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Sort-of Full Tilt on the Great Southern Brevet

01 May 2014

by Dan van Asch

Cycle touring always seemed like an invitation to meander through the countryside on a bike loaded to the gills with stuff slung on racks over front and rear wheels, map in hand, punctuated with leisurely picnic and ice cream stops planned well in advance.

My only previous experience of this kind of journey was a schoolboy Duke of Edinburgh expedition to the West Coast on my Raleigh Sport 10 speed, with a chrome carrier and two red saddlebags. The train ride over, the night in a Ngahere hay shed and the illicit jugs of beer are enduring memories.

Recreational and gently competitive cycling followed me into adulthood. I convinced myself that this would be a good base as my interest returned to longer rides. The annual circumnavigation of Lake Hawea reconfirmed my love of 'a big day out'. Further refinementsof this pursuit lead me to own a rigid singlespeed, complete with traditional leather Brooks saddle. The advent of 'bike packing' and associated lightweight seat post and handlebar mounted bags beckoned longer adventures. Could 'less is more' apply equally to my kit as it does to my bike?

A trip to the Singlespeed World Champs with my old friend Jasper proved the winning combination of beer, no gears or visible lycra, beer, food, beer and good sorts. During the road trip Jasper related stories of endurance and suffering during the Kiwi Brevet and the Great Southern Brevet. Were they really too good to miss?

The 2014 edition of the GSB promised 1100 km around Canterbury, Otago and Southland over 12 stages, with a time limit of 8 days. Plenty of historic gold trails and spectacular scenery were powerful bait. Jasper signed on. I followed suit.

With a prescribed route to follow, and assuming my legs could power my trusty bike over the required time and distance, the delicious 'gear planning' phase began. What's not to like about reading endless tales of other people's daring exertion, privation and suffering? It was soon apparent that 'less is more' is a mandatory not optional requirement to survive the brevet.

The old trick of discarding half the initial gear pile was not severe enough. More pruning ensued. Lightweight dry bags housed most of the meagre kit, then a full day ride with everything strapped to the bike was undertaken for testing purposes. This uncovered a few surprises, including sorting out wriggle and squeak free attachments and the inevitable handling challenges of a fully laden bike. Once my heart rate settled down following disconcerting speed wobbles of the first downhill, I determined my set up was a really good ride.

I then attended to the rotating bits of my bike. Top of the list were new tyres with a double dose of tubeless sealant in anticipation of the spaniards, rosehip and matagouri that lay ahead. Assembling tools, some chain lube and lights completed preparations. I was ready.

Eleven am was an appropriate gentlemen and ladies' hour to start a week-long adventure. With GPS Spot trackers blinking, a group photo in front of the famous Tekapo church and three cheers - the 75 strong peloton of randonneurs rolled out of town. Yehaa.

It was a blistering pace on the first stage to Twizel. The ice cream stop was delicious. The second stage climb up Pyramid Saddle was an exercise in perseverance, rewarded with spectacular late afternoon views from Flanagan's Pass across Lake Ohau. The shower at the Lodge followed by a three course dinner was a lifesaver.

Without an exhaustive description of the route(check it out at greatsouthernbrevet.blogspot.co.nz) the days followed a routine of early start, numerous food and water stops and a whole lot of biking. And with singlespeeds, a whole lot of walking. As someone kindly observed halfway up one steep climb, "for this kind of riding you need a bike that is easy to ride, and even easier to push".

Jasper had completed the previous GSB in a competitive mode, but was kind enough to entertain a more relaxed tourist pace this time. We took lots of photos and admired pretty much everything nature served up.

Cycling with an old friend for 12 hours a day over 6 days precipitates wide ranging discussion on most topics... philosophy, travel, wonders of the world, geography, geology, the magic ratio (of buildings, not our gearing) and always food. Where and when was the next refuelling stop? "Is it beer o'clock yet?"

While singlespeed pace is a little different from that of most of the other breveteers, we still connected with plentyof other riders. It is extraordinary how much food half a dozen hungry cyclists can consume in a sitting. Wehit the cafés and Four Squares like an extreme weather event - leaving the owners dazed, or at least bemused.

My enduring memory of the brevet was the good humour (although it did desert us a couple of times) and fellowship of the participants. At every stop there was a story to tell, joke to crack, or experience to share. The brevet generates a kind of magic, with everyone under its spell.

Grovelling climbs, an exhilarating 25 km tailwind descent into the Maniototo, six Nokomai shepherdson horseback along with theirsheepdogs looming out of the Nevis Valley dawn mist, the best carrot cake and milkshake stop, dramatic hog's back clouds, a fish and chip picnic, vast landscapes and big skies. These and so much more were the 2014 Great Southern Brevet. A very fine cycle tour indeed.

Nitty Gritty

  • For the record, Jasper and I completed the 1100 km in 6 days and ten hours. A rough averageof 150 km each day. 
  • The terms brevet, randonée and cyclosportive describe an event where riders attempt courses of 200 km or more, passing through predetermined checkpoints. The aim is to complete the course within specified time limits. Riders are expected to be self-sufficient and everyone receives equal recognition regardless of finishing order. 
  • Register interest in the Great Southern Brevet atgreatsouthernbrevet.blogspot.co.nz or the Kiwi Brevet(around the top of the South Island) atkiwibrevet.blogspot.co.nz
  • The title of this article tips my cap to Irish cyclist DervlaMurphy and the book 'FullTilt', describing her bike ride from Dublin to Dehli in 1963. Her overland cycling adventure is the stuff of legends, and her story is engrossing. She never failed in gusto, determination nor wit. I note that by comparison the brevet was a quick lap around the block. For the weight conscious, Dervla's gear list had several 'incidental' items including cash, a Thermos flask, a .25 cal automatic pistol and four rounds of ammunition. Southern hospitality, credit card and cafes made the brevet comparatively easy.