The Shaky Isles Challenge is a self-supported bikepacking event that follows a massive 2,800-kilometer route along the length of Aotearoa/New Zealand. With no finishers at this year’s event, we reached out to the organizer Brian Alder for a recap of his ride. Find his story with photos and a video from Rob Dawson here…
Words by Brian Alder (@brianinpics), photos by Rob Dawson (@robbodeezal)
Omelvena Road closed. Flooding.
Surely not? The storm that had produced the heaviest rain I have experienced was 48 hours and 400 kilometres ago. Maybe the road crews hadn’t been back to take the signs down? I headed down the dirt track, noticing two sets of tyre prints – Bevan and Josh I assumed. Okay, it must go.
But then they turned around – it was one bike. I carried on. The creek was up, a slow-moving glorified drainage ditch through dairying country with that distinctive green tinge and off smell. It looked deep, too deep to wade through like yesterday’s torrent. I cursed the route creator for the dumb decision to send riders this way. It was clear this flooded frequently.
That decision was mine, and the Shaky Isles Challenge was my creation. In an effort to squeeze in a few more kilometres of gravel and stay off a busy road, I had routed the course through Omelvena Road. Why didn’t I get someone to check it out? Why didn’t I take the well-known route just a few kilometres away?
While creating a 3,000-kilometre bikepacking race route is a mammoth task, the real test is the riding of it. After all those hours scanning mapping apps, reading trip reports, and pumping other bikepackers for local knowledge, you still must decide where to go. Omelvena Road or Earl Road? Gravel or paved.? Flat or hilly? Quiet or busy? And you know when you get it wrong, someone will be cursing you. This time, that someone was me.
It’s a grand idea. A bikepacking race the length of Aotearoa/New Zealand. As much gravel as possible, avoiding busy roads, finding new terrain, and exploring rural communities and landscapes. Once the word got around the kiwi bikepacking community, there were plenty of suggestions from riders wanting to showcase their locale. But would it stitch together into a route that kept you wanting more, or would it beat you down into the pavement?
With many existing events planned for the southern summer, I announced the Challenge at short notice, so only six riders had made it to the top of Bluff Hill, waiting for the countdown to the 8 a.m. start. The mist swirled around us, as is the norm for this place that juts into the Southern Ocean. Brakes squealed as we swooped down the steep grades and onto the Southland Plains, wrapped in our own thoughts about the unknown challenges ahead. The day brightened and then sizzled before an afternoon thunderstorm sent a deluge that would have repercussions for days to come.
With the continuing heavy showers of rain and localised flooding, I decided to have an early night. I was away before dawn and followed three sets of tyre tracks that sunk deeply into the soft surface. The drying surface was firming up nicely, and my “stay dry, start early” strategy was paying off. By early evening, I was winding my way up the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail, one of the many tourist-focussed trails that have been built in recent years. While I’d noticed that the rivers were higher than normal, I was stunned to round a corner and see Josh Duley waist-deep in a muddy torrent. While I could have backtracked to the highway, I felt compelled to follow. I wondered how tourists on their e-bikes had coped with this?
Josh and I regrouped at the pub up the road for dinner. There were now just four riders still on course, and two of those, Josh and Rob Dawson, only planned to complete the South Island. That left Bevan Collins and me “racing.” Suddenly, it seemed pointless. The usual motivations of competition, camaraderie, and challenging my limits had evaporated. It was the first time I really understood how being a player in a bigger event and sharing the highs and lows with other participants was such a motivating factor for me.
I was well up the Hakataramea Valley by the time the sun touched the surrounding peaks. Shepherds moving a huge mob of sheep were surprised to see someone so early. Like previous days, the roads were largely quiet, and cresting the pass with Aoraki/Mount Cook shining in the distance reminded me why I was here. It was a good day, and I resolved to ride the daylight hours and be thankful for the privilege I had in being here.
I knew I was going to bail early, but it was good to practice my craft – to ride positively into the block headwind, to be efficient, to take pleasure in my surroundings and the random interactions with locals. I let go of the disappointment of my ride and my performance. Next time I’d be ready, and next time there will be no Omelvena Road.
The next grand depart is already scheduled for January 12th at 8 a.m. Learn more at TourTeWaipounamu.co.nz.
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