The St James is a loose name for a backcountry area of New Zealand’s south island around the headwaters of the Waiau river, spanning from the alpine divide down towards the Hanmer Plain. In the 1990s, the New Zealand Government purchased the area from the landholders for a tidy sum of $40,000,000. Given that this is approximately the price of a 1 bedroom apartment in Sydney (editor note: reign in the hyperbole!), it seemed like rather a good acquisition.
With the St James cycle trail running through, it also makes it prime real estate for a mountain bike race. In fact, a whole flurry of races – from ultra marathon mountain runs to mountain bike, swimming, multisport, and everything in between – the St James is an adventure sport playground set amongst a stunning backdrop.
I’d elected to race the St James Epic – 103km with approximately 2000vm ascent. While those numbers don’t sound too intimidating, I’d realised from a touring ride in December that the epic would indeed be epic. This was no fire-road blast, but some rough and ready back-country terrain involving goat-inspired singletrack, rough paddock trails and ridiculously steep access roads – it’d be slow going and hard – and with enough river crossings to make me wish every bearing on my bike was Kogel ceramic. A certain Anton Cooper holds the course record at 4h 30m, enough to indicated the going is slow and tough.
On a stunning January morning, we assembled at Lake Tennyson, a ridiculously picturesque back-drop for the start. With a mandatory gear list covering pretty much every form of weather including snow, it was no surprise to see the entire field riding with Camelbaks, although on this particular day, heat would be the biggest challenge. I’d stuffed a Camelbak Mule full to the brim with clothing, food, spares, first aid kits, and plenty of water, and it proved the perfect accompaniment.
It didn’t take long after the start for the difficulty to begin with Maling Pass, an uneven and pinchy climb away from Lake Tennyson. When Richard Dunnett pushed the pace up the early slopes of the climb, I struggled to respond to the pace of the group, and slowly slipped off the back. Cresting the climb with the hope of recovery, my thoughts soon turned to the sketchy descent.
The Maling Pass descent is steep and loose in a rather wild way, its nature belied by being a graded fire-road. 500vm of scary water bars and sideways drifts towards a precipice later, and we were down in the valley floor, with an icy crossing of the Waiau, fed from the remnant spring snow still clinging tenuously to the mountains.
With an opportunity to recover, the first blast down the valley was fast and smooth, with the occasional river crossing of varying depth to keep life entertaining. The first diversion loop came via Lake Guyon, another alpine tarn suspended above the river valley. After a short scrabbly climb, and entertaining and muddy trail hugged the perimeter of the lake through remnant beach forest. This provided the slightly startling opportunity to see how much time I’d already lost with 5 riders up the road.
Looping back down and across the Waiau again, we headed towards the next excursion – a grassy slog up the Ada valley, rewarded by stunning vistas towards the towering alpine divide. Eventually spinning around via even more grass and river crossings, we rejoined the main valley trail, and swung around into the wind.
Somewhere around this point, my thoughts lapsed from happy, scenic tourist thoughts, to grumpy racer boy thoughts. Transitioning into the Henry Valley, I was soon struggling with the grind of the grass, relentlessly slow and churned out terrain, a persistent headwind and some nasty climbing. I was soon walking steep and rocky pinches I probably could have ridden, and switched into survival mode with the gaps ballooning to the riders ahead and shrinking to the riders behind. A few navigational errors later and I was firmly stuck in reverse gear.
It’s weird where the mind takes you in such moments. In this case, the words St James made me think of TS Eliot, and watching a performance of Cats as a five year-old in London:
“in the whole of St James’, the smartest of names, is the name of this Brummel of cats… .and we’re all of us proud, to be nodded or bowed to, by Bustopher Jones in white spats”
Thus entertained in slightly deluded state of ascribing identities to cats and singing (hopefully not outloud), I plodded through the remainder of the valley. The trail then transitioned to the section I’d refer to as a goat track – narrow and grassy singletrack climbing painfully around a rocky spur on a steep slope, with horrendously spikey Matagouri bushes to ensnare an unwary (or Cats-singing) rider who went off the edge.
Perhaps it was the benefit of pre-riding, because back on familiar trails and with gels getting into my blood, I started to feel better. I cleared some tricky sections I hadn’t in December, and then was able to relax and enjoy the descent away towards the Waiau terraces, now a raging torrent that required a bridge.
For all the joy of the descent, a quiet little (feline??) voice in my head kept whispering: “it’s all uphill from here!!” After the Waiau bridge, the climb back out of the terraces involves a bouldery nightmare in the blazing heat of the sun. Clinging perilously to a tiny line in the middle and utilising the tiny 24 – 42 gearing for all it had, I scraped my way about 30% up before resigning myself to plodding up the boulders, a challenging task on the ankles even as a walk.
In our pre-ride, we’d run out of water at this juncture, and with another violent climb over Charlie’s saddle, it had seemed pretty dire. In the race, with my chain thoroughly parched from innumerable river crossings that I probably should have walked through, I sent the chain over the top of the cassette and into the spokes. Profanity ensued as I carefully pulled it out, then crawled over the other side to the Edward River.
Now on the home stretch and with a very considerate tail wind, it was time to push on with busted legs for the finish. Entertaining sidetracks involved massive landslides from the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake and even more river crossings. I knew full well that the last climb had a really steep sting in it, and was trying to save some reserves. 10km later and on the climb, the first horrible spasms of cramp emerged. Drastic swigs of electrolyte later, and the top was slowly appearing. A small, fast and rewarding descent followed, swinging down to the finish back at the St James Homestead. John Mezgur had charged through the field in the latter half from 4th, finishing with a double sprint with Richard (not knowing where the finish line was!) – with local Steve Halligan rounding out the podium. In the women’s race, the podium was packed over just three minutes between Glenda Ryan, Jessie de Bont and Seonaigh Conchie.
For me personally? Well, apart from singing about cats, it was a glorious day out on the bike in spectacular country. While I’m still searching for the answers on what exactly has been wrong with my body – chronic viral infection or otherwise – since turning myself inside out at the Aus 2016 National Champs, it’s still a privilege to ride a bike through such beautiful parts of the world, even if the racing results seem to be gone – and any day out on the bike is still a good day.