If I close my eyes I can still get the feeling, over twenty five years later. Hunched over my Diamond Back, leg and arms muscles coiled, my arse way back off the back of my seat, seat jammed onto my chest. My arms are at full stretch as the front of the bike drops off the edge - down down into a steep flood of pine needles and loam. As my front wheel drops away into the hushed woods, the back wheel locks as it comes over the lip. I am feathering the brakes, trying to keep the front wheel from slipping out as I skid left and right down the slope, dodging pine trees and their horizontal branches, a goth running through a phalanx of Roman spears.
I am heading towards a fold of the steep hillside, where it wrinkles in a steep defile. I have been riding this same 25 yards of hillside for an hour, trying time after time to get the line right. Sometimes I make it a foot further down before I get the weighting all wrong and the front wheel goes, or I jump off the back of the bike and it continues without me, or I go over the top of the front wheel, cartwheeling down the slope, whipped by the pines for my inattention.
Slowing to a stop, lining up my wheels, I inch to the steepest bit where there is no traction, just dry dirt barely clinging to the hillside. With nothing to bite into the bike quickly accelerates, threatening to buck me as it has so many times before. This time I get it just right and manage to get my weight forward enough that I can take a brief dab on the front brake and slow down a little before punching over a foot-deep lip of pine needles and then spiral down again, off towards the four foot vertical drop onto path that marks the end.
The only way to nail this last bit is to just let go and hope your body can work it out as you go. It’s too steep to yield to thought, if you think about it you’ll fall off and hurt yourself. My front wheel heads to the only line in the bank that’s going to work - a narrow slot where water has dug a channel into the bank, creating a steep chute in an otherwise impossibly sheer drop. The bike drops with sudden lurch and I am onto, then past, the moment of no return. I just about clatter my chin on the seat I am so far back, the bike is way over forty-five degrees. Now it’s just a case of hoping the front wheel doesn’t twist as the full force of the bike and I hit the path beneath the drop, face first.
For a moment a painful crash seems inevitable and I get ready to push myself forward off the bike and do a giant leaping roll to avoid breaking a wrist, but instead I use that last moment of influence to make a desperate tug up on the bars in an effort to lift the front wheel an inch or two higher as it hits the path. It’s a big gamble as now I don’t have time to fall safely, I’ll just face-plant dirt.
But it works. I roll out of the drop and gently squeeze the brakes to stop. A little corner of Mt Victoria is mine. No one else has done that line, I’m sure of that. It’s a first.
The first time, instead of turning over the top of the half-pipe I lift the bike into that moment between up and down, pivot through a half circle and push the wheels back into the ramp as I come back down into the bottom of the pipe. Getting air. Wow, I can do that too, ride this bike in skateboard park.
Slowly riding along the top of an old plinth in Cuba Mall, I bring my front wheel to within an inch of the edge, a good four feet above the pavement below. I rock the bike forward over the front wheel, just enough to flick the back wheel six inches, right out onto the edge of plinth.
Then I squat down and spring up, launching the bike up and sideways. By the time I hit the ground again I am six feet sideways from the plinth and back on the ground, the shock of the fall soaked up by my body and tyres. It’s such a blast I do in ten times in a row getting to the point I can do the jump then ride off without having to put my foot down.
Sitting astride my bike at the top of a fifty yard alluvial fan around by Red Rocks. It’ really steep. If this doesn’t work it will be like riding too fast down a cheese grater. The only way this will work is if my wheels dig into the gravel and I ‘ski’ it with a locked back wheel.
There’s no one around. It’s all on me if something goes wrong. In front of me is the endlessly varied beauty of the Cook Strait. From up here I can see the line of the perpetual rip that runs at 6 knots eastwards, the curse of any sailor making the journey from Wellington to the Sounds.
Now or never. I throw myself on the bike and let go the brakes for a moment before slamming the back brake on.
It works, the bike sits down in the gravel and I start fishtailing in long arcs down towards the water.
Filthy with mud, rims hissing and grinding with grit, freezing cold and being buffeted by bouts of cold, hard rain. I can barely stay upright the wind is so strong.
It’s winter, stormy, wet and cold, no one should be out here.
I just needed to get out, shake off drama school and thinking and having to do anything. Now I am most of the way through a classic Wellington Epic, out to Johnsonville on the road then up and over Mt Kaukau hill and back via the tracks over Karori. So far the ride has mostly been on flooded roads and muddy farm tracks, with a bit of single track up the hill.
Now, off the bare exposed ridge, I drop into Wilton’s Bush, a glade of native trees above Karori. The same place I was a ‘gardener’ years previously. Suddenly it’s still. The wind is brushed overhead by the dense canopy of native bush. It’s mid afternoon but feels like dusk, the weak winter light is having a hard enough time getting through the rain clouds let alone down into the knots of trees.
It feels like you are going inside, inside the past. Before we fucked the countryside over with farming, grazed it bare and then rebranded it as 100% pure. It’s a great moment, like finding the perfect quiet church in a bustling european capital, a moment of awe and wonder.
With the rain washing down the tracks they are deep with mud and water. Everything is wet. The hill is a mudslide, more like an avalanche than a trail.
Numb hands work the brakes, trying to balance speed and traction. It’s impossible not to slip, you just have to work out the best way to lose traction, how to work with it. My glasses are blurred out and I am operating pretty much on instinct alone, feeling the trail through my fingers and their connection with the bike. I am letting the brakes go on the tricky bits, trying to accelerate up and over the slippery roots using momentum, rocking back and forward on the bike to get traction first on one wheel then the other.
There’s no reason to be here. It should be a horrible experience. I am not even sharing it - there will be no talking about it in the pub afterwards, no moment we can remember years later. But it’s fantastic never the less. The world is shrunk into a tiny funnel of experience, but I am large within in. It’s a total sensual cascade, from the water running down the inside of my helmet through to the rasping tickle of a fern, from leaves splashing you on the face like small waves to the sharp slice across the shin from a branch.
The riding is so difficult and engaging that I don’t have time to think. All my being is pushed out onto my muscles and skin and nerves. My brain must be working, but instead it feels beautifully absent, as if thought and consciousness itself were dissolved by the knowing wrap of the trees and plugged back into the earth.
Coming out at the bottom I am exhausted, soaking, bloody - and utterly alive. The descent took maybe fifteen minutes, but it feels like I have been across the universe and back.
Another day, taking the same ride but in reverse with a couple of mates. We are coming down off Kaukau and it’s stupidly muddy. My back brake cable breaks and I am left with the impossible task of not slipping in the mud with just a front brake. Everyone is falling over all the time. It’s like trying to use skis in an ice rink. We pass through frustration and anger and then into hilarity. By the time we get to the bottom we are laughing uncontrollably, slick with mud and laughter.
That is a shared experience I can recall years later - do you remember that one Dave?
Another one to remember.
Riding the Molesworth Road with Dan on a MTB tour down to Christchurch and finding an English guy sitting in a car up to his axles in gravel. When we asked him if he was alright he pointed to the map and said “This is a road, it says so on the map!” as if that meant the situation he was in couldn’t be real. It seemed he was hoping that his sense of injustice would literally change the road from a 4x4 road in the back-blocks back into the nice back lane in the Cotswolds he was expecting. He hadn’t read (or ignored) the signs at the start of the road and he didn’t want help. Two hundred years previously he would have been the army colonel being shot to pieces in some ‘native’ campaign, saying, “But this is impossible!” as he bled to death.
We took pity on his arrogant English arse and called into the next farm house, many miles on. The farmer sighed - not an unusual occurrence apparently.
Lining up for a mountain bike race. The infamous Karapoti Classic. 50km. Three huge climbs, one mostly a carry. It’s a legend. If you can do it under 3 hours you are a legend - I never got close but Dan did a 2hr 55m ride.
Standing among the starters, waiting to run over the river, I am suddenly aware that mountain biking is ‘a proper thing’ with personalities and a scene. I am a long way from the heart of the it. Dan is right in there as he is doing lots of races by now and there are many here today who will define mountain biking in NZ for decades to come.
Me, I take my place on the start line and do a respectable ‘middle of the pack’ time and know that my mountain biking experience is quite different to most here. I don’t do the sport of it and never really will - I really had done with racing. I want to ride outside those markers, but I am also not an epic adventurer. I am never going to ride my MTB to Everest base camp like Jonathan and Johnnie, I am not going to do The Great Divide like Simon. I was not going to go on and create a whole industry like the Kennett brothers. And I was never going to do a fast time on the Karapoti, I just didn’t have any racing fangs anymore.
Drama School rules out racing (too poor) and epics (too much time). I had no cycling ambitions beyond the outright pleasure of riding, but I didn’t mind, I was still that kid riding around the block and delighting in having something so simple, so direct, so mine. The block is bigger that’s all, the block is the unending Mountain Bike delights of the Wellington region.
Having the ride of a lifetime down one of the rutty farm tracks off the back of Hawkin’s Hill, going insanely fast and floating the bike up and over the waves in the track with effortless mastery. It’s a track that runs into the bottom of a valley before doing a left turn, revealing a stunning view of Cook’s Strait, and then heading down to the coast road.
Coming up to the left-turn I see an overflow ditch that carrys water from the wet basin at the bottom of the valley to the final steep sluice to the sea. I see it but I don’t do anything, I don’t need to, I just need to do a small bunny-hop over it. At the last moment I see the side far side of ditch was much higher than the near and that I was going to hit it. It was too late to change up to a big jump and too late to slow down.
It was like riding into a foot-high concrete step at 25mph. What happens next is inevitable. The front-wheel stops dead and the momentum takes me over the top of the bars and I take the long superman flight over the top.
After my half-second of freedom in the air I hit the deck, sliding and grinding flesh into a nasty mix of gravel, dirt and rock.
Minced and in shock, I stand up and look back at my bike. All riders who have had an accident know this is what you do first - look at your bike, look to your own. The front wheel had a six inch wave in it, the front tire was flat. The forks were ok but the frame itself had suffered and had the tell-tale kink in the top tube that indicated it had bent under impact.
After checking I had nothing worse than acres of weeping gravel rash, I leaned on the rim enough that it would fit through the forks, fixed the puncture and rode at a snail’s pace down to Red Rocks where I rinse the dirt and gravel out of my wounds in a stream. A kind man with a Ute gave me lift back into town. I’d been lucky really, it was the kind of crash that you have no control over, the kind of crash that puts people in hospital and takes months of recovery - but I was riding (slowly) away from it.
I rode the Apex round town for a bit but the handling was ruined. It had been the only thing I owned with a value over a hundred dollars, now it was worth nothing. I had just graduated from drama school and didn’t have a job. I couldn’t afford to have it straightened, I couldn’t afford to put the parts on a new frame. Eventually someone put me out of my misery and stole it - not a difficult thing to do since I was no longer locking it up. And it wasn’t like I was doing it for the insurance, I didn’t have any. I should have invented some post-industrial ritual and laid it properly to rest, or turned it into a lamp stand, instead it was easier to just have it drop out of my life, no questions asked.
The end of the Apex. Three years of massive small adventures.
I had bought the Apex (on HP) from Burkes Cycles, where I had bought the hopeless Pantha BMX. I kept up the payments this time. There’s not much worth saying about the bike itself - the only proper way to describe this bike is to tell you about the range of things I did on it.
That’s the measure of a really good bike, when the experiences are bigger than anything else you can say about it.
Next: Everything falls apart