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Ashburton Lakes Brevet

27 October 2020

Words and Photos: Liam Crozier

I sit here a few days on, the fireplace radiates its heat on the right side of my sunburned skin. A humming ache of post pedaled lactate fills my flesh down to the bone and warms my soul in its sadistic satisfaction. This pain is the reward your body gives for hard effort and is telling you that it is getting stronger. It is not the previous pains of battery acid filling your body as you pedal head down, sweat dripping from the tip of your nose and being released by your wheezing raw breath onto your top tube. It is not the sting of sweat that after pooling in your eyebrows is released in a salty sting that makes you squint. This is the pain that makes that pain worth it.

Ashburton Lakes was my first brevet, well my first 200+ km ride. It was only shortly before that I had decided to give it a go, so no surprises that I was terribly unprepared - like a child on their first day at a new school. I knew what I needed, I knew I would get through, but damn, what do I ‘really’ need. What will I eat, where do I go, maybe I should have just stayed home happily in the comfort of consistency and routine.

But no. I was sitting back against the cold metal inside my little van. Gear scattered like the aftermath of a bad party, watching ice form on the inside of the windows. Canterbury gets damn cold on a good night. The type of night where you can pluck stars from the sky like fruit and the moon's cold white glow blankets the earth leaving behind cold crystals of ice hanging off the grass, each blade dressed in glittering ballroom gowns before the sun arises high enough to steal their momentary strength.

Van life

Bloody hell it was cold. I slipped into my portable snuggle sack (aka sleeping bag), its lofty down feathers easing me into an anxious night of dreams.

The next morning I slipped straight into my riding kit thinking I did not want to suffer changing twice in this cold. I took the bike from my rack, removing the diamonds of ice. After having everything packed for a night out, the decision is made that sleeping would be not be required. So I just take what I need for a day and almost everything else is carelessly thrown back into the dishevelled lack of organisation that is the van.

A frosty start

I glanced at Grant who I had tagged along with for the trip and notice a sense of urgency. We are both new to this and are both running late. Hastily we strap the bags to our bikes and saddle up in preparation for an expectedly uncomfortable day in the saddle.

If you have not done a Brevet from La Flahute, give one a go. They are suitably low key and a lot of fun. A small group of ten congregated on a quiet cold street with Methven's morning sun lifting high enough in the sky to reveal a near perfect day. The frost was melting and as the haze of evaporating water rose from the ground so did our spirits. The group of smiling, joking and jovial riders all saddled up after a short briefing and set off into the direction of snowcapped peaks only for most of us to realise that we had already taken a wrong turn. Grant and I turned back to chase down the pack but in the spirit of non-competitive racing most just went onto the next checkpoint.

Sadly for us, Grant and I are not non-competitive people. We enjoyed our novel introductions to one another during the 'prologue' with our fellow fossickers, all searching for the gold of a great day, before falling into the drops of our curly bar bikes and putting the power down.

Gravel grinding

The air was almost sharp to the breath, freezing my lungs. A cold so cold that even the usual morning haze did not lift from its nightly slumber and the mountains felt only metres away. Back roads and byways mazed their way to the peaks. For the next 14 hours we were fully immersed in that land. Soon after  the frost melt it transpired that land would be fully immersed in our bikes.

To give some reference to our competitive natures, Grant is a very accomplished ultramarathon runner having competed (like actually been competitive) in many of the most well known 100 mile races around the world. I like to mock him for his achievements as he has a humble approach to his past yet a very competitive outlook on what he wants to achieve.

Me, I am more of a pleb. I have travelled back and forward to Europe chasing summer, racing mountain bikes at first while living on couches and in tents. I soon realised that it was hard to travel with a bike and ditched it to run. I ran many of the famous routes and became enamored with the idea of traveling light and fast for as many days as I could. Back in NZ again I guess I am joining the two.

We motored on through to the Canterbury High Country in good time and moved from gravel and farm track to proper trail. Our shoes and socks were saturated from crossing streams, rivers and flowing effluent thanks to neighbouring farms - staying that way for the remaining 12 hours.

Heading for the hills

Peanut butter mud turned wheels into brakes and morphed once lovely light bikes into heavy, slow and appallingly inefficient machines. The former rib cage of a sheep became my favorite tool as its naturally ergonomic shape made for a great mud scraper. We rode, pushed and cursed our way to faster surfaces again.

Mud, lots of mud

Although terribly slow, this was big country and the grandeur of the looming peaks made the multi hour slog almost enjoyable. The Ashburton Lakes were peaceful as they steamed in the mid-day sun and the shaded areas still grasped at the last of the night's frost. Then the predictable afternoon head winds began to blow, the sun headed west and, with faster roads ahead, it was an all on rush to get to the Mt Somers' shops before closing.

Putting the k's under our belts

We returned to the drops and put in a monumental effort. An average of 40ish km an hour for the next hour was on. We relished the pain and learned quickly that drafting was pretty much cheating.

5 minutes to spare and a couple of stellar shopkeepers to share our ‘out of the hard stuff’ moment with. They were surprisingly cheery to see two putrid smelling, mud speckled men in lycra. Maybe our fair skinned, sun burned faces and wind swept features made for a comical end to the day for them.

A convenient stop

A convenient way to get around

It was 'only' 100 km to go so spirits were mixed between excitement with the surety that we would finish, and a slight regret that we had put so much energy into getting to this point. The sun was setting, leaving large shadows to follow, and turning the blank white mountain tops into a glowing ocular feast of colour. A cacophony of bird song complemented the light show as they nested for the night.

The impending night

Darkness fell quick. Darkness so dark that it confuses your eyes. You look over your shoulder to see what is coming behind but the black is so dense that all you can see is your own nose. You turn back around to stare at the small blue white light that illuminates the pebbles and stones that rumble in a tidal tone beneath your tyres. On occasion a stone will fly out erratically in whichever way and is cast into the dark, lost forever.

That was the final few hours. Finding a place between comfortable riding and agony where you can become friends with the pain and work together to move on. The same sounds, the same dimly lit view, the same winds. This was unfamiliar for me and Grant seemed to shine, or maybe he was simply enjoying watching me suffer.

We rolled back into Methvan. The headwind an unnecessary companion for the last few kms but an appropriate one. The time I had out there was a good time that I am beyond happy to have spent. Our first brevet, my first 250 km ride and the first meat and sugar I have eaten in a very long time all made for a great and memorable experience. Although eyes and stomachs, I could not actually finish my chicken filo and banana milk at the end of the day. I was proud that I had tried.

Feeling drowsy

I have to thank Grant the most. He let me tag along on his adventure and dragged me the last few hours to the end. Also to the people at Black Panther Bar and Restaurant in Mayfield and all the other thoroughly nice people we met who choose to live in a seriously good corner of Aotearoa.