Before the days of Trailforks, finding an epic trail was all about distant magazine articles. One of the most lauded trails was the Dun Mountain loop, a short back-country loop based out of Nelson, New Zealand. Like many of New Zealand’s back country rides, it follows an historic route through the hills, tracing the old path of a mining railroad up from the valleys of the town, through rolling pine and beech forest, and into the high alpine areas beyond, before plummeting down the other side. Worthy of an IMBA “Epic Rides” status, it’s one of those “must do” rides when in the country.
Where there’s any great mountain bike route, a race will surely follow, and the Coppermine race eventuated, originally running on back-country trails. With the progression of Nelson’s incredible enduro scene, another variation soon followed – the Epic, which took in a knee-busting climb atop Fringed Hill, followed by a rooty blast along the appropriately named Black Diamond Ridge, before rejoining the main loop.
Fast forward to 2018, and I was pretty keen to take in the Coppermine after a couple of casual rides over the course of the previous year. These reccies had revealed a few things:
- The Classic Route would be awesome fun and capable of being ridden ridiculously fast
- The descent off the saddle could be rocky and turgid, and required quite a lot of concentration
- Nelson’s rooty trails became really rather treacherous in wet conditions.
In the weeks leading up to the event, I was battling a particularly severe case of man-flu, and with a forecast for heavy rain coming in on the Saturday morning, made the soft call to transition my entry to the Classic, concerned about rooty trails and a residual chest infection going wild on mega-steep climbs. If nothing else, I could sit up on the Classic and enjoy the scenery. The fastest riders were lining up in the epic.
In traditional New Zealand unpredictable style, the rain decided to hold off for the morning of the race, and pleasant, mild and cloudy conditions greeted riders. Heading off and up the hill, it didn’t take long for Edwin Crossling – the dominant force in these kind of races in NZ – to stamp his authority. After a brief and grassy start loop, the climbing began, with the steady drag up to Tantagree Saddle.
My race began rather comically in the Classic a few minutes later with some first climb exuberance soon being rewarded by getting a wasp in my helmet. Two nasty stings and plenty of helmet flailing later, and I had the proverbial bee in my bonnet. Stung, I went a little bit too hard up Tantagree saddle, with French triathlete Jeremy Obozil making a big effort to bridge across.
It’s a slightly strange feeling knowing you’re on an 800vm continuous climb and trying to guess how to pace when your heart rate is churning, your lungs are rasping on thin air, and your head is stinging and swelling from wasp-induced fury. Trying to settle a little, the race took a status quo, and I enjoyed the steady flow of the climb and the transitions through gorgeous NZ beech forest.
At around the 400vm mark, the Epic turned off to the left with the kind of gradient that induces unintentional internal convulsions of abject horror. At that moment, I revelled in my soft choice of the classic, and a continued 5% gradient, with Jeremy steadily and silently stalking my rear wheel.
As the climb progresses, the trail becomes increasingly flinty and soft. Meanwhile, the Epic is undergoing all kinds of violence up Fringed Hill, with massive steep sections well over 15%, and a final corner of slippery, rocky doom. Beer-slinging hooligans greet busted riders at the top, as inebriation is surely the greatest way to encounter rooty and technical singletrack. Black Diamond ridge plummets through native forest up and down, with sections reduced to hike-a-bike, and numerous scary moments skidding on the roots. It must surely be a relief to relax a little on the regular trail cut on the former rail line.
Eventually rejoining, the trail transitions above the tree line and into the back-country. Heading past the aptly named Windy Point, I was too busy staring at my stem to take in the amazing alpine views over the Richmond Range, today shrowded in the mist of gentle rain. Now digging hard, I managed to prize a tiny gap going into the descent. Meanwhile in the main race in the epic, Edwin had a strong gap following the climbing, and was well poised.
The Coppermine descent is armoured against the wet, and consequently, is quite tricky. The surface consists of numerous baby-head sized boulders and is quite loose. While not overly technical, it can be surprisingly difficult to carry speed out of the corners and find a rhythm. Wanting to capitalise on the descent, I soon found myself making a myriad of tiny errors and becoming frustrated and turgid. Taking a step back, it was an incredible way to plummet down the hill. As the trail began to open up on the softed forested soils of the upper Maitai Valley, I started to free up a little, and began to empty the tank for the final stint home. In the Epic, Ashley Whitehead and Olly Shaw put in fantastic descents to close in on Edwin and ensure a tight race for the end.
With a blast down the lower Maitai Valley, it was time to tuck into a triathlon drop ( I thought this was a MTB race??), bruise the forearms, and bury into a lactic bath. A rude right hander soon sent us up a violently steep and grassy climb to an overgrown pipeline trail. Bathing in lactic and delerium, I was relieved when the trail dropped again, and after a quick hike across a tiny bridge, we rolled into the finish.
While it was brilliant to take home a win after a slightly depressing 18 months battling a phantom chronic viral infection that won’t go away, I’m mindful that the Epic is where the real race was at, and the times there suggested some great performances across tough terrain. Separated by just three minutes, the podium of Edwin, Ashley and Olly had scorched over the course in under 2h 10m. In the women’s field, Pink Gravity took 1 and 2, with Michelle Aebi clinching an equally tight finish over Janelle Underwood, with Hazel Bowering-Scott rounding out the podium in third.
Big hats off to Gravity Nelson for an amazing event with a great atmosphere on a brilliant trail. I’m hoping to be back next year to race the epic!