weenie.
Post breakfast and full of pancake!
With such a great start to the day, I rolled down the hill from Platoro motivated for a big day, just the attitude required with the next obstacle in front of us. It began with a climb up a steep paved highway which had taken on a feeling of an oven with the immense mid day heat reflecting into our faces from the blacktop. Unlike previously there were no handy pools to cool off in so when the gradient turned downwards and the road became gravel and then rough 4wd track we could breathe a sigh of relief.
The traversing of Boreas Ridge which was highlighted by loose rocky section where the surface consisted of fist sized cobbles which scattered as my rear tire grasped for traction. It was still baking hot but we’d the shelter of some trees for shade, and as we entered New Mexico these thinned out to become the desolate sage clad plains that would become all too familiar in the final stretch of the Divide.

New Mexico
Our long day again pushed us to the limits of food and water, a bag of banana chips serving as lunch and dinner as well as breakfast next morning. We were lucky to find one remaining water well at a campground which hadn’t dried up. Arriving at Bode’s store in Abiqui the next morning we were ranevnous, and for the second day in a row I indulged in a massive breakfast, this time four delicious breakfast burritos and the same number of cans of coke. Stocking up again with as much food as I could carry we were off again with a proper epic  40 mile climb through the high New Mexican forest ahead.
Climbing out of Abiqui prior to the storm arriving
 Again it was hot but as we climbed a curious change occurred with the weather appearing to turn on itself. So immense was the heat that huge puffy clouds began to form, and as they closed over we welcomed the shade they cast. In the space of ten minutes huge dollops of rain began to fall, and this was again welcome. Donning my rain gear for the first time since Montana I was dry and happy, but the arrival of marble sized hailstones and the static fuelled rumble of distant thunder planted a seed of concern. In one of the famed New Mexican thunderstorms, the worst possible place to hang out is apparently a clearing on a ridge, which is just where I happened to be riding. I hastily decided that three seconds would be an acceptable delay between lighting flash and thunder clap, indicating a deathly electrical surge was about 1km away. The closest they got was five seconds, and as swiftly as the storm had come upon us it disappeared, my anxiety passing with the dark purple clouds.
The descent that followed felt like it kept us occupied all afternoon, taking in some loose rocky sections reminiscent of Boreas Ridge, a swarm of butterflies that made me think I was in a fairytale, and a steep road descent with sweeping corners that made me feel like I was on a motorbike. I was only brave enough to ride on my aerobars for some of the high speed turns.
Spat out in Cuba with not a cigar in site, we resorted to Subway, their meatball sandwiches were fast becoming a staple of my Divide diet alongside Gatorade, breakfast burritos and pop tarts.
The long road section which followed didn’t have too many highlights beside a questionable bivy on an Indian reservation, and a fearsome night pursuit by some horse riding Mexicans. They approached on their equine steeds at high speed  with cries of ‘Areeba’ and ‘Yee haaw’, and I wasn’t sure whether I was hallucinating or about to be the subject of a robbery. Instinct took over and I pinned it, and am happy to report that on a slight downhill grade I can out pedal an inebriated Mexican on a horse. This would prove to be one of the more surreal and exciting encounters of my Divide.
Only a few miles before Grants, disaster struck our riding ‘dream team’, which some fellow competitors have likened to a bromance. Craig’s XTR pedals (which one could argue are the benchmark for reliability), the very ones I was also using, had developed a rumble which had worsened to an alarming clunk. Stopping to investigate, he borrowed some tools from the owner of a roadside bar and removed the spindle. Tiny ball bearings scattered like marbles and Craig’s hopes of finishing in a record time melted away like the tar in the mid morning sun.
After riding together for so long, I felt physically gutted for Craig and as he urged me to push on alone I came to curse the misfortune that had struck him. Even more powerful was that it could have happened to either of us, and breaking the deep bond that can only come from riding epic terrain together for 14 days, I was shell shocked as I pulled back onto the highway. While the Divide is an individual race, I felt a responsibility for us both to do our pairing proud, and push for the finish as fast as I could.
While the line was just in sight, the enormity of the terrain ahead was not to be underestimated with the Gila National Forest having a reputation amongst Dividers as the toughest part of the course.
Throwing caution to the growing headwind, I pushed on alone through the 40 degree heat and seemingly endless trail of energy sapping sand to Pie Town. The headwind did its best to keep me from reaching this famed pie haven, so it was with relief I rolled in at 6PM in time for dinner on the only day they served evening meals. While wind was a staunch opponent it was reassuring to know that luck was at least on my side.
Rolling out from Pie Town my heart swelled with encouragement from the locals, stomach brimming with steak of the chicken fried variety, I pushed on over Mangas Pass and found a nice bivy on a desolate stretch of road, happy to have knocked off a good portion of the Gila in the cool of the evening.
The Gila itself began with benign climbs and possibly the lamest crossing of the divide yet, the crest of the crossing barely distinguishable from a flat road. Pushing onwards I plugged through a long stretch of loose sandy road. This would have been nightmarish if it had been exposed to any sort of precipitation, fortunately this was not the case and I battled though to make the Beaverhead work station by mid day.  As the only resupply location in this 260km stretch, this forest fireman’s station was complete with a freshly stocked Coke machine to which I gifted my spare quarters in exchange for cans of cool, sweet, caffeinated bliss. I got chatting to the ranger stationed there and he like many other people along the route weren’t surprised by me turning up. Turns out he was enjoying a lull after some of the largest fires in recent history had ravaged nearby forests. To make matters worse, his home town of Fort Collins was being decimated by the flaming menace, with the threat to homes and lives clearly weighing heavy on his mind.
He wished me on my way and I was back on the trail, exposed to an inferno of a different kind with some of the steepest climbs I’d experienced making the final half of the Gila a tough experience. Cresting the final climb I was anticipating a fast flowing descent which I’d come to expect, but the reality of a loose, corrugated false flat was the final punishment, and my relief on hitting the highway was palpable. Rolling off course to Lake Richards, I ignored the cafe closed sign and pleaded to the proprietor Frances for cold drinks and food after the long stretch without. She was more than hospitable,  serving up slice after slice of freshly made chocolate pie and ice cold sodas to accompany the conversation. Turns out she had hiked the route I’d been biking some years back, a truly mammoth test of endurance that I found hard to fathom. Clearly seeing my weak state she offered up her lounge for a nap, an offer I duly accepted knowing the next stretch of singletrack was not to be underestimated.
Refreshed and invigorated, I tacked the technical singletrack with vim, lapping up the tight turns of this Sapillo alternate and the short descents it offered. A final thrilling road descent then climb past Pinos Altos, and I’d made Silver City, and headed straight to Subway to restock with a personal record breaking three footlongs.
Along the way we’d occasionally crossed paths with Divde followers that could only be described as super fans. The would appear in the oddest places and times, like the top of Indiana Pass, close to midnight outside Rawlins and on a rainy Sunday morning on the road to Whitefish. They would yell a couple of encouraging words and we’d smile, but cruising past I’d often feel bad for not stopping to talk, a fair reward given the effort they’d spent to satiate their taste for putting  dust stained faces to the blue dots they’d been following from the comfort of their homes.
A crew of three Silver City locals who met me as I rolled into town were clearly biking fans, helping run the annual Tour de Gila. They’d just finished up a ride on the sweet trails in the hills surrounding the city. I rode off into the night warmed by the fact that the simple act of riding a bicycle could have such a worldwide appeal.
As daylight faded, my desire to reach the finish some 200km away was strong, but unfortunately the string of bivys over recent nights had meant my light was close to flat, finally deciding to sputter out just short of Separ. While it would have been ideal to finish this section in the cool air of the night, with no light this wasn’t an option and I bivyed again in the desert to wait for first light, hoping I wasn’t too conspicuous to any gun toting drug traffickers .
The final road stretch to Antelope Wells was arguably the toughest of the Tour. While the smooth pavement and morning sun didn’t pose too much of a physical challenge, the thought that this amazing journey would be coming to an abrupt end left a part of me wanting to keep riding. While I was looking forward to the comforts of modern life like hot showers, soft beds and padded sofas, part of me didn’t want to let go of the visceral survival experience I’d immersed myself in.
Tired but content, Ollie at Antelope Wells
The highlights of my Tour Divide are too numerous to single out. Whether the immensely hospitable characters I’d met along the way, or the picturesque mountain terrain I’d traversed, or even the sheer self indulgent joy of living day to day with the singular purpose of getting to Mexico by mountainbike. Safe to say it will be some time before my memories of the 2012 Tour Divide fade.

Get that man to McDonalds!

On the road to recovery