Words: Emma Bateup Images: Dominic Blisset, Emma & TTW Riders
Like many on this year’s Tour Te Waipounamu, the journey to Slope Point began while dot watching the inaugural 2021 event. I knew a few of the racers and spent the week watching their progress down the South Island. A sense of FOMO took hold.
I decided to try my best to get a place for the following year. With that in the back of my mind, I proceeded to make and tick off my own goals. When the TTW opened for entries, those goals were deemed appropriate. My entry confirmed, I had best intentions of spending the next six months doing specific training and gear testing - which I never really got around to. Suddenly it was Christmas. I'd spent the previous month slowly coming right after a solid crash left me with a concussion, which, combined with the end of my first year of a nursing degree left me mentally shattered and most definitely not feeling ready to take on the longest race of my life. I spent a while tossing up whether to pull out or not, eventually concluding that at least I'd be well rested and there was no harm in trying, especially because I knew how left-out I would feel if I didn't front up.
Colour coded Juliana bike, baggage and clothing.
Having seen how successful Ollie’s 2021 race was after having ridden to the start, I deemed this to be the most appropriate way of warming to the task ahead. It also worked well as a final gear check as I’d left some of those decisions right to the last minute.
I ended up getting a lift to a friend's home in Riwaka to shorten the Golden Bay ride to a cruisey 100 km, one of the longer rides I'd done in a while. The only issue that arose was a slightly sore rear end. This made me a tad nervous for the upcoming week but was not unexpected given the lack of recent saddle time.
Brian Alder tells it like it is during the race briefing. Photo: Ben Carrell
I arrived nice and early for the briefing which pretty much just consisted of Brian (race organiser) talking about places I’d never heard of, having not doing the pre-race research like I’d intended. A few things that struck me were the possible need to climb over some deer gates (thankfully they were all unlocked) and the hill right at the very end that Brian walked the year before.
Like a lot of the others, I stayed at the closest campground to the start. It was reassuring to chat to my fellow competitors and learn that many also felt similarly under-prepared.
Bryan Prestidge and myself in our Ground Effect kit - oldest and youngest on the start line.
On Sunday morning we made our way to the Cape Farewell lookout for the start. While waiting I tried to scoff down the remainder of my porridge but nerves were getting the better of me and I left it in the rubbish bag.
The start at the appropriately named Cape Farewell. Photo: Ben Carrell
We rolled out in the most casual race start I’ve ever experienced, everyone still chatting away. We were allowed to draft the first road section to the beach at Collingwood. I put myself near the front of the bunch so I could watch for any attacks going down. None did, I guess there’s no point in such a long race. I restrained myself from sprinting off the front for some excitement.
Riding along the beach was completely different, super cool but took a bit of concentration to avoid the soft sand. We made our way back onto the road and the Rameka Track. I walked lots of hills that I should have ridden, telling myself it was so I could eat, but actually just because I’m rubbish at riding up anything remotely technical (most Nelson climbs are forestry roads, I rarely ride technical climbing tracks).
The ride up the Motueka Valley and through the Baton was great with a tailwind. I stopped briefly at the Tapawera Store for drinks, an iceblock... and some salami. I was already getting sick of eating but something savoury was a welcome change.
Not long after Tapawera, I was charging along when I felt something give under my left foot. Slamming on the brakes I confirmed that my pedal had fallen off. I circled back to pick it up. The bearing had seized and pedalling would just spin it off again. Unfortunately I’ve had this happen before during my Everest last year, so I’d bought myself a brand new set of the same model and kept them fresh for TTW. I love the feel of these pedals but now realise I may need something more robust for long-distance rides. I put the pedal in my bag and tried limping along one footed. I use flats which meant I couldn’t pull up so that didn't work. I stopped and, after trying a few different methods, ended up zip-tying my right foot to the good pedal and pushing down on the pedal-less crank with my left foot. It was slow but at least I was moving. I would just have to walk up the hills. I was passed by a lot of the other riders, many of them offering assistance. This was my first look into the supportive nature of long distance racers. Yes we were technically racing each other, but the biggest competitor was the course.
I spent the next major climb considering my options. Pulling the pin and racing the Whaka100 the next weekend did cross my mind but I would have regretted giving up (and it ended up being cancelled so I’m glad I didn’t). I had offers to drop pedals off for me but the race is self-supported so that would disqualify me. The favoured option was to track down some pedals myself. My first thought was knocking at a farmhouse but that seemed a bit random. I ended up calling 'Off The Beaten Track Accommodation and Bike Hire' in Murchison. Yes, they had a spare pair they could sell me. We made a date for early the following morning.
With a solution sorted, I perked up and focused on getting to Murchison with enough time to snatch a little sleep. A nice downhill and a patch of sealed road followed. Then it was back to walking, which made eating dinner on the go easier. I worked my way up the Porika Track as darkness set in, passing other riders as they set up camp for the night. Once I had arrived at the top I attached the broken pedal to stand on while descending. This seemed to jiggle the bearing around enough to free it up a little and let me ride up the next hill and into Murchison. It did unwind itself occasionally but some backpedaling would screw it back on. Murchison arrived just after 1am. I parked up at the covered skatepark, on top of a flat ramp, which made for an uncomfortable but warm and dry few hours sleep.
I woke at first light, packed my gear, prepped water and food and sought out OTBT. Murchison is not a big place but it took a few laps before resorting to a quick google to track it down. Pedals sorted, I was quickly on my way towards Maruia Saddle. To my delight I passed a couple of riders before the main climb which brought my motivation back. Once at the saddle I grabbed some rehydrated porridge and fairly successfully ate while descending the gravel road. I did end up with a few rolled oats down my front.
Stoked to have the pedal issues all sorted. Photo: Dominic Blissett
The next few hours along the main road, farm tracks and gravel roads passed mostly without incident, with a few stops to read the course notes and make sure I was going through the right gates. Just before Springs Junction I saw a photographer standing on a bridge. Recognising Dom I threw up the horns as I sped past. Stoke levels were high!
Cue the TTW playlist. Photo: Dominic Blissett
I stopped briefly at Springs Junction to use the toilet, top up with water, and buy some drinks and an ice block. A quick look at the tracking showed I was making good progress, so I hopped back on the bike and made for Lewis Pass.
Springs Junction - an unlikely but welcome oasis earlier in the day. Photo: Dominic Blissett
This was one of the few parts of the course that I really hated. It was the middle of the day, traffic was heavy, including lots of trucks and I felt very vulnerable. On the far side of Lewis Pass I hit Boyle River and my resupply box. Proceeding to put a lot of it in the free-for-all pile, I scored myself an unexpected OSM and biltong. I still had a lot of food from the start and was confident it would last the next day and a nudge to Methven.
After a bit more torment along the main road the turn off for the Hope Kiwi Track was a welcome relief. The following hours through the beech forest trail was a big highlight. A lot of walking but some awesome riding sections, I was in my element. I went around the top of Lake Sumner during sunset and came across Mark and Matt at the Hurunui River. It was great to chat with them and gain more knowledge of what lay ahead. There were some no-camping zones that required tactical consideration as to when and where to sleep. I pushed through until 2am which put me slightly up the Dampier Range climb, the first big hike-a-bike. I found a spot just off the ridge to bivvy. I made the mistake of not wearing enough layers which made for an unpleasant few hours in the wind. At one point I woke up to voices as Brian and Scott went past. I drifted back asleep until my alarm went off at 5am, much to the surprise of a passing rider who couldn’t see me lurking there.
It took a while to warm up and get organised. During that time Mark and Matt also passed me. Once packed I started on the climb and eventually caught them. The next few hours were very social. We caught another rider and worked our way up, over and down the fun tussocky descent to Anderson’s Hut.
Anderson's Hut after the long hike-a-bike over the Dampier Range. Photo: Andrew Laurie
The others had a longer break there than I was up for. I set off along the farm road through Mt White Station. I had to briefly stop a few times to let crazy little dust storms pass. The wind picked up along the gravel out to the Mt White Bridge. I rode along this section in the heat of the day and suffered a repeated bleeding nose which became a theme for the rest of the ride.
Exiting Mt White Station. Photos: Dominic Blissett
A brief stint on tarseal landed me at the Craigieburn trails, a first for me despite having lived in Christchurch previously.
Craigieburn goodness. Photo: Dominic Blissett
I spent the next few hours enjoying the flowing singletrack with a stop at the top of the final climb to scoff some porridge and air my painfully damp feet before putting on the gas to make it to Methven by midnight.
I still had sufficient food left to make it to Tekapo so carried on in the drizzle for a few hours until I found a nice pine tree to sleep under - timely as I was starting to nod off while riding.
I had originally intended to sleep for three hours but was so comfy I snatched an extra hour. Waking to a misty morning, I quickly packed and pedalled a few hours in the rain before the sun reappeared and conditions dried out. Once on Mesopotamia Station the route continued on farm tracks through deer paddocks. I got to a point where there were two deer gates next to each other. I spent a while trying to figure out which was the correct option as clambering over a deer fence or backtracking would not be great. It transpires I chose correctly.
After a climb and short downhill I spied a group of people. I recognised Brian’s wife Clare, who reassuringly said I was “looking fantastic”, to which I replied "I feel fantastic". They were making sure all gates were left as found. I continued and while walking up to Bullock Bow Saddle reflected how much I was enjoying myself, and if given the chance I’d definitely race the TTW all over again.
I had a quick stop at the Saddle - airing my feet and snacking - before cautiously descending the other side. A fun downhill but I was cautious to avoid slashing a tyre on the rocks. Another hike-a-bike got me up to the top of a very windy Stag Saddle as the light faded. I stopped to air my grateful feet, eat and enjoy the views out to Tekapo - that looked so close, just a short ride down the ridge. Yeah nah.
I dressed in all my layers and worked my way across to the ridge and down. I will definitely return to ride that again, despite the darkness and my deliberate effort to keep things chill and avoid punctures. I was having a ball.
At the bottom of the ridge I followed the route on my Etrex along a path that seemed to take forever and I could no longer see the lights of Tekapo. My goal had been to find a shelter in Tekapo for the night but at about 2am my light dimmed indicating that the battery would need recharging. I decided to sort that out the next day and stopped right where I was. I crawled into my sleeping bag for another restless night in a sub-optimal bed of tussocks.
I woke to find myself at the base of a hill. The climb was a good way to warm up in the chilly morning air. The walking track soon led to fun rideable singletrack and then the road into Tekapo. My first stop was a café. I bought four pieces of brownie - their only gluten free cabinet option. Then I hunted out the Four Square. I still had a few Real Meals left so I added a heap of snack food to my bags including two bananas, my first fresh fruit for the trip.
There was a headwind along the canal as I exited town. A cyclist had stopped ahead. I tried to figure out by their bags whether they were a TTW rider. I was hopeful as I was keen on company. As I pulled alongside, I recognised Grant, holding an inner tube and a bloody bandage stuffed up his nose. We chatted and compared notes on bleeding noses as he sorted his flat tyre and then pushed on together. After a while Grant dropped back, I think he got another flat.
I got to eat one of my bananas but somewhere next to the canal the other one managed to work its way loose and escape. As the day warmed I slowed my pace and focused on drinking lots and regular snacks. I arrived in Otematata in the evening searching for shops and water. None were open and no garden taps obvious so I soldiered on. I thought it would be just a quick couple of hills to the next provisioning spot. Boy was I wrong.
Darkness set in after the first hill and my right ankle (potentially an Achilles issue) was becoming painful. I stopped to tape it and limit its movement. That seemed to work. After a missed turn I worked my way back to walk the steep zig-zag farm track. About half way up I ran out of water. Thankfully it was night but I did get pretty thirsty.
Important reminders and navigation in one package.
I arrived at what I thought was the top. Consulting the Etrex I could see that I was at about 1000m but still had another 200m to climb! The track was flatter in places so I alternated between walking and riding. Eventually I got to what I thought was the descent into Oturehua, only to end up climbing again. At one point I saw a hut off to the right with (possibly) a bike outside. But my phone with the course notes was flat so I wasn’t sure whether the hut was public or not. I kept going, struggling to stay awake, but didn’t want to stop in case it was a no-camping zone. At one point I lay down on the side of the track for 20 minutes. The brief nap was enough to recharge as I headed to the top for sunrise.
There was not quite enough light to ditch my headlamp as I descended. But I was low on juice having run it on full power to help stay awake earlier. So I dimmed it to avoid a black out. This resulted in a fun, slightly sketchy, semi-dark descent to the gravel roads that led to Oturehua. This was familiar territory because I had done an adventure race there a few months prior. I kept falling asleep while riding so decided that it would be a safe idea to stop for a nap once I reached town. I found a nice cluster of pine trees to lie under and slept for a couple of hours in the sun.
Waking, I made my way to the iconic General Store and was surprised to find Mojo outside. I thought he was way ahead of me. Apparently he thought the same after he saw my light go past the hut that he’d slept in the night before!
I had an absolute mind blank in the store and only brought a few small snacks and drinks. The highlight was scoring all four macaroons in the baking cabinet. I set off before Mojo with the intention of staying ahead. Storming along the Otago Central Rail Trail and onto the gravel roads leading to the Poolburn Reservoir, I didn’t think to fill up with water and kept chugging along in the heat of the day. It wasn’t long after that I ran out of water.
I was reapplying sunscreen at a closed gate when Mojo caught me. He commented on my burnt calves. I slopped sun block on them for the first time on the ride, but it was already too late. They were fried. Mojo also informed me I needed water from Lake Onslow, which wasn't too far away (it felt pretty far without water), as that was the last opportunity for a while. I watched him ride away as my pace dropped with dehydration.
The next section was the lowest low of my ride. The rolling hills were never ending. I saw the lake a few times in the distance but it didn’t seem to get any closer. Tears were shed, so much so that a passing farmer slowed his ute to ask if I was okay. Slowly the lake came into view. I cried again when I realised the road didn’t go there directly, instead wandering its way up and down the nearby hills. Eventually I came across a stream to refuel and quench my mighty thirst.
With raised spirits I made my way over the Lammerlaw Range, taking on the rolling descent down the other side at sunset. Aware of my lighting situation, or at least my low battery situation, I put off switching on my handlebar light until it was properly dark. It was approaching midnight as I made my way off the farmland and onto the Clutha Gold Trail. I was starting to doze off so stopped by a big pine tree on the side of the trail. I put my bike under it and sat in my sleeping bag eating before falling asleep. I woke to the alarm at 4am and decided to sleep in until daylight.
But I forgot to reset the alarm and didn't wake until 8am. A real sleep in! I felt great as I cruised into Lawrence and was met by cheering from a lovely dotwatcher and her children. I nearly cried. They kept me company while I stuffed my face with food and did some admin. I probably didn’t make much sense but it was great to chat with someone. After a lengthy stop I continued, passing a few more encouraging dotwatchers.
Another Southland highlight was the awesome roadside signs urging us on. I had a wee emotional moment when I realised how many people were supporting us and that I was nearly there.
It was a fairly uneventful ride to the south coast, a few headwinds and hills but not enough to dampen my spirits. I was determined to enjoy my final day. As I worked my way across to Slope Point I was counting down the K’s and teasing out the last of my lollies, one every 5 km.
I turned into Slope Point Road and after a couple of rolling lumps I could see 'the hill' in front of me. It didn’t look as intimidating as Brian had warned. As I worked my way up I prepared myself for another one after it. As I rolled over the top I could see the finish, one quick downhill away, and promptly burst into tears, still in disbelief that I’d done it.
I got my emotions under control as I rode through the carpark and, after I’d managed to navigate the very confusing gates and electric fence, aimed for the sign that I’d seen so many photos of.
Elation at Slope Point. Photo: Ian Davidson aka Mojo
I spotted three people making their way there. As I got closer I realised that it was Clare, Mojo and Bruce. I cried again because I hadn’t expected anyone at the finish and was very overwhelmed. After hugs and photos we made our way back to the car. I opted to ride back to Slope Point Accommodation - on the other side of the hill. The downhill looked fun to bomb down (it was), although I did nearly regret my choice on the climb up as hunger suddenly hit.
Back at the accommodation, which had been pre-booked for us, I just sat for a bit. I’d been hanging out for a shower for the last six days but strangely wasn’t in any rush when finally presented with the opportunity. But it was the best shower of my life and I re-emerged to an amazing meal cooked by Clare. Then the guys mentioned that there was ice cream in the freezer. That got me moving quickly. Many people know of my love of ice cream but having recently discovered a lactose intolerance I've avoided large quantities of dairy in the best interests of my gut. However, once at Slope Point the consequences were easier to deal with, so over the next few hours I demolished three bowls!
Post race decompression.
I remained at Slope Point for a few days. It was great to welcome others at the finish and spend time chatting about our adventures. It was a nice transition back into normal life - I was more than a little sad when I had to finally fly back to Nelson on Monday. I put off unpacking and life admin by going for a ride, and hunger-bonked after 30 minutes. This serial procrastination became the theme of my week.
Three weeks on and I’ve finally finished writing this (yes it took longer than the event itself) and am feeling mostly recovered. My hands are slowly gaining feeling again and my knees no longer seize up in my sleep. Some days I’ve been feeling great and have exercised plenty, but my energy levels have been all over the place. It’s been a matter of just doing what I feel like and making sure that I’m getting plenty of rest before the next big adventure.
A massive thanks to everyone for the online support before, during and after the event. Also to everyone who’s helped me out with gear and prep, the companies that support me and enable me to ride bikes, and the other riders for the great vibes. Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you all.
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