The Great Southern Brevet 2021: Notes from a First-Timer
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Eileen Schwab decided to tackle The Great Southern Brevet, a 1,100-kilometer self-supported bikepacking event around the South Island of New Zealand, as her first real race. Find a reflection from Eileen and a gallery of photos she took along the way here…
Words and photos by Eileen Schwab (@eileenschwabnz)
An experienced endurance rider’s eyes widened with scepticism when I mentioned the Great Southern Brevet would be my first event, and that I’d never attempted bikepacking with anything resembling a sense of urgency. “It may not be the best brevet to start with if you haven’t done one before,” he pondered. “But, I suppose if you ride from dawn til dusk and don’t waste too much time… you might be okay?”
My first encounter with the Great Southern Brevet was on a leisurely tour two years ago, when one of its three rotating course variations inspired our route and quickly made this region one of my favourite places to ride. Starting and ending in the tourist hotspot of Lake Tekapo in the central South Island, the 1,100km course navigates the Mackenzie High Country and Central Otago’s rugged, golden hills, with stunning views of iconic turquoise lakes and the snow-capped Southern Alps. Gravel backroads, cycle trails, 4wd tracks and a bit of singletrack and hike-a-bike ensure the route steers clear of tarmac and traffic for the most part while racking up around 15,000 metres of elevation. The notoriously challenging weather and exposed landscapes, an occasionally cruel sense of humour by its creator, and an intimidating rate of attrition have all earned it a reputation as one of New Zealand’s most challenging bikepacking events.
Had you asked me when I’d first come across it whether I’d want to ride the brevet, I wouldn’t have shown much enthusiasm for the idea. Why go fast when you can go slow? Why go with a crowd when you can go with a chosen few? Why deprive yourself of sleep and long evenings pottering around camp with a hot cup of tea? Would I even survive something like that? One day, however, the idea somehow took hold and refused to be shaken. Perhaps this too can be blamed on the uncertainty of a pandemic, but a future goal to focus on was a welcome anchor. The answer to ‘why?’ is, I think, precisely because it’s different and goes against my usual inclinations. The opportunity to gain a new perspective on something otherwise familiar and add a greater challenge was sure to be an educational experience.
First, I needed to convince Andy, my partner in all previous bikepacking trips, as I had no intention of suffering alone. He agreed it sounded both painful and foolish, and also to ride it together. I put my odds of finishing squarely at 50/50 and I was fine with that. I only half-joked that my goal was to finish last, at the very edge of the eight-day time limit, as that would mean I’d finished, at least.
The start of my training came to an abrupt halt after a few days when I flung myself over the bars and rapidly into the ground while mountain biking, resulting in a cracked rib and painful hand injury. By the time I could ride again, only a 10-week window remained. Our summer holiday was dedicated to a training tour and the experience of riding long back-to-back days for the first time, while achievable, didn’t fill me with confidence. My eyes were puffy from exhaustion, Achilles tendons swollen and inflamed, and knees creaking. I medicated my way through the entire tour, just to see when I’d hit my breaking point. Sceptical but stubborn, I spent the final weeks trying to recover.
A week out from the start, Andy became sick. It was clear he’d be unable to ride. I wavered, substantially, about continuing, but the whole point was to see if I could do something like this, which would be hard to learn without even showing up at the start line. I decided to carry on solo, frequently revisiting this particular part of the FAQs section of the event’s website that I found unreasonably reassuring: “Who can do it? Anyone, yes that includes you. Obviously it helps if you have a bike ;-) but it is open to all. It would also help if you have some experience of cycle touring and back country travel/navigation experience (tramping, hiking, that sort of thing). Success is very much dependent on your attitude and your approach.” It sounded so very reasonable.
Still, I spent most of the final few days losing sleep over every detail. My gear and packing system needed to be hastily reworked to include all of the shared things I’d need to carry. I was deeply anxious about having to solve my own problems and spending all that time alone, without the usual backup and moral support. I pored over the maps and made detailed notes for each day, breaking down kilometres, segment elevations, resupply details, setting minimum targets and stretch goals for each day. Should I find myself too tired to make reasonable decisions, all I’d need to do is pull out my notes and follow instructions. Clearly, I didn’t entirely trust myself.
It was a relief for the ride to finally start, and to just have to pedal. I never looked at those detailed notes after day one, just slipping into the familiar rhythm of riding. I also spent no more than half of it riding alone, enjoying the company of various riding partners. The greatest surprise though was that I loved pedalling in solitude too, blasting loud music through my headphones, singing badly and riding at my own pace.
There were fierce, draining headwinds, rain and a little hail, sweltering heat one day and icy southerlies the next, tedious gates and long, steep climbs. There were epic downhills, leg-reviving views, trail angels, plenty of laughs and fiery sunrises. And mostly I managed to ride from dawn til dusk without wasting too much time. Of the seven days I spent riding, most were longer than any days I’d done previously, and I was surprised to find I could keep on spinning the pedals, in high spirits, spurred on in no small part by being part of something bigger. It seemed many of my biggest fears and limitations were mostly in my mind.
I’m told it’s unusual for there to be any fanfare at the end of such a ride, and I prepared to roll in well after dark on my final day, the longest of them all, fall into bed, and eat what remained in the nooks and crannies of my framebag of New Zealand’s largest cheese scone. But as two of us rolled back to where it had all begun 6 days and 12 hours earlier, a bell rung out from the nearby house of a dedicated local dotwatcher, then, emerging from the darkness, the surprising and bewildering cheers of a welcoming party. Familiar and unknown faces – riders, supporters, and organisers – standing out in the freezing cold night, offering celebratory beers, handshakes, and hugs to cap off the memorable and inspiring week.
Thanks to Dave King and all the helpers and riders who make this such a special event.
About Eileen Schwab
Eileen spent a few years bikepacking around some of the great mountain ranges of the world with her partner. She loves scheming up routes and ideas and, usually, slowing down. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand, playing on the great mountain bike trails and working on software for education. You can find her on Instagram @eileenschwabnz.
Keep an eye on our events calendar for details on other exciting bikepacking events happening this year.