Last of the summer mountain biking
As summer comes to a close I tend to be at the fittest point of my year, and while the days are still long and warm and the weather is settled it is the perfect time to get into the mountains for some epic riding. This is a story of a ride we did at the end of March 2009 to Craigieburn State Forest in the South Island of New Zealand. The plan was to start at the car park (about 800m) ride and carry our way up and over a big saddle (1800m), drop down a scree slope to a track and ride down to about 900m before riding up and over another saddle at 1300m and out to the road at 600m. Probably less than 30km of distance, but the 1400m of climbing, 1500m of descending and the rugged terrain meant that we would be out there for a few hours! We had not planned how we were getting back to the car from where the ride finished (about 14km of road with a couple of nasty hills in it). Luckily as we drove up the road near to the start I saw a couple of my friends parked by the side of the road… and yelled at Charlie to pull over to see if they could shuttle us up! Being the lovely people that they are, they even dropped our van off on their way through to their own adventure for the day.
Often when it is grey and cold on the Canterbury Plains (especially in Christchurch) you can pop up and over Porters Pass and there will be a lovely blue sky waiting in the Craigieburn Valley. However it was still grey and cold at the car park as we got our gear organised. One concern we had was that the cloud cover could hinder our ability to navigate if the cloud was thick at the top. Riding up the ski access road our fears of poor visibility were put to rest as we caught glimpses of sun covered hills sides. Soon we popped out through the clouds and into a very nice bright blue day with no wind at all…..perfect! We soon climbed past the ski field accommodation and onto a rough 4wd track. This soon ended and we were left walking up the steep mountain scree face towards the saddle. After 2 hours of climbing we crested the ridge and it felt quite literally like we were standing on top of the world. There were amazing views in all directions and with a bright blue sky, warm sunshine and hardly a breath of wind, we could not have picked a more perfect day if we had tried!
We ate some food as we sat and soaked up the Craigieburn views, which included the first descent of the day. Like much of alpine New Zealand the Craigieburn range is covered in scree slopes which are characterised by a layer of relatively coarse, usually loose rock debris and a lack of vegetation. The first 500m descent was straight down a scree slope and we would drop the altitude in less than a kilometre. From the top of the ridge we could only see about 50m along the slope before the curvature hid the rest of the slope from our view. Refueled and eager to get our scree on, we headed off down the hill. I took it reasonably easy for the first 50m or so to get a feel for the bikes wheels as they sunk into the soft stones and surfed around underneath me. As we left the saddle the slope got steeper and the view of the entire slope to the very bottom of the valley expanded rapidly. Looking straight down a 45 ° slope with your wheels sliding around on soft shingle was a real head game. Control of the bike was fine, although it did feel as if there was no way to stop as the scree was sliding down the hill under my wheels. As I into the descent and got off the brakes a bit I started to really enjoy it. As the bike sped up the wheels lifted up and out of the soft scree, yet if the brakes were applied (even a tiny amount) the wheels dived deep into the scree which slowed me down rapidly! During the descent I managed to jump off my bike and get the camera out in time to get some shots of Neil riding down the slope. As my thighs had started to burn from being braced in the “descending” riding position it was a welcome minute of rest! Jumping back on the bike, we were all very quickly at the base of the scree slope with grins a mile wide before we knew it.
We connected with the track in the bottom of the valley and avoiding the large prickly Spaniards (a very sharp native spear grass that easily punctures both tyres and human skin) we were soon sitting on another saddle gazing down into a river valley. This descent was covered in beech forest with a very nice piece of technical single track that wound down through the trees with switchbacks, roots and drops everywhere! The track dropped about 400m over 2km with many technical challenges to keep us on our toes. I love the way the South Island beech forest trails form steps and drops in a way that is perfect for biking…. it’s great fun to ride. We carved our way down this trail, dropping off root shelves, balancing around tight switchbacks and bombing the small straights. At the bottom of the hill we exchanged tall stories of drops, turns and close calls as we fuelled up on more food and prepared our bikes and ourselves to go upwards again.
An hour or so later we were once again sitting at a saddle enjoying the sunshine and eating more food, and a bunch of trampers came past looking rather quizzically at us. They of course asked where we had been and were rather unbelieving when we pointed at the scree slope and tracks we had just ridden. Non-mountain biking people often have a limited view of what a bike is capable of, and it was a pleasure to expand their horizons! Off down the hill again we went and picked our way through the scrub and Spaniard grass while avoiding the large bare rocks hidden under the cover of tussocks! Keeping plenty of momentum I barreled on down towards the tree line as fast as possible, going slow would have rendered the lumpy trail unrideable! On reaching the trees there was once again an abundance of rooty challenges that kept us alert alongside some big grin factor flowing sections of trail. Soft leaf litter and loam gave us some nice “drifty” corners and the natural ramps from roots and tree stumps had us lofting bikes over holes and rough sections. As always the fun of the downhill single track seemed to be over too soon as we popped out of the trees and into river bed…..grinning from ear to ear. From here we had a couple of kilometres of river bed bashing and arrived back at the van very thankful that we did not have to ride the road to get back to the start! We had been out in the hills for about 7 hours……. and were 3 very happy boys!!