Ride What Ya Brung: A First Brevet Cycling Experience

Photos by Dylan Gerschwitz

I’m sure plenty of you recreational riders have thought about doing some sort of event or race. I was in that bracket, too. I’d done plenty of racing in my early twenties, but that was decades ago. These days I prefer to ride in the backcountry with one or two close buddies, shunning holiday weekends for mid-week rides.

Having said that, I’ve watched the rise of the new world order of cycling events. Nope, not enduro—I’m talking about brevet, audax, randonnée, and bikepacking events. These are multi-day, mostly non-competitive rides. Some last only a weekend, others span the length of entire countries!

I wondered whether I had what it takes to be a brevet cyclist—to ride hundreds of kilometres a day on all types of surfaces and terrain, carrying all my own gear for bivying and cutting my toothbrush in half to save 3.2 grams. There was only one way to find out: make a film about it.

Ride What Ya Brung: A First Brevet Cycling Experience from Salsa Cycles on Vimeo.

The Plan (“Type-2 Fun”)

I signed up for an event called Lakeside Views, put on by Shailer Hart and his enterprise “The Flahute Presents.” Shailer is a colourful character I met when he was developing a bush block in a hidden gulley on the south side of Banks Peninsula into a “build-your-own-trail” club. He named the place “Haven Bike Park.”

Shailer has a long history of everything cycling. His events company is a charitable trust and he puts many hours into his organised rides. Most impressive is the sheer number of events on the schedule. There are 23 brevets on the 2020 calendar, ranging from under 200 km to the “03,” a 4,000-km criss-cross of New Zealand’s South Island and the longest bikepacking event in the country.

This made it relatively easy to choose a length and difficulty that suited my window of opportunity to escape from normality to test my capability as an “ultra” rider, or at least dip my toe in the water. I was looking for a two-day ride mainly on mixed terrain but with plenty of trail to get my shred on.

The Lakeside Views course was a 250-km figure 8. The first half rambled through the rural back blocks of the plains on a mix of gravel and tar-seal roads. The second ventured into the mountains of the Hakatere Conservation Area, also known as the Ashburton Lakes—hence the name of the event.

Surely this 250 km ride would give me a glimpse of “type-2 fun,” meaning it’s only fun when it’s over. Mostly during type-2 fun, you’re nearly on your hands and knees (with a smile on your face) be it due to the weather, terrain, distance, lack of re-provision opportunities, or all of the above. True ultra riders must endure this with a lack of sleep and saddle sores the size of thumb nails, on a diet of coke, fries, and sticky buns—all in a country that is at least three time zones different from their own.

Well, stuff all that. I want to see some country, check out a country pub, recharge beside an alpine tarn, and meet some folk. I sleep best in the outdoors, and I truly want a good night’s sleep. Does this strip my status as a sufferer? The reality is it that all comes down to different strokes. If you want to race, choose an event that has that focus. For me, this is primarily recreational and even verging on leisure. To each to their own.

The Preparation (“Bloody Northwester”)

I’m a mountain biker at heart. I live in the central Canterbury Plains and it takes a bit of driving to get to decent trails, so it seemed to make sense to train on my local gravel roads through the Malvern hills. When I got the Salsa Cutthroat that I’d be riding, I have to admit I thought it looked a bit like a funny gravel/dirt road bike and was probably going to very testing in the terrain that the route would throw at me. It grew on me, though, and after a few rides I got curious about its ability on stout terrain.

I also set about doing my due diligence on the Lakeside Views course, studying maps for distances, re-provision opportunities, bivy or credit card accommodation, and hazard assessment—yep, I really said that.

I discovered that if I went bivy-style, I could split the course in half and camp at the Stour River carpark, where there’s s a DoC (Department of Conservation) shelter. This meant that I could pack a light camping kit—just a 400 g down sleeping bag and insulated mat. I assumed that the other participants would choose to overnight at the village of Mt. Somers. It wasn’t until I talked to folk at the depart that I realised a few were planning on riding the backcountry portion back to Mt Somers as well! Nutters, in the nicest possible way.

Canterbury Plains is on the lee side of the Southern Alps of the South Island, meaning the prevailing wet ocean air dumps on the west coast and the warm mountain air is pushed over the divide across the plains and out to the Pacific Ocean. Also known to locals as the “bloody north wester.” This was my fear—a strong NW wind that can easily hit gale force like I encountered riding over the Harper Pass in "Looking Down is Looking Up."

The approaching forecast indicated NW patterns, so I mentally prepared to knuckle down and pound the pedals in a headwind for most of the first day and all the way to the high point of the ride.

The mental fitness required for these longer-distance rides—especially when a considerable chunk is ridden solo—is often overlooked. The best ultra riders and endurance athletes can push through the physical fatigue and the sleep monsters by training their mental state to endure and just keep pedaling.

I have much respect for the top athletes that race these week-long events. My experiences tell me that while I may have close to the physical fitness required, my mental space will turn negative at some point when I am very physically fatigued, and I will need to rest and recover to mitigate this.

The Ride (“I wanted to keep going”)

It’s safe to say I endured the gravel and road sections on the first day. For the first 50 km, I hung out with others and chatted. From Mt. Somers, I rode the rest solo (aside from Dylan filming from an e-bike). I enjoy riding solo—I find I can get into a better head space to grind away and use the time to dwell on things that keep me positive.

On the short ride from the village to Stour Carpark, my speed was down to 11 km/hr and the dark thoughts started to creep in. Fortunately, I wasn’t riding into the mountains at night, so it was easy to focus on the hot meal and cold beer I would soon enjoy.

The wind was blowing the next morning and it didn’t really let up all day. As soon as I hit the first off-road section I started to smile. The terrain varied from rough 4WD tracks to rocky singletrack carved from old sheep tracks. The highest point was an unnamed saddle between Lake Clearwater and Lake Heron. I filled up my bottles from the little tarn and basked in a sheltered spot in the sun, gorging on jerky and salty nuts. After this, I turned downwind and was immediately charging down a fun descent on an old mustering road. The well-loaded gravel bike was hussing it through here and I was whooping with delight. It was the highlight of the ride.

I still had another 80 km to ride, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The relentless wind started to die, I still had plenty left in the tank, and one of Dom’s famous pizzas in Methven was calling me home.

I expected to turn up at the finish to nothing and that’s what I got. I sent the finish message from my inReach Mini to Shailer to say I’d finished and he promptly sent me a text to say congratulations. He was watching the dot of his last participant cruise into the finish like any responsible event director would do.

The Lakeside Views may not have been a real test of brevet but I was only looking to test the waters. How did it feel? Like I wanted to keep going when I got to the finish; like I was in the groove of, eat, sleep, ride, repeat. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the inclination for a Tour Divide or Tour Aotearoa, but there’s a plethora of bikepacking events on offer, so choose one that works for you. But remember: Ride What Ya Brung.

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ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: DEANE PARKER

Based on the arable Canterbury plains of New Zealand, Deane Parker is a farmer with a passion for backcountry travel. Having ridden mountain bikes since high school in the hills of the top of the South Island, the rivers became another medium of adventure through a decade-long professional river guiding career pioneering and exploring rivers. More recently, packrafting came along and bikerafting quickly manifested itself into Deane’s niche. An amateur adventurer and brand ambassador, Deane hopes to inspire adventure-seekers of all ages, levels, and ability.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Cutthroat Gravel Guest Blogger Touring Ultra Racing

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