Racing the Wilderness: The West Coast Wilderness Trail

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A few years ago, New Zealand’s (then) Prime Minister John Key was faced with an interesting dilemma: how to promote cycle tourism in a country with roads that barely fit two vehicles, let alone cyclists.

The solution was a novel one: Te Ara Ahi, the Great New Zealand Cycle Trail. A network of off-road pathways, rail trails and gravel berms traversing the landscape, linking together scenic and historic milestones. The idea was a great success – providing iconic tourism destinations, business opportunities for local communities, and deftly side-stepping the eternal (and invective-laden) grudge against cycling on the roads.

The West Coast Wilderness Trail is a fine example of the Te Ara Ahi initiative. A gravel track of roughly 130km between the historic gold mining towns of the West Coast, it includes stunning scenery, historic milestones, provided in a safe and accommodating way for families, tourists, and adventurists alike.

Perhaps a little off the tourist path, the West Coast is a window into New Zealand’s frontier past – small towns withproud weatherboard cottages, art-deco architecture, all recalling the gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s in the harsh yet breathtakingly beautiful landscape.

With a race set along the route, it seemed the ideal opportunity to explore the trail, albeit at a slightly more rapid race than usual. With distances of 31km, 64km, 100km and 131km to choose from along the route, there were options for riders of all ages and calibres.

In the lead-up to the race, I’d had some misgivings about the weather. With almost 2m of annual rainfall a year on the West Coast, it’s acquired the appropriate nickname of the Wet Coast. However, on a fine day, it’s hard to imagine a location more spectacular. Wild and windswept beaches lead through to dense beech forests and alpine lakes, with the formidable wall of the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps dominating the skyline. In fairytale fashion for an inaugural event, the weather delivered – with the distant snow of Mt Cook sparkling pink in the sunrise to a still, cloudless day.

 

Assembling on the startline in the golden morning light in the small mining town of Ross, it was with an air of trepidation that the field lined up. I soon noticed the dominance of cyclocross bikes, and wondered if the Norco Revolver would prove too big a bike, with its 2″ tyres. Nevertheless, I was naively expecting a fairly civilised start, with respect to the reasonable distance ahead of us, and was planning about a 5h 20m ride.

My hopes and dreams of a cruisey start were rudely mistaken, with a rapid paceline immediately emerging, surging well over 40km/h. With a flat and fast mix of gravel track and tarmac, the first section of 30km to Hokitika was run at about 37km/h of uneven, surging pace, driven mostly by Reon Baldwin, “fresh” off the Tour of Southland (and riding another very nice Norco Revolver). This included a slightly mad barrell through old forest and the tree top walkway, with ferns and beech forest swishing by in a verdant blur.

With the chaos of a few splits and uneven tempo, we were soon heading into the interior of the coast and towards the hillier country around Lake Kaniere. With hamstrings somewhat stung by the surging, I attempted to recover and waited for the hills and singletrack. With the cross bikes very strong and fast on the pavement, I had decided that singletrack would be the place to push on the mountain bike, and leverage the advantages of flat bars, big tyres, and suspension forks. This opportunity came when the trail narrowed and followed the Kaniere Water race from the nearby lake, and I found myself on the front and going as hard as I could.

Maybe I cooked myself, but when we cleared the singletrail and returned to the undulating gravel roads, 4 riders were clear with a solid gap behind. After some uneven turns the pace lifted again, and I struggled to keep lactic acid at bay on the high speed rolling turns – perhaps a sign off too much singlespeeding and not enough road bunch riding.

Rolling through spectacular valleys at the foothills of the alps, the trail soon turned back to singletrack for the gentle climb to Cowboy Paradise. With a myriad of rolling, open switchbacks, I popped off the back of the 3 leaders with twinging hamstrings, hoping to ride to tempo and catch them at the water station at Cowboy Paradise. Refilling my bottles at the water station, I found out they’d barrelled clean through.

Cowboy Paradise

Attempting to settle into a rhythm, the course plunged into the most remote section, with singletrack diving across a chasm on a huge swing bridge, before climbing steeply out the other side. Eventually pushing over the Kawhaka saddle for the highest point of the course, it was time to bruise the forearms and push on for the other side.

With limited hydration until this point, I was desperately trying to stay on top of my body’s fluids, and twinging hamstrings became a significant issue as the course re-opened into management trails around the water races and lakes of the region. Between moments of staring at my stem and the trail ahead, the expansive views of the region provided inspiration to push on.

Heading into Kumara, I was soon caught by two more riders on the open roads – and began to discover that the race was probably 30km too long for me. Now perilously out of water and shunting into a head-wind, managing hamstrings cramps became my primary concern. Hopping over to the beach road on the roll into Greymouth, Grant Lyon rolled away from us, and we ground steadily along the seemingly interminable beach roll.

Rolling into Greymouth

When the finish emerged with a rapid sprint into the football field, I was stunned to see a finishing time roughly an hour quicker than I’d anticipated. Reon had won in a three-up sprint over Ben Hillery and Darren Burns in a time of 4h 12m – an average speed of 31km/h making it one of the fastest mountain bike races I’d seen!

Equally impressive were the women’s times – with Jess de Bont coming home in a staggering 4h 43m , just ahead of Sharon Prutton, racing in the 60-69 category, and Fleur Pawsey. Collapsing in the sunshine in the soft grass of the football field seemed an appropriate way to finish the day, before a stunning West Coast sunset.

Post-race afterglow… or is it aftermath?

Would I go back for Ride the Wilderness? Absolutely. While more like a gravel road race with a bit of a singletrack than a traditional mountain bike race, it provides a rollicking fast ride through some stunning countryside.  I’m also keen to come back and explore at a slower pace, with more time spent admiring the scenery and exploring the countryside, and less staring at my stem!

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