Since moving to Wellington I seem to have become a bit of a YES man. I seem to say yes to a lot of things that my riding buddies come up with (a lot of dumb missions) which is great because they are always great fun.
One that I was looking forward to was the Longest ride Shortest-ish day. Last year the crew had ridden the Remutaka Cycle Trail on what sounded like the worst day ever. You can read about it here.
As the weeks drew closer, the route plan started to change. I thought we were doing the same as last year but Caleb and James had different ideas. Apparently, Caleb decided he wanted to suffer even more so had chosen a loop that included 3000m of climbing and 150km of every type of surface. We knew one person that had ridden the route. The legendary Johnny Waghorn.
Now Johnny is a beast. He’s ridden crazy loops. He’s done so many dumb massive rides. He’s incredibly talented on a bike, a true backcountry mountain man. The week before, Jonny was on the same Nydia Bay trip a few of us were on. We asked him about the loop. “Yeah I kind of rode it by accident, it took me 10 hours. Finished in the dark, there are a few climbs that are really, really steep, a lot of hike-a-bike. I wouldn’t ever do it again haha”. This was super confidence-inspiring.
I didn’t have a bike for the ride. Well, I did. I had my Honzo ESD, and I was quite prepared to do it on that bike but Elliot offered me his Rove NRB to use. Perfect.
I picked up the bike a few days before. Swapped saddle and pedals (flats of course) on the bike. Got the bars in a rough position that felt comfortable. Looking at the map and elevation you could see that there was going to be a lot of steep descents so I popped some fresh brake pads in front and rear.
A couple of days before the big day there was a COVID-19 outbreak in Wellington and we went back to Level 2. My housemate had close contact with a positive case at a museum exhibition. Due to this, our house had to all get tested and self-isolated. “Ah shit, if that test doesn’t come back before Friday evening I can’t go”. I was praying and hoping. Luckily, I got the all-clear and we were back on. That evening I was scrambling to make up lost time. Rushing to the shop to get everything sorted. Supplies and snacks to keep me going all day. Now I wouldn’t have been rushing around so much if I hadn’t also lined up a date on that Friday evening because why not. I’d given myself a 10 pm curfew that night but the date went well, so that got blown out of the water. I think I got in about 1 am.
Caleb grabbed me at the Caltex on Hutt Road. We loaded the bikes and headed north to Martinborough. We picked up Moose on the way through.
Our starting point of the loop was Martinborough, a small town 65km east of Wellington famous for wine and vineyards. Normal people visit Martinborough to sample fine wines on tours via bike. But we’re not normal people, no wines would be getting sampled today.
The crew that would be setting out on this voyage was James Rennie (the Ringleader), Caleb Smith (the route man), Paul Grey (Pablo), Carrie Mclachlan, Chris Vanderkolk, Adam Lilley (Moose), Lester Perry, and myself.
We unpacked the cars, got changed, packed the bike bags. Spirits were high. There was a bit of a buzz. Pablo was already jibbing around on his Rove ST. Eventually, we hit the road at 7:20 am. It was still dark. It was a cool feeling knowing we were setting off in the dark and would finish in the dark (if we were going to make it). Chat was going about how long it was going to talk to complete the loop, 10 hours, 12 hours, 15 hours? Only one way to find out.
Now the weather was not faring too great for the day. Classic winter in Wellington weather, wet and windy. Our first 10km were on flattish back roads until we hit the turn-off for the loop, Then it really began. By this point, it was starting to get light. We could turn the lights off. The pace was high and Moose was off the front like a rocket. Honestly, the man is a beast. This definitely wasn’t his first rodeo, unlike me. The road weaved its way like a river through the farmlands. It reminded me a lot of my home in Scotland, the rolling green hills and country. It had a gradual climb in it which I was all about, due to knowing we had 3000m to climb. The more km’s we traveled up the road the more rugged the terrain was getting. The hills around were starting to get steeper, the farmland was changing to native bush. We were about to hit the point where the lines between gravel and MTB blur.
It was probably a good thing this happened so early into the ride, A good reminder that these bikes aren’t mountain bikes. From there we took things a bit more gingerly. At the bottom of the descent, we were greeted by a river crossing. Ah well. Time to get wet feet, something I was trying to avoid after having wet feet for the last two weekends. I was looking for a way to cross that would keep my feet dry. Alas, there wasn’t a way. We managed to ride across the river but the feet had become saturated.
I don’t know why I was stressing so much about keeping my feet dry. The next couple of kms was absolutely littered with river crossings, some of them deep enough to get above the knee.
Finally, the river crossing came to an end and we were greeted with the Sutherland’s Hut. The perfect spot to stop, eat some food, and check out the hut. Sutherland’s Hut was built in 1951, making it the oldest hut in Aorangi Forest Park. It would be a great place to spend the night, with a log burner, an outside toilet, and seven bunks for sleeping. We checked the map to see how far we had come. 30km and the next 20 looked like they were going to be hard. The line that showed the vertical elevation literally went straight up. It looked like a drawing of the Monte Fitz Roy mountain range. Johnny had said this was unrideable but I don’t think any of us were prepared for what was next.
This first big push was relentless, Little did we know this was just a warm-up for what was coming up in the next 20km. The track just pointed straight up the hill. Like a stairway to the sky but replace the stairs with a loose almost scree slope-like track. For the only time on this ride, my flat pedals were going to help. It was hard to get purchase, but my grippy shoes helped a lot vs everyone else’s clip shoes.
One big thing I don’t think any of us had thought about was just how hard it was pushing drop bar bikes uphill. Now we are not out of practice at pushing. Most of our weekends consist of a lot of pushing up old tramping tracks around the Wellington area. But when pushing a mountain bike you tend to push and lift up due to having to lift the front wheel over stuff. This is something that kind of comes naturally with a normal handlebar. If it’s steep you also normally do a bit of a push the bike, pull the brakes, take a step, push the bike… and so on. With drop bars though, you push downwards when pushing due to the nature of the bar. Instead of lifting the bike over the obstacles (rocks and holes), you instead tend to end up pushing the bike into these, causing the bike to lose momentum, making it a bit harder.
It just didn’t seem to stop. I could see now how this was going to be a 3000m vertical day.
After a long time and tired feet we finally reached the top of the first big push. The weather had really taken a turn for the worst. Winds would push you sideways as you traversed along the ridge of the hill. The rain had got heavier and seemed to ignore Newton’s laws of motion. It was going sideways. We found a little sheltered area just before the track started to point downwards. We rested here and waited for Caleb again. I was a bit worried about him. We had only done about 35/40km of this ride and had a lot more to go. I knew this was going to be the hardest part and if we could get past here it would be a bit easier. Everyone’s spirits still seemed high but I don’t think anyone had realized just how hard this part was going to be.
Then back into another steep push again. This continued on for the next 10km. Like I said before, it was hard going. We were all a bit over it. Every downhill we would finish would be greeted by another stupidly steep push. The bush was starting to thin and you could see the coast. We weren’t far from it. It was a welcoming sight and a bit of a spirit lifter knowing we were nearly through this bullshit. We hit this descent that seemed like it would be the last. It seemed to be never-ending, taking us from native bush to pine forest back to thin native bush and gorse. The last km of this descent was so steep and overgrown. The track was literally just a 4×4 rut whose surface was clay with wet grass in the middle and on the sides of it. On either side was gorse bush so you didn’t want to be there. The grass was so slick that you didn’t want to be there but the clay wasn’t much better. Pull the brakes too hard and you would be in an uncontrollable slide and not be able to slow down. Too little brakes and you would pick up too much speed and probably end up in the state above. My arms had cramped up from arm pump. It was so hard going. At one point I lost concentration and ended up in a wild 40m one-foot-off tripod ride down the rut before somehow getting back together. I was lucky because it was definitely going sideways fast there. It finally ended. We made it down alive somehow. Only to be greeted with another river crossing and steep push.
Part of my motivation died here. My shoes were going to get soaked again. My legs were feeling heavy from the amount of pushing. We all looked a bit broken and over it but we had to keep going. Time was moving by and we still had a long, long way to go. The one thing that did come to my mind was that we must have knocked off a massive amount of vertical meters over the last 10km. We crossed the river and pushed up the road. The landscape was starting to turn back into farmland. The further we headed up the road the better the surface got. Finally, it mellowed it out and we could get on and ride. The track turned to gravel. My god, it was glorious. Finally, we hit a farm track. The coast was in sight. My spirits lifted. Everyone had smiles on their faces. We were past the steepest and probably hardest part of the ride. It was a big relief. We made our way through the farmland riding through fields of cows, their shit just added to the day.
Paul looked at how far we had come and what we had to go. We had covered 50km and it had taken us the best part of seven hours to get this far. That’s when it hit us. We still had 100km to go. Was the rest of it going to be as hard going? We knew for the next 25km were going to be tarmac so we could knock that out quickly and spin-off the heavy legs from pushing. It was turning into a longer day than we had all thought.
The tarmac was a dream to ride on and the wind was finally playing in our favor. We headed down the Cape Palliser coast spinning in top gear and punching out km like it was nothing. It was so nice to be traveling at speed. The feeling of just knocking kms off our ride was fantastic. Not to mention that the coastline was spectacular. Incredible black sand beaches, rolling green farmland. The crisp sea air helped the lungs. I made sure to enjoy this part, look up and just appreciate just how special this small island of New Zealand is.
At this point, Lester said “Has anyone checked the water that we got from the hut?” at the bottom of Lester’s bottle were some tiny worms. I empty mine out the table – the same. Paul’s and Carrie’s the same. More protein I guess?
We repacked our bags, made a toilet stop, and hit the road again. It was about 4 pm, we maybe had about an hour and a half of light left, and 75km to go. On the entry to Ngawi were parked lots of old bulldozers for launching fishing boats. Six year old me would have been in heaven. I love old machinery like this.
Ngwai is a small fishing village located in the most southern part of the North Island of New Zealand. It was the last bit of civilization until we got back to Martinborough. On the outskirts of the small town, the black sand beach was covered in seals. They were everywhere. My guess was they were going to sleep on the beach vs the sea. At this point it hit me. We had only just passed halfway. We had about an hour of light left and we still had such a long way to go and there was no turning back. We make it or we don’t.
The tarmac turned back to gravel as we passed the Cape Palliser Lighthouse. The gravel lasted all of about a km before it wasn’t gravel anymore. Big holes and puddles. It was back to 4×4 terrain with a rough track of where we were going. The enjoyable leg-spinning going full stop had turned into low gear, trying to keep traction and find a line that wouldn’t kill your momentum. The track became fainter and fainter the further we went. In my head, I thought this was going to be an easy bit but it wasn’t. A lot of it was rideable up and down but it was mentally and physically taxing. My mind was starting to head to a bad place but I knew I couldn’t let it get there. I stopped, looked up, looked around. “Look where you are Jake. Look at this place. It is flipping beautiful. How many people get to experience this? Probably not many, so enjoy this. How many people do dumb rides like this? Not many, so enjoy the experience.”
These words with myself helped. I started seeing things in a positive manner. I started just enjoying the struggle that was going to be the next 30ish km of this.
The landscape was just incredible. I’d never seen anything like it before. It was a mix of black sand mixed with big rocks and gravel. The green grass turned to yellow the closer it got to the shore. It was almost like the surface of the moon. I was glad we got to ride this part with the little light left. It was a definite highlight for me.
We pressed on around the coast, slogging our way through the moon-like surface. Making the most of the last bit of light till eventually, it turned to black. The moon was bright in the sky. Doing its best to illuminate the ground. The night lights got turned on and we soldiered on into the night. The surface seemed to improve as it got darker. There was a definite turning point where the surface started to improve. From that point, every km around the coast seemed to be a gradual improvement in surface till finally, it turned back into a lovely smooth gravel road. It was glorious. The smooth surface was a dream to ride on: not being bucked around and off the saddle, and being able to ride faster than 5km an hour. It was so nice.
After we finished the coastal part and made it onto Ngapotiki Road we hit the 100km mark. I think this was a metal turning point for a lot of us. The coast had been a lot harder than any of us thought. It had really challenged us mentally and physically. We had 50km to go. It was all just gravel roads and tarmac to finish. There were a few big climbs still to do but it was going to be easier than the last 100km. It was all rideable and we should be able to just punch it out.
I find that when I ride at night my sense of distance and time seems to change. Time seems to go by quickly and the distance feels less than it is. Maybe it’s due to not being able to see everything around you. Having a tunnel vision of only what’s ahead. Whatever it was, it was helping.
We were making good progress. Knocking out km after km on the farm roads. Winding our way up through the valley of the Oppuawe River. The road traversed the side of the valley, weaving and winding its way through. Lots of climbs and descents. We were following our head torches. Chasing the light and road ahead of us. Like a carrot on a stick.
The road just kept going and kept going. Each km was becoming harder and harder. Kms felt longer than they should have been. Relentless. This was meant to be the easy part. My back pain was starting to give me grief. It was getting really painful. On the flats it was okay and I could manage the pain but as soon as we hit an incline it would start really hurting. I would be able to spin for about 100m then have to stop and stretch my back. I don’t think the others noticed that I had fallen off the back of the group. I just couldn’t push past the back spasms on the climbs. We had one final big climb ahead of us. 300m vertical up and out of the valley. The road was wet as glistening in the moonlight. I could see the others in the distance just making the climb look easy. For me though, I was in a bad place. The 300m vertical climb felt like Everest. I would manage 100m distance then have to stop and stretch my back, 100m, stretch my back, and so on. I was in a dark place. Wondering if I was going to be able to finish. So close but so far to go. I just kept pushing. At one point I just got off my bike and pushed. “Just keep going, just keep going,” I told myself. The only way to get this ride over was to finish. I could make out the top of this climb, it wasn’t fair. I dug in deep and just pushed through the pain. Finally, I got to the top. The rest of the crew were there waiting for me. It was a great sight seeing them. Carrie gave me some Advil to try to help with my back pain. Paul was also in the box. He had bonked. The day was really starting to take its toll on us.
From the top of the climb, we could see Martinborough, our starting point. A gleaming beacon of light. From here it must have been about 10 km as the crow flies but we had to follow the road. Lucky though being at the top of a climb means we had a descent ahead and boy it was good. It was fast and flowing. Big sweeping corners and open straights. You could just let the brakes go and go as fast as you dare. It was a definite highlight of the last 30km.
The descent came to an end and we were back to grinding out kms. 18km to go. A few little hills to knock off. My back was still giving me grief. I could manage the flats but any incline would put my back into spasm. I couldn’t keep up with the crew. They were just off at a blistering pass. My legs felt good but my back was blown. I just kept turning my legs, just turning and turning. I had weird songs stuck in my head such as this, (especially the idles part). I was trying to just zone out of the back pain. As a climb approached I would drop down into the easiest gear and just spin. I think a snail would have passed me at the rate I was making it up.
Finally, though, we passed the turn-off at the start of the loop. 10KM TO GO! This was a massive mental gain. I knew what lay ahead. One small climb and two big straights. I knew if I could make it up the small climb without my back giving out completely I would complete the loop. Carrie had stayed back and waited for me at the 10km mark. She helped me up the last climb. It was short but maybe the hardest of the whole day. My back was just killing me but finally, it came to an end. Holy moly, we’ve done it. Just two straights to go. James, Paul, Lester, and Chris were waiting at the top. “We’ve flipping done it. Woop Woop!”. Man, it was such an amazing feeling. Everyone was smiling. A second (maybe third, fourth, or fifth) wind had hit us. We started punching it. The pace was high. A car was coming the other way. It was Moose in Caleb’s Jimny. He pulled over and we caught up. He was on his way to rescue Caleb. Caleb had done amazing. He looked like he was going to not make it so many times but he just kept soldiering on. Just kept going until he couldn’t. Moose set off and we made the final approach to town. Head down, bottom gear, heading so fast back to Martinborough. The street lights started to appear. Houses were becoming more frequent. Finally the sign for entering Martinborough. We had done it. A victory lap around the square finished off the ride.
Fifteen hours after we set off from the square we arrived back, what an experience. As I said before I don’t think any of us realized just how hard that was going to be, but it was a great feeling to have finished it. I can’t actually remember much from when we finished apart from the fact the only place open to get food was a Mcdonald’s on the way back to Wellington. We packed the cars and set off in search of the golden arches. I fell asleep instantly in the car on the way. When we arrived at Macca’s, my stomach was feeling crook (maybe the worms in the water?). I didn’t order much, just a milkshake and a cheeseburger. Lester and Chris went to town though. Instead of eating in we just hit the road again. I had one bite of my burger but I couldn’t stomach it. I somehow got the milkshake in me but it was hard. Apparently, after about five minutes of driving, I had passed out with a cheeseburger in one hand and a milkshake in the other. Just out for the count.
Chris dropped me off at my house. I chucked my bike into the shed, whipped off my shorts and socks, and passed out on my bed. I was done, one cooked goose.
The next day when I woke up I had the feeling of being hungover. That feeling of your body just being dead and numb, your brains not firing, you’re a bit slow, a bit confused. It was a weird feeling. That day I didn’t really achieve much other than just eating my body weight in food and not feeling bad about it and editing photos from the ride. I processed the day that had been in my head. What an adventure. What an experience. At times it was hard going but I loved it. It was so great and made me want to do more. I learned a lot about myself on that ride. It was almost enlightening.
Well, that was the experience of my first proper gravel ride. My first proper time putting some km on a gravel bike and that bike was the humble Rove NRB. Over the 152km, I fell in love with that bike. It was an absolute joy to ride. It just ate km and km with no fuss. Super comfortable on all the surfaces. Never feeling out of its depth on terrain that I sure thought would push its limits. What a fantastic little versatile bike. It was a real eye-opener just how much fun these bikes are.
Would I do that loop again? Fuck No… Not a chance. Maybe over two days…. Would I do that distance and vertical again in a day? Fuck yeah I would. It’s got me wanting to do so much more. Even longer and harder loops. Sign me up.
There were two players of the day. Carrie and Lester – two animals. Lester for being a beast and doing the whole loop on his Hei Hei CR DL and Carrie for breezing the loop like it was nothing and especially for coming back and helping me up the last hill. But I’m not going to lie. The whole crew did amazing. James, Chris, Paul, Moose, Caleb, Lester, and Carrie. I couldn’t think of a better crew to have done it with. Thanks so much, everyone. What a time that was.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s shortest day, longest ride. I can’t wait to see what dumb ride we come up with.