24 Months of Insanity- The Best of Trail Ninja

From Afghanistan to Argentina and two dozen places in between, the Trail Ninja has brought havoc, pain, laughter and insight into the lives of a lot of mountain bikers. There’s only so much he can cram into a 5 minute episode, so here in all its glory are the fails, falls, out-takes and nonsense that was just too close to the edge of sanity to include in the series. Get ready for a whirlwind tour of the globe, Trail Ninja style. 24 Months Of Insanity – The Best Of Trail Ninja | Trail Ninja, Ep. 22

 

Must-Ride: The Canberra Centenary Trail

“Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” – Joshua J. Marine

Long distance riding isn’t something that I can say I enjoy. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago I would have rather rubbed my eyes with extra coarse sandpaper followed by a chilli infused eye bath than go on some epic long ride. But maybe as I have aged I have softened some and every now and then something grabs my eye as a must-do ride – no matter how long it is.

This time it was the Canberra Centenary Trail. From the very first time I heard about the plans for this trail I wanted to do it.  The idea of being able to ride around (literally) the town I live in and explore areas I have never been to grabbed me.

What is the Canberra Centenary Tail? It’s a ACT Government funded 140km (or so) muli-use trail that is a mix of singletrack, doubletrack, fireroad, road, and cycle path which all connects to provide a trail to easily ride or walk around the whole of Canberra. It is designed to be done in sections over multiple days. It was officially opened only a few weeks ago and is one of the hallmark features in Canberra’s year-long celebration of the Canberra centenary.

I had never ridden more than 100km before so it was a little daunting. Riding long distance is actually physically hard for me as I have spent most of my cycling life focused on very short distances and my body type revolts against too much time in the saddle. Usually I cramp, vomit, and then cry at the four-hour mark and I knew I had 10 hours or so ahead of me. But I had a plan; take it easy, go slow, rest heaps, eat heaps, drink a beer or two and enjoy it.

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The essentials. Gummie bears, salted cashews, multi-tool, watch, zips ties, two tubes (I am tubeless but these are good for tyre slashes and snakebite bandages), tyre levers, rim strips, c02 canisters (one wrapped in tape to use for tyre slashes), replacement hanger, rain jacket, spare gloves, pump, torx key (my multi-tool doesn’t have one), co2 head, and tripod for camera.

So, 7.15am yesterday I headed out alone on the trail, right from my doorstep, on a bike I had literally never ridden before. But I didn’t care, I just wanted to ride the trail and enjoy my own company for a whole day.

The ride was amazing and I recommend it to all.  It’s not an epic singletrack journey for the whole 140km but you have to remember that the trail is built for everyone.  The only negative was a lack of signage in the urban town centre areas (the signage in the off-road parts is perfect). The ACT government has yet to complete the urban signage and it did make my trip much longer than it needed to be (I got lost a few times). I was helped along the way by people who know the trail intimately and they acted as my call centre for directions. Make sure you do your research and know where the off-road trailheads are as you’ll be able to navigate with your phone to those points. Detailed maps are here. I can also answer any questions you may have so feel free to contact me.

(If you’re a hard core mountain biker and just want singletrack then the Murrumbidgee River section and the Northern Border region are a must).

In just under 11 hours I finished. Yeah I was stuffed by the end, that goes without saying, but not as bad as I thought. No chaffing, a little bit sore, only lost 1 kg, and had no cramping at all. I stopped heaps, drank beer, sat next to rivers, relaxed, chased kangaroos, got lost, had two meat pies, enjoyed an ice cream, chatted to folk along the way, and took my time. That was my plan. I had finally achieved something I had always dreamed about and that was what it was all about.

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The reward. It wasn’t as hard as I thought and the key was plenty of food, water and taking my time. Not every achievement has to be a race and I am more than happy to have my ride recorded in my head.

At the end of my trip I looked over Flow’s Facebook account and could see all the “Strava” comments. I didn’t even have a GPS or odometer with me and I was enjoyably blind to how far and how fast I had ridden.  It was refreshing, and I will say this as my parting words: Why is everything a race? Why can’t we leave behind our egos and just ride for the sake of it? That way you will actually get to enjoy the amazing environment you are riding through.

I will get off my soapbox now and let you enjoy my day through the photos.

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The morning started early and the weather was perfect as I headed towards the Murrumbidgee River. This section of trail is a highlight for us mountain bikers as it follows a pretty cool river.
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The river was running full and fast due to recent rains and the sound of the rushing water was a nice soundtrack to accompany the singletrack.
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Red Rocks Gorge is a famous part of the Murrumbidgee River and sometimes you will see people rock climbing.
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While some parts of the Centenary Trail are groomed by machines, some are more rural as you cross pastoral lands.
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These signs are your friends. When you’re away from the urban sections there’s little need to worry about what direction to head but unfortunately the urban areas are a little different. It pays to know the major trailhead locations as you cross between urban and off-road.
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Canberra does have beaches. Nice sunny beaches with no people to annoy you and there is actually a nudist beach just down the river from here.
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One reason the Centenary Trail was built was to highlight the history of the region. Several places along the route you are invited to check out historic landmarks and information.
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The trail takes you through some very different things and luckily Canberra has some old linkages that were used to avoid some roads.
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The views are amazing. As you actually circle the whole of Canberra you get many different views of the city, from many different angles.
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Isaacs Ridge is piece of Canberra MTB history. As the trail is designed for multi-use it doesn’t take in any of the pine forest singletrack but if you know your way you could divert for some fun on the way.
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One trail head is hidden right behind the War Memorial.
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My route took me past this place. I should have done a big skid down that hill and then they could have screamed, “stop the bikes”.
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Eating on a long ride is important and the great thing about the trail intersecting urban areas is the ease at getting the extra calories needed. It was actually good as it enabled me to carry less as I knew I would be able find food along the ride with ease.
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What is a bike ride without a bakery stop? Meat pie #1.
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Recent rain meant greener scenery but more water than expected in other sections. Nothing too hard to navigate through and actually better than the dust it could have been.
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Yep, there is a lot of fireroad riding, I am not going to lie. But realistically there would have been no other way to make the trail. I would have been too expensive and probably 350km in length if it was all singletrack.
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As you approach the gates of Mulligans Flat on the north of Canberra it feels like an entrance to a secret military base. I was actually ready for the strip search. Cameras, electric fences, and high security are all there to protect some very fragile and endangered flora and fauna.
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Again, the views take away any pain you may have. Despite what you may think about Canberra, it is set in a beautiful setting and when you ride around the city you get to see how the mountains wrap their arms around the whole town.
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Apart from kangaroos and a million birds (and one magpie attack) these were the only creatures I saw on the ride. It was cold, and that sucked, but it also kept the snakes at bay.
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This was a ride for fun and not a race. I frequently stopped for rests and to explore what the trail was showing me. I recommend that you take your time and do the same.
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NSW on the left and ACT on the right. This is how far north the trail goes.
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The trails along the Northern Border region are an absolute highlight of the ride. The crew at MakinTrax have done an absolutely amazing job in building what could be one of the best sections of trail in Australia.
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This was the hardest part of my ride. It was exposed, windy and pretty hard going as the fireroads and doubletracks were left behind for amazing singletrack that went on forever. If I was to recommend one section of the trail this would be it.
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Canberra really was miniature from way back on Oaks Hill. From there I could see where I had to finish, and it was a long, long way away.
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Refuel and bike check. The trails were a little wet as it had rained for a couple of days prior but surprisingly they weren’t too bad. I was riding a Giant Anthem Advanced 27.5 which was straight of out the box. I had only ridden up and down my driveway and this was its maiden voyage. It didn’t miss a beat, not a single problem, and even with a new saddle I was comfortable the whole ride.
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The Centenary Trail goes right past this landmark. I think I had about 40 kms left before I had completed my loop so I needed some extra carbs to help me finish. At this point I had never ridden further in my life. Any trail that goes past a pub is a good trail.
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You will find yourself on a cycle path or two as you navigate through urban spaces between off-road sections. These are a highlight of living in Canberra. The ease of getting around the city without having to use the roads.
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Hall is a small town north of Canberra and is right on the trail. It’s also a great place to re-supply with food and water – either before or after the long Northern Border section. The trail is multi-directional so you choose which way you go. I went counter-clockwise.
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By now I was too tired to take many more photos but at the base of those hills is where I started. Not long to go now.
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The scenery changes so much as you ride the 140km trail. Never was I bored of what I could see and this cork plantation was one highlight.
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You can’t have a ride in Canberra without seeing these. I wonder if they think we’re dumb to be riding our bikes rather than just lazing around and eating grass.

Video: The Road From Karakol

In summer 2011, Outdoor Research athlete Kyle Dempster took off on his bike across Kyrgyzstan with a couple mostly-accurate maps, a trailer full of climbing gear, and a vocabulary of 10 Kyrgyz words.

He spent two months pedaling and pushing the bike more than 1200 km on roads of variable states of neglect, wading through wild rivers, dealing with corrupt military checkpoint staff, and soloing a handful of unclimbed alpine rock and mixed routes. He recorded the journey, his camera his only partner, friend, and sometimes the only receiving end of his conversations for days at a time.

In 2013, Kyle’s self-shot footage of his journey in Kyrgyzstan made it to the desk of filmmakers Fitz Cahall and Austin Siadak, who were asked to look at the footage and see if there might be enough to chop together a 4-minute climbing film. They saw a lot more potential in it, and turned it into the 25-minute “The Road From Karakol,” which debuted at the 5Point Film Festival and took home the Best In Fest award.

The Road From Karakol from Outdoor Research on Vimeo.

Video: The Pacific Northwest

After years of seeing imagery of the lush green trails from the Pacific Northwest have overwhelming influence on the media and culture of mountain biking, we decided it was time to go experience the rich, dark loam of the coastal regions for ourselves. So in the spring, we dusted off our trail bikes, packed up the rig and headed north to see what we could find.

The Pacific Northwest from Yeti Cycles on Vimeo.

Video: Bali Rides

I’ve been around a bit for various types of ‘adventure’ trips, sometimes guided, sometimes not. Every once in a long while, I’m lucky enough to find a top-class guide. Ramang Kristian from Bali Rides is one of those guides. Needless to say, we had a great trip. The rides were great, transport and accommodation more than comfortable, and we were well taken care of with plenty of snacks and drinks. Ramang showed us the riding around Bali the way only a local can, with hidden singletrack and bits of local culture and sights thrown in….

Away From The Popular

When was the last time you went to a trailcentre, or popular MTB destination? Why, because everyone else goes there? It’s easy?

Whilst mainstream and popular ride locations often guarantee at least some quality of riding, sometimes the best riding is the stuff you don’t read about, and often it’s really just there are requiring a little more effort or research, and a little bit of chance too.

After 5 months of working as a mountain bike guide in the French Alps, I thought I knew most of the good trails in and around the beautiful town of Samoens. Samoens and the surrounding Grand Massif region is a ‘hidden gem’ itself in the Alps, being just an hour from Geneva, and just over the hill from popular the mountain bike haunts of Les Gets and Morzine. The beauty of Samoens, is that mountain biking is less mainstream here and just one of many activities that go on in the summer. There is a mix of tourists doing all sorts of activities-hiking, rafting, or just soaking up the mountain atmosphere. What you find is perfect, quiet, natural ancient trails that get very little mountain bike traffic, so are a total contrast to the well-worn purpose-built tracks of The Portes Du Soleil area. The villages are filled with stunning old alpine huts and churches, and pre-date the ski resorts by hundreds of years. It still has a number of lifts open to riders too, including a gondola that goes to 2550m, and from where you can ride all the way back to the Samoens village 2000m below in one go. And as Les Gets is only a short drive over the hill, you get the best of both worlds.

Dreaming of where to ride and the lines we could find.

However, there were still a fair few corners of the area I hadn’t explored properly, areas that on the map looked like they had great potential but could be hard work to access, and so it became a bit of a challenge to see what we could find. Gathering information about these areas from a hiking guide we worked with didn’t help much either- as a non-rider, he frequently told us either that trails would be good to ride only for us to then find they were totally unpassable, and other trails he dismissed as too easy, only for us to find perfect singletrack.

One area we kept on coming back to was a section of trail below Lac d’Anterne, a high alpine lake at 2000m, that got a fair amount of hiking traffic due to a popular long distance hiking track, the GR5, going past it. However it wasn’t this trail that caught our eye, rather a secondary trail which zig-zagged down from a stunning plateau into a neighbouring valley. The trail was 8km long and dropped about 900m in height, and was just too tempting to not try.

However, the question was how best to approach it!

The most obvious way appeared to be to approach it via the popular hiking track, although this was one of the few designated no-ride trails in the area, so would involve a long walk. One of our fellow bike guides decided to try this approach, and reported back on a backbreaking 3 hour climb/push to the Lake, which didn’t sound like fun. However, reports on the trail down were much more encouraging, with a smooth winding wide singletrack heading down the mountain.

There just had to be another way to get to it. That was when we had a moment of inspiration, and realised we maybe just needed to tackle the climb differently and come in from over the top!

The Col d’Anterne stood at 2300m, a few hundred above the lake. But the bonus of this route was it looked like vehicle access was possible to within striking distance of the top- the challenge was on.

The first part of the trip was an easy drive around the mountain into the Chamonix valley, and up to the beautiful ski resort of Plateau d’Assy and Plaine Joux. From here you get just stunning views of nearby Mont Blanc, and we could even see the string of climbers ascending the mount. Onwards and upwards we drove, until the roads turned to gravel, and then loose rock, then not really even a track at all. The further we went the more unlikely it was that our trusty old 2WD minibus would be able to power up the climbs with a full load AND a trailer full of bikes, but somehow, after 90mins we made it to the end of the road- literally!

Too steep to even think about riding.

We had made it to 1600m, and whilst it was nice to have achieved this height without working, it was a daunting sight to see the neighbouring mountains overshadowing us at heights of well over 3000m, and with Mont Blanc mocking us across the valley, dwarfing it’s neighbours at 4810m.

Our first goal was to reach the Col d’Anterne, which was just 4.5km away. The only problem was it was also a good 700m straight above us! The first 3.5km was on steep firetrack that gained 400m pretty steeply in sections. Only the toughest could manage to ride the whole stretch, and all of us used the excuse of ‘stopping to look at the view’ numerous times. After an hour of solid climbing though, our progress looked good, and we could see the saddle of the Col above us- the only problem was the extremely steep, rocky, narrow footpath disappearing skywards.

At this point it was clear there was no easy option. Nope, the only thing to do was to suck it up, and start pushing or carrying your bike up the last 300m of height in 1km! A steady 45min of pushing makes you really appreciate chair lifts, I can tell you. And some of the looks from the hikers we encountered were priceless. Clearly we were the first mtbers they had met pushing bikes up a sheer cliff!

The climb was well worth it.

However, the reward at the summit was without doubt worth it.

The top of the Col d’Anterne is at 2,300m, but it is still dwarfed by the massive Pont d’Anterne above it, and of course nearby Mont Blanc. At last though we could see our final destination, Samoens village, over 30km and 1700m below us. The only thing between us was a long run downhill, oh and maybe a lake, a waterfall and a mountain hut serving afternoon tea……

A well earned rest.

There was no question we had chosen the right side of the Col to ascend, as whilst the way we came up would have been totally unridable both ways, the decent we had lined up looked perfect- a rocky high alpine paradise- and before long we were all picking alternate lines as we weaved through the rocks and jumped from one string of single track to the other. The main key was to look far enough ahead to make sure the bit of walking single track you had chosen was not going to fizzle out or hit an unrideable stack of rocks before you had time to switch lines.

Endless trails and lines.  We learnt very quickly to look far ahead to catch all the changes in the trails and avoid dead-end lines.

A couple of tricky, exposed rock slabs tethering near the edge of a steep drop proved too much for half of the group. The line required a serious amount of nerve and a little rock scrambling, but with the correct line choice it was amazing how grippy and smooth the rock slabs proved to be. Only those brave enough to block out the drop and focus on the inches of platform available were rewarded with a nearly clear run down to the lake, and the next riding challenge, a large area of the last remaining snow of winter. No-one managed this one!

Some decided to take the easier route down the rock slabs.

After riding past the lake, there was a final short climb and a turn off from the main GR5 trail, onto our own private singletrack. As we rode along, the whistles of Marmotte’s could be heard, and occasionally could be seen- one narrowly missing my wheel when it decided to go for a wander- clearly it hadn’t seen fat wheels before.

Then, we got to the point overlooking the whole valley. We were still at well over 2000m in altitude, but could look straight down a cliff to the small village below us- a careful eye could even make out the pub 1400m below. With only the local wildlife to keep us company, the descent began, and my god, was it good! In 5km we dropped 600m on sweet flowing singletrack, ducking in between trees and through high alpine meadows, with no time to stop for the view. It was very clear that no riders had been here for a very long time, if ever. The trail was an ancient route for local herdsmen to get their sheep and cows to the high summer meadows, and had been carefully cleared and smoothed by years and years of use. And no braking ruts!

Epic.  The slow ride, hike up is more than worth it for trails and downhill runs like this.

After what seemed like forever (but was around 20mins) the trail popped us out at a roaring stream, and a chance to rest and cool tired fingers, hands and brakes. And of course, right next to the stream was a wonderful high alpine refuge, serving amazing coffees and myrtle-berry tarts, result!

And so, from this point all that remained was a leisurely 15km roll back into town, via an Indiana Jones swinging bridge, a quick detour via root-central to ride underneath a waterfall, and a final ride down through the gorge just above Samoens.

Indiana Jones would not have ridden across this.

All up the ride had been a total of 36km. So not really what you’d normally call an epic. Except it had taken the entire day, and involved a 90 minute drive and almost 2 hours of climbing to get to the top. But from there we had nearly 30km of descending, on untouched alpine meadows and forest singletrack.

Had it been worth it? Hell yes! So much so we have repeated this ride every year we go back to the Alps- and each time it’s pretty clear we are the first (and possibly only) riders to have ridden these trails in the last year.

So, next time you are off somewhere, rather than just sticking to the tried and tested trail centres and ‘well-ridden’ trails, why not do a little exploring? Pull out the map, study it, ask a few locals, take an educated guess, and go exploring. If it looks hard work, all the better, you may well be the first to try. It really could be an awesome ride, and you could be the first one to discover the next epic must do ride!

Ian Fehler worked as a mountain bike guide in the Alps for 2 years, before moving back to Adelaide to set up his own MTB guiding business, Escapegoat Adventures, which run skills training and guided MTB trips in South Australia and beyond, including Europe. Each July Ian leads a group back to the Alps and Samoens, and the Col d’Anterne ride is always one of the highlights of the trip.

Get away from it all and explore something a little different.

 

 

 

 

 

Going Wild

My partner Chris Turnbull and I had been living in Australia for four years. The singletrack scene in Australia is plenty varied, with something to please every palate, but during our visit to Dunedin, NZ, I wanted to take my bike backcountry Kiwi-style.

After a week of scooting out for quick rides on the local trails between rainy spells (very Dunedin), Chris and I were ready for something a bit different.

We got up early, our sights set on the Otago high country, about an hour and a half out of town. With the tank of the Toyota Hilux full of fuel, and our tummies full of coffee and servo pies, we headed inland. The roads got quieter and narrower. The Old Dunstan Road, where our bike ride was to start, was a winding shingle road at the base of the Rock and Pillar Range. [private]

On route to the trail head.

Chris and I chatted about the tussock-land we were driving through. The tumbling slopes and gently curving ridgelines of the range shone like beaten gold under the wide, pearly sky. From the road, the range looked like a Graham Sydney painting, all smooth, soaring planes and flawless skylines. Nothing like the kinds of environments we usually rode through in Central Australia.

We pulled up at our trailhead – a narrow four-wheel drive track up to the skyline. Chris looked about. ‘No cafes, no hordes of people: it’s not a bad spot,’ he said.

‘Yeah, but will the riding be any good?’

‘Only one way to find out.’

We grabbed the bikes off the back of the track and loaded our packs on our backs. I paused by the truck for a moment to watch Chris begin his ride up the hill.

The track, really no more than twin muddy scratches in the hillside, twisted and buckled up the tussock slope. As we slowly ground our way up the hill we discovered the damn thing got stealthily steeper. We dropped through the gears, heads down, lungs screaming. Chris slowly pulled ahead. Mercifully, he paused on a flatter section to take in the views and catch his breath. I slowly huffed my way up to him.

The wind in the tussock as the trail winds up the hill.

‘You alright?’ he asked.

‘Yeah.’

We were aiming for a ski hut called Big Hut. We planned to have lunch there before retracing our steps to the truck.

‘Might. Be a. Slow. Trip,’ I added.

Chris nodded. The track might have been made by four-wheel drives, but it was no highway for mountain bikes, and the riding was proving more challenging than either of us had expected. Keeping the wheels turning on these rutted tyre tracks, over gravel, tussock clumps and gnarled roots, was way harder than cruising along on groomed trails.

Riding through a Graham Sydney landscape.

Chris looked up the hill at the climb ahead. It was hard to tell where the true top was, but the climb would definitely steepen before we reached the tops.

‘We’ll see how we go.’

We got back on the bikes and resumed our slow plod upwards. We stopped often to catch our breath and check out the views.

Up close, Sydney’s idealised rolling hills were packed with texture and movement. The tussock-lined hillsides are punctuated with species of native hebe and lichen, and piles of sharp grey schist. When we got to the tops, the wind was brutal, tearing at us and buffeting the tussock so it ruffled up like choppy water.

It was mid-summer, but we were riding through mud, water, and even divots of snow in shady spots on the track. Chris had perfected sand-riding when he rode through the Simpson Desert a few months ago, so the white fluffy stuff barely registered as an obstacle to him. Not to be beaten, I screeched along, hoping my momentum would get me through the snow too. But when I tried to follow Chris’s tracks through a longer patch, I lost traction in the slush. I dabbed a foot and stepped straight into a puddle of icy water.

Determined to share the fun, I baited my dares with care: ‘Hey, Chris,’ I called back after trying to ride through a treacherously deep snow slough. ‘Ride through this section without putting a foot down and I’ll buy you two Kiwi beers and a whole bottle of Central Otago pinot. You won’t even have to share.’

Nic gets her feet wet in the summer snow (melt).

Chris pulled up at the beginning of the snow-melt and slush. Clouds reflected off the still water, making it hard to gauge the depth of the puddle. Chris eyed it thoughtfully – not a good sign. Then he wheeled his bike up off the track and rode through the knotted clumps of vegetation and rock on the side of the track.

‘You don’t get any pinot for that,’ I said.

‘I know, but I don’t get my feet wet, either,’ he grinned.

Time was getting on. Aware we were due back in town for dinner, we slogged up the climbs and ripped down the descents, expecting to see Big Hut at any moment. But the tops just seemed to roll on and on.

Eventually, Big Hut came sight, just across a shallow valley. We could get there by following the track, which continued on and then arched back around, or we could try going cross-country. I knew Chris had been itching to try riding through the hebes and tussock. With the clock ticking, I voted for the most direct route too. We lifted our bikes over a barbed wire fence and set off at a renewed pace.

The hut book: ‘The biking is tricky.’

Turns out, riding off-road – proper off-road – is hard. We had to dodge prickly Spaniards while trying to hold a line through lumps of tussock and rock and over knotted ground. About 60 metres from Big Hut, the ground got soggy – a marsh. No wait, a creek. Full of snow-melt. We were walking our bikes by now. Chris turned to me, one foot in the water, the other still raised, to ask if I had found a drier way through. No such luck.

At Big Hut we wandered around the building, eating at full speed, trying to refuel for the return trip.

When we finally grabbed our bikes and started to reverse our steps across the marsh to the four-wheel drive track, things were not looking good. We seemed to be going slower than before. For all its gentle-looking rolling tops, the Rock and Pillar Range is still an alpine environment, and the weather can clag in at any time. This was no place to get caught after dark in just cycling gear.

Chris stylin’ it through some of the last remaining snow patches. Lucky it was mid-summer as it would have been far worse earlier.

When we got back to the four-wheel drive track, the wind was battering at us and I was so cold and tired I was moving in slow-mo. Chris handed me some beef jerky. I chewed on it methodically and then fished a gu from my bag. I was so stuffed I swear I could feel these new sugars and grease hitting my blood stream.

Then we got back on our bikes.

Lucky for me, despite the undulating ground, the track did have a governing gradient. We fairly flew across the tops. When we paused for one final fuel stop before starting our descent proper, Chris pointed to the truck, parked far below.

I tried to follow his gaze: ‘Where?’

‘Over there, look. That white dot.’

It was miles away. Then Chris looked at me, and I nodded. We pointed our bikes down the hill and started the final descent.

Going downhill, those same steep, loose-shingle scars demanded even more attention. It would be so easy to lose concentration and choose a line that disappeared into one of those deep water ruts, sending me flying. Mud flicked up, the flecks splattering my bike, my arms, even my face. I rode on.

Chris arrived at the truck just before me. We dropped our bikes on the ground, pulled off our backpacks and collapsed on the ground, panting and laughing.

It might not be what we’re used to, but backcountry riding is berloody fun.

NOTE: The Rock and Pillar range bike trip is described in Mountain Biking South: 41 Great Rides in New Zealand’s South Island, by Dave Mitchell (Bird’s Eye Guides, Craig Potton Publishing, 2010), available through Ground Effect www.groundeffect.co.nz 

Chris outside the ‘Big Hut’. A great little lunch spot and well out of the wind.

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Interview: What Can We Learn from Adventure Racers?

French nationals, Mimi Guillot and Jacky Boisset raced for the 2011 Adventure Racing World Championship winning Thule Adventure Team. They came to Australia to train last summer and enjoyed it so much they have recently returned for round two.

It takes the best adventure race teams around five days to complete gruelling courses, in stunning parts of the world, in mixed teams of four. These guys don’t just ride bikes; they paddle, trek through ice, scale rocky walls, raft down unknown frothy rivers, kayak smoother water and run distances that make marathons seem like mere warm-ups. All-day mountain bike races look like a morning commute by comparison.

Long days smashing your body is what Adventure racing is all about. There are a few things we mountain bikers can learn from their pain and suffering.

Given the high training loads and complex logistical preparation adventure racing at this level demands, we caught up with Mimi and Jacky to see what insights they could offer the regular mountain biker. Once we finally managed to stop them raving about how good the singletracks are on our sunny shores, their responses showed how focussed and methodical they are despite their constant laughter and carefree demeanours.

Read on for some tips, tricks and insights that might give your riding fresh sense of perspective, or a timely summer boost. [private]

[And yes, Mimi and Jacky are French nationals so you have to read this with a broken-English French accent]

How can cross-training make for better strength on the bike?

Jacky: When you are just mountain biker and you always ride, you get a very big difference between different muscle groups which can often give people problems with their backs. It can be good to paddle or swim because you develop better strength in the upper part of the body.

Mimi: And running too. If all your muscles are used to being prepared and doing some exercise, it can help because some muscles then compliment the others better during mountain biking – so you can have less injuries.

Cross training really can help your mountain biking.

Does the fitness and strength you have from training in different sports help with managing injuries in other ways?

Mimi: When we have an injury, we try to find another solution so we can keep training. We are lucky that we practice many sports.

I twisted my ankle two weeks ago and haven’t been able to run but if we have our boat we paddle every day. If I do better training in the paddling and the riding, at the end I don’t lose too much time.

Jacky: Also, I think the best thing you can do is look more at what you eat to have better recovery.

Maybe not getting out to paddle in this, but there are advantages to being injured when you have so many sports to choose from.

How do your singletrack skills compare to the average Aussie mountain biker?

Mimi: Oh! This we need to improve!

Jacky: In fact there are more mountain bike parks here and people are used to this. Everybody is more used to knowing the track, and because they know the trails they can go faster. In adventure races we never know the track and we need to be very reactive.

And what about fitness?

Jacky: I think with fitness it’s the opposite. We have heard many times that people prefer to play in the bike park and when there is big climb they don’t really like it. They really prefer to play and enjoy the singletrack!

But at the same time, everybody rides even if they are tall or a bit big – not just the small, sporty people like in France. It’s everybody… that’s cool.

Racing in remote locations means you have to be quite flexible about what you eat and drink. Is there anything you have learned from this that other riders could benefit from?

Mimi: People are very used to having power drink, power bar, power gel, power power, power for everything! For some races I think you don’t need to have as much of this.

Jacky: For some people it’s good help if you just race sometimes, but if you race all the time and you eat too much [gels and bars] you can have trouble. We used to have a lot of gels and power drink, but then we got a lot of stomach troubles. Now we try to eat something more natural.

[Mimi and Jacky are known to race on drink bottles filled with honey, salt, lemon and ginger and completed the Australian Solo 24 Hour Champs last Easter on a selection of gourmet homemade cookies.]

That’s a lot of gear to carry but if you are remote and without help it is sometimes better to have too much gear and not have to deal with the consequences of the opposite.

If something breaks during an adventure race, you’re a long way from help. How does that impact the equipment you choose to ride with compared to some of the riders you have met here?

Mimi: I am very surprised because many mountain bikers don’t have a lot of repair kit. Us, I am quite sure we have everything. Perhaps it’s a bad choice because we carry more weight. But we can always finish a race.

Jacky: Also I think our equipment is less light than the top mountain bikers. It’s still not very heavy, just maybe 200gm more here and there, but it’s more durable. This is safer for a long race, which is a big difference for us.

Thank you! Do you have one final piece of advice about how mountain bikers can have an even better experience on the trails?

Mimi: Take the start and enjoy! And enjoy where you are. And smell! Because in Australia it smells so good in the forest. This is a huge difference for us!  (Turns to Jacky: Did you smell the forest today? It’s so crazy!)

Jacky: I think maybe the other advice is a lot of people are going too fast at the start. Maybe in a 30km race it’s not a problem, but in a marathon or 24 hours it’s very huge mistake. I think when you are more experienced, you are not afraid when you see people who start very fast and you know your pace. If you just keep your pace, people who are going too fast blow up, and you catch them.

I think this advice is not for the elite pro riders or people who fight for the first place, it’s just for the others. Then they can have the very, very best position at the end.

Running repairs aren’t only on the bikes.

 

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An Epic Mountain Bike Tour de France

Telling riding mates you’re spending July in France is a sure-fire way to induce envy, hate mail and, eventually, excited chatter about what you’ll do when you get there.

‘Are you going to watch the Tour?’

‘Yeah, a mountain stage or two, for sure. And maybe a few more at the pub with locals after riding all day.’

‘Are you taking your own bike?’

‘Yep.’

‘A road bike?’

‘Hey, what do you think I am?’

This part of the conversation always surprises me. Why is it that when we’re talking about French tourism, mountain biking seems like the poor cousin to road riding?

French nationals Julien Absalon and Julie Bresset are two of the best riders on the international cross-country circuit. The Alpes and Pyrenees boast huge climbs, jaw-dropping, brake-burning descents and well signed trails heading in almost every direction. [private]

Huge, huge mountains that aren’t just for the roadies to climb. They’re for mountain bikers to bomb down.

Even so, after jumping on my bike and heading out on a series of rides that had gold-star recommendations, I was surprised to discover that the land of wine, cheese, and the most watched road cycling event in the world offers mountain bikers an array of off-road adventures that are very different to how we understand the sport ‘back home’.

Differences in what mountain biking ‘is’ reveal as much about French culture as they do about our own.

The trails seem to have grown organically out of walking tracks, and are tied to the mentality that a ‘good ride’ is not roosting through a network of trails spiralling around a carpark.

Here, a good ride is ‘a good tour’. It will take in vast landscapes and big hills. It will take you places.

It’s not atypical to start a ride with a two-hour fire road pedal up a comfortable gradient and to end it with a thrillingly steep singletrack descent back to where you came from. On these trails it is disc brakes, rather than a lightweight frame and fancy suspension system, that signify a good off-road steed.

Singletrack is everywhere.

Trail maps can be found at most tourist offices in mountain areas and will usually indicate the distance, time and vertical gain of a number of well-signed loops.

If it’s singletrack you want, ask about this specifically because on some maps a ‘hard’ difficulty level can refer more to the gradient of the journey rather than the trail type.

Bike shop staff are invaluable, as always, in helping you sniff out the ride experience you’re after. Local shops are well worth a visit even if it’s just to ogle at some of the different product lines on offer.

A riding holiday in France thus begins to unfold a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels that many of us enjoyed as kids:

Do you want to watch a decisive hill stage of Le Tour while you’re road tripping around?

  • Yes – Choose a town nearby to base yourself for a couple of days.
  • No – Head to a well-known ski resort that offers lifted runs in summer.

Are your legs still blown from the last town you visited?

  • Yes – Book your accommodation for long enough that you can still get out on the epic that speaks to you most in the trail guide.
  • No – Stock up on riding food and get ready for an early morning.

With plenty of long hard tours, shorter explorations and lifted-run goodness to choose from how you want to put the pieces together is entirely up to you. What follows are a few do’s and a don’t that might help you choose the best adventure.

Do:

  • Pack your climbing legs. It’s not unusual to ascend 1000 vertical metres on ‘an easy ride’.
  • Check out some of the iconic Tour hill climbs if they’re on your route. Local riders will let you know if there are some fun dirt descents from the top, and it’s exciting riding over the names painted on the tarmac on the way up.
  • Pack spare brake pads. Long descents (with blind corners and shared traffic) can burn through resin faster than an Aussie race in the mud. Well, almost.
  • Plan long rides around food stops at Refugios and small towns that you’ll pass by along the way.
  • Always take a windproof/water-resistant jacket for long, fast descents and changes in weather up high.
  • Be aware of the impacts of driving on the right side of the road for walking, riding and car travel.
  • Be courteous to and aware of walkers (randonneurs) as you fly through shared and unfamiliar trails. Many French folk flock to the mountains in summer like many Aussies flock to the beach.

Don’t:

  • Fall into the trap of thinking you can counter excess pastry-consumption by riding more and eating smaller mains. Blown legs make it harder to get to the next patisserie.

Ah, French food. All that cheese is the perfect fuel to get you to the top of the mountain.

 

Language barriers:

We are lucky that people in so many countries learn English as a second language, but this can make us quite lazy as tourists. If you have time to brush up on some French vocab, you’ll be better placed to learn from and understand the kindness of others, and to ask questions and express thanks.

Get some audio lessons and listen to them on training rides or on the plane. Most guidebooks have a selection of phonetically spelled words and phrases as well.

Here are a few trip-specific words that may come in handy:

  • bon courage – ‘Good luck/courage.’ Something people say to you out the car window when you’re riding your bike up a mountain.
  • carte – map
  • chapeau – ‘I take my hat off to you.’ Something people say to you when you’re doing a champion effort (like riding a mountain bike up the Col de Galibier wearing a hydration pack).
  • la descente – the descent
  • difficile – difficult
  • la durée – duration
  • facile – easy
  • kilometres – kilometres
  • la montée– the climb
  • moyenne – average
  • la piste – track/trail
  • plan – map
  • le single – singletrack
  • technique – technical or technicality
  • la télécabine – gondola
  • le télésiège – chairlift
  • vélo tout terrain (VTT) – mountain bike (MTB) [/private]