“’Hard’ is what makes it great.”
Tom Hanks – A League of Their Own
In days of old, men would sit around the campfire telling stories of ancient battles against the elements. Hearing these stories, women would swoon, and children would pretend to be these heroes of old. Yeah, it was a day like that…
Even without Mother Nature’s help this was going to be an epic day. We rode from Queenstown to Wanaka, taking the less traveled route over the top of the Crown Range. This is one of the iconic cycling routes in New Zealand, featuring a switchbacking ascent, followed by a short flattish section, and closing with a lung-busting bit to the summit.
The New Zealand weather service had forecast morning rain until about 9:00 a.m., followed by clearing and a strong tailwind in the afternoon. Apparently the weather service here is about as reliable as it is back home: useful for 10 minutes of entertainment value on the nightly news.
We started from the condo in Queenstown with a steady rain. This was my first “opportunity” to try out the new rain jacket and paddle gloves I’d picked up here. They worked surprisingly well. Water still seeped in here and there, but the exertion from the cycling more than made up for the wetness and actually kept me quite comfortable.
Our first bit out of town took us to Arrowtown, which lies at the base of the climb. I had been leading the group ( a rarity so far) but came to a turn and didn’t know which way to go. “Uphill” was the correct choice, but I stopped. Downshifting and attempting to get going again I managed to drop the chain and lodge it in between two of the front chainrings. No amount of futzing with it would get it unstuck so I had to walk the bike up the short hill. Fortunately we were in town and close to our first scheduled stop. Jos tried a trick with a piece of twine, pulling on the cable from underneath. That helped a bit, but eventually Terry had to loosen the chainring assembly with an allen wrench in order to provide enough clearance for the chain to come free. Having derailed the timeline with my navigation and shifting issues, I’m now on the hook for the first round of beers tonight.
We rolled out of Arrowtown and shortly began the big climb. This was serious business, with grades ranging from 9% to 12% as we made our way along the switchbacks. The rain never let up, varying from one degree of sucky to another. Our awesome support crew of Agnes and Amy were waiting for us at the lookout point. So much for the views.
We crested the last of the switchbacks and met up with the girls again. They did an incredible job today, finding places to park in pullouts along the way, having food and fluids when we needed them, and just providing friendly faces when it was time for a break.
Feeling confident after conquering the switchbacks, we enjoyed the relative ease of the flat section leading up to the final push. And then the games began again. The temperature dropped to the point that we could see our breath in the rain. The pitch increased, reaching as much as 14% at points, while the rain continued its relentless pour.
About a kilometer from the summit I felt the siren call of a nature break. I hopped off the bike, found a bush and took care of business. While I was doing this I thought “I hope I don’t get arrested for indecent exposure”, but the cops would have needed a microscope to find the evidence.
Terry joined us at this last stop before the summit, having had to push his bike up the last bit. His cleat malfunctioned and he couldn’t clip his shoe back in. He fought with this the rest of the day, and ended up replacing his cleats after we made it back into town.
We made it to the summit of the Crown Range, the highest paved road in New Zealand, hearts pounding, thoroughly drenched, but in remarkably good spirits. Time for a quick photo op, and a chance to enjoy the “view”.
So now it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labor – a mountain descent. Normally this would have been a brakes-free, bombs away freefall with speeds up to 50 mph, but with the bucketing rain it was really a little scary. We rode the brakes on the steep, winding descents and just held on. Jos pulled over and stopped, and figured out that his rear disk brake had locked up and his wheel wouldn’t turn. The disk was so hot that it couldn’t be touched, our 3rd mechanical issue of the day. He managed to get it free, but spent a couple of hours at the motel that night trying to remedy the problem.
We did have one last interesting stop on the way into town: Bradrona. Quite picturesque actually. This was a first for me. We all have to do our part for breast cancer awareness.
Now you might think that all of this sounds like misery. Not for us; it was actually great fun. Doing battle with the elements, feeling your body working to its capacity, conquering big audacious goals, and sharing the experience with friends is about as life-affirming an activity as you’ll ever find. At the end of it all we were wet, exhausted, and ready to do it all over again.