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Nelson to Christchurch to Nelson

by Pamela Blalock


Ah, February in the southern hemisphere - summertime. What a great time for a 440 km brevet - or so one might think.

But first let me go back in time a bit and tell you what we've been up to recently. Our last really long rides were in August. It was about then that we packed up our cats and entire house in the suburbs of Boston in America and began our journey to New Zealand.

We had hoped to cycle tour around the south island and pick a new town in which to live, but with the cats only having a month in quarantine, and the island being bigger than we originally envisioned, we ended up renting a car, and did day rides from various places where we considered settling! In the end, Christchurch, with the best chance of high tech jobs was too flat and windy, Dunedin was cold, wet, and seemingly lacking jobs (we went to the wrong job agency - apparently there are heaps of jobs). Wanaka and Queenstown seemed to have nice road and offroad cycling, a bit of wind, and potentially harsh winter weather, but no chance of high tech jobs and very expensive homes. Then we found Nelson, with great weather and some shelter from the wind as well as trees. Trees were a sight for sore eyes by the time we found Nelson, since much of the south island is treeless. We found a charming house on top of a steep hill, and went for it. We decided to worry about jobs later. But that's a different story…

We took possession of the house quickly and soon after the furniture arrived. It was then that we became painfully aware that our charming house was a wee bit smaller than our last house, and we had to get creative to get all our stuff in. We've managed it, but it has proven to be a time sync, and has left us less time for cycling than we had hoped. Ah the best laid plans of mice and men…

Then in January, we took a holiday and went backpacking (tramping in kiwi-lingo) for two weeks. We returned in pretty good tramping shape, but needed to get back to regular cycling!

So we jumped back into it. The second weekend in February, we did a 4 day, 440 km mostly gravel road tour, over the Rainbow Road and Molesworth Road. We carried full camping gear, and spent a lot of time in the saddle everyday. After that we finally managed to assemble the Robusta, our lightweight go-faster tandem, and headed out for a few short rides. With that for preparation, we decided to do a 440 km brevet.

Of course, we can never do things the easy way. This particular 440 km event started in Christchurch and ended a few blocks from home in Nelson. So first we had to get to Christchurch. And what better way to get in some last minute training than to ride to the start (reversing the route) a couple of days before the actual event! So Wednesday morning, we put on a saddlebag, handlebar bag and lights, and began the trek down to Christchurch. We planned to do about 250 km the first day and stop for the night at Maruia Springs Thermal Resort. We'd finish off the final 200 km in to Christchurch on Thursday and then rest up all day Friday for the midnight start, heading back the way we came.

John and I have never been ones for starting bike rides at wee hours of the morning, so still in spite of setting an alarm for 7 AM, we didn't actually hit the road until 10:30 AM! We'd been checking forecasts for a few days, and things weren't looking very good. A southerly was predicted. (For non kiwis, this means that bitter cold air blows up from the South Pole. Normal conditions at this time of year are for a warm northwesterly. Don't forget, it is summer down under.) Now it wasn't just cold winds, this front was bringing rain too. I really shouldn't complain. Nelson is situated such that we have almost no rain in the summer, at least no proper rain. For most of the summer, it is warm and sunny with low humidity, and compared to other parts of N.Z., it's relatively sheltered from wind. I guess I've just gotten spoiled by our ideal climate a bit quickly.

Anyway, we packed our woolies - jersey, arm, leg and knee warmers, overshoes, gloves, etc. We also packed a bit of food. One thing I've quickly learned in New Zealand is that it is often 100km or more between points of civilization, so take plenty of food, water, and warm clothing. We packed a couple of sandwiches, some high energy nutty chocolate chip cookies, and a few packs of beef jerky. I must give credit to ultra distance cycling guru Lon Haldeman for suggesting beef jerky to neutralize the sweetness of many other cycling energy foods. This former vegetarian has developed a real taste for the stuff. We also had plenty of water, with a camelback for each as well as 2 bottles each.

I mentioned we'd finally put the Robusta back together. We brought our touring tandem on the plane, and had ridden it everywhere, including a few cycle races where we were the only folks racing with full racks and fenders. But for this potentially rainy ride down to Christchurch, I begged John to let us take the lighter machine, sans fenders, racks, couplers, etc. Of course it meant messing around to put on the big saddlebag, and hooking up lights and such, but I just felt with so little real training, it would be good to have at least the advantage of a bike that is less effort to push up mountain passes. So despite having only ridden it 100 km since assembling it, we took the Robusta. And I'm not exaggerating about the distance. Just before coming to the land of sheep, we traded our old Robusta for a new one with a disc brake, and had literally just finished getting it together the weekend before the big event! The front wheel did have some prior use, as it was one of our generator wheels and had been used on a few brevets before. But everything else was new! Not the recommended thing to do before a big ride, but I'm happy to report that everything held up well - bike wise!

So we took off mid-morning and headed toward St. Arnaud. St. Arnaud is the gateway to the Nelson Lakes National Park. We've ridden out and back before, and started our Rainbow-Molesworth ride from there. We hope to get back up soon and do some tramping, as the area came highly recommended from various hut wardens on our trip in January. There are a couple of good climbs on the way out, the first over the Reay saddle, followed by a climb over Kerr's Hill, and finally the long slog up to Top House. St. Arnaud is about 600 meters above sea level (and Nelson), so it's always a good climb up there.

Just as we were climbing Kerr's Hill, we encountered a wee bit of rain. It was nothing significant, so we pressed on without bothering to put on rain gear. It continued to spit and sputter almost all the way to Top House. We knew we'd start descending from there, so we stopped and put on our jackets. We stopped a few km later at the garage in town, and added overshoes and knee warmers. It was around this time that the proper rain started! The elevation, combined with the rain and long descent down toward the Buller Gorge made for a chilly ride, so when we finally reached Murchison, I was seriously ready for some hot food and a cappuccino. For those who don't know me well, I must explain that I have a serious espresso addiction. We jokingly refer to it as coffee shop constipation - the inability to pass a coffee shop. It can make for long days in areas littered with coffee shops, but as I mentioned earlier, here in New Zealand, it can often be 100 km in between points of civilization. Of course, to its credit, even the tiniest little village here usually has a few shops with espresso machines! And Murchison has a couple of really great cafés, one of which, the Rivers Café, actually is a rafting center, with a great café on the side. It's become a required stop on any trip down to the west coast. I selected some veggie lasagna and John ordered a pizza, as well as our usual coffees and a chocolate dessert. We settled down for a nice relaxing meal, and enjoyed the lovely warmth inside the café.

John and I each looked at the map, and figured out how much more riding we had for the day. Unfortunately John misread a number and didn't realize we had another 100 km to go, until we were rolling out after an hour long break. As we were leaving a couple of lads asked how far we had to go, and we responded with different numbers! In adding up distances on the map, John had missed one, and thought we had many fewer kms to go. At least he found this out now! But he did comment he wouldn't have taken such a leisurely break had he realized how much farther it was. We tried to phone our hotel to let them know we'd be a wee bit later than the original plan, but got no answer.

Anyway, we set forth for Springs Junction. . It was back to drizzle, and it seemed it must rain a bit in this area, as it was far greener than Nelson. We continued down the main road a short while before turning on a much quieter climb up to the Shenandoah Saddle. It was a lovely area almost reminiscent of the Shenandoah in America - lovely and plush and green. Then we began to be tortured by references to Maruia - as we rode along beside the Maruia River, by the Maruia Inn, past Maruia Falls, and even through the town of Maruia, none of which were in any way close to our destination for the evening Maruia Springs! (although technically the river does go all the way to the resort, but we saw the first sign for it 80 km away!) The climb to the saddle seemed quite reasonable, but after a short descent, we just seemed to start climbing again very gradually, and endlessly. Darkness was drawing in. It was raining harder, and getting much colder and we were both ready to be done for the day. Well we'd get to test the lights some more before the big event! We finally reached Springs Junction and attempted to phone the hotel again. This time we got through and they were very happy to hear from us. John told them we were cycling, and they said they'd see us in an hour. We saw a distance sign shortly after getting underway and realized we'd get there well before they expected us. But we were starting to climb Lewis Pass, so maybe not… Actually this part of the climb was quite gentle and very peaceful. But after about 10 minutes, we saw a car pulled over to the side of the road. It was either a good thing or a very bad thing. Luck was with us. After getting off the phone, the folks from the resort began to worry if we had lights, and came out to check on us. They were impressed by our lights, and told us we were halfway there.

John checked the temperature on the bike computer and saw a very impressive 5 C. When we arrived, we were offered hot soup and hot chocolate, and we devoured it. After a quick shower, we made our way down to the hot pools. Have I mentioned that Maruia Springs is a thermal resort, and has great hot pools open 24 hours a day! Our poor cold tired muscles greatly appreciated our choice of accommodation.

The next morning we hit the restaurant for hot cakes, which sad to say were not very hot, and not great, but the coffee was good and hot. Then we went for another session in the hot pools to warm us up a bit before starting the climb up the pass in pouring rain. It was still 5 C, and the rain was pretty steady. We were planning to stay the next night in Christchurch with our friends, Jim and Shelly, and they had offered bail out if necessary. We worried about snow on the pass, and a long cold wet ride into the city. We phoned Shelly and were greatly relieved to hear that it was 20C and sunny in Christchurch! So we mounted up and began the climb straight away. The computer showed 4C at the top of the pass. The mountain tops all around were dusted in snow, but it was just raining on the road. The descent was freezing! Fortunately it was followed by many ups and downs, giving us lots of opportunities to warm back up. My hands were in dire condition, and I kept thinking about all those heavy warm gloves in my dresser at home. In trying to pack light, I brought a very light pair of windstopper gloves. I clearly could have used more. John has also packed light, and had wool knee and arm warmers, but no leg warmers. He had a long sleeve wool top for off the bike, which he put on for today's ride, and used his arm warmers as calf warmers! At least we both had good overshoes.

Now I did saw the up and down after the top was a good thing since it helped us get warmer, but I was growing a bit weary of the climbing, and I was ready for lunch long before we reached Culverden, the first real bit of civilization about 100 km from the hotel. We found a wonderful café, where we had fabulous toasted paninis, coffee and dessert. What a shame they'd be closed at 4 AM when we'd pass by Saturday!

The rain had stopped sometime before we reached Culverden, and the sun even poked out. But it was still a bit chilly, and the wind seemed to pick up. In fact after lunch, it seemed to be a headwind at times, but about 20 km out of town, we found ourselves blown along by a glorious tailwind. We passed through Waikari, and then found ourselves climbing a small pass! The descent down the other side was great, especially with that howling tailwind. Of course we both talked about how painful the return trip would be if this kept up!

We soon came to Route 1, and the end of the enjoyable part of our ride. Traffic here was horrendous, with cars and trucks zipping past at 100 kph, often with very little clearance. We finally reached the turnoff to Kaiapoi, and lighter traffic. We skirted our way around town and into Sumner to Jim and Shelly's.

On Friday, we planned to take things fairly easy, but also needed to do a bit of shopping. I wanted to find some glove liners, and decided a long sleeve wool top wouldn't go astray. We headed into the city for a lovely lunch and shopping, before an afternoon nap. I think we both rested our eyes, but didn't really get much sleep, before we joined Jim, Shelly and Julie (who'd come around to meet the crazy folk!) for dinner. We eventually dragged ourselves away and rode back into town for the 11 PM rider briefing.

Thankfully the winds had died down a bit, and they had also changed direction so now they were from the south. We met a few of the other crazies, and I scoped out other tandems. I knew there were to be two teams of two tandems (where team members alternate who rides and basically ride half the event each). But I then found another tandem that was to do the full ride. I also found out they'd just started tandeming, and had only done a few rides together! When asked for advice, I simply suggested standing as much as possible.

There were just under 40 riders taking part, with about half of them doing the full ride, and the others were members of teams. Most folks seemed to have PSVs. Obviously the teams needed vehicles for logistics, but many of the solo riders also had personal support. There are long distances with no services, and many folks seemed able to find someone willing to spend their weekend providing aid and comfort, following behind or leapfrogging a crazy cyclist. I think we were the only riders without some amount of personal support! I did hear that the lad who finished first, in the company of one of the tandem teams, had no PSV, but did get some assistance from his companion's crew.

We did take advantage of the New Zealand Post, to mail some Sustained Energy and Hammer Gel to Christchurch, so we wouldn't be tempted to eat it on the way down, and to provide room in our saddlebag for street clothes. We then mailed the street clothes home. On the bike, we carried - well actually most of our clothes were on our bodies for the first half of the event, but somewhere in the middle, jackets and warmers and such made it into the saddlebag. We also had tools and spares as well as nutrition. We started with two full bottles each of Sustained Energy (a flavorless high energy powder mix for our bottles) and 4 big Hammer Gels, which were left over from my aborted Boston Montreal Boston attempt last August. We also had enough SE (in powdered form) to make 2 more bottles each every 100 km along the route. There was no point in carrying more, since water was really only available at those 100 km intervals. We had the SE in our bottles and plain water in our Camelbaks. We've done enough hot rides here where we have run short on water - so we now often go overboard. In addition we had some Muesli bars and at least one cookie was still left over from the trip down, as well as a few nibbles of Beef Jerky. We did have enough with us to get through the event, without stopping for real food, but given the cold weather, I knew I'd probably give in and want real food too!

So after milling about a bit, we gathered for the rider meeting, where Les Vincent, the organizer, told us this was a record turnout, that it would be cold on Lewis Pass, and that the start would be neutralized out of town until we reached the main road, where PSVs could join their riders. We started when the digital clock in cathedral square said midnight.

We rolled out with the group along mostly quiet streets, and chatted with a few other riders. We talked with Ross (who was riding on a team with his partner, Marion) for a while about various touring bikes and our generator hub - which powers our front light. We met up with a fellow from Oamaru, who on a whim with his mate, decided to do the event as a team. We met Kim, the only female rider doing the event solo, and watched her quickly disappear off in the distance as we stopped for one of our many pee breaks in the night. We must have stopped a dozen times in the first 200 km - a combination of the cold and our efforts at re-hydrating after the ride down. We met Gary, a rider who had flown down from the North Island, and rented a motorhome for his father and mate to use for support. We saw Gary many times throughout the ride, and finished within 30 seconds of him, but rarely rode together, after the first 20 kms!

We were riding along chatting with Paul and Dan, the only other solo tandem, when suddenly Dan, the stoker, said something about his pedal falling off. They stopped to retrieve the pedal, and then with the aid of the neutral support at that point motorpaced back up to the pack. Unfortunately shortly after getting together, nature called and we had to take a pit stop. Route 1 was a totally different road in the wee hours of the morning than it had been Thursday evening. It was quiet as could be, with very few vehicles, aside from the PSVs. Looking up the road, we could see the emergency flashers of some vehicle following a cyclist. Looking back, we could see another car moving slowly, a sign that they were also following a cyclist. Each time that we'd get close to a rider ahead though, we'd have to stop to pee!

We were thrilled to reach the first control in Culverden at around 100 km. The controls were unmanned, and were basically a cardboard box where we dropped an envelope with our number and the time we passed through. This one was conveniently located at a rest area with flush toilets and drinking water, since all other services in town were closed - it was 4 in the morning after all.

At this point we hooked up again with Paul and Dan and stayed together more or less for the next 100 km, chatting merrily along the way. They had a support crew who planned to meet them around 8AM hopefully near Lewis Pass. Paul's father is a doctor and was on duty over night, so couldn't leave until 6 AM. Dan and Paul's partners were also coming along for the fun. But until then they were on their own - and surviving in the clothing they started in. As I mentioned earlier, they had only done a couple of rides together on tandem before and it was a borrowed tandem at that. But they were holding up quite well. Paul was captaining, while sleepy Dan was stoking. Dan had a fair amount of ultra endurance experience from events like the Southern Traverse, a multi sport, multi day endurance event. But he still had a bit of trouble staying awake. Paul, John and I chattered the night away, and I never once suffered from the noddies - that condition where you start to nod off, and then come to!

The rolling climb up Lewis was just as relentless as the rolling descent had been a day and a half before. Every time that I thought we were on the actual climb to the pass, we'd go down again, and then start up another. The moon, while not full, was incredibly bright, and Paul often switched off his front light, enjoying the benefits of the moonlight, as well as our dual headlight setup. We started to catch views of seriously snow-capped peaks all around us. What had only been dusted on our journey down was now fully covered. It looked like mid-winter. Of course we had purposely left the camera at home - conserving space and all. So we weren't tempted to burn up more time by stopping to take photographs! The air was quite brisk, and our thermometer alternated from 1 to 0 C, until it firmly settled on the freezing mark. We were all a bit chilled. I was quite thankful for my new glove liners and long sleeve wool top. I was wearing almost everything I had with us - shorts, wool legwarmers, wool socks, shoes, overshoes, wool undershirt, long sleeve wool top, rain jacket, illuminite vest, glove liners and windstopper outer gloves, headband, helmet and clear glasses. I did still have a short sleeve woolie, arm warmers and knee warmers in the saddlebag. I figured I'd put these on for the descent. John was dressed pretty similarly with one or two things also in reserve for the descent.

Just as we finally reached the real climb up Lewis Dan and Paul's support car came by. Paul asked them to stop at the top - but a short while later we saw them stopped well short of the top. As we slogged past, he called out to go to the top. But then when we reached the top, they were no where in sight - possibly concerned that it was another false summit. So we all pressed on - without adding more clothing. By the time we saw them, we both were flying along at a good pace, and decided to keep going with what we were wearing. I'm sure there were grumbles in the support car at that stage, but they headed down to Springs Junction, where everyone had to stop!

Given the temperature and the dampness on the roads, John took the descent somewhat cautiously, but still with pretty good speed. We pulled into the control a few seconds after Paul and Dan, wrote the time in on our envelope, dropped it in the box, and headed across the street for something to warm us up - and boy did we luck out. We ordered latte bowls, pancakes and muffins, and then placed ourselves squarely in front of the wood fired stove. The pancakes took a while, but were incredible - giant and thick. John got banana pancakes, and there must have been three or four bananas sliced up all over his. While we were waiting for food, Paul and Dan spent some time in their support car with heat on full blast warming up, but they were ready to go, just as we were getting food. We tried to entice them with the wood stove, but they wanted to press on. It was hard to say goodbye to such great riding companions, but food beaconed!

I had remembered climbing a bit to get here on the way out, and fog was shrouding the river valley - the sun had poked through on top of the pass - but here it was still quite chilly and no sign of sun. So I added some clothing before we remounted and aimed the bike toward Murchison - 100 km away. It turned out we hadn't climbed that much two days before. It was a very gentle descent down a river valley. The climb over the Shenandoah wasn't bad, but the decent was fabulous.

We passed Gary stopped with his motorhome for a break. And throughout the day we'd see his motorhome on the side of the road or passing us as they offered leapfrog support.

We then started seeing numerous Bentleys and Rolls Royces. Was there some wealthy people convention going on? I did a bit of research later and it seems that the New Zealand Bentley and Rolls Royce Club have weekend events, just like a bike club or running club.

We arrived at the control in Murchison, and did the routine of filling in the time and dropping off the envelope. Dan and Paul were still there, but I couldn't entice them to join us for coffee at the Rivers Café. Again a real shame, because riding with company can be so much nicer. I was tempted to bypass the café to join them, but at this stage my stomach was seemingly rejecting the SE and I needed some calories.

We went in and ordered a couple of sandwiches. I mentioned we were in the middle of a bike race and asked if we could get those quickly. They looked at me as if to ask - a bike race? I then corrected myself that we were actually 2/3 of the way through. They asked where we were going and I said Nelson. Of course math was performed and they asked where we started. They were pretty impressed with the answer and brought out the food straight away. We devoured our sandwiches and coffee and removed some clothing, since it was warming up and we had a long climb up to St. Arnaud.

The climb started out pleasant enough, and once we turned off the main road, it was even nicer. The road wound along a river, and was somewhat cut into the side of the bank. But after a while, the scenery turned somewhat bland, and the 1-2% grade combined with never changing scenery made this section drag on. The only change in the scenery was from the three gliders enjoying the thermals above a nearby cliff. They seemed to be having a great time, and stayed aloft for ever!

We finally reached St. Arnaud and the penultimate control. We had passed Gary taking a break earlier and saw his motorhome waiting just before the store. We took a quick break at the store, and headed out for what should have been an easy ride into the finish. We'd done the 90 km in 2.5 hours a few weeks earlier - as part of a race, when we were relatively fresh, so we thought 3.5 hours wouldn't be outrageous. Besides it's a net downhill with 600 meters of true descent, but mysteriously we encountered a headwind. As we crested Kerr's hill we saw Gary's crew packing up. We caught up to Gary on the descent, and rode together for all of a few hundred meters when we punctured in the rear! We waved goodbye and set forth to repairing the puncture. Once we remounted it seemed that not just the tire had been deflated, but so had our spirit. The climb up Reay's Saddle was much harder than I remembered and then we had that endless section of main road into Richmond. From there we slogged onto Stoke up and over some mountain that used to be a small hill and finally into Nelson and the last turn toward the Cathedral. We arrived 30 seconds after Gary and just as it was getting dark.

We were greeted by a cheering Marie and Malcolm and given hugs and congratulatory handshakes. At this stage, fatigue was setting in. I was finally sleepy. So we chatted briefly and then shifted into the granny gear for the final climb of the day up to our house (one km away up a brutal hill) for some well deserved sleep.

The next morning we headed back down for Richmond to receive our completion certificates, and spot prizes. My name was drawn first and I selected a very nice jacket I'd scoped out early on. It would sure have been nice on the pass the day before! When we received our certificates, John made the comment that February in the southern Hemisphere felt a lot more like February in the Northern Hemisphere and thanked the powers that be for trying to make us feel right at home!