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Trans NZ: What I learned by racing my first enduro

Words: Wade Wallace | Images: Damian Breach / Matt Wood

It all started at the end of 2016 with an email from my mate Toby Shingleton, who works for Shimano:

“I’m doing the Trans NZ enduro next year and trying to get a crew of likeminded people onboard. It’s a five day ‘Enduro’ adventure on the South Island.  Its run by an awesome woman out of BC so I am sure the vibe would suit you!

Shimano is supporting the event, but besides that it looks like a fun way to spend a week.
 
I know you are a MTBer at heart so if you have interest let me know and I will include you on the emails.
 
–Toby”

“An enduro …” I thought. “That sounds like a good test of endurance that’ll whip me back into shape.”

Then the email banter began.

“What bike you bringing?”

“You going 160mm or 180mm of travel?”

“Are you going full-face?”

“Goggles or shades?”

This didn’t sound like the cross country ‘endurance race’ I thought I’d signed up for. I Googled “enduro” to see what this Trans NZ was all about …

I then realised that this whole genre of gravity mountain biking was upon me. Endurance events have always appealed to me because pure fitness and hard work could make up for lack of skill and talent. But then after I began thinking about what I was in for, the idea began to grow on me and the adventure began.

An enduro mountain bike race is basically an event that takes in multiple stages per day that are all timed descents and technical singletrack. Sure there’s pedalling on the descents, but not a massive amount. The rides between stages are untimed and you simply need to get from the end of one stage to the beginning of the next in a set amount of time (which is fairly generous and not meant to be raced).

I admit that I didn’t take my training too seriously going into this and most of it entailed my usual routine of a few easy road rides and a couple gym sessions per week. I have a good idea of where my technical abilities lie and after experiencing the most excruciating and debilitating arm-pump known to mankind at the Passportes du Soleil, I focused almost exclusively on making sure this wasn’t something that stopped me after the first day of Trans NZ.

It was only a few weeks before the Trans NZ that I started looking at what type of equipment I’d need and began calling in a few industry favours. Canyon Bikes had this sweet looking Strive that looked perfect for the job. When I visited the Canyon factory in Koblenz in 2015 I played around with the company’s ‘shape shifter’, a remarkable rear suspension system that completely changed the geometry from XC to DH mode with the flick of a switch. It’s amazing to see how far these bikes have come in only a few years.

Then came the discovery of all the apparel that’s suited to enduro riding. I quickly figured out that my aero helmet, lycra and polka-dot socks weren’t going to cut it. Toby generously sent me a bunch of baggy Pearl Izumi clothing and Shimano enduro-specific shoes to fill the gap in my wardrobe. The shorts went past my knees and the jerseys hung loosely off my shoulders which immediately transported me into a different mindset of riding. I also borrowed an enduro-specific helmet from my friends at Canyon which completed the look. I was ready to rock.

The Trans NZ

Now that I’ve had two weeks of reflection and my body has almost recovered from the pounding it took, I’ll try to describe the chaos (good chaos) that ensued.

We landed in Christchurch, the Trans NZ race organisation picked us up from the airport and we built up our bikes. Our posse for the week included former Eliminator world champion Paul ‘Vandy’ Van der Ploug, Australian MTB pioneer and living legend Mick ‘Ron Ron’ Ronning, photographer Damian Breach, along with Toby ‘wan Kenobi’ and myself. We were all there with different ambitions, most of which were higher than Toby’s and my hotly contested race to not finish last. My pre-race commitment to myself was to be sensible and not be that guy who ends up with a broken neck doing something far beyond his limits.

The pre-race briefing was similar to one those university initiations where the dean says “look to your left, look to your right – one of you will not be here tomorrow”. In this case it was “one of you will be making a trip to the hospital.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. For goodness sake — in a road race they’ll often neutralise a simple descent for fear of a mass pile-up!

Our first two days would be based about an hour inland from Christchurch near Cragieburn and the Castle Hill ski fields. Immediately after looking at the massive amount of climbing in the ride guide, it struck me that this was not going to be the week of drunken debauchery I thought it was going to be (yes, this was my lasting impression of gravity mountain bikers). This was going to take some effort to complete only the ‘liaison’ sections between stages, never mind the ripping-fast descents.

Vandy gave me some basic advice on how to race enduros during our ride up the 1,500m climb to our first stage:

(Note: For those not familiar with Vandy, he’s got one of the highest sustained power outputs ever tested at the AIS and has the talent to go pro on the road. But alas, he enjoys life too much to be cooped up on the road so he’s now back focused on racing mountain bikes.)

1. Save your energy on the way up. Even switch between riding and walking to rest the muscle groups. This isn’t where the race happens and you can save valuable energy here.

2. Race the downhill sections at 80% of your max. The point of enduro is to race trails you’ve never seen before and you’re basically riding blind. Consistency and making as few mistakes possible is the key to playing the long game for the week.

DAY 1 - CRAIGIEBURN

Day 1 had six stages through alpine terrain which was slightly wet but grippy (except for those damn tree roots). The whole self-seeding premise of this enduro had me contemplating where I stood in the grand scheme of things. “Should I place myself in the middle and risk having the guy with the hairy legs pass me?” I thought. To keep my ego safe I placed myself at the very end of the first few stages. If there’s one thing I know it’s that most of my success in life has come from overestimating my abilities in one way or another and I couldn’t afford to be wrong about this.

3-2-1-Beep

The first three stages were as expected and I although I was riding like a complete hack, I was relieved to know that if anything was going to send me to hospital it was going to be my 20-year-old confidence living in a 44-year-old body.

Then came stage four. This was the real eye-opener for what became a theme for the rest of the race — a ridiculously long and steep descent with wet tree roots which lasted about 15 minutes. It was an absolute yard sale of riders and bikes jamming up the trail and all I could think was “What the hell is this carnage? Are the organisers nuts?!”

Everyone in our crew made it out alive and sure enough we were throwing high fives and giggling like school kids at the bottom. Even Vandy and Ronning said that it had been one of the crazier trails they’d ever seen, which made Toby and I feel slightly better that we’d come through unscathed.

We’d done six stages and a couple thousand meters of climbing by day’s end and every single one of us was absolutely rooted. It wasn’t only aerobically taxing with all that climbing, but an adrenaline-filled anaerobic thrashing that we took on each descent. I’m sure my heartrate was at 180bpm for every section ranging from 6 minutes to 20 minutes long. That time in the gym had paid off – otherwise I wouldn’t have made it through day one. Vandy was in 1st, Mick in 4th, and neither Toby or I were in last. Bring it on.

DAY 2 - CASTLE HILL

Day two was supposed to be a ‘short’ day as we were transferring to Queenstown after the last stage — a six hour drive. I came into it thinking it was going to be a couple hours of easy mountain biking on this transition day and was not mentally prepared for an equally tough day of climbing and descending. As we raced down some amazing single track we were also warned in the days briefing “if you fall, make sure you fall right, not left”. Sure enough, a cliff on the left dropped off into the abyss and pinning it was the last thing on my mind. The old saying “Where you look is where you go” holds true in mountain biking and when there’s a cliff to one side, it takes a lot of willpower not to look!

As promised the day was pretty rad and as hard as I tried to be that chilled-out guy who doesn’t give a hoot about his results, I was becoming possessed every time I heard that ‘beep’ at the start of each of my runs. On the long drive to Queenstown I racked up quite the mobile roaming bill while studying the results and googling every single one of my nemeses within ten places, to strategise about how I was going to beat them. Back to reality: I was already 10 minutes down on Vandy who was sitting in first place and in the bottom third of the +40 category. Who was I kidding …

DAY 3 - Coronet Peak, Queenstown

Day 3 visited Coronet Peak, a ski hill / mountain bike park only a short drive away from Queenstown. The first good news of the day was that we drove up the magnificent sealed road which gets you halfway up the mountain and we didn’t have to slog our way up on fat tyres. I’ve ridden this climb on a road bike before and no matter which bike you have with you, I highly recommend you visit Coronet Peak.

By now all egos were well in check and everyone knew where they stood after the rude awakening of the past couple days. Being towards the back meant I had lots of time to watch the front-runners from high up and heckle them with everyone else. It also gave me a good appreciation of how good everyone else was and how rudimentary my skills were. If there’s one thing that motivates me to want to get better, it’s watching the top guys show their stuff. But no matter how many times I thoroughly studied their lines, I consistently over-thought it and royally messed it up. By the end of the day I had learned to ignore everyone’s first 200m and bash out my own lines as the trail came to me.

By the time day 3 ended, I had clearly broken my promise to “ride within myself”. Even with the most comprehensive travel insurance money could buy, my wife would have had a conniption if she knew what I was doing out here. A combination of ego, white-line fever, and racing against the clock had me going down some of most technical descents I’ve ever done. Someone said to me, “It would be great just to come here and ride one day.” There’s no way on earth I would have ridden some of these trails if I it wasn’t in a testosterone-fuelled race situation! Even Vandy and Mick said that these were among the craziest trails they’d ever seen, and that’s saying a lot from these blokes. Before coming into the Trans NZ and being warned about the skill level required, I thought to myself “How hard can it possibly be?” As it turns out, pretty damn hard.

‘Slip Saddle’ was the last stage of the day and after hearing that it was over 50% decline average gradient I was shitting myself in the line of competitors who were on a slow death march towards the start line. As I tapped on and started rolling someone yelled “ASS ON THE SADDLE!” From then on, if my ass wasn’t the thing braking the bike, I was too far forward. As sweat dripped down and hit my front rotor I could hear the hiss of liquid boiling on hot metal. My forearms burned, my legs were in a static squat position, and I had precisely 8 minutes and 56 seconds of involuntary profanities coming from my mouth. You can disregard everything I said up until this point about this enduro being technical — Slip Saddle made it all look like a kid’s game.

Stage 3 was Rude Rock. Check out Nate Hills’ YouTube channel for more awesome POV stuff like this.

DAY 4 - Alexandra

Day 4 took place in the town of Alexandra, a short drive from Queenstown. Consistent with New Zealand’s varying landscape, this day looked nearly identical to the riding in Arizona rather than the alpine mountain terrain we had just come from.

After the ridiculously technical ‘Slip Saddle’ and flowy ‘Rude Rock’ (video above) trails which capped off the previous day, nothing could have challenged my abilities more. My body was getting quite beaten up by this point and could have used a rest. Lucky for me Ronning had a set of kneepads I could borrow as I was the only one in the race who didn’t have some.

By the looks of the relatively flat and rocky desert terrain I thought we may be in for an easy day. Denied again. It was another day of steep and technical descents, but fortunately much easier climbs. The trails were marked with spray-painted pink dots which were meant to help you find your way, but it’s nearly impossible not to fixate on them rather than looking 20m ahead where I should have been. They only indicated where the trail was, not where the best line was.

But as the week went on I became better at correcting my poor lines by looking up at where I wanted to go. The bike would magically fix its direction and point at the pink dot in the distance rather than the one that was about to take me off a cliff. I was finally gaining some confidence and maybe I wasn’t such a pathetic roadie after all!

At this point Vandy was defending his lead and Mick was also high up in the standings, but these Alexandra trails were no place to make up time. Getting through without crashing or going off the trail was pretty much all anyone could concentrate on. Toby and I were similarly matched and it became our little race within the race to push and try to catch each other. For us, fighting to not be dead last and testing each other’s limits was just as fun as being in first spot.

It wasn’t until this day that I finally started to feel like I was getting used to moving around the bike, using the dropper post, peddling into sections rather than coasting into them, and judging my lines. The trails began to slow down and I understood my limits better. That mountain biker instinct in me had awakened and it was all coming together. One more day of this and I felt like I could be a competitor!

DAY 5 - Queenstown bike park

Day 5 was held close to our Queenstown base (the Pinewood Lodge), straight up Skyline. Many times in the past I’ve caught glimpses of riders thrashing down the trails of the Queenstown Mountain Bike Park while I peacefully hiked up the walking tracks with my wife, keeping the thoughts of “How awesome does that look?!” to myself.

With Vandy and Mick both geared up with their full-face helmets I was slightly concerned that this might be my day of reckoning. When the organisers said something was going to be hard, it was much harder than I expected. Nobody said anything about it being full-face day. Someone could have mentioned that.

Fortunately for me I was well clear of being dead last and was now in the same mindset as Mick and Vandy – I wanted to claw back precious seconds against the guys just ahead of me in the results. On paper it looked like an easy wind-down day. I was confident yet tired — the body had taken a thumping over the week and the slightest lapse of attention could send me into orbit. But a renewed sense of confidence from the day before and left me feeling like I was going to tear the bike park up!

It took less than 10 seconds into my first run before I realised I was going to be riding like a dunce all day long. Nothing was coming together and all of a sudden I was fighting just to stay upright and out of the hospital. Riding these trails is more about confidence than it is about fitness and I had nothing to fall back on. It was time to release all my unrealistic expectations and just ride the day out.

Toby and I cautiously enjoyed the day while Vandy and Mick fought for a handful of seconds against the Queenstown locals who had ridden these trails hundreds of times. All of us were at our limit on every inch of those trails, but at vastly different speeds.

By the end of the day Vandy had lost out to local knowledge and went down to 3rd place overall after a consistent week of top placings. Mick settled for 5th spot and Toby and I were both over the moon with finishing in one piece. Expectations are a funny thing and this week certainly reminded me that setting a very low bar can make everything much more enjoyable.

Epilogue

There’s a large overlap between road and XC disciplines but it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to talk about enduro on a road cycling website. But if I could have one of the best cycling weeks of my life doing an enduro, I’m certain that some of you would be interested to give it a go as well.

A few notes:

1. This is a fantastic race for your first multi-day enduro. But don’t mistake it for a beginners race. You’ll need a proper bike, proper gear and have some decent MTB experience under your belt. It’s the perfect mix of challenge, fun, fear, high-fives, and a way to see New Zealand’s South Island.

2. Do this with mates. It’s an awesome bonding experience and it doesn’t matter if you’re not equally matched.

3. Break away from the fully supported fine wine, gourmet food, and massage trip that the roadie market is into. The Trans NZ has everything you need to be taken care of and is incredibly well organised, but the riding is what you come here for, not the five star accommodation.

***

Not only was New Zealand as magical as expected (and as I remembered it), but the other satisfying thing was that I tested new limits to see what I was capable of. Starting from a very low base I was able to see big improvements within a matter of days. That’s something I haven’t seen in my own cycling in many years. I remembered what it was like to be discovering something new again.

It was also refreshing to reconnect with the mountain bike scene and to see how it’s evolved into something more fun, challenging and inclusive than ever. When I left competitive mountain biking your choices were basically race cross-country, downhill, and not much else. Clearly this isn’t the case anymore.

If you’re looking to challenge yourself in a new way on two wheels and satisfy your competitive side this just might be the format for you. After this week, I’m more reinvigorated than ever.

Would I do it again? Hell ya!

The Rider’s Rides

Mountain bikes have come a long way in a short amount of time. Now you can have light weight, big travel, efficiency, and an adjustable geometry due to things like dropper posts, dynamic suspension and Canyon’s Shape Shifter all in one package. That makes these bikes perfect for fairly gnarly downhill runs or pedally singletrack.

Both Paul van der Ploeg and Mick Ronning both rode Giant Reigns with 650b wheels, 160mm of travel and XTR Di2.

Vandy said: “I couldn’t imagine attempting to negotiate the wild trails on anything less than a 160mm travel Reign! The new bikes are so capable and impressive it’s hard to imagine riding anything else. Trail bikes just blow my mind these days!”

Ronning said: “Because we were going to be riding everything blind, I chose to ride the Giant Reign. With its long wheelbase, slack head angle and 160mm travel it definitely gives you confidence when bombing steep, rough terrain. Knowing that we were going to be riding for 5 days over 23 race stages I couldn’t chance having any mechanicals, so I built the Reign up with XTR Di2. Through mud, endless creek crossings, bumps, jumps, rocks and roots it never missed a beat!”

Toby Shingleton rode an Evil The Following with 29-inch wheels and XTR Di2. He said: “Part-owned by suspension guru/designer Dave Weagle I love the Evil because it’s playful like a BMX but it can be ridden hard down rough tracks. With 130mm front and 120mm of rear travel it was one of the shorter travel bikes on the trip but I never felt like this was holding me back. The DELTA rear suspension design is progressive in its nature which makes it feel like it’s never going to bottom out”

I rode a Canyon Strive CF Race with 650b wheels, 160mm of travel, and a whole mix of componentry. I have nothing to compare it to, but it was an absolutely incredible bike to ride and performed far above my ability to push it!

  • Chris Southwood

    Yes, Wade! We have you now, mate!

    • You always did Chris :-)

      • Max Paine

        ‘Like’

  • For an cracker of a summary of the TransNZ and everything else MTB or road related, check out DirtyNomad.com. Superb writing and characterisation of these races. NSFW warning: Politically incorrect and a few C-bombs scattered throughout.

  • Wagga boy

    Awesome Wade. Sounds like lots of fun. Just 1 day on the Passportes Soleil is a pretty wild. Braking there was somewhat of a challenge after 100km… But 5 days… hard to imagine how much fatigue would wear you down. Be easy to make a mistake.

    • 200/180mm rotors is a good start! The guys gave me the tip that rotating your brake levers as high as you can comfortably go is also the key to minimising arm pump. Besides the obvious tiredness at the end of some runs, I was all good this time. Nothing like the Passportes Soleil a few years back. That was torture…

  • Brian Gunn

    Awesome race summary. Sounds amazing.

  • Noah Sears

    It was an awesome experience. Great write up, and welcome to enduro!

    • Thanks! Now only if I could find a job in Queenstown…

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