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Midweek Autumn Sunset Racing

30 May 2023

Words: Robin Pieper
Photos: Dominic Blissett

Daylight saving comes around too soon each year... Before we’re ready it’s dark by 6pm and the days of beautiful sunny after-work bike rides fade into memories. I have a hard time convincing myself night riding is any fun, especially if it’s combined with mud, cold and hard ‘work’, tending to pick up gym and Netflix habits as it turns into winter. In fact, I even vowed that it would be a good winter if I didn’t use my night lights this year.

Except wait... It’s only late April, the nights aren't that cold, and the sun hasn’t even fully set by 6pm. Autumn is arguably Canterbury’s best season. Maybe I was being a bit premature in my winter hibernation sob story?

Enter Wednesday night racing at McLeans Island Forest on the outskirts of Christchurch, 16 km of winner-takes-all racing with often over 100 other nocturnal bike racers. Bring your fastest mtb (or any bike, not fussy), and your fastest legs, and it’s all go. 80% of the time you’ll be head to toe in mud, 90% of the time you’ll be at your max heart rate and 100% of the time you’ll find yourself having the most sadistic fun available. Yes, I had trouble explaining the fun of it to my workmates on Thursday morning.

Midweek night racing has been running for 27 years in Christchurch, started by Blue Dog Events circa 1996. This year the generational baton has been passed to Muddy Gumboot Events. It looks as though it's in good hands, bringing weeknight racing to bike fanatics of all ages and backgrounds. While some haven’t missed a single season, others are only just finding out what it’s all about.

I fit in the latter category. I put ‘708 Mcleans Island Road’ into Google Maps, and headed down a dark gravel road. Luckily, I was following a car with bikes on, and there was a sign that said ‘night racing this way’ as I pulled into ‘the paddock’ - there’s no doubting this was the place. I was greeted with flood lights and a hive of bikes and people. Half were cloaked in puffer jackets and the other half clad in short-sleeved lycra - juxtapositions of climate. My analysis? It was cold.

Registration was a simple well-oiled production line, exchanging rider details for race plates and jet planes. I grabbed a couple, as if my legs needed sugar to ease the pre-race nerves. I found a few familiar faces, all more experienced at night racing than me. “You might want to warm up”, okay it was THIS sort of race. I dutifully went off down the road for 500 m before I was terrified I’d miss the start. Back at the truck, and no warmer, I took off my puffer, and had a complete change in layering, for fear of thermo-regulation mishaps. Deciding on a single long-sleeve, I jittered my way to the start and slotted into the back of the pack, as per the briefing instructions for first-timers.

After a quick chat to explain the rules of the craft (a.k.a. the course, timing and safety management), there was a defining change in tone and an eerie silence. Bike computer beeps and the clicking of lights onto full power is all that could be heard. 3, 2, 1 GO... over 100 riders clipping in and taking off was similar to a stampede in The Lion King.

I’ve never been in a stampede, but this is close enough, 120 riders on a mission to tear each others legs off, sprinting across a slightly damp paddock. What a thrill! Instantly my attitude changed. It’s impossible not to see red, mash down those gears, and wind up the legs to full tilt. Game on! In the dark, you have no idea who’s who, just that there are riders going fast on all sides.

By the time we hit the first single track, the hierarchy has reached some sort of order, but the riders are barely thinned out. The track is a constant stream of riders, ducking around trees, legs constantly moving. No room for mistakes or you hold up the pack. No room to listen to your racing heart rate either, although it’s sure as heck letting you know it's there, and you’re alive. Amazingly I settled into a rhythm watching the rider in front, anticipating the turns and keeping the legs moving. Exhilarating, and a whole lot faster than I anticipated I would go!

The intermittent gravel track sections are key to the rearrangement of the riders. Some (including me) opt for the all-out sprint mode, attempting to pass as many people as possible and re-enter the single track completely smashed. Those with more strategy are willing to stick it out and work as a pack.

This continues on for the best part of half an hour, although it feels like a few minutes. Soon I’m recognising sections of trail and realise I must be on the second lap, though how far through, I have no idea. Best try a bit harder, and sprint a bit faster. At some point, we exit back onto the road, up the stop bank and it's all on back down the gravel road and back into the start/finish paddock. A tip for first-timers, the paddock lap is a long way to stand and sprint (I tried), especially after 40 minutes of effort. I lost the sprint to my surrounding riders after what I think was a valiant battle.

Finally into the finish chute, back under the floodlights and into the tide of finished riders, head to toe in mud and steaming in the cold night. Those recently finished, panting and recovering, while others have moved onto the chat stage and have resumed normal function. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face - the best high-intensity workout I’d had this year. The window between elation and the reality of the chilly night is short-lived though, and I was glad I heeded the advice of towel and puffer jackets as essential post-race kit.

Rugged up and warm we celebrated the fastest times of the day with quintessential kiwi choccies and called it a night. As fast as the paddock filled up it emptied, with only the race tape left, awaiting next week’s battle...

There was no doubting I'd be there, with bells and whistles.