I write this in July 2019, almost four years after going on this ride. I have forgotten a lot of the finer details, but some events have stuck in my mind. Blake, Ewan and I decided to fly over to Queenstown for a four day weekend ride, over the Melbourne Cup weekend in the first week of November, which coincided with ideal riding weather.
The descent into Queenstown airport was a bit rocky, to say the least. The airport is supposedly rated “Category X”, the highest level of difficulty in a four tier system. The airport sits inside a valley, surrounded by mountains so high they are tipped with snow all year round, which means the wind gets amplified and is quite unpredictable.
The mountains are so high that weather formations struggle to get past them.
As the plane approached for landing, the surrounding mountains looked close; way too close, almost as if a wayward breeze could send us into the mountains. Looking out the window, we could see the wings oscillating up and down as the plane was being steadied for landing; however, the closer we got, we could see that the magnitude of the oscillations were getting larger and not smaller. There were uncomfortable murmurs from the passengers. The plane did not feel like it was in control.
Just as we were about to touch down, the engines roared back into life, the nose lifted up and we took off again. The pilot had aborted the landing; this was the first time that I had experienced this. Coincidentally, a week prior at work, a colleague was talking about how planes only have enough fuel for a very limited numbers of aborted landings in an effort to reduce weight for fuel efficiency. This played in my mind as the plane did a big loop for a second attempt at the landing.
Fortunately, the second attempt was a bit smoother, but nonetheless still a bit nerve wracking. Armrests were down and being crushed between nervous hands. The plane successfully landed and the passengers all abruptly cheered. Again, the first time that’s happened on a flight I’ve been on.
Exiting the plane and standing on the tarmac, we looked around and were in awe of all the jagged mountains that surrounded us. The sharp edges of the mountains gave it an untamed vibe, and being from Australia, the flattest continent in the world, it was rather beautiful.
We hire a car to get us from the airport to our Air B’n’B. We also use this opportunity with the car to check out the landscape and do a hike towards Rob Roy Glacier.
We also tried to ride up Treble Cone. A 9km gravel climb with an average gradient of 11%. As always, the average gradient was misleading as it includes the flattened switchbacks. We managed to get about 200m before we gave up; the gravel was way too loose for our 25mm tires and they spun out every time we got out of our saddles; which, at those gradients, meant all the time. This was our first attempt at climbing on our bikes in New Zealand, and we failed. I vowed to come back to conquer this sonofabitch.
Day 1, Coronet Peak
The first day of riding was to Coronet Peak, we knew it still had snow at the peak in November (heading into the antipodean Summer). It was quite close by to our accommodation and it was summer with long day light hours, including a stretched out golden hour. We could depart late and still enjoy the daylight.
I feel ‘glorious’ is a perfectly apt word to describe the ride. The weather was perfect and the views were not disappointing. One thing about reminiscing on a ride from four years ago is that you recall the views, but you don’t really remember how tough the climb was. Coronet Peak is an 8.4km climb, with an average gradient of 9%; an average gradient of 9% meant that every time you looked down at the Garmin it was showing about 13, 14%. It was worth it, the views were stunning, there was still snow at the top, and we even went past an overheating and smoking car at the top with the bonnet propped open – that’s how tough the climb was.
We only fared slightly better than this car. Cooked.
When the sun sets in Queenstown - it gets cold - fast.
Day 2, Glenorchy
The second day was meant to be a cruisy loop around Glenorchy lake. It was meant to be easy because we thought a loop around a lake should be flat. It wasn’t, as we found out 2,100m later.
Again, it was stunning, but I do recall an unpleasant exchange with some local shop keep as we were looking for sunscreen. We were discussing riding around New Zealand and how safe it was with the traffic on the road. The shop keeper starts saying:
“Yeah, it’s usually the tourists which are the bad drivers. And I shouldn’t say this…”
Slowly starts looking around… ends his gaze on me, me being of the Asian Persuasion
“… it’s usually the Asian drivers.”
What the fuck, dude. But yeah, when you’re thinking “I shouldn’t say this…”; don’t. The irony is, we felt that the tourists were the best drivers when it came to passing cyclists. They were always super careful, not being familiar with the roads, and gave us ample space whilst passing.
Anyway, they filmed Lord of the Rings here, and the scenery was appropriately epic.
2,100 vertical meters later.
Day 3, Arrowtown
OK, day 3 was truly a rest day. Short roll to Arrowtown, some old-timey town, with some old-timey (i.e. heaps of sugar) desserts.
Still, the street to our house was pretty steep.
Final day, Crown Range Pass, Wanaka, Cromwell
On paper, this day was tough; 185kms, the longest ride I’d even done and just over 2,200m of climbing. We knew there were a couple of towns in the middle from our drive past a few days earlier, so knew we could refuel mid way.
Heading north east, we were flying along, with a ferocious tail wind pushing us along. We were ticking along over 50km/hr without too much effort. We got to Wanaka and it was stunning. We quickly wrapped up lunch and decided to head back, knowing we still had a long way back.
Of course, it was loop to get back to Queenstown. Whilst we were just crushing the kilometers heading north-east, the return leg heading west was into the most heinous headwind that I had ridden up to that point (only beaten by the headwind in Tibet, heading to Everest base camp).
We struggled for hours. We almost quit, but for the fact that there wasn't exactly any other option but to get back onto the bike and to ride back, seeing as there were no trains running from The Middle of Nowhere, nor were there taxis we could hail.
It was a tough, slow crawl back home, everyone ran out of food and had bonked. But we eventually made it home, and as always, an epic ending is always fitting.