It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best possible post-ride activity is soaking in a thermal spring. Well, actually, that’s a highly contested and controversial statement, and dependent on the weather. But if there is any cold or wet present, then the thermal spring comes into its own. This has perhaps been crucial to the success of Rotorua as a world-renowned riding destination. But it also applies to another little riding gem tucked into the foothills of the Kaikoura ranges in the South Island: Hanmer Springs.
I have fond memories of Hanmer Springs even without the hot springs. In the midst of two Kiwi Brevets, the scenic and well-provisioned tourist town provided an oasis. It formed the conclusion to one of my best days ever on a bike, riding from Picton to Hanmer in a 260km mission with no voice, and popping out at the top of Jollie’s Pass at 9pm with no voice left and the last daylight filtering across the valley.
I’d always ridden past the mountain bike trails and wondered how the riding inside the forest would be. When the 4 hour and 8 hour event held by Hanmer Events popped up on my radar, I was soon considering a visit.
Of course, that would involve planning. The original plan was the 8 hour, but that would involve an early morning start, and after an irresponsible mission into the Port Hills on a sunny Friday afternoon, my planning was lackadaisical at best, and led to the conclusion that the 4 hour would be the event. I also conveniently overlooked the weather forecast and failed to pack sufficient warm clothing or rain-proof gear, with only a shower or two predicted.
On the drive up, showers soon turned into steady and persistent drizzle, and then rain. Preparing before the race, it soon became apparent that the race would be two things: cold and muddy – and I had, of course, packed white kit.
After the process of moving my life between countries, I had no idea how my form and condition would be. The only possible answer would be to go hard from the gun and see how it went. Within one hot lap I had established that there were plenty of quick racers, the trails were fantastic, and there would be plenty of mud, with the lap culminating in a 300m point-and-shoot mud chute back to transition.
An entertaining race with fellow Christchurchian Carwyn Cardogan soon established itself. Taking inspiration from the Enduro strategies that had been used so successfully against me last year by Shaun Lewis in the Evocities series, I was taking full advantage of a fast-descending dual suspension Revolver FS and familiarity with soft pine forest corners to try to pry open gaps on the descents. There could be no questioning though that Carwyn was stronger on the climbs, dancing out of the saddle in a style reminiscent of Craig Gordon.
After 90 minutes of sparring (and surprise that Australian imports knew how to ride in the wet) Carwyn’s attacks became more definite. With a little wariness of the distance ahead, I didn’t respond, and a small gap soon went. Trying to focus on smooth lines and cadences, eating and drinking, the laps flew by in 20 minute flurries.
Around this time I started to settle in to riding in the slippery conditions. The trails were holding up beautifully and with numerous lush gullies, the response of the corners and chutes became very predictable and I was able to smooth out my lines a bit. A couple of laps later, I’d successfully bridged across to Carwyn, and a stalemate soon followed.
Finding an advantage at Hanmer Springs
With traffic from the 4 hour and 8 hour races on the short loop and the gap evening out on the climbs, it was difficult for either rider to press an advantage and open a gap. Around the 2 and a half hour mark, I decided it was time to gamble and show my hand. A long attack on the gradual climb followed, but the wheel was adequately marked. Stretching, I kept the move going over the false flats and right to the start of the descent. The theory was that hitting the descents in lactic could force mistakes or blow a gap. Somehow, it worked, and a small gap consolidated.
With a little gap established, it was time to focus and try to bring the race home. Unsurprisingly, things started going a little wrong. With ample mud, eating was difficult, and my stomach was bloating badly with a banana-heavy nutrition strategy. The bike was holding up remarkably well in the mud but I was reminding myself to be gentle on the shifts and to try to look after brake pads.
Rolling through at 3h and 42m, I was blissfully unaware that laps had to be completed before the 4h mark, and was pondering whether I would squeeze in one more or call it day on the 4h mark. Crossing the line 40s after the 4h mark, it soon became apparent that the lap hadn’t counted and my conservative strategy had backfired!
In the 8 hour, a long battle between Johnny van Leeuwen and Hanmer local Steve Halligan had resulted in Johnny taking the win almost a lap up, pulling away over the last half of the race, with Karen Setz and Angela Bunk taking the top spots in the women’s through 8 hours of mud. In the 4h, I’d prised a small gap over Carwyn and racing stalwart Brent Miller, while Hannah Miller had a thrilling close battle with Christine Wright. Despite the conditions, there’d been plenty of tight and entertaining racing.
The aftermath was a very muddy bike and self as the spoils of a first Kiwi victory… but with the promise of hot pools just around the corner, it wasn’t all bad!