There are some races in the world that become house-hold names by reputation – either for drawing amazing fields and deep racing, for promise of spectacular scenery through beautiful parts of the world, or for amazing adventure. TransAlp, BC Bike Race and the Cape Epic spring to mind. New Zealand’s equivalent is the Motatapu – a smorgasbord of adventure racing held between Wanaka and Arrowtown in the mesmerising Queenstown Lakes region.
Motatapu boasts enormous fields and the vibe of an international race with the distinct Kiwi beauty, now running in its eleventh year. With 4000 competitors across mountain bike, running, and Xterra multisport events, it takes terrain normally inaccessible, and a remote, high country pass through the Motatapu Gorge, descending into the Macetown gorge into Arrowtown, just a short hop from the tourist mecca of Queenstown.
It’s the allure of inaccessible trails through the back-country that brings a special draw to this race. It’s 47km in distance with 1200vm of total ascent, which means that while the terrain is definitely mountainous, it’s fast and flowing. It appeals to the feeling of adventure, traversing between distinct valleys across some of the most remote and spectacular terrain. Starting in a jaw dropping location, and only progressing as you go along. Majesty in the mountains.
The race begins just after dawn, and with the crisp cool air of the high country, with the lofty mountain tops flirting with the grey twilight. With starts divided into waves, it’s easy to arrange a huge field and have relatively clean bunches. Rolling out at speed across the gravel road, dodging soft patches and pot holes in a fast-moving bunch becomes the foremost challenge. It’s the oldest cycling cliche that the front of the bunch is the place to be. It’s also pretty well known that everyone wants to be there simultaneously. The results can be a little stressful.
With the first few climbs come the first selections. It’s always a mad scramble to bridge across and try to stay with bunches, and avoid crossing the dangerous line into lactic territory. With a surging bunch and small splits soon becoming massive voids, it’s a nervous time to get the legs going.
With the first 10km or so vanishing, the sun hadn’t still yet crept over the towering hills and into the valley. Very happy with my decision to layer up with a heavy merino base layer, my extremities started to suffer, with summer gloves and socks proving poorly considered choices. I noticed with slight horror that the surrounding grass was distinctly frosty, the gravel surface had the crunch of ice, and that the water in my bladder and bottle was approaching frozen. Trying to manoeuvre a gel into my mouth was an exercise in uncoordination with clumpy, misguided mitts where opposable digits had once been. The first river crossings came as a freezing shock with legs freezing up.
Around this time, the race was splitting into smaller groups, still fast enough to draft, but slow enough to make riding alone feasible. With Tim Rush and Paul Wright pushing off the front, I was dangling a little (ok, a lot) further back in the 3rd group, which soon bridged to the second after some long pulls from local race stalwart Mark Williams. After some more splits on the increasingly steep pinches, the river crossings started getting deeper, and I noticed my elastic stretching.
Stretching the elastic is possible the second cycling cliche out there. After yoyo-ing a little in a slightly elastic manner, the elastic deformation went plastic, and I drifted off the back of the group. And then something very bad happening. With the terrain getting rougher and steeper as we headed higher into the mountains and the thermometer plummeting, I slipped off the back and my elastic snapped.
Sometimes I think of TS Eliot’s great quote at moments like this: this is how the world ends – not with a bang, but with a whimper – as without any spectacular explosion, I gradually slipped backwards. What started as a slip backwards turned into a plummet as the climb continued. It was time for Plan B.
Plan B is my favourite thing about mountain bike racing in New Zealand. In the case of Motatapu, you do it for the majesty. With the sun breaking over the top of the towering hills – somehow majestic in their scarred slopes – the whole scene was awash in the golden light of morning, the crispness of the mountain air, and the sweet deliverance of morning rays. Perhaps it was whimper-implosion-induced-delirium, but you could ride a high just from the scenery.
Coming towards the top of the climb and with the knowledge of 14km of almost continuous descent to Arrowtown to follow, it was time to wind up the pace a little, and enjoy the sun on the back, and test whether frozen fingers could indeed operate brake levers. Some wild moments soon followed on the doubletrack descent down the gorge, hitting corners, soft patches and rock slabs alike with reckless impunity. With pinch climbs scattered among the descent and weaving between clefts carved from the rock, the descent was something of a plummet from the high country above.
Transitioning onto the Macetown trail, I soon ran into a feature of Motatapu legend – the river crossings. Riding your bike through a river is one of the most horrible things you can do to it, and even with ceramic Kogel bearings, it’s a recipe for very expensive bearing replacements. But in the heat of the race moment, you plunge in recklessly anyway and attempt to mash a line through even when it’s waist deep and running the bike through is surely more efficient anyway. As the final 2km continues in a flurry of river plunges, ice-baths, embarrassing dismounts and even more embarrassing remounts, you have to embrace the spectacle of the country and the pure stupidity of trying to ford rivers by bike. With a quick plummet across a final creek, it’s a sprint finish into the sunlight and finishing chute at Wilcox Green.
There are some notable results from the day, with Paul Wright taking home a tight victory over Tim Rush, who rode an amazing race without a seat for the entire descent, eventually only 17 seconds of quad-burning hell behind, with Josh Haggerty rounding out the podium 2 minutes back. In the women’s race, Kate Fluker stamped an authoritative win and beat the majority of the men’s field for her seventh victory in the race, with Amy Holamby in second, just ahead of Hannah Miller rounding out the podium.
You can find full results here
But as much as the podiums, it was the hundreds of riders flocking in over the course of the morning – all inevitably drenched from the rivers, legs blasted by the hills, and inspired by the majestic back-country beauty of an area seldom accessible and completely transcending the hum-drum of regular life. I’ll be back for another dose of the majestic.