For all the slick and commercial events of the world, sometimes some of the best experiences are delivered by the small club-level races. The Mt Somers Classic is an excellent example – a fundraising race organised by the Mayfield Lions club that has run for 13 years and generated over $200,000 of reinvestment into the community, with 35km, 29km and 21km loops of varying difficulty.
Mt Somers takes in a rural and backcountry loop in the foothills of the Southern alps near the Ashburton Lakes. It’s one of the few stunning areas of the South Island that doesn’t feel overexploited, where you can walk without a flurry of selfie sticks, and, to indulge in a common cliche, you can drive around a blind corner without a sphincter-clenching mortal fear of seeing a motorhome rolling along obliviously on the wrong side of the road.
The town of Mt Somers sits as the gateway to the Ashburton Lakes, an area made famous from its setting as Edoras in Lord of the Rings at Erewhon Station (an appropriate anagram of Nowhere). The race itself provides hints of these views, with distant outlooks to the alps and Mt DÁrchiac poking their snowy, scarred faces above the foothills. It’s a very pretty place to ride a bicycle, and brings me to on of my favourite aspects about bike racing in New Zealand – if you get tired of staring at your stem, the scenery is usually very enjoyable.
The week leading up to the race provided some interesting weather, with ex-tropical-cyclone Gita dumping heavy wind, rain, storm surges, and even a wee bit of snow onto the South Island. With a few days to dry out, we were greeted to the site of snow-capped mountains on the horizon, and possibly a bit of mud on the course.
Rolling out at 10.30am, it didn’t take long to roll off the tarmac and onto the the farm trails. Here, the creek crossings and mud soon began with their sapping slowness. Olly Pearce put in a brief attack that had the rest of the race looking at each other blankly, and swapping off ,we figured we could work together to bring the break back in. Struggling after a poor warm-up, I was yoyo-ing off the back of a chasing group and struggling to get rhythm.
The first climb – 300vm of rough grassy farm doubletrack – soon put paid to that theory as the gap extended. Not knowing the climb well, it was a series of false summits. A short muddy descent and creek crossing followed, with a violently steep pinch out the other side.
Heading into a patch of beech forest, farm trails transitioned to fun, with an alternatively rocky and muddy descent rolling back through the foothills. Hitting the trails blind led to a few scary moments with hidden rocks or deep mud sections, and the occasional drift. Eventually flattening out, it was time for a bit of a regroup – and Olly had thoroughly disappeared.
Heading into the second loop of the course, the second climb soon beckoned – only about 150vm but on a steep, hot, soft and exposed slope. Scrabbling for fluids and wading off cramps, the group was beginning to crack a little. With the race now majority down (but into a slight headwind), it was full-gas for the finish.
After Nathan Wright put in a testing attack on a pinch climb, I decided to counter and was surprised to see a decent gap at the top. It was time to push on and empty the tank, and bruise the forearms aero-tucking on MTB bars. Tick-tacking with an E-Biker, I began to ponder where etiquette sits with drafting e-bikers, and decided against it in this instance. Fast sections of open trail were interwoven with stinging little climbs, but we were soon on the road again and heading back in to Mt Somers.
Olly had taken a distant win, with a three-way sprint for 3rd taken out by Marc Prutton. Only a few minutes back came Reta Trotman for the women’s win, brushing up on rough farm track training for the Cape Epic, with Bridget Bilbe and Seonaigh Conchie sprinting out for 2nd and 3rd.
To cap a great (if muddy) day in the sun, there was a bonus barbecue and burger on the grassy field in the sun. It was hard to think of a better Saturday, until I realised I’d dropped my car keys (and a huge thank you to the wonderful people who found the keys, returned them, and also tried to break into my car into the interim).
Next up for me – (after duplicating my car keys and putting a GPS tracker on them, and wearing shorts with better pockets) is the Motatapu – traversing Wanaka to Queenstown – more adventures through stunning country.