Thursday, February 2, 2017

Great Southern Brevet 2017: Why do they can rain 'bad' weather?

I braced myself as I was hit with another massive gust of wind. Staggering a few steps I managed to regain control as my bike was lifted off the grown and pushed across the road. I peered ahead into the narrow beam of light as my head light shone into the darkness. Through the diagonally driving rain all I could see was the hill in front of me still heading upwards. I have experienced my fair share of strong wind before but this was by far the most fierce wind I had ever been in. I was struggling to stand let alone ride my bike, so I had been pushing my bike step by painfully slow step up to Duffers Saddle (1280 m) for the last 3 hours.

I was on to my second night at the Great Southern Brevet and ever since we had started I had been soaking wet and cold for 90% of that time and the conditions did not seem to be improving. As the wind cut through my wet clothing I was starting to lose heat very quickly. Taking shelter behind a large rock I set to work trying to change into some warmer clothing. Fumbling around with numb hands I battled with zips and trying to warm up my frozen fingers. I was thankful that I had packed an extra set of gloves as without this dry set of gloves things could have gotten dangerous. I was reminded of the saying; 'There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing options'. This was so true and as I put on the dry set of gloves my mood improved instantly. 

Finally cresting Duffers Saddle I headed down the other side into the Nevis Valley. Coming down to the first bridge in the dark it sounded like there was a lot of water rushing under it. As I crossed the bridge I soon found out that a large amount of that sound was coming from the water following not under the bridge but across the road in front of it. It didn't look too bad and I could see the other side in my headlight beam. However, as I edged out into the brown current flow with my bike on my within a couple of steps the river was at thigh level and swifter than I had anticipated. I struggled to maintain my balance as I was pushed down-stream. A quick glance at the fast approaching run out downstream which pounded into some rocks and willows I decided it would be a good life choice to get out while I was still up-right.

Not sure exactly what to do now, I could see some lights in the distance so thought I would try and make my way to what assumed was a farm house to see if there was a bridge or another place to cross. As I headed towards the lights I was having trouble negotiating the different braids of the now swollen river which had burst its banks. This is when I came across an abandoned farm house which while it looked like it was straight out of a horror movie I decided it could be at least a dry place to sleep to wait and see if the rivers would go down overnight.

As I approached the house the wind was rattling the iron roof and as I shone my light through the windows I was sure that there was no one in there but was half expecting a zombie staring back at me. I opened the back door and was greeted with a completely abandoned house. The wallpaper was peeling off the wall, there were blood-stained mattresses in the bedrooms and an old rusty bathtub to round out the scene. I thought to myself while I settled down 'what's the worst could happen'? I get stabbed in the night and not wake up. Which at this stage seemed like a good excuse for not having to get on my bike again in the morning :)


Pre-start with the A-team

 Ever since we had kicked off in Tekapo on Saturday at 10.15am the Great Southern Brevet had been a true test of endurance. As we rolled off down the Tekapo cannels the smooth going soon gave way to what I am sure is the roughest road in the world. A good 2 hours of getting shaken to pieces it was time to start climbing up behind lake Benmore. Cliff Clermont and Dave Sharpe seemed keen to push the pace early on but my legs didn't seem to have their normal get up and go so I settled into my comfortable pace and worked on keeping them insight. Craig Phillips and Brian Alder were closing in on me fast over the final few climbs before the Benmore Dam and Craig seemingly breezed past as I chugged up the hill in what had turned into a pretty hot day.

After what felt like a life time I rolled into Otematata and headed for Omarama. After bit of road riding and then some smooth riding on the Alps to Ocean I arrived in Omarama. I was pretty sure there were 3 riders ahead of me so I made a quick stop at the petrol station to resupply with a few pies, cookie times and bottles of coke before pointing my nose towards the big climb up to the Omarama Saddle. I pushed up and up the tough wee 5km climb and was soon rewarded with one of the best downhill sections I have ever had. With some steady rain now starting to fall I was starting to feel strong (it must be the West Coaster in me) and I set to work trying to catch the guys in front of me (I was later to find out that they were actually behind me). I got into a pretty good rhythm working on being efficient through the river crossings, over the countless gates and through more river crossings. As darkness started to set in so did the rain. I hit the rail trail at Oturehua at full speed with a nice tail wind but in a massive downpour. I was so pleased I had brought a new Marmot Pre-Cip rain jacket the week before as it was now paying huge dividends.

 The first glimpse of Lake Benmore

I steamed through Omakau and past lots of very dry looking sleeping options. My plan was to ride until ~ 2 am and then bed down for the required 4 hours stationary time. I had my eye on a woolshed or an old sod hut in Thompsons Gorge but as I pushed on the rain seemed to get harder and harder and the going slower and slower. As I passed the sign at the start of Thompsons Gorge that read 'Dry weather track only' I could only but smile as I stood in the 'river' that was now flowing down the road due to the wet weather. It was 1 am by this stage and I pushed my bike up the hill negotiating the torrent that was carving out massive ruts in the road. I was then meet with the head lights of a farm truck coming down the road. I was not sure what to reply when the farmer and his mates who must have been out spot lighting asked where I had come from and where I was heading. I started with 'well it's a long story'. After a brief yarn, he apologised that the woolshed would be all locked up but suggested I crawl in underneath it around the back. 'It'll stink like shit, but it'll be dry' he said and we parted our ways.

Well he was right. I crawled in under the woolshed out of the rain. It was dry but it sure did stink like shit. I didn't really care. I got out my bivvy bag, put my dry sleeping gear on, curled up and drifted off to sleep. I woke up shivering before my alarm. It was cold and I was regretting my choice to only bring a bivvy bag and not a sleeping bag. I slipped back into my wet gear and packed up ready to roll out as the clock ticked over 6 am. It was still raining heavily and I was back in my full set of waterproofs. Luckily the hills soon warmed me up as I got stuck into things.

Under the woolshed on night 1

I pushed on through the weather to Wanaka and I quickly saw why it had been so cold last night. There was fresh snow right down on the hills and the Pisa Range where we were meant to be heading looked like it had enough snow on them to open the cross country ski area. As I rolled into Wanaka it was great to see my wife Lily and our two girls who were out planting some cookies for the brevet riders. I was pleased to hear that everyone that I thought was in front of me were actually behind me and had been since I left Omarama. I must have slipped past them while they were refuelling.

Another quick pit stop in Wanaka to clean my bike at a water fountain, pick up a few more pies, cookie times, lollies, coke and sandwiches at the shop and to have a quick chat with Dave the organiser who had made the call for everyone to ride over the Crown Range rather than over the Pisa Range due to the snow. Considering the 20 cm of snow that had fallen at the Cardrona ski field overnight and the forecast was for high winds it sounded like a wise decision.

In Wanaka wearing full waterproofs. This is what I wore for most of the first 2 days.
Photo credit: Nick Taylor

While the ride over to Arrowtown was rather uneventful it was tough riding into the steady head wind and staying alert for drivers on the narrow roads. Once in Arrowtown I headed for Cromwell initially along the spectacular trail network then another long grind through the Kawaru Gorge on the road.
Rolling into Cromwell around 7pm I called into the BP there for bite to eat and stock up with lots of food for this next stage down into Southland. The rain was still falling and the wind really starting to pick up as I headed towards the climb to Duffers Saddle.

After a solid 5 hours of sleep due to getting to bed a bit earlier due to the high rivers, I woke up in the abandoned farm house frozen again and partly disappointed I was still alive and had to get back on the bike today ;). I quickly packed up and headed out to see if the rivers had dropped at all over night. What I found was a completely flooded valley and more snow low down on the hills. I struggled to get back to the 'main' road as the track I had followed to get in last night was completely under water. After 20 min of carrying my bike through waste deep water, climbing up and down steep hills and criss-crossing fences I finally made it back to the main road. The swollen river that I had tried to cross last night had now completely blown out and the water was lapping at the bridge. There was no way anyone was going to be going anywhere up the Nevis Valley today or for a couple of days unless they were in a convoy of Unimogs.

  The road I had gone down to the house the night before. A bit damp the next morning.

 Where I tried to cross the night before when I was able to see the other side in my head light.

 The Nevis river (usually knee deep at best) almost coming over the bridge
 The rest of the Nevis river going where ever the hell it likes.

With no other option I turned and headed back up the long climb to Duffers Saddle. This time the wind was at my back so it made things a bit easier than last night's slog. As I headed down the hill towards Bannockburn I was expecting to see some of the other riders chugging up the hill towards me but I didn't see anyone. Just before the bottom of the descent Dave the organiser came up the road in his car. I shared the news and some photos of the flooding in the Nevis with him and he quickly got to work rerouting the course, taking us instead over the Hawksburn Road into Clyde.

Back up on Duffers Saddle

In 2014 during my first Great Southern Brevet I took a wrong turn along this section of the route and ended up way off course. However, this year equipped with a GPS and some prior knowledge I passed the T junction where I had taken the wrong turn without any problems and a smile on my face. The ride down to Clyde and through to Alexandra was amazing and was made even better by the sun breaking through the clouds for the first time I could remember in a long time.

Washing day Brevet style

In Alexandra I had a quick sort of my gear and saw online that a few riders had pulled the pin in Cromwell earlier that morning due to the weather. Now sitting in Alex in the sun with what looked like a tail wind for the rest of the day I was sure they would have been kicking themselves. I headed off along the rail trail and then turned onto the Old Dunstan road. I kept catching a glimpse of a rider ahead of me that turned out to be Rob Davidson who had got the news of the reroute and slipped past me as I was climbing back over Duffers Saddle. Rob seemed to be riding strong and Duffers Saddle had taken the spring out of my legs a bit so it was really good to keep Rob in sight and pace off him in the distance. It was around this time that I started to feel a pain in my left calf/ achillies. I put it down to all the pushing I had done last night up to Duffers saddle. It was managable but would give me a real pinch every now and again. 

The wind was pretty favourable up over Poolburn and I caught up to Rob as we started the climb up to the Great Mossy Swamp. It was good to catch up with Rob and hear how he had been getting on over the last few days. Hill after hill after god damn hill. The climbs just seemed to keep coming and by the time I reached Middlemarch it was dark, I was hungry, hurting and everything was shut. A prolonged stop at the public toilets to 'reorganise' a few things and stuff more lolly snakes down my throat which I wasn't overly keen on. There were some very kind locals who had opened their home up for riders to shower, sleep and have a cuppa tea at. They were out on the street as I rode past in the dark and they offered for me to come in. It was about 10 pm and I knew that if I stepped through that door I would never leave. The warmth, human contact and offer of food would have been too much for me to break and head back out into the dark and cold.

Although it was a bit cold, the conditions were almost perfect and I was keen to take advantage of them. With a light wind still at my back and the stars shining so brightly through the crystal clear sky I rolled out of town. I was starting to feel better now so I plugged in my Ipod and cranked up the tunes as the midnight express got up to speed. I pushed hard through to Ranfurly and with some fresh water on board I pushed towards Naseby. Just outside of Naseby the clock ticked over 2.30 am and I decided it would be a good time to call it a night. I put my warm dry clothes, pulled out my bivvy bag and curled up in the long grass on the side of the road. 

I was greeted by an amazing sun rise. The cold calm conditions hurried me along and I quickly got on the road to warm up. A quick lap around the bumpy Naseby Water Race was torture on my batter behind and my left calf was getting more and more painful.  I was pleased to be leaving Naseby and be back on some smoother fast rolling gravel roads. As I made my way towards Dansey's Pass I past a sign saying the road was closed. Not knowing the details I pushed on.

 At the Dansey's Pass pub I pulled in for a raspberry and coke, red bull and hot chips for breakfast and to see if they had any news on the closed road. All I could find out was that it had been close for a few days and was 'pretty bad'. I decided to keep pushing on a see what the deal was. The worst thing that could happen was that I couldn't get through and I would have to come back to the pub for another feed!

Dansey's Pass slip

I slipped under the barrier that was blocking the road and started up the Dansey's Pass climb. As I climbed I was meet by a couple of contractors clearing culverts and they said that there was an impassable slip at the top of the pass and lots of wash outs on the other side and I should head back the way I had came. I was pretty keen to get to Tekapo this evening so after a bit of convincing they let me through at my own risk and that I was to turn around if I was in any danger. The slip turned out to be a bit of a none event and I easily carried my bike over it. There was a grader working on the big downhill from the pass so it was a slow trip down the hill behind it until I was eventually able to get safely by. There was flood damage everywhere on the way down but with the rivers back to near normal levels so the wash outs only required a bit of a carry to get over them.

One of many wash outs

Once out to Duntroon it was another call to Dave the organiser to inform him of the road situation, then it was on to sections of the Alps to Ocean that were not closed due to flooding as I headed toward Kurow. When I rolled into Kurow I hunted out the biggest ice cream I could find, plugged in the Ipod for a second time this trip and set my sights on Tekapo. I had made plans with my wife Lily to have sushi for dinner in Tekapo so I had to get a wriggle on.

Even though the going was relatively easy, the Hakataramea Valley seemed to drag on and on. The head wind steady built throughout the afternoon and by the time I hit the Hakataramea Pass it was blowing a gale. 

With the clock ticking until the sushi place closed up for the night I pushed on into the wind making ok time. I was greeted by a glorious sun set/ mountain scene as I rode the final few ks into Tekapo. I pulled into the car park at the church of the good Sheppard at ~ 8.30pm welcomed by my wife. I was so pleased to be finished after ~ 82 hours/ 900 odd km. Now the final challenge was to have a quick wash up in the public toilets and get our orders in at the sushi restaurant before last orders closed at 9 pm. After stuffing myself with sushi we headed home to Hawea getting into bed and passing out around 1 am. Job done!

A massive thanks go out to Dave King for all of his effort that goes into organising such an epic event. These events are truly amazing challenge on so many different levels. Thanks to my wife Lily for your support and keeping the home fires burning and to Torpedo 7 for helping my stay kitted out in the best gear there is. 

Over the next few days the body started to recover from the pounding. the slightly shorter course was a bit of ablessing as it saved the body from to much more abuse. Following the ride my left foot/ankle/calf completely blew up and was swollen for the best part of a week and the under cariage is a bit worse for wear but apart from that the body is feeling pretty good on the whole.