“That looks more like Womad than a mountain bike race – that looks really cool,” my girlfriend said when I showed her the wrap-up video of the NZ Enduro.
While I haven’t actually been to Womad, I knew what she meant. For something that’s definitely a race, even one won by former Enduro World Champ Jerome Clementz, the NZ Enduro has an exceptionally relaxed vibe. I’m not sure if it was the prayer flags waving and the music playing at the start of stage one, the crocheted suit Bob was wearing to start day two, the 80-year-old eels halfway through day two, or the ‘majestical’ kiwi landscapes on every stage. But whatever it was I can tell you there’s something special about this event. Well at least I can tell you about half of it, then I’ll need to pass on things to others to help full in the blanks. More about that later
What is the NZ Enduro?
The NZ Enduro is a three-day, nine-stage race held at the top of the South Island, in Marlborough to be specific. Its race stages are in Whites Bay, Nydia Bay, and Wakamarina, which are all iconic rides in this area and, indeed, in New Zealand. There’s two race stages on day one, four race stages on day two, and three race stages on day three. 140 racers, along with heaps of support people like medics, timing crew, and the all-important providers of food, make the whole event roll on without a hitch. Racers can choose to camp at beautifully located campgrounds or arrange their own accommodation in nearby towns like Havelock. The race has been sponsored by Santa Cruz bikes since its inception four years ago and is now run by mtb dream-team Sven and Anka Martin. Oh, and there’s a helicopter too.
I travelled from Wellington to Marlborough by ferry with none other than Jonty Ritchie, old-timer, Wellington-based mountain biker, and should-be New Zealand mountain bike racing legend - who else do you know raced the first World Champs in 1990? With more races under his belt than the most seasoned veteran, he was, of course, projecting a suitable aura of “I don’t know if I can handle the level of enduro-stoke I’m expecting here” for a grumpy-old man contemplating this whole enduro-racing lark. But his ‘race face’ was still firmly and effectively applied when it came to the go-gun. Among our band of fellow travellers was Thomas Lindup, ex 24-hour racer and now a professional track builder and XL Santa Cruz Hightower rider. Except Thomas ‘doesn’t like the ferry’ so he flew down the next morning and we picked him up at Blenheim airport and chauffeured him directly to the race. Thomas knows how to travel.
As well as Jonty and I, the event attracted a strong masters (over 40) contingent from Wellington: Barrie, Jono, Dave, Ben, Jonny, Luke, Caleb and Leif. It makes sense as we’re just across the ditch and most of us have ridden these tracks a bit, though I’d never ridden Whites Bay – it’s always slipped through my fingers. The pedigree of our Wellington masters contingent became more noticeable as the event went on…but not for the reasons you might expect. Rather than hogging the podium spots on every stage, we stuck out because, gradually, half of us were getting acquainted with the medics and a few were even crashing out...
Day One: domino one
Wow, what a way to start the day and the NZ Enduro. The first stage had been described to me as “really fast across heaps of roots through narrow trees”. I’m used to narrow trees from all my riding in Wellington, but not the high speeds. After about an hour of singletrack riding uphill and an hour of pretty taxing pushing, we reached the 800m elevation start point. Cyprus Hill was playing next to fluttering prayer flags, naturally. Right out of the gate, photographers were positioning themselves behind trees at the termination of angled roots, hoping to catch some wild body-English, at the very least, because it was damp and very slippery. I liked it. I’m not a massive fan of eye-watering speed so the lack of grip, attendant lower speeds and abundance of slidey ‘keep this together!’ manoeuvres suited me better. That’s not to say I didn’t have a couple of moments; but overall the whole slippery-root-fest with a few climbs thrown in the mix was a good way to tick off 14 minutes in the morning or, eleven and a half minutes if you’re Keegan Wright, who won the first stage.
The first of us to topple was Dave Carlyon, who took early Wellington Dominos honours by injuring his knee before the race had even started. Dave recalled: “Jono, Ben, Luke and I did a sneaky pre-ride of Stage Two, Double Eagle, on the Friday morning just before the race. Big mistake for me as the clay soil was still wet and the track was slippery as an otter’s pocket. What was an innocuous slide out at the bottom of a chute could have turned out very nasty if I had not luckily grabbed a tree which stopped my left leg snapping the wrong way at the knee as my lower leg had slid under a fallen branch, looks like in the end I got away with a sprain or slight tear in my cruciate ligament, MRI and time will tell if it ends up as nothing or a problem…”. So Dave was out — but, in fact, later made a last minute decision to jump on the helicopter for day three, becoming the domino who got back up again.
After the racing and back at our digs, Thomas now had dibs on the double bed. I took the sleeping mat on the floor while Jonty retained his single bed with a ‘Garfield and Odie’ bedspread, which I suspect he might have brought from home.
Day two: dominos two and three
Next morning, there was vehicle logistics to sort out with our gracious hosts Hamish and Barb, who had extra-graciously offered to shuttle Thomas’ vehicle around. Once at the staging point, coffees were consumed and cow-shit was walked around before race-shuttle vehicles arrived to take us up to Opiri Saddle. What a stunning view! The views out to Pelorus Sound across some of New Zealand’s pristine bush are pretty wicked. Bob, with the crocheted suit, started us off and it was much like I remembered it from a few years back - mainly long fast straight and wavy sections with just a few tight corners; not too steep, narrow in some spots, and pedaly in other places. About halfway down I realised that I could probably pedal a bit more. So, I did and ended up working pretty hard for the last half of the 17-minute stage. Straight out of the van and into a 17-minute sprint down to the sea: firm but fair.
That’s it for installment one. More to come on this story later, but not much more from me…
Words:Carl Patton and Dave Carlyon and Jono Baddiley and Barrie Wallington and Ben Wilde and Jonty Richie
Photography: Boris Beyer, Duncan Philpott, Digby Shaw and Sven Martin
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