Following up on one of our favourite stories of the year, we caught up with Matthew Fairbrother at the end of the EWS season. The now 18-year-old Kiwi just completed the hardest, tightest and coldest leg of his journey to bikepack and race every EWS round this year. His adventure, attitude and story has inspired a lot of people, ourselves included.
First off, well done mate. Catch us up, last time we did a Q&A you'd just finished the EWS in the US, had the biggest crash of your life, and were on the way back to Europe.
Scotland [Round 1 in June] has basically been washed out of my head, it feels like years ago. But yep, I came back to Europe, spent some time riding in the Alps with the Deviate Cycles team. It was really nice to come back to people who I knew and stay in one spot for more than a few days at time.
The next race was Crans-Montana in Switzerland, not known to be the easiest place to travel on a budget, I heard you had a unique camp set up?
There were a couple of decisions made by the organizers I wasn't too stoked about [laughs]. First the cost of living in the town, and second the timing of the race. I was not willing to splash the pockets that weekend and that same weekend it decided to snow so not totally stoked.
When you say splash out the pockets, you mean not splash out on the expensive accommodation?
I was on the DIY setup, living in the bivvy. I managed to smuggle a whole bunch of gas station food over the Swiss border so I had a weeks supply of lollies [candy or sweets for the non-Kiwis].
I also heard you were writing magazine articles in the bivvy at night before races
Yeah, sitting up at night chipping away at these big magazine articles and not being able to focus on the EWS. It's a whole other ball to juggle. I think something I've learnt is that there's physical and mental fatigue. They are both huge impacts on your performance.
How did the race itself at Crans Montana go?
For me that weekend was quite hard. It was the start of a block - to all the people on the outside, I should've been fresh, but I wasn't fresh because I was working so hard. I was so gone mentally and physically - I didn't have much to give. There's so much more to it than the actual mission I'm on itself. It's setting stuff up for next year, it's sorting things from the past, and sharing the journey and story. Especially hard when you tell yourself you should feel good and because you've had a few more chill weeks, but really you're still working super hard.
Although the weekend felt like a failure I learnt so much about the power of burnout and how to manage it best when you're stuck in that situation. You learn so much about yourself, your body and your mind when you're having those hard times. You don't learn much when it goes to plan.
So it's 1000km and 4 days until the next round starts - you finish the race and right away start changing tyres?
Yep, I managed to leave at 4pm. I took 45 minutes to pack up, getting pretty good at it I guess. I didn't do anything else after finishing but go and swap my tyres immediately afterwards.
Not even food?
Nope I did it on the bike, it was a waste of time. It was all about efficiency.
The tightest ride between each race this year, how far did you go that first night?
Also once again, not stoked on the timing of the EWS [laughs]. That night it hit -2 (28F) when I was pedalling. I made the decision not to sleep. I didn't have the equipment that was worthy of sleeping in -2 in the mountains. So made the call to not sleep and keep going.
New Zealand doesn't often get that cold. Have you ever been in -2 degrees?
I don't think I've done anything in minus conditions - fair to say I'm not acquainted with that weather. I didn't have the gear quite suitable. But what I did have was a sleeping bag. So I got the knife out and cut two holes in the bottom of it so I could stick my legs through and keep pedalling, as well as arm holes. I was like the Michelin Man - just less sponsored. And a sweaty mess by the end of it.
That's unreal. So then how long did you ride for during that first leg, having started 45 minutes after finishing an EWS?
It was 20 hours of pedaling, 22 hours of all up.
So that puts us at ~4pm the Monday after race day - did you just fall off the bike as Michelin Man on the side of the road?
Ha nope, so I ended up biffing the sleeping bag because all the stuffing had mostly fallen out. Which was a bold move to say the least. But I closely examined the weather and was confident that I'd be fine.
You're in the middle of France heading south west, what did a bed look like?
I didn't change anything, just slept with my helmet and slept with shoes on to save time in the morning.
How long did you actually sleep for?
I actually got a good sleep that night - that was pushing 6.5 hours of sleep. On the side of the bike path.
And then woke up the next day and back into it?
Well actually I got up on the same day - like 11.30pm. My thought was to tackle the night when I was most attentive because when day light hits, it feels like you've just started again.
You broke your longest ride ever record on this pull, any mid-ride encounters like the Grouse in America or the Midgies in Scotland?
Well I did get attacked on the final climb into Loudenville - I was in some state, I got attacked by a black bird. Its claws went into me.
This was the tightest leg of your whole trip - you finally make it after averaging 340km days. Did you arrive in time for registration?
I was four minutes late for registration - but luckily they were still there. I went down the Shakedown route fully loaded with slicks, bags and all because I thought it would be the quickest route.
I arrived and then immediately went into a New Zealand news interview so had to stay up late. But this weekend I balled out and split an Airbnb with a few others.
So you've done it, made it to the last round successfully in Loudenvielle. How's the carcass and what happened during the race?
With the conditions I felt like a fish out of water. It was gnarly. The stuff at home usually gets closed when it's wet. I was quite happy with how I was doing, after stage 2 I was sitting in the Top 20. But at stage 3, I sent myself way down a bank and called it - it was too unsafe to keep pushing and I just wanted to finish.
There wasn't much left in me. I was feeling gone.
All I can say, is well done mate! What have you learned? Apart from sour lollies burn your tongue, they don't really speak English in Montreal, and bike boxes are a pain in the ass to ride with?
I think the number one thing I learned is that if you put your mind to something you can achieve it no matter what, you just gotta go and do it. There's no holding you back. To learn you've got to fail.
What would you say to someone who's thinking of giving it a crack?
Do it, but be smart about it.
Nobody sees the amount of organizing that goes into this. I have no plan B but I have a failure plan in place, if that makes sense. I don't want to set a plan B, it's an easy way out, but I think you need a fall back plan and a safety catch in case you end up in failure.
Also, I think one of the keys to this is the power of words. "It's only this far," 'I've only got this far to go", and not let a single negative thought enter your mind stay positive even if it's tough.
What's the most common question you get asked from interest people?
What chammy do you use? The answers is simple, none. The quicker ass goes numb the better [Laughs].
But in all seriousness, I want to thank all the people and brands who have supported us. It allowed me to get over to Canada and the States. It's phenomenal, it's made it a lot easier.
I have to say Matty - meeting you in Europe this year I was impressed by your ambition but now I'm blown away and inspired by your drive and sense of purpose to get this done. It's so refreshing and inspiring. Thanks mate. Have your goals changed after this season? How is next year looking?
I wanted to go overseas early so I could learn how it works. I've got few more years in U21, so hoping by the end of it I'm at the pointy end of the field. I'm hoping to get some low numbers next my name. The end goal is to get enough support so I don't have to pedal between all the races maybe...
I'm still trying to work out next year, I still want to keep racing while adventuring. At this stage it looks like I'll be doing the same thing again, bikepack between each round and hopefully gain some support to possibly film and share the story.
We wish Matt all the best for next year, and a good trip back home to Christchurch, NZ. Matt plans to take a well deserved rest, and we suspect scheme some more adventures.
Matt's total stats (excluding actual EWS Practice + Race Days):
EWS Overall Results
Scotland -> Austria
74 hours over 6 days
Slovenia -> Italy
19 hours over 4 days
Whistler -> Vermont
22 hours over 2 days
Vermont -> Maine
13 hours over 1 day
Switzerland -> France
52 hours over 4 days
13th Overall Men U21 - "I got pipped out of the top 10 right at the end. Still something to be stoked on."
10th Best Race Result - Austria & Whistler
5th Best Stage Result - Vermont