29 March 2021
Ground Effect Graphic Designer Liam reflects on his Tour Te Waipounamu and the 1319 self-supported backcountry kilometres down the spine of Aotearoa's South Island.
Brevets are often described as masochistic endeavours but after too many hours in the saddle to contemplate I am not convinced that I agree. No one I've talked with on big rides appear to be in it for the pleasure of pain. We all have our motivations, however to be in pain is not one that I have heard. Although suffering is an inevitable consequence of pushing your body and there are many moments that I definitely do not love at the time, I almost always love the experience as a whole and how it changes me.
A favourite quote is from the Australian scientist, Brock Bastian, who studies pain. He believes that 'pain is a shortcut to mindfulness' and has found that it creates communal bonds and group loyalties. Pain also encodes memories better into the brain while people who experience pain enjoy subsequent experiences more. Essentially pain focuses the brain and helps heighten everything else which seems at least anecdotally accurate.
For me longer is better. But too long and the benefits wane along with the excitement. I find my body adapts and like all things, I start to take the experience for granted. On the other hand too short and you never go deep enough into your mind to get to know who you truly are or how far you can stretch preconceived parameters. The Tour Te Waipounamu seemed like the right challenge for me.
Totally inexperienced in multi-day cycling trips and with only a month until the start, I cobbled together bags and parts and built a bike. It all felt far too familiar as I seemingly often find myself starting trips broke with blissful inexperience or ignorance and having to dive deep into my untrained body's base fitness.
My bike was laden like a Victorian woman dressed for a great ball. It was light by brevet standards but still too heavy to be fun, strapped up so tight it was hard to move and rode as I can only imagine a Victorian woman might dance. Most of my fellow riders had similarly 'ruined' their bikes. The clean lines, simple forms and lively character dulled to survive the zombie apocalypse. However in the end the riders became the zombies dragging their Victorian ladies as far as the GPS’s little red lines would go. It consequently didn't matter so much how the big rigs rode.
Each evening darkness would stretch up from the shadows of the valleys, climbing the mountains with a cold dark cape and, for what feels like a small eternity, contrast against the peaks' warm glow of amber and orange hues. Then as the last peak looses its fight for light, the flickering stars burn white holes into the endless black. This far south where humans do not congregate so intensely, the sky glitters and shines with joyous cold light and the Milky Way charts a dominant path across the sky. Everything there reminds you how insignificant you are and yet you ride on into your loneliness.
On only one night did those stars not show and the moon was gone. The world was floating with, no up, no down, nor track to follow, just the red line on my GPS and the meagre light emitted from a head torch on battery saver mode. A little lost and slightly delusional, I decided to bivvy out on the flattest piece of land I could find but unforeseen rain rolled over the mountains. I had to seek refuge under a small Matagouri. The thicket of prickles loomed inches above my face and sheep shit surrounded the uneven site. I would slide down every few minutes - so to avoid getting this (un)healthy dose of my surroundings I rolled to one side and rested my butt against the trunk to wedge me in place. This was my worst sleep by far and set me up for the hardest day.
Upon waking I pushed, carried and pulled my bike up that mountain and further into that rain. With it came a density of cloud and a layer of confusion. Hypothermic shaking jarred my decisions and the darkness of the night consumed my mind.
The cold ate every calorie and I could not stomach the idea of eating. Km’s continued to slowly tick over while time blew away in the southerly. Hours of remote gravel later I found myself sitting on a dirt verge a bit broken and worried as my bike sounded worse than I felt. This is where the energy of others became vividly apparent as Brian and Kath cruised past. After a belly of warmth and carbs I hastened to catch them we set off together for Cass Hut. A local trail angel/stalker of the dots supplied some added motivation and fuel. An early night with the flicker of fire at the hut helped save my day.
I got a bit dark again as the sun rose. It dusted distant peaks with its glow but the clear night had delivered a frigid frost in our valley. Each blade of grass stood at attention frozen in time and waiting for the sun to come again. -3 degrees and 10 river crossings froze my feet and spirits. A small case of trench foot began but the sting of the waters hid it and the ache that migrated around my knees elevated my lack of desire to continue.
Long shadows for long days in the saddle
It was not until Methven before I felt human again. Dad had driven out to see me and that delight was more than I can describe. Some good food and fresh socks had me happy and as I clocked up the flat k's in Canterburys less exciting scenery I chatted to a few friends and family following along. It is these human interactions that help to drive us on and I feel the monotony of daily routine makes us forget how important those close to us can be. Such selfish outings like this event are so common for me and they are an undeniable privilege, especially ones that cost so damn much to do. It is socially wrong, environmentally embarrassing and oddly amazing, but to have people finally be able to follow along is so much more rewarding than the usual excursion into isolation and suffering.
From here on the hurt went away. The knee pain disappeared, the tired legs were gone, the saddle sores no longer bothered me. I slept in thick dry grasses beside the road, a small stream trickling at my feet - stars finally lulling me into comfortable deep sleep.
I woke four hours later to begin again the slow march uphill. The sunrise stopped me still but words will never explain the glory of a great sunrise and so I will not ruin it here. This would be the biggest day of climbing and carrying, it was also my best day both mentally and physically.
No haze on the horizon – just clean, clear big southern skys and perfect ridges for riding. Too good in fact as the excitement of such caused me to ride a little too hard and ripped both tyres in multiple places. With years of bike shop experience I have seen a lot of damaged tyres but none like this. The sidewalls were so bad that they did not even have the structure to support a tube so after hours of trying to get them to work I gave up. The sun had done its damage to me and blistered my lips as I rode the remaining forty k’s on the rims.
Twenty odd hours in Tekapo got me back on the bike but by this point the race was lost. From here on I was on my own and riding my own ride.
The next few days in the Central Otago sun would burn off my motivation once again. The days were as long as they were hot. I am far from a fan of monotonous scenery and rolling hills with no trees and no mountains. It left me with no care to continue. A lack of anything on the horizon made each pedal stroke feel pointless as I moved closer to nothing, just an idea of ending. But this is why I came, to be uncomfortable in loneliness and anger, in the weakest state I can be, a state where only my mind keeps me moving. Alone and vulnerable, here is where you find out who you are.
A local farmer was my saviour. He filled me with fruit and instilled me with the importance of family, the wonder of legacy, custodianship of the high country and the power of community. It was another nice dose of reality and in stark contrast to the current cliches and bad rap farming gets from some quarters nowadays.
The final day was easier with salty air reminding you where you were heading. Southland gave glimpses of forests again and a snippet of Catlins' canopy left me wanting more. The GPS file finished where the land dropped into the southern seas with the fanfare of no one but a repetitive ring from family and friends phoning through their congratulations. I lost myself in empty contemplation, sitting on the stones by a signpost indicating the end of the island and thus, the end of this adventure. I sat in silence, ate some food and wallowed in the overwhelming sense of confusion that comes with the thought, ‘shit! What now! How do I get home’.
I loved every aspect of the ride, even the parts I hated. Thanks to Brian for organising it and sharing a few hours cycling with me. He rekindled my love for the sport, or at least for what the sport gives to me. Thanks also to the Brain's support crew, the dot watchers and the land owners who shared their spaces.
Biking the Tour Te Waipounamu or any Brevet is the easy part. Ride, eat, rest, ride some more. Our loved ones bear the brunt of the time spent away, the training, the constant boring bike talk. So lastly a huge thanks to them.
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