One Long Day at Craigieburn
About 100km to the West of Christchurch is an area known as ‘Craigieburn’. It’s predominately known for housing a number of ski fields but it also hosts a good handful of excellent mountain bike tracks that, as well as being great fun to ride, are complemented enormously by the equally excellent views, vistas, vantage points and other nouns beginning with the letter ‘V’.
Aside from providing an always useful exercise in alliteration, Craigieburn provides a sense of adventure when biking there due to the surrounding mountains and lack of any civilisation… although it seems not quite enough of an adventure to justify each ride being written as an individual article, so as an alternative I’ve just combined the highlights of several rides into one long day. Which as it happened worked out quite nicely as when looking through the photos and videos of the several trips, we all appeared to be wearing the same clothes each time, such is the lack of variety in our biking attire.
So here we go…
Beginning the ride at the Craigieburn picnic area (I was going to mention the drive from Christchurch but it’s generally uneventful with the only highlight being a slightly over-rated pie shop in the village of Sheffield where they pride themselves on terrible customer service. I’ve never been to a shop where I feel like I’m inconveniencing the owners by wanting to give them money) the first task was to overcome the 6km long, 600 meter elevation climb of the Craigieburn Ski Field access road. As far as access roads go it has very few redeeming features, other than it gets steeper the further you cycle up it. You could argue that it doubles nicely as a warm up, but due to its length and increasing steepness, it tends to feel more like the main event. So by the time we’d reached the top and were ready to start the actual bike trails, I’d already drunk a third of my water and was having doubts over the amount of trail mix I’d brought for the day.
But we had made it nonetheless and it was time to start actual mountain biking on a trail known as ‘The Edge’. In keeping with the ski field access track, the Edge throws you in at the deep end by requiring you to traverse scree slops with lots of exposure thrown in for good measure. And if you’re really lucky, you might come close to slipping off The Edge ….like I did.
The scree slopes aside, the rest of the trail trundled its way through the forest and eventually dropped us off at a bit of an intersection between ‘Helicopter Hill’ and ‘The Luge’. As none of us had been up to Helicopter Hill, and according to the sign it was only a 15 minute walk, we thought we’d head up and have a look around. It turned out that the sign didn’t take into account the additional time that was required to haul your bike along with you and 15 minutes gradually and sweatily became 30 as we slung our bikes over our shoulders to climb up some of the rockier sections.
As we climbed higher and higher towards a panoramic 360 degree view that awaited us, I began to feel that the excited anticipation of getting to the top was slightly undermined by the thought that I was soon going to have to ride back down this this path. As hoped, the view from the top was amazing and once we had stared it at for longer than necessary, chatted amongst ourselves and posed for photos, I couldn’t help feel that we were subconsciously putting off having to ride off the hill, over the horrible rockiness that awaited us. As we were about to head off I decided that I just needed to take one more photo and crack open another sandwich and then came to realisation that riding down was kind of inevitable. I sulkily put my helmet on, tightened my shoe laces, adjusted my underpants, checked my tyre pressure, brakes, seat post height, the time… and then set off. Riding down was as tricky as I had expected, but what made it worse was the general ease that the others found it. I headed off in front and after making it through the first technical section and onto the ridge (all the while repeating motivational quotes and telling myself that I was doing really, really well) my mate came bombing past and disappeared off down the ridge line. I’m pretty sure he was whistling and tilted his bike helmet to me as he shot past. Can’t notice it in the video though.
And onto ‘The Luge’ it was. The trail takes you down to the Broken River Ski Field access track and is great fun to ride. It has a good, flowy gradient with a couple of rooty sections to negotiate but for the most part nothing overly challenging. So you can just sit back and cruise with a relaxed smile on your face without the worry of falling off cliff edges.
The next trail to target was ‘Dicksons Downhill’. A downhill track which would require us to cycle up the Broken River Ski Field access track for several hundred meters. Turning off, we followed a 4×4 track and took the opportunity to stop for our first photo shoot. Which I think we can all agree, was bloody lovely.
We set off down Dicksons Downhill which is another fast flowy track with the odd little jump here and there to liven things up, which all paled in comparison to the main jump of the track. This jump was brilliant. It’s not the biggest, or fastest, or craziest, but man it was fun. Having a nice run up, smooth take off and no gap to clear, it was the perfect jump to play around on. And that’s what we did. For ages. All the while our mate photographing every angle imaginable. What helped add to the experience was the surrounding scenery which was continuing to be epic. Once we were satisfied that every angle of our jumping antics had been sufficiently photographed several times, we pried ourselves away from the jump and continued down the rest of the trail. Which was good. Like, not as good as the jump obviously, but until I have my firstborn child, I imagine all experiences from that point on will be lacking somewhat.
Now the problem with Dicksons Downhill is that it drops you off onto the main road that runs through the Craigieburn area. Meaning that to make it to the next trail ‘Dracophyllum Flat’ required riding up the Broken River ski access road again. On the plus side, the trail starts about mid-way up the access track and isn’t as steep as the Craigieburn access road. But an access road is an access road, which means it still has a surprising ability to suck the fun out of the day and replace it with a slow pedaling slog skywards.
It’s amazing how well bitching and moaning kills time, and before we knew it we were up at the start of the Dracophyllum Flat and ready for the next section of downward trail riding. Dracophyllum Flat is similar to ‘The Luge’ except it’s wider and more open, allowing you to go faster and the ability to play about a bit. It led onto a bit of a traverse along the valley floor which was completely deceptive in its length. In your head you think it’s just a short flat jaunt to the final trail of the day ‘The Hogs Back’. ‘We’ll be there in no time!’ we laughed and joked to each other. For some reason collectively forgetting that this section of the trail had a lot more short, steep climbs than anyone of us could remember. It was around this time that the legs began to lose form somewhat and the speed at which the lactic acid built up increased. There was one saving grace of this section though, where it momentarily opened up and flattened off so we were able rip through the low lying grass with the mountains in front of us. Unfortunately there was no epic jump but I guess you can’t have it all – here’s a GoPro section of the track
Dracophyllum Flat finishes at the Cheeseman Ski Field access road and I know what you’re thinking, more bitching about cycling up an access road. Well for once, we didn’t have to cycle up it. However our relief of not cycling up another access track was short lived when we realised that instead we’d have to undertake a shorter, but a much steeper, climb right at the beginning of the trail… so I guess there still is some bitching to be had. The Hogs Back trail is one of those routes where it feels like you’re cycling down a lot more than you’re cycling up. So once the first climb was out of the way, it felt like we were just freewheeling to the end. There was the odd climb, but nothing compared to earlier in the day, so I’ll just leave the impression that it’s one of those Escher type trails where people are constantly riding downhill to the top.
Finally we made it to Castle Hill Village, signifying the end of the ride and where we parked the second car earlier in the day to save us having to ride back along the road to the Craigieburn picnic area, where we began all those months ago. We had tactfully left some victory beers in the car, and as I was about to crack open one of these well-earned beers one of the guys floated the idea of riding the Cheeseman Downhill track. Unfortunately, due to my tired and reduced reaction state, the idea spread faster than I was able to quash it and before I knew it the beers had been packed away, the bikes loaded onto the back of the car, and we were driving up the Cheeseman Ski Field access road. My mood improved with a combination of appreciating that at least we weren’t cycling the access road and the happy hardcore music we had selected as a pre-ride morale boost (which on a side note, in terms of biking movie backing music, happy hardcore makes for an entertaining choice and gives the illusion of the action happening faster than it really is, as you’ll see from the link later on).
So…. the final trail of the day. As you can imagine, it had been a longer day than normal, mainly due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, I’ve combined three days’ worth of riding into one, but in any case, I was still a bit knackered. So why we decided to ride the hardest trail right at the end is a bit beyond me, but here we were. The trail is kind of split into two, best described as ‘The Good’ and ‘The bad and the Ugly’. The first section started quite a way up the Cheeseman access road and traversed across country with a large expanse of view to the left. The terrain remained low lying and scrub as it dropped down, and picked up speed with a few little features along the way to jump and drop off. All the while thinking ‘this is nice’ and ‘what a lovely way to finish off the day’. Then the forest approaches and you end up doing a bit of a mental calculation that the end of the track isn’t that far away yet we’re still quite high… oh no, as the trail takes on a distinctly more vertical and slippery character as you’re launched down a technical, rooty, muddy trail straight down. I’ve never been down a trail before where I’ve been hard on the brakes for the entire way. I got to the bottom mentally and physically knackered and after 3 more runs of the trail, no amount of happy hardcore music could lift my spirits anymore.
But on a more positive note, here’s a clip of ‘The Good’ section with a cheeky bit of happy hardcore music thrown in for good measure.
With the sun setting on an unusually long day, we finally made it to our now warm beer and reflected on that jump, the ridiculousness of the Cheeseman Downhill and how it was going to be difficult to not fall asleep on the drive home after the past 28 hours of continuous riding… but mainly about the jump.
As an aside, we did see a bearded, old naked man riding down the Broken River access road but without any photographic proof no one seems to believe us…..which is probably for the best.
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