Monday, January 9, 2012

Climbing Arthur's Pass

New Years Day meant two big events for me: riding the San Bruno Hill Climb for the first time in four years, and going to SFO to fly to New Zealand.

After a night in Christchurch, viewing the sobering post-apocalypse which was the central business district and the contrasting beauty of the botanical gardins, Cara and I got in our rented camper van and headed out on national highway 73. Our destination: Jackston's Retreat, a very nice holiday park in Jacksons, west of Arthur's Pass through the New Zealand Alps. I'd read about Arthur's Pass using Strava Explorer. It's part of the Five Passes Tour, a combination bike tour + state race where riders tour the southern island and are timed over 5 climbs along the way. Arthur's Pass is rated a 5: the maximum points of the five.


The profile was impressive. The net stats are fairly close to Kings Mountain Road: 6.87 km and 490 meters of total climbing, no intermediate descents: average grade = 7.16%. Kings mountain is 6.95 km, gaining 469 meters, a 6.77% average. The key is that Arthur's Pass starts out quite gradually: 2 km in and you've climbed only 73 meters, a 3.7% average. The rest of the way is an 8.60% average, with most of the climbing steeper than that.

I set out from Jacksons onto a gradual uphill, but the upward grade was largely canceled by the typical western wind. The southern island of New Zealand is in the "Roaring 40's", the 40 to 50 range of southern latitudes well-known for its strong westerlies. On this side of the pass, there was little to abate the winds coming in from the ocean, providing a nice tail wind for eastern riding.

I was still feeling sluggish from the 16 hours plane journey and four hour time zone difference from San Francisco (four time zones plus summer time in New Zealand), so wasn't in a hurry for the climg to arrive. But soon enough I reached Otago, the town marking the base of the real climbing. I'd noted from Google satellite view via Strava that the Strava segment started somewhat east of a bridge just outside the town.

I was a bit worried about the weather on the pass. Low-hanging clouds obscured some of the tall peaks nearby, but the pass ahead seemed clear. It looked like a good day to climb it.

Not long after passing through the town I arrived at the bridge. Many bridges on the New Zealand south island are one-lane, two way, with one direction having the right of way. I would later encounter a bridge that was one-lane, 4 way: two vehicle directions, and remarkably, two rail directions all sharing the same space. This one wasn't quite that dramatic, but for a one-lane bridge it was fairly long. So I looked carefully to make sure no motor vehicles were approaching, then crossed the bridge. It was time to start the serious riding!

At the other side of the bridge I deposted one of my two water bottles at the side of the road, avoiding having to carry that weight up the hill. I was fairly heavily loaded, with my big saddle bag, a sandwhich in my pocket, my cell phone, and Cara's Garmin (mine I managed to lose somehow...). Still, every bit helps.

Then I started. This was clearly "climb", so I ramped the effort up to something appropriate. My gear started to skip almost immediately. Damn... I experimented with the shifter to find a gear I could pedal continuously.

Normally the thing to do here would be to adjust the barrel adjusters on the down-tube. But because of the high placement of the cable housing braze-on, there was no room for my barrel adjusters, so I omitted them: cable tension is adjusted either at the rear derailleur, or with a bit of risk, at the cable splitter. Neither of these is accessible when riding. I could have descended and started again, but since I'd told Cara I'd be back around 11 pm, I didn't want any extra delay. I was committed.

I was able to guess the cause: when I'd swapped the front housing for my rear derailleur cable a few days before leaving, the cap for the hold housing had been mangled, and I'd installed the housing without a cap, too rushed to go to a shop to get a new cap, and with inadequate support from the slotted braze-on, the housing separates, allowing cable tension to relax. It was a stupid mistake, one I'd made before.

But I was stuck doing the best I could. Not long after, however, the road steepend... dramatically. I shifted into my 34-26, a gear where the derailleur position is set by the limit screw rather than the cable tension, and the bike operated fine again.

The road here is a real grind: 15.5% for around 800 meters, with fluctuations around that mean. But I love this sort of thing: on a new climb on the opposite side of the world, absolutely gorgeous views everywhere. I knew the discomfort wouldn't last long, but I'd always remember this climb.

I turned a corner and hit a dramatic view, from the opposite direction, I'd seen from the camper van the day before: an open tunnel, similar to what one would expect in the French Pyrennees or Alpes, with a small aquaduct carrying water clear of the road, creating a waterfall under which I rode. I forgot instantly about the discomfort: this was great.

Then a landmark of this road: the Otira Viaduct. The viaduct was biult in the early 1990's, a considerable piece of engineering, to replace the roadway along the "scree slope" which was prone to periodic collapse. Riding the viaduct is really special, even if there's a bit of concern about the huge drop if one were to get bumped over the edge by a passing truck or car. But I had the viaduct to myself.


After passing the viaduct, the road leveled out a bit, passing a viewpoint where Cara and I had had a Kia perch itself upon our van of the same name, apparently enjoying tastes of our roof. But I wasn't stopping now... Here again I was forced to fumble with my shifting, trying the big ring to see if that would help, holding the lever partially depressed to put the derailleur in a position where it wouldn't shift.

Another steep slope followed. This was it, the last section, maxing out at around 18%. But it's short, only 60 vertical meters.

Then the road flattens for a sprint before a final rise to the plaque marking the summit. I initially missed this, riding onward, until the road had clearly begun to descend, and I was at a memorial obilisque for Arthur himself. I then turned around and began my ride back.


I stopped to climb a steep road to a viewpoint of the viaduct, a detour Cara and I had missed the day before. It was quite a view. It appeared this had been the old roadway before the viaduct had provided a safer route. A stone wall blocked cars from going beyond the view point, although there was little sign of a roadway extending past the wall.

The viaduct was quite an experience descending. Gusting winds, seeming far stronger than those I'd encounted while climbing, caused me to ride in the center of the vehicle lane when descending to provide adequate buffer from the guar rail. Two cars passed me in the opposite (right) lane.

As I descended, the wind got lighter, though, and the ride once again became pure joy. I stopped at the bridge to pick up my water bottle, then continued onward until I met Cara who had ridden east from Jackson Retreat an hour or so after I'd left.

Well, that hadn't been the way I'd hoped to have climbed Arthur's Pass. Little shortcuts on bike maintenance can come back to haunt, and in this case I was stuck with a self-destructing derailleur housing. My Strava time: 26:15, well off the target, but good for third in the rankings so far. All of the other rides have been from the Five Passes Tour: I expect Strava to catch on more here in the next year. Too many good climbs.

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