Pancake flat, with the mountains an hour’s drive west and the Southern Ocean at its doorstep, I did not think that Christchurch was a likely spot for great mountain biking. Yet south of town between a couple of harbors rise a range of grass covered hills called the Port hills. These offer a beautiful collection of well-crafted trails that climb and curve down around and over the hillsides, and remind me of the riding on the California coast at San Luis Obispo, including the offshore fog bank. One significant difference is the prevalence of sheep and the singular lack of horses, and horseback riders; which I initially thought of as great, since sheep just run away from you, while horses want to kick the shit out of you, and the horseback riders tend to view you as a form of plague. On the other hand, sheep are, well, sheep, in that when one of them decides to run away from you down the trail that you are riding, the rest of them follow like… sheep. I discovered this on a trail called the Greenwood park track which descends from the top of the highest point of the peninsula via an awesome bit of single track that combined the aspects of rock garden technically, with flowy turns and banked corners, unfortunately it was also laden with sheep.
It must suck being a sheep. Imagine being so dim-witted that the exact same thing scares the shit out of you over and over dozens of times a day, with no consequence to your physical well-being at all. Let me just state for the record that I am a solid believer in evolution and the science of natural selection. As I understand it, there should eventually be born a sheep that had a genetic mutation that allowed it to realize that it did not need to waste calories running away from something coming down a trail that was as absolutely harmless as the exact same thing that came rattling down the trail 10 minutes ago. Like “dude, just lay still and that speedy clunky thing will just pass by like that last one and I can continue my little nap”. That sheep gets to conserve calories that are then used to get funky with some ewe’s and pass on the “don’t freak the fuck out” gene on to future generations. But apparently the interaction of sheep and mountain bikes has not had enough time in an evolutionary sense to get to that point, and they all get on the trail and run in front of you. At first this was kinda fun, like I am a lunatic shepherd with a helmet, yelling “Whoop” at them when they weren’t going fast enough. I don’t actually know if “Whoop” is the appropriate term, nor do I know how you would pronounce it in Kiwi, but it seemed to have the desired effect as they put on a bit of wooly afterburner whenever I yelled it loud enough. At one point I visualized the headlines in the local newspaper “Former Navy Man Observed with Herd of Sheep Yelling Whoop- Livestock Psychologists Sent to Scene”. As fun as it is to scare the shit out of dim-witted mutton, I soon discovered that sheep have an auxiliary defense mechanism which I had not accounted for, in that they have the ability to run full speed and shit at the same time. When I consider it, I don’t think humans could pull this off as the muscles required to run at speed are tensed, while the the muscles needed to curl one down are relaxed, so we are apparently a species of stationary shitters. This herd of fleeing sheep on the other hand began to vacate their bowels with malicious intent, that likely evolved to discourage pursuing but squeamish predators. It is also worth noting, that this wasn’t well formed solid banal sheep shit, but more like an emergency layer of sheep diarrhea laid down in their wake. More importantly, I now understand why the Kiwi riders have fenders fixed over the top of their wheels, because once you begin to have your tire spray fresh sheep shit on your chest and face the quality of the riding begins to suffer, no matter how good the trail. As I vigorously applied the brakes to end the facial that I was receiving the tires slipped on the freshly “paved” surface and I nearly went out of control and down for what would have been the most disgusting crash ever. In the end I just slowed down, wiped off my face and began to wonder where I could find a shower. The sheep were off in the tall grass give one another hoof bumps and laughing their asses off. I hate sheep.
As with the Google maps lady getting me around towns and to laundromats, restaurants, and trail heads, I really could not do this trip without the Trailforks app getting me around the maze of trails that most of the major riding hubs have become. Yet a very large grain of salt is stuck between my teeth in this regard, as many of the alleged “trails” that I have been directed towards are in fact pieces of shit. I remember when I was researching this trip that when I looked at the map on Trailforks there were dozens if not hundreds of little red shields, each of which representing a trail or system of trails covering huge areas of both islands. You zoom in and little squiggly green, blue, black or red lines define the path and distance covered by each of these alleged trails, and my palms began to sweat in anticipation. In and of itself this is hugely valuable information and would have required several volumes of bound guidebooks to depict, yet with a guidebook you have an author to either laud or loathe. The online applications are apparently user generated, but you never know what kind of user you are getting information from, and I have been burned just a few times too often to write it off to the “users” misunderstanding of what constitutes a good mountain bike ride. I suspect that there is a confusion on the part of the users, who equate quantity with quality.
I first learned the “grain of salt” lesson on the previously described “you’re the bug” ride, and again just several days ago on two separate rides outside of Christchurch, but this ride was the last straw. The Whites Bay Track is described in Trailforks as “A scenic cross-country ride which demands a good level of fitness and confidence when descending”. My description would be: “by no means is this a mountain bike ride, obscenely steep slippery rutted and root infested clay doubletrack leads up un-rideable hill for 1.7 miles- a good trail to take your mountain bike out for a hike” If Trailforks had a hike-a-bike index this one would be 94%, and they should institute just such a warning label. I realize that the downhill crowd does not mind walking their bike up hill, (who wouldn’t when it weighs 40 pounds) but the rest of us actually prefer to ride our bikes uphill, take pride in doing so, and feel jilted when we are shanghaied into something this un-rideable. I am coming to discover another facet of riding in southwestern Utah that I did not fully appreciate, that being that our trails are nearly all 100% single-track, and the uphill portions are beautifully crafted and intelligently thought out to gain elevation with the emphasis being on ride-ability, I have found that mindset to be almost totally lacking here. I know that I am taking the gloves off here, but the amount of pavement, forest road, gravel road, double track road, and jeep roads that I have been climbing on is completely beyond reason for a place that is billed as the best mountain biking in the southern hemisphere. Actually feels good to get that one off my chest.
The online Apps like Trail forks, also seem to permit the concept of anonymity in terms of authorship, which in the case of the guy who wrote the description of the White Bay Track is a very good thing, because by the top of the climb I wanted to find him, and kick him in the nuts. I think that if you are psyched enough to take the time to GPS your trail, describe the approach, parking, and rest room facilities, and then write up a description of the riding, you should also have balls enough to put your name and phone number on the information. Makes me think about publishing the next edition of Rock Climbs of Southwestern Utah under the pseudonym of Hassen ben Sobar.
I think that there may have been some misunderstanding in the distant past when the phrase “root of all evil” was coined, … I think that it was meant to be “all roots are evil” After 6 weeks I still have no clue how to ride on wet slimy roots. So far, the most reliable technique has been “hang on and go like hell”. However, that methodology has been reliable only in the sense that I reliably crash afterwards. Actually, many of the mountain bike parks here have thin rubber mats that they lay on top of the too rooty parts of the trails and then cover them with a thin layer of dirt or clay. Not only does it facilitate better riding, but is also probably better for the trees, we are after all riding over their feet and toes. Which is why I always have the feeling that they have intentionally tripped me when I crash. I rode a trail sometime in the past week, (don’t recall where) that was called GDR. As I turned into the too dark forest I had to remove my sunglasses to be able to see, and as the descent began and I felt like I was riding over an uneven cattle guard, the trail name suddenly made perfect sense: God Damn Roots- GDR.
This small village is the location of the ferry terminal on the South Island, so unless you are flying into Christchurch or Queenstown, every tourist on the South Island comes through here. I had planned on doing the first part of the Queen Charlotte trail, but after the debacle of bike pushing the day before I just didn’t have a 4000-foot ascent (with forecasted pushing) in me. Fortunately, there is a trail that traverses the peninsula on the opposite side of the sound from the Queen Charlotte called the Snout. I have been burned enough by having expectations lately, so I began this trail by telling myself that this was not going to be a great ride, or even much single-track, but rather just something to provide a bit of exercise. Imagine my surprise as the gravel of the family bike trail turned off onto well groomed, and beautiful climbing single track that was everything that I could ask from a trail. Beautiful mixed woods, spots where you pop out onto view points, and perfectly crafted trail work that made the uphill riding joyful and transcendant. I was grinning from ear to ear in the feeling that I had discovered a little hidden gem of a trail, this despite the prevalence of numerous wasps, cicadas, and other flying bugs, I figured it was a small price to pay for such a high quality trail.
The Snout trail climbed towards the crest of a ridge and began a series of up’s and downs along what was a fairly narrow singletrack that contoured about 20 feet below the top. At times the drop off necessitated edge boards that kept the trail from washing off the ridge side when it rained, and as I came around a corner on a slight downhill there was a torso sized tree trunk that jutted across the trail at exactly one of these dropoff points, but it didn’t look like it was going to be any problem, just stay a bit to the left, and perhaps duck my head a bit. Little did I know about the 5 second drama that the universe had up its sleeve.
It is amazing to consider the number of events that do not occur due to simple timing, and how very few actually do occur only when all the disparate elements line up at exactly one moment in time and only then come to fruition as an event. I am sure that none of us would step foot in a car ever again if we became aware of the sheer multitude of deadly crashes we avoided through a simple bit of timing. In this case the wasp that flew into my left ear at that critical moment could have been blown off course by six inches, or began his flight 2 seconds earlier, or have just not been a malevolent dick. But none of those things happened, and as I approached the tree trunk at probably 7 mph the wasp contacted my left earlobe at the exact moment when my instinctive reaction, (jerking my head to the right) resulted in taking a direct hit to the forehead portion of my (by now well tested) helmet. Imagine running at near full speed and hitting your head on a door frame, your lower body would continue forward, while your head remained behind (this probably looks funny as shit in super slow-mo) In my case, my lower body being attached to the bike continued forward, but because my right hand was knocked off the handlebar by the blow, my left hand pulled the bike sharply to the left and over the edge of the board that held up the trail. My head snapped forward after the impact just in time to watch the front wheel of my bike leave the trail and begin the descent down what was a 50- degree hillside, and of course pitching me face first over the handlebars in the process.
In moments of distress like this, time of course does actually not slow down, but your awareness of your physical situation seems to expand and at the same permit a kind of focus on what is really important, with every available neuron instantly recruited to deal with what is happening. Though weirdly, one little part of my brain found it amusing that the song on the MP3 player was Talking Heads- Burning Down The House, and at the very moment that I pitched off of the trail, the lyric “ Hold tight-, Wait till the Parties Over” registered in the little piece of my brain that finds delight in the ironic. My life did not flash in front of my eyes, but I do recall thinking to myself at the moment that I disconnected from the pedals and was now flying face first, superman style about 10 feet above the hillside “Oh, this is how it ends” with a calm but surprised feeling. On the outside I do recall hearing “Ahhhhhhh !!!” but (again surprisingly) no swear words that I can recall. The next second of my life, and its obvious continuance, I can only attribute to a lifetime as an athlete. Flying face first down a forested hillside I soon ascertained that this was not going to be a sustainable situation for very long and reached out with my left hand and grabbed the closest tree that was whizzing by. It was about the thickness of a baseball bat, fortunately wasp free, and had a brown bark that felt kind of like sandpaper in my palm. As I moved past it, felt my hand pivot around it, and held on tight, causing my legs to swing around in an arc to the right, and were now heading downhill. This felt like an improvement from going in face first, and while it worked great to change the direction that my body was facing, when it came time to arrest my falling weight, the small dead tree snapped off in my hand. Fortunately, my right hand had already found an adjacent one to latch onto and this one held my weight. I am now about 10 feet off the ground (the hill was that steep, more like a forested slab) dangling by a tree branch the thickness of the butt end of a pool cue, but quickly grabbed other limbs, that I used to climb down to the ground and then hiked back up the hill and basically mantled myself back onto the trail. After discovering that I did not even have a scratch, all I could do was sit and laugh my ass off for a bit. My bike had gotten caught in a limb that was just out of reach from the trail, so I needed to go back down and push the tree side to side before it slid down and could be hauled back up the slope. After laughing some more, I inventoried the bike, and found that like me it was undamaged. I can’t imagine ever having another crash that would be that spectacular without either injury or death being the result, and for the rest of the day I felt like I had dodged bullets from a machine gun, giggling at being both alive and unhurt. I hope that the next time I complain about having shitty luck, I will recall this little event.
The remainder of the trail was simply sublime, and perhaps one of the best trails on the South Island, certainly the most under rated. Cruiser twists and turns through the forest, over small rises, and constant corners that slalomed between the trunks, along exposed side cuts, and up perfect switchbacks to regain a bit of elevation so it could continue on in the same vein. The only disappointment was that it didn’t go on like that for another 10 miles. It was the perfect trail to finish off the South Island, and at the end of the Snout I sat and watched the sailboats keel and tack across Queen Charlotte Sound in a perfect sea breeze that nicely contrasted the warm January sun.
Back to the ferry, the North Island and some unfinished business.