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The Brevet Club

01 February 2010

by Guy Wynn-Williams 

On a foggy winter day last year an email arrived from Simon Kennett suggesting a multiday mountain bike 'brevet' around the top half of the South Island - informal with self enforced rules, no entry fee, unsupported, and at first nervous glance a long hard race against yourself. The previous year Simon had famously completed the 4000km Great Divide Race from Canada to Mexico, and wanted to share the love with an abbreviated version for his kiwi mates. Four to eight days would be allowed to cover 1100km - about half on and half off the tarmac. There was a welling of intrigue at Ground Effect. Some months later I discovered my name on the start list. Laurence had quietly signed us both up. In response I cajoled him into competing as an informal team - a big ask as he is a fitter, faster and better rider. He bought that deal, maintaining that witnessing me suffer first hand would be adequate compensation. I didn't disappoint. The Kiwi Brevet was a tough assignment, not aided by an ill conceived 'off-the-couch' training program that revolved around water sports and abstinence from cycling for two months leading into the Brevet.

Sixty-five of us converged on Blenheim at midday for the inaugural event. The fastest were back in Blenheim in just over four days. We had planned a five-day assault and ended up taking a nudge under six. In our 'five-day' pack we bumped along the course with ten or so other riders - drafting sections, overlapping in cafés and occasionally dossing together. Several constants peppered the conversations: "How far do you reckon for tonight?"; "Have you got enough food for tomorrow?"; and "How's your bum going?". Like many others, by midway I was suffering from a seriously bruised and battered backside. The last few days got pretty extreme - with five minutes of torture at sparrow's fart as I eased into the saddle and forced my bum into submission before we could wind up the speedo.

The severity of the general suffering meted out by the Brevet was no real surprise. Riding 200km a day for five to six days is a big ask. I'd done enough multiday missions with Dave Mitchell to know what I was in for. With my lack of preparation I was counting on gaining condition and fitness as the ride progressed - on past experience usually around the third day. For the first two days Laurence taunted me that he was looking forward to the day three magic kicking in. It never did. We countered my lack of speed by riding for longer than those we were tracking with - typically starting around five or six and going until nine or ten at night. On the first day we were intent on descending the Maungutapu Track into the Maitai Valley before dark but missed by an hour. Mountaineering headlamps stretched over our helmets worked ok, but we envied those with little Ay-up riding lights and compact lithium batteries. I would opt for some of those next time.

What did surprise us was the impact of the Spot Tracker technology. For safety we were required to carry these small devices with us. They beamed our GPS location to a satellite every ten minutes. Each rider's position then magically appeared on a google map of the course, along with soundbites as riders called in from various designated points. The virtual spectator experience was compelling. Laurence's mate Andy texted after he finished, announcing that watching was more fun than competing. Back at home, Nikki was addicted - tracking us from sunrise to sunset. Consequently she knew much more about the race and our fellow riders than we did. It was great when I checked in to discover how the day had unfolded for the field. One fateful morning she put the kettle on while checking our progress. Absorbed, she later remembered her morning brew only to discover the kettle had boiled dry and morphed into a Dali-esque form.

Much of the pre-Brevet Internet chitchat was preoccupied with bike set up and equipment selection - understandable as we had to carry it for the duration. Hard nuts rode rigid 29ers or cyclo cross bikes. I modified my Santa Cruz Blur with aero bars, a rear rack and dry bag to get weight off my back. Arguably our most crucial choice was tyres. We opted for Schwalbe Marathons - big volume with some tread and a fast rolling bead for the road. They handled the singletrack and were forgiving on the occasional sketchy descent. We suffered no punctures although Laurence blew out a rim. Luckily it happened just shy of Arthurs Pass so we stretched the rules and whistled up a replacement wheel from Christchurch.

We packed minimal but sufficient clothing. Stand out items were the Flash Gordon rain jacket (used plenty in vest mode with the arms zipped off), Helter Skelters rain pants (kept rain and grit from infiltrating our precious cycle shorts) and a prototype long sleeve riding top we'd been thrashing around for a while. The Hyperactive fabric was cool and light in the heat and dried really fast. It even performed in the wet 'n' cold under a rain jacket. The Brevet was its final and most intensive test before getting the green light for release in the Ground Effect summer range this October.

We slept rough three nights out of six, which justified our decision to take lightweight sleeping bags and mats. Memorable lodgings included a bus stop at Stillwater - concrete never felt so comfortable. The following morning while heading towards Jacksons, I was swarmed after a truck carrying beehives ripped past. I got stung, lots. A comical scene ensued as I performed Billy Connolly impersonations, madly leaping about in the middle of the road, tearing off clothing and swatting at angry bees. Two days later while absently running my fingers through my hair I picked out several dead ones that had been passengers over the previous 300km.

The night following the bus stop, we merged with Jonty, Nick and Jeff from Wellington, and sheltered under the veranda of the View Hill Domain Pony Club. Jeff had us in stitches recounting his confusion earlier in the day as he applied sun block instead of saddle cream to his bum. They presumably had the last laugh the next morning as they watched us ride straight past the Wharfedale turnoff. As locals we had 'no need' for maps or directions, and consequently did an extra 8km warm up.

Cooker and billy were sacrificed in favour of cafés to provide a substantial feed at some stage during the day. We uncovered memorable meals at the Alpine Café in St Arnaud, Reid's Store in Maruia, the Yellow Café in Springfield and homemade pies at Jacksons. Less salubrious was a pair of McDonalds' apple turnovers at midnight in Nelson. Disgusting even when hypoglycaemic. Laurence later fessed up that he had a $20 wager with Mark at work that he could get me to eat under the golden arches.

Of course the bulk of our cargo was food. Tactical choices as to when and how much to restock were critical. We didn't always get it right. Charging down a country road towards Culverden, we were waved down by James - a local who had been glued to the virtual Brevet. He quizzed us about our plans for the next day. We needed a lot of fuel to make it through the Molesworth and on to Blenheim. The last supermarket (in Hanmer) wouldn't open until 8am - too late for our agenda. James generously volunteered to rustle up rations from home. We caught up at the Hurunui Pub and he stocked us with cold meat sandwiches, fruit cake and muesli bars. We were back in business and very grateful.

Our desire to finish that next day was thwarted by a late afternoon speed slump and heavy rain as we headed down the Awatere. We had anticipated continuing into the night but it was cold, wet and despite James's generosity we were out of food. A cosy hay barn by the Hodder River beckoned and we crashed for the night. A sachet of honey puffs sufficed for dinner and half an afghan masqueraded as breakfast. We hit Blenheim just before midday and were greeted by half a dozen fellow riders who had finished the previous night. Bubbly was uncorked and yarns exchanged. Immediately the suffering was supplanted by elation... and the anticipation of next year's Brevet, I think though as a virtual spectator enjoying the toil of others.

Laurence and I took 5 days and 23 hours, around 180km per 24 hours. We finished somewhere in the mid 20's out of 65 starters. 

Our itinerary

  • Day 1: A half-day starting at midday. Blenheim to Richmond, via Port Underwood, Picton, Havelock and Maitai Valley. 165km
  • Day 2: Richmond to Murchison, via St Arnaud. 175km 
  • Day 3: Murchison to Stillwater, via Maruia Saddle, Big River and Waiuta. 222km 
  • Day 4: Stillwater to View Hill, via Arnold River and Arthurs Pass. 202 km 
  • Day 5: View Hill to Culverden, via Wharfedale and Lees Valley. 175 km 
  • Day 6: Culverden to Hodder River, via Jollies Pass, Molesworth and Awatere. 125 km 
  • Day 7: Hodder River to Blenheim, via Taylor Pass. 76 km

kiwibrevet.blogspot.com is packed with results and information, including blogs and gear strategies of other riders. The 2011 Kiwi Brevet is likely to happen again in February on a similar course. Register your interest by emailing simon@kennett.co.nz