You know when you rock up to an event and you feel a little bit intimidated? Well, that doesn’t happen here. Kiwi’s are just too relaxed! I love New Zealand and everything I admire about the country shines through in this event. They have beautiful scenery, a strong appreciation for nature, some fantastic trails, great food, amazing coffee, brilliant organisation and yet a very modest mentality which creates a chilled and calming atmosphere.
This is the fourth time I’ve been to New Zealand but somehow, I’ve never made it to the North-East of the South Island before except for taking ferry from Picton to Wellington. I therefore hadn’t seen the trails and I didn’t really know what to expect other than three days of riding with a Heli-drop on Sunday.
I arrived in Whites Bay on Friday morning with Greg Callaghan in his recently acquired converted camper car. We had just travelled from Queenstown after a week of riding which left us feeling a little bit tired and run down but still eager to explore some new terrain and take part in the event. At sign-on it was cool to see so many big names and friendly faces as we collected our number boards and tried to come to grips with what we had ahead of us...
The weather forecast suggested that heavy rain was due later that afternoon so the organisation decided to switch the order of the first two stages. The fear was that if it started to rain then the clay soil of ‘Double Eagle’ would become un-rideable so we did that one first to get it out of the way. There was no specific seeding for the race but the pro riders were held back as the last category to leave the arena. We climbed our way up a lovely single track footpath through some dense jungle before reaching the very steep land-rover track which exposed us to the scorching afternoon sun. With approximately 30 second gaps there was a bit of hanging around to do but the stage was well worth the wait. It was short with a winning time of under three minutes and a good one to start us off with. It was relatively simple and swooped its way through the trees with a few steep shoots and catch berms to keep people on their toes. Thick vegetation also added to the challenge by obscuring the trail in places and making the corners hard to predict.
We re-joined the same land-rover track climb and proceeded further up the hill onto a steep footpath which took us to the beginning of the next stage – ‘Whites Bay Loop’. This was a completely different beast: a fast narrow passageway through dangerously tight gaps in the trees with thick, rough mats of woven roots laid out across the ground. After a few minutes of furious chatter and ninja manoeuvres to squeeze through the trees came the first set of punchy climbs. I had been warned about these and thought I must now be close to the finish only to be welcomed by another set of even steeper, longer drags. I normally consider myself to be good on the pedals but I had nothing more to give and struggled my way up and across to the end of the stage. I managed a stage time of just under 10minutes which is pretty dismal in comparison to Damien Oton's winning time of 8 minutes and 26 seconds.
The rain arrived late to the party and came in the middle of the night by which time most people had had their post ride dinner, swam in the sea and moved across to the Pelorus Bridge Campsite which was about an hour drive away.
After a relatively sleepless night I got myself ready for action. Feeling slightly dazed and confused, Greg and I followed the flock of vehicles that were migrating to yet another part of New Zealand before the day’s activities could properly commence. Thankfully the journey wasn’t too far as the front left wheel bearing of the car collapsed and quickly became dangerously wobbly! After race briefing and timing chip collection we were bundled into some shuttles and whisked to the top of Day 2 Stage 1 – ‘Opouri Saddle’. The horror stories from the local riders of the slippery death rocks and sticky mud were quite unsettling so I expected the worse… Bizarrely, the riding conditions were quite acceptable in contrast to what I had been told. There weren’t that many rocks and my tyres didn’t clog so I wish I ran a mud guard because my biggest issue was a lack of vision through the spray!
After giving the bikes a quick hose-down it was time to commence the long, gradual transition to the next stage. By this time I was feeling really done. I don’t know exactly what was wrong with me but I felt totally empty and pushed my bike up the majority of the slippery single track climb. Being the last rider up the hill I began to wonder if I should just call it a day and turn around. Thankfully Max Schumann was there to spur me on and I remembered that this was what these races are all about. The NZ Enduro is a real adventure that requires the riders to be fully prepared for any scenario. Of course it’s a competition but the whole point of the exercise is to get out there, into the wild, with your friends and ride the most magnificent trails of the most remote areas that you wouldn’t choose to ride on a normal day out (let alone three days in a row!). With this concept in mind I continued to plod my way up the hill as I watched Max hop and skip his way over the big holes and gnarly roots. Ironically, the slow and steady approach worked well because it meant I arrived at the top of the hill with a very short queue of riders in front of me and little time to get cold from the wind and rain.
The stage that followed was another long trail (winning time of under 13 minutes) which had some very difficult, rocky stream crossings that forced me to get off and carry the bike. There were also some blind, slippery corners with steep drops to the side which desperately needed avoiding.
Soon after finishing Stage Two, I found myself at the halfway point in a beautiful lodge with all the other riders huddling 'round the pizza oven trying to stay warm whilst listening to stories of the 50to01 crew ‘blowfishing’ to keep their hands warm at the side of the trails… specific details of their antics are best left unknown. After a hearty lunch break I perked up and really began to enjoy the rest of the day. Transitions were still tough and slow rolling but the last two stages were much more fun with less punches and more flow.
With a big grin on my face I didn’t mind the next logistical hurdle of returning people back to the start of Day Two to collect their vehicles before returning to the campsite to freshen up.
The rain continued to thump down through the night and with poor visibility it seemed clear that the Heli-drop wasn’t going to happen as we drove to the start of Day Three in Canvastown. We parked up and when the engine turned off and the windscreen wipers stop wiping the windscreen instantly became opaque with condensation and rainfall. I didn’t have much clean kit left and I didn’t really want to get out of the car but I knew it would be worth it. It always is in the end.
Everyone assembled for the 7:15am rider briefing and Sven Martin greeted us on the Tannoy. I could tell from the way he spoke that he had some bad news to give—racing for Day Three was to be cancelled. A short silence was followed by a comical ‘Yippee’ and then a wave of applause and relief. The temperature was colder than before and we were expected to be going higher and further into the wilderness than previous days. Without Heli evacuation and limited road access this was the only sensible option from a safety point of view. After a short coffee break it was time to relax and enjoy the prize giving, raffle, buffet and beer laid out in and around the community hall.
Compared to how it could have been, this year's NZ Enduro didn't turn out to plan but it's a race I'll always remember and I’d definitely do it again - even if it turned out to be exactly the same. Rumour has it that the logistics will be made easier for the next time and it could even be longer than just three days in 2018… So, congratulations to everyone who made it happen this year and let’s look forward to the next one!
Images courtesy of Sven Martin and the NZ Enduro team of Duncan Philpot, Boris Bayer and Digby Shaw.