Brian Alder had an idea. What if he could design a bikepacking race that ran the length of New Zealand’s South Island connecting some of the most rugged and beautiful landscapes Te Waipounamu had to offer? Would he get permission from private landowners in order to link it all up? Would there be enough people keen to take on the challenge? Would the challenge be more than riders could handle?
At 1,330 kilometres long with 22,000 metres of climbing and over 40km of hike-a-bike, the Tour Te Waipounamu was definitely a challenge. Limited to 50 entrants initially, the field had shrunk to 37 starters by race day as the reality of the task ahead sunk in.
There were some serious contenders: 2012 Tour Divide winner Ollie Whalley, two times TD 4th place finisher Steve Halligan, French and Boheme Divide winner Martin Strelka, ex-world singlespeed champ Tad Mejdr and world Rogaine champion Georgia Whitla. The year of Covid was bringing out the heavy hitters.
Day one started like a typical bikepacking event with riders at the front cranking out more than 300 kilometres. But that’s where the similarity to all previous New Zealand events ended. While day one included 1000m climbs over the Rameka and Porika Tracks, riders would soon be tested on tracks used solely for hiking, until now.
After being softened up by the hike-a-bike on the beautiful Hope Kiwi Track at the start of the second day, the leading group soon encountered the Dampier Range. A very open and exposed segment, it involved dragging, pushing or carrying your bike for 5-8 hours for 12 kilometres up 800 vertical metres with little ground trail. Waist high tussock grass, spiky spaniard plants, and bogs were all part of the route.
When Ollie Whalley and Steve Halligan finished the descent to Andersons Hut at 10pm they had only covered 120km for the day. Martin Strelka had already been through 1.5 hours earlier, despite gear failures. Around 3am Ollie and Steve were woken by the arrival of Tony LeSueur and Hedley Wilton so they set off again. Georgia Whitla would turn up 6 hours later with the next woman competitor Kath Kelly less than 1.5 hours behind.
For the front of the field, day three started relatively fast and straightforward with epic vistas of Mount White Station, one of the many private high country farms the route passed through. It would be another four hours before the next challenging hike-a-bike up the Cass River was encountered by the front runners, followed by a lovely track through native beech forest, but not somewhere you’d normally take a loaded bike.
Steve Halligan lost contact with Ollie going up the Cass Saddle where eventually some sweet singletrack led them down off the saddle and past Hamilton Hut. After many river crossings the riders emerged onto the paved road that would take them into Methven, the first food and bike tech spot in nearly 250kms and two days for many. Here, Ollie caught Martin Strelka whose bike issues came to a head on the approach to Methven.
With the limited amount of sleep and many frigid river crossings some riders started to experience the early stages of trench foot. Georgia Whitla, an experienced adventure racer, was one to suffer but fortunately the sun was out and the frequency of rivers decreased as the course headed south. At Methven her gap over the next hard charging woman, Kath Kelly was still only around two hours.
At 4AM Ollie Whalley left an unresponsive Martin Strelka at their overnight bivvy spot at Peel Forest and hit the road into Mesopotamia Station to take the outright lead. The next big challenge came in the form of the double header of Bullock Bow Saddle and Stag Saddle. Both epic hike-a-bikes with completely different terrains, and separated by Royal Hut, a popular destination for Te Araroa Trail hikers.
The lead-up to Bullock Bow saddle was rideable for most, but the saddle itself was a concerted push for two to three hours before a much appreciated rideable descent down to Royal Hut. At 1900 metres, Stag Saddle was the high-point of the course and revealed a stunning vista from Aoraki/Mount Cook down to Tekapo. The ascent itself was probably one of the most challenging with large rough rocks under foot.
Those expecting a fast downhill to follow were disappointed to find a rocky ridgeline track that claimed a few tyres, some trail overgrown with thornbushes and another short, but steep climb that meant carrying the bike yet again. Eventually the course moved onto the fast flowing Richmond Trail that led down into Tekapo for a resupply.
On leaving Tekapo, Georgia Whitla’s lead on Kath Kelly was still around 2.5 hours. The road out of Tekapo was flat and fast and although it would eventually get very rough it was mentally very relaxing after the previous efforts. Georgia maintained a few hours gap leading into the final 500kms.
In a repeat of what happened on day two, Ollie Whalley was awakened by Tony LeSueur catching him and riding past his Lake Pukaki camping spot at 3:30AM on the morning of the fifth day. Ollie repacked quickly and hit the very rough Pukaki Riverbed trail to hunt Tony down. What Ollie didn’t know was that Tony had bivvied down a few minutes after passing him, so he was already back in the lead. Both riders were experiencing some issues. Ollie had lost the use of his GPS early on due to a USB cable failure and was navigating by his phone. Tony had some chafing issues which started on day one and had only gotten worse.
Otematata was the next place for a resupply before the oppressive heat and barren landscape of the Hawkdun Range. Ollie managed to traverse it in around eight hours from Otematata to Oturehua. A good part of this was hike-a-bike, taking in the very testing and aptly named “Walking Spur.”
A quick spurt down the iconic Central Otago Rail Trail introduced riders to a landscape that was flat by comparison to previous days. The rocky outcrops that peppered the Dunstan Road are part of the many different terrains that make up the iconic southern landscape.
With the finish 300 kilometres away, Ollie Whalley put his head down with the end in mind. By the time he got to the finish at Slope Point he had ridden for 38 hours without sleeping and covered 474km in his last big push enjoying a buffer of nine hours over second place, Tony LeSueur. In third place was the first of the adventure racers, Hedley Wilton. First woman, and fourth overall was Georgia Whitla. Kath Kelly was the next woman to finish 11 hours later, with an outstanding ride by Christine Byrch, aged 60 in third place.
Of the 32 riders that would finish the course, eight of them would be women and with a 100% finishing rate. All of the riders would finish under 10 days which speaks to the level of commitment of the riders and to an extent, the amazingly good weather. Would you be keen to do the Tour Te Waipounamu? Talk to Brian.
Tour Te Waipounamu 2021: Top Finish Times
- Oliver Whalley: 5 days, 10 hours, 34 min
- Tony LeSueur: 5 days, 19 hours, 58 min
- Hedley Wilton: 6 days, 16 hours, 40 min
- Georgia Whitla: 6 days, 16 hours, 40 min (1st woman)
- Kath Kelly: 7 days, 3 hours, 44 min (2nd woman)
- Christine Byrch: 8 days, 23 hours, 5 min (3rd woman)
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