RIDING THROUGH THE LONGEST NIGHT

The Kapiti Coast looks wild and windswept. On any other occasion, I’d stop and take in the last of the light as dusk falls, but this evening I’m chasing a rapidly disappearing snake of rear bike lights. There’s not time to peel a merino jersey off my seriously overheated upper body, let alone stop to enjoy the view.

Twelve surprisingly enthusiastic riders met at Paekakariki for pre-ride pizza. Not a bad turnout, considering the call to join Paul, Kah and I on a 160 kilometre night ride around Greater Wellington only went out a week before.

This plan came together rather late, which might excuse my lack of preparation. My bike, a steel-framed Thorn Sherpa is better suited to lazy touring and hasn’t climbed any serious hills in months. I haven’t done any riding bar my short daily commute since Easter. I’ve packed too much stuff for sure and I’m at the back of the group from the very start of the ride. It’s more than likely that the night ahead will be stupidly tough.

The path we’ve been following through the dunes of Queen Elizabeth Park splits at a the dip of a hill—options are a steep path to the left or a shallower one to the right. The group is out of sight: instinct tells me to take the left path. I’m spat out in a cul-de-sac, in the middle of suburbia with no-one around. I hope the other riders aren’t waiting somewhere for me. I encounter a couple of people are busking outside a fish and chip shop at Raumati South. I lean my bike near them and briefly consider calling home for directions—or better yet, a pick up. Then I realise I’ve got phone reception and Google Maps on hand. It’s only 5.30pm, a long time before dawn.

This time last year I joined another pile of riders to cycle Route 52 between Masterton to Napier on my first overnight ride. It’s hard to explain the draw of this type of excursion. The ride signals the end of the shortest days, though they get longer from here regardless of whether we ride through the night or not. But there’s something cleansing and revitalising about riding into the darkest part of the longest night and pushing through to early morning. It is a wake-up from mid-winter lethargy.

I signed up for the Longest Night Ride last year because I needed an excuse to ride my bike a little more, after a couple of years without much time for it. An incredibly long ride with a bunch of strangers in the middle of winter seemed like good motivation. This year? I remembered riding under the Milky Way, the trance of watching specks of rain race towards my front light, that beautiful misty river dawn after a long night of road riding. Having done this once before, how hard could it be to do it again?

I’m still following Kapiti cycleway signs when I see cyclists heading in the other direction. They slow as they pass, then stop—calling my name. I realise it’s half of our group who have missed the turning and swear that it’s back the other way. We end up back at the Raumati South junction, with the band still playing outside the fish and chip shop. This definitely isn’t the way. To save time we decide on a short cut, of sorts. Cycling down a stretch of State Highway 1 in the dark is the kind of riding your parents would suggest you didn’t do.

Our route a year ago followed some remote roads. As we left Masterton we left cellphone reception, and soon after there were no real out-clauses, bar turning around, for 200 kilometres. That night we paused to refill water bottles outside a village pub, all the more tempting because it’d be the last warm shelter we’d see for most of the night. Not one of us ventured inside—it would be too hard to pull ourselves out again and get on with the task at hand.

This evening is positively balmy and yet, before we’ve really begun, our bikes are leaned against a wall and we’re queuing for the bar at Paraparaumu’s Tuatara Brewery. Stragglers have been reunited with the rest of the group, who followed the only rider who knew the way. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror behind the brewery bar—a bright red face and heat pulsing off every piece of exposed skin.

We cross State Highway 1 and there’s just one major hill standing between me and a cake stop in Upper Hutt. I figure I’ve got this—I’ve got energy to burn. More likely, it’s dutch-courage kicking in.

In the daylight you can pull yourself past distant roadside markers that mark progress to the top like the steady beat of a metronome, but at night there's nothing but the halo of your own light to chase.

A little way up the hill, there’s a guy hanging out at his gate cheering as we pass. He says he did the same ride last night. It seems slightly insane that there are enough riders to fill two nights of midwinter overnight riding, and perhaps more insane to think that he has timed his support from a few Instagram photos posted at the brewery. There are lights on in some of the houses that we pass so it’s still not late, but I’ve already lost all concept of time.

We’re still climbing when the last flashing red lights ahead disappear behind a bend and I’m on my own, with just my own tunnel of light picking out the steady upward gradient. My mind is already full of doubt: I probably should have done at least one long ride beforehand; I’m out of my league; my legs are burning. I start thinking about the ‘out’ available—at the bottom of this hill there’s a lonely ride through the empty suburbia of Upper and Lower Hutt, down State Highway 2, and home to bed.

Night climbing can be a tough beast. In the daylight you can pull yourself past distant roadside markers that mark progress to the top like the steady beat of a metronome, but at night there’s nothing but the halo of your own light to chase. Mine picks out a high bank on the left of the road, endlessly curving, with moss dripping off it. Then I see little specks of light out of the corner of my eye. I cover my front light momentarily to confirm. Gloworms. Cool.

Finally a haphazard collection of lights appears ahead—the guys are all waiting. We’ve reached the top. A lone car drives past, then we enjoy a gloriously dark downhill on wet roads in the middle of the night. As luck would have it, we’ve missed the downpour.

When we leave our planned cake stop in Upper Hutt and turn off to the Rimutaka Rail Trail we’re a slightly smaller group of ten. I’ve convinced myself that I’ve done this before—well, climbed to the rail trail summit at least—so I might as well complete the ride. We climb slowly, with regular stops to push bikes around locked gates. Mostly I’m thinking about the mountain biking ahead and my lack of experience on proper mountain bike trails. I must be the only rider who isn’t looking forward to the off-road descent.

The old rail tunnels seem other-worldly when lit up at night—the bright, smooth walls contrast with the wide empty blackness of the outside world. It is beautiful riding in the Rimutakas with no-one else around. A few stars peek out between the clouds and the gradient is easy. It’s starting to cool down as we reach the summit. We sit in the shelter, eat more cake, and drink freshly brewed coffee.

I’m one of the first to roll down from the summit and the guys pass me one by one. At the bottom of the hill I’m told we scared a nest of rats in one of the tunnels, which ran out in front of the riders behind. About halfway down, with half the group now in front, I stop to shoo a hedgehog off the track. We turn onto a section of single-track trail that leads to a carpark. I take a deep breath in and follow the others. A few years ago I walked this part of the track and I’m surprised how much of it I remember. I’m not as fast as the bulk of our crowd, but a few stick with me and let me figure out how to ride my first ever section of proper single-track—in the middle of the night.

The rain starts on the long flat Western Lake Road, accompanied by a slight headwind. There are three of us keeping pace at the rear, talking a little, but mostly just doing our own thing and pulling through the rain. Paul tells stories about how demoralising this road is. He’s right—it is demoralising. The road eventually leads to a track that’ll hug the coast around Turikirae Head and the Pencarrow lighthouse, to reach tarmac again at Eastbourne. We all know there’ll be a bit of sand to push through, but no-one factors in recent storm damage which has completely washed out huge sections of the track.

For a while I keep track of several rear lights in the distance, but as the night wears on my whole body starts to ache with each jar of my bike on the rough trail. The lights of the group fade into the distance, then disappear completely. I can make out the tyre tracks in front of me and chase their trails, but progress is slow. There are lots of unrideable sections—deep sand and huge boulders with plenty of slips and streams to negotiate. If the stars were out it would be a magical night out here, and even under cloud you’re almost swallowed by an absolute darkness. It’s rare to feel so remote and alone so close to a sleeping city.

I’m still alone when I come across a stream, turned into a chasm by a slip. The track has disappeared completely. The track veers uphill to a point where you can cross but disappears on the other side. It’s here where the breadcrumb trail of tyre tracks ends. I point my light in all directions then haul my bike up a hill, but can’t see any signs of where anyone else might have gone. Pushing my bike down to a ledge a bit closer to the shore, I promise myself a break and a glucose gel when I rejoin the path. I don’t want to get lost out here, that wouldn’t be much fun.

Evidently I’m headed in the right direction. I come across a gate and what looks like a familiar path on the other side. The gate is wired shut—there’s no way through but over. I throw my pannier over the fence, figuring I’ll have to find a way to reunite it with my bike on the other side. The bike is slung over in a similar fashion. I climb over and I’m on a path again. I quietly celebrate.

Later, I see a light flashing in my direction. I respond by cutting my light on and off as I slowly make my way towards it. I’ve been pushing more than riding for the last hour or more. Four of the guys have been waiting and as I join them I can see why—there’s a gully almost as tall as me interrupting the track. I hand my bike over before scrambling over myself. The company is welcome.

Later still, the track disappears completely and we walk, push and carry bikes through fields of boulders. In the light of day you’d be able to pick a route through, but in the middle of the night you can only go blindly forth and haul your bike across anything that’s in the way. Last year we rode bikes for 18 hours solid on asphalt. Compared to that, tonight’s route is madness.

My mind turns what's probably just two logs into a seal head severed from its body. I decide not to examine it too closely as I pass.

When the track become easier, I slip behind the others again. My front light is fading and it’s much harder to pick out the best lines to ride. I find myself nudging the aim of the light between mid- and far-distance to try to pick out the track. It is only later in the morning that I’ll remember I could have used the spare batteries I was carrying. Tiredness makes you do stupid things like that.

I’m alternating between cycling and pushing through a long sandy stretch riddled with streams—tiredness is at its peak. My mind turns what’s probably just two logs into a seal head severed from its body. I decide not to examine it too closely as I pass. There’s just me and the sheep around to acknowledge the break of dawn.

A little later I reach a couple of the guys ahead at a turning. Kah’s among them and I ask him for some good news, after what must have been at least four hours of slow progress. “It gets easier”, he offers. And, incrementally, it does.

Three cyclists from our group are waiting behind the shelter of a hill next to a small bridge. It’s broad daylight now, well past dawn—the fastest riders are probably back in Wellington already. We wait for a bit, sheltering from the cold southerly wind, wondering if the one rider unaccounted for is behind or ahead. We eventually move on and find him waiting at a bridge just around the corner.

The riding is much easier from this point. There’s one last hard uphill where I have to get off and push and one last downhill which I’m too shattered to take at any speed. Then we’re on a well-graded dirt road with just enough tailwind to make the riding effortless. It always feels like you’re flying when you return to roads after a long stint of off-road bike hauling, and this morning is no exception.

On our way into Eastbourne we pass groups of fresh-faced cyclists on casual Sunday morning there-and-back missions to Pencarrow lighthouse. It’s no longer early morning, around 9am, and we sort-of blend in with them—if you overlook the bloodshot eyes and exhaustion set into our faces. We end at a café, overlooking the jetty where we’ll catch the ferry back to Wellington.

Returning to regular life makes the ride feel like a real achievement. On the longest night of the year we rode bikes from one coast to another. We pushed and carried bikes around a headland in wind and rain. We each spent many dark hours alone, but within reach of like-minded company. People with more sense than us spent the night asleep.

 

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