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Saturday, 3 January 2015

Le Petit Brevet 2014

Memories of suffering fade quickly. When I signed up for Le Petit Brevet two years ago, inspired by the shape of a beautiful figure-eight looping the Banks Peninsula, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I managed to grind out the 280 kilometre loop with a Himalayan 8000 metres worth of climbing by sheer persistence alone, finishing late on Sunday after 38 hours of hard toil. But those memories of suffering vanished within days only to be replaced with a great story of type-two fun to tell long afterward. Roll on the 2014 edition and I came to the start line better prepared and more confident in my gear and abilities, ready to take on a new variation to the 280km monster with full force.

Mt Herbert (Photo: Scott Emmens)

Hansen Park on Saturday morning, at the foot of the Port Hills, and some familiar faces had returned. The Brevet regulars. As we granny-geared our way up Huntsbury Spur, the first ascent of many to come, conversation regularly turned to other long rides… the Great Southern Brevet and Kiwi Brevet. The real deal, these 1100km jaunts loop much of the northern and southern mainland of the South Island. This truly was le petit brevet, just a wee training ride.

(Photo: Scott Emmens)

However, LPB held one commodity in much higher concentration than his older siblings: hills. Shortly after shredding singletrack down the first, we were grinding back up the second, of ten, to Gebbies Pass and through the welcome shade of pine forest trails, culminating in the Sign of the Packhorse hut. A historic home of stone, the Packhorse was built as a series of houses on the summit road trail from Christchurch to Akaroa. But this was the last, as the road now diverts around the coast, instead of over the towering Mt Herbert and Mt Bradley; only rugged trails traverse their peaks.

Purau-Port Levy Road (Photo: Scott Emmens)

Steep farmland into the Kaituna Valley provided a brief respite from the climbing, but like every downhill it was over too soon. Rounding the corner onto the Rail Trail we were met with a fierce headwind from the sea, with only the prospect of hot pies and chocolate milk at Little River motivating us through the gusts. These are Brevet staples. The hot food slid down easily with 80km already on the legs.

(Photo: Scott Emmens)

Until now we had formed a leading bunch of about eight riders. However, on the next climb to the summit road, the truth started to come out as to who could hack such a vicious pace at such an early stage in the long journey. I for one slipped down a gear into a more sustainable pace, fortunately finding myself a riding partner for the long miles ahead. Matt and I shared a vision of completion over competition. At this stage in the race, that attitude would be most crucial to success later on.

Akaroa Harbour (Photo: Scott Emmens)

Over onto the northern side of the peninsula, the views engulfed our horizons; across the Akaroa harbour and the many long fiords incised into the volcanic core. A short detour for an ice-cream at Okains Bay, a popular camping spot humming with holidayers, served to increase the enjoyment to suffering ratio as we now embarked onto one of the most gruesome: Big Hill Road. This hill tormented me deeply on my first attempt, as we pushed up its endless incline into the smog of darkness and amplified fatigue. Yet today was different, we surmounted the many contours of Big Hill road with gas in the tank, mostly thanks to a fellow Breveteer catching us from the rear.

A typical unending road in the Banks Peninsula (Photo: Scott Emmens)

Suddenly, the course pulled us to sea-level once more to visit Le Bons Bay, a very remote little village in its secluded valley, down a brake-searing descent on loose gravel. In return for the unwelcome extra vertical gains, we were gifted a tarseal ascent. Here we overtook one soloist who had been struck with stomach issues, vomiting all of the calories he tried to force down. In the end, only 14 of 24 would finish the whole course. Further reward for our perseverance was a sweeping traverse of the summit road above Akaroa, so close we could smell the dinner awaiting us. A steep, rocky descent of the notorious Purple Peak track; my brake pads were hotter than the chorizo pasta to be served up at Vangiones, the flashest restaurant in town. Its not what you know but who you know!

Food is near (Photo: Scott Emmens)

Full to the brim and feeling fresh, Matt & I set off up the longest ascent of the course, climbing into the night, to the start of the infamous Double Fenceline Traverse high on the summit road. We cruised the high winding road along the centre-line, feeling the road was now ours – why would anyone be driving this road so late at night? Sure enough, blinding headlights sent us to the sidelines, the driver probably thinking the same thing of us: who would possibly be riding this road in the dead of the night? The Double Fenceline presented the most difficult navigation of the course, and here Matt decided to bivvy for the night to tackle the ridge-top track at dawn.

Giving in to the steepness (Photo: Scott Emmens)

After a quick nap, two veterans caught us and I was grateful to tag along following the assurance of their GPS. At the end of the long traverse, much spent walking the rocky singletrack and pushing up-hill, we reached the Western Valley road, where my new friends also decided to bivvy until morning! I ploughed on alone, reaching a desolate Little River township on 3 a.m. This was good news for my wallet, as a few pies would have gone down well, instead I feasted on a cereal bomb in the public toilets, struggling to keep the moth population away from my midnight meal.

I now propelled myself into what was to be the emotional and physical crux of the route. A 600 metre climb to the summit of Mt Bossu through the deathly morning hours in rapidly deteriorating weather: steady drizzle became steady rain, with winds increasing with each metre I climbed onto the exposed mountain side. To compound the challenge, sleeplessness pulled me into the gutter, literally, as even the slightest shelter on the roadside became an attractive sleeping spot. I gave in once, but decided to strengthen my defence with a caffeine tablet to push through the final dark hours. Sure enough, on the summit came a golden misty dawn plying the clouds apart to promise a fine day ahead.

Ellesmere Spit disappears to the south of Mt Bossu (Photo: Scott Emmens)

After crossing the Ellesmere outlet and beginning the Rail Trail slog, I gave up the fight, and collapsed on the trailside until first rays raised me from my daze. I could not have been more disappointed on arriving at the famed Blue Duck CafĂ© for breakfast to find it was only 6.30 a.m. The frying pans would not begin to sizzle for a further two hours. Some leftover bacon aioli sandwich easing my fat cravings, I surmounted The Bastard hill to begin a Port Hills Grand Traverse. From Coopers Knob to Evans Pass, sweeping through the finest mountain bike trails Christchurch has to offer. Good friend Hamish met me here to accompany me to the finish; a huge psychological boost for grinding out the final 30 kilometres. A wave of energy returned as I sucked down mouthfuls of energy gel, fuelling the last push to the finish. What a beautiful sight to enjoy, those Hansen Park club rooms, across the grassy field. We’d come full circle; the endless had ended. 280 km, 8000 m vertical, 29 hours.

Elation at the finish of LPB 2014 (Photo: Natalie Barrell)

Dazed by the sun and the sleepless night, but charged by adrenaline of completion, I slumped on the field by my mountain bike, wallowing in the deep sense of satisfaction that accompanies every long, hard day in the hills. Memories of the suffering had already begun to fade…

Long after the suffering has ended, only great memories remain... (Photo: Scott Emmens)

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