Against The Wind: Riding New Zealand’s Tuatara 1000
Having done his best to outride a persistent headwind, Trent Hiles shares a detailed reflection on his experiences during this year’s Tuatara 1000 event in New Zealand. Find his story and a beautiful gallery of photos from Steve Garratt here…
Words by Trent Hiles, photos by Steve Garratt (@steve_steve_garratt)
“Gore 15km” – it sounded so close yet, turning left onto the aptly named Mountain Rd, there it was, the last major climb, number 13 of 13. As the gravel steepened and the late afternoon sun continued to grill me, I willed my chain—which had broken earlier that day—to hold together as my drivetrain and knees creaked their way forward and up.
But what of the previous 1,057 kilometres? Those four days were a potpourri of rain, grey skies, grime-covered bike and dust-covered bidons, lip-blistering sunshine, gravel that ranged from hard-packed, thread-bare to soft and sugary, and seemingly endless headwinds that turned as we turned, steadily chipping away at one’s resolve to push on, to stay on top of the gear. More than once I asked myself, “How did I get here?”
I blame Andy. November 2021, I completed the 206-kilometre Nice Weekend as part of the Le Petit Brevet on Te Pataka o Rakaihautu Banks Peninsula. My first gravel ride. It went well. I had type-1 fun. What to do next? Look at the website. Tuatara 1000? All things being equal, I reckoned I could make it. How hard could it be?
Hard, with a capital F. As I crept along at sub-20-kilometre/hour on dead gravel into a blustery headwind on day two, I wondered why I hadn’t chosen the shorter ride. Who was I kidding? This was tougher than expected, and I was several hours on the wrong side of halfway (the speedsters, off like robber’s dogs as the clock struck seven on Saturday morning, had reached Slope Point in 28 hours). Of course, I had chosen the longer ride because it’s a long drive from Lyttelton to Gore to bike for a couple of days, plus going “urgent” removed rest restrictions – I could get the ride done ASAP and then head north to get dad’s taxi back on the road pronto, done and dusted in four days, or less. That was the goal anyway. But the road had other plans.
Actually, it was the weather. More precisely, the wind. The forecast prior to the start predicted the wind to turn against the anti-clockwise riders each day; a new day, a new direction, a shift in the wind. I had to stop looking at my speed if my will to go on was to remain intact. Happily, once in a while, the road took a sharp turn and the wind was with us, helping to click off the kilometres. I could sit up, stretch my back, roll the shoulders, and relieve my backside from the gradually increasing discomfort of a saddle sore. Headwinds, endless headwinds. If only I had done the clockwise option. As one of my dot-watchers cheerily posted from the comfort of his home far far away, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Thanks for that.
They had their uses though, whānau texting to say I’d missed a turn, letting me know my tracker battery was running low, cheering when I hit the southernmost point of Te Waipounamu, Slope Point. It was pitch black as Greg and I bumped our way across the tussock towards the lighthouse, but the night was warm and still. 10 p.m. It felt good to be on the road, making some distance with the wind having died down.
The nights were the best. The bike ticking along nicely, lights bright enough to show the road ahead while holding you in your own little bubble. Who knows what was out there, in the dark, waiting. The odd sheep on the road, playful possums, and stupid rabbits (seriously, I did everything to avoid it). Farmhouses with bedroom lights on, a dog barks, then another, a shout from a back door then all is quiet, save the soft crunch of gravel under tyres. Stop to pee. Lights off and the sky is sprayed with stars, the Milky Way a silk scarf arcing overhead, a sliver of moon offering a little light. It’s midnight, time to find a patch of grass and grab a few hours of sleep.
In keeping with the brevet spirit, I’d opted to carry a small tent as well as a bivy bag, thermal liner, and sleeping mat so I could stop wherever and whenever I wanted, regardless of the weather. I slept beside the road the first two nights, tucked away in the long grass. More spectacular views of the clearest of night skies. I fell asleep looking for satellites.
My third day seemed to drag on and on; I felt like I was getting nowhere urgently. My goal had been Dunedin at least, if not through to Portobello, to give me a good shot at finishing within 96 hours. It was 11 p.m. and I was still more than 50 kilometres from the outskirts of the city. I pushed on, not wanting to stop until I reached St Clair. I rolled into the campground at 2:30 a.m., put up the tent while my meal rehydrated and cooled, then crawled, exhausted, into the sleeping position.
That night, I resolved to sleep as long as I needed to, no 5 a.m. alarm. With a slow start to the morning (first a detour to find good coffee and pastries), I realised my thinking had shifted from trying to be fast, to compete, to taking it a little more easily and enjoying the surroundings (as much as was possible given the hills were still steep, the wind still head-on, and the gravel, at times, still soft!). There was no panic when I realised my headlamp had fallen off my helmet as I pushed the bike up the track above Pudneys Cliff and I had to backtrack to find it. Food stops became longer, and I chatted to folks curious to know what I was up to.
We all knew the fourth leg of the ride was going to be the toughest, steep hills aplenty when the body was asking to stop and rest, to sleep. But no one’s coming to get you. There’s no friend to phone, Uber doesn’t run out in the back blocks, and shanks’ pony is even slower. You. Just. Need. To. Keep. Pedalling.
End of day four. In pitch black, I stopped beside the road somewhere near Lake Mahinerangi. Somewhat ominously, a line of red lights blinked in the near distance, eyes in the night warning, watching. A late night, a sleep-in. Rising with the sun the view was spectacular, early morning mist blanketing the pine saplings that disappeared towards the lake. Some 120-odd kilometres to go, but that could wait as I stood in silence, grateful to be alive, thankful for the support that meant I could be here.
The cafe in Lawrence was a delight. A comedy of sorts; arriving just after a supported cycle-tour of boomers had cleared the pastry cabinet, the kitchen staff were madly baking and restocking. Nick arrived, looking fresh and relaxed (note to self: next time, carry minimal kit and stay in motels). We chatted over cream cheese and blueberry muffins and coffee. As I talked to a couple touring the south with their old Labrador, Nick disappeared west, reminding me I had a ride to finish.
As the final kilometres came and went and with more than a hint of a tailwind at times, I got to thinking that I might just see this madness to its conclusion. From the first morning, setting off with Wayne, meeting Jol, Andy, and Eric as we toiled away at the back in the cool and wet southerly, catching Steve as we rolled into Mossburn; helping Bruce at Manapouri to treat a swollen knee; meeting Greg on the road to Slope Point then again for a coffee in Owaka; the desire to get off the highway and back to the gravel as trucks roared by; the phone call to say I’d passed a turn-off; walking uphill because I knew it was faster than biking… and then, the end, rolling into Gore.
Turning onto Ontario St. and looking up to see the railway line, I knew where I was and I suddenly found myself having a wee cry. I’d made it, not chic but not shabby. Everything held together (more or less) long enough to return to the town square, 1,072 kilometres completed. No fanfare, no clap or cheer, no crowd. Just me and the trout. All things had been equal.
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