We take a voyage along the east coast, tracing the historical roads of Le Race from Christchurch to the harbourside town of Akaroa
Le Race perhaps isn’t as well known as its fellow New Zealand race, the famously tough Tour of Southland – breaking riders since the 1950s – but that doesn’t make it any less arduous or iconic.
For starters, it has a roll of honour far longer than even Australia’s iconic Grafton to Inverell; Le Race dates back to the 1930s. To give you a feel for how far back that is in cycling terms, it once would have been ridden on unsealed roads aboard steel frames with 40-spoke steel wheels and using about as many gears as you have fingers on your right hand.
Yes, riders have been racing from Christchurch to the harbour of Akaroa
on the country’s South Island for many, many years. So, with the promise of fresh air, astonishing views, little traffic, a British colonial history lesson
and a French-themed finale, it seemed only fitting that Cyclist travel this historical route as the final piece in our Kiwi Big Ride jigsaw.
The only way is up
Christchurch-Akaroa-Christchurch, as it was called in its inaugural year, was first raced in 1935 – coincidentally the same year as the inaugural edition of the Vuelta a España. Since then various single, multi-day and handicap formats were used before organisers finally rested on the contemporary single-race edition in 1999.
For the past 16 years the starter’s gun has been fired in Christchurch’s heart with the finish in Akaroa some 100km away. The length may not seem all that much, but what it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in levels of vertical ascent – nearly 2,000m, in fact. Considering there’s nothing but two small mountains between Christchurch and the French-settled, formerly British-owned town at the end, you get an idea of the kind of challenge that lies in wait.
The course of Le Race is not a difficult one to follow, but if you want to really enjoy it from start to finish – on any day outside of March 21, 2015, the date for next year’s race – then it’s worth bringing a few buddies along. You’ll have to fight your own demons while climbing Dyers Road-Summit Road and Hilltop Pass-Summit, but there are also speed sessions that beg to be had along the flats between the major ascents. You need only look at the day’s profile (app.strava.com/routes/592209) to get an understanding of the flatlands that exist between Gebbies Valley and Little River.
A historic journey
Young Ironman Cameron Young and seasoned rider Rod Pearson are Cyclist’s co-pilots for the day, and like many who reside in the city of Christchurch, they know the course well. Cameron has ridden Le Race twice before, his most recent coming just a few weeks after finishing Ironman Lake Taupo. Rod, on the other hand, has been racing on and off for nearly 30 years across every discipline this two-wheeled sport has to offer. He’s competed in Le Race on four occasions, but maintains he won’t be pinning a number on again until he’s sure he can beat the sub-three-hour PB he achieved in 2008.
We meet up at Zeroes cafe in Cashmere, just outside of Christchurch city – not Le Race’s official start location, but close enough to the course route that we don’t have any arguments. Besides, Zeroes has been recommended by Cameron, and after stepping in and seeing the assortment of baked treats, there’s little reason to question his suggestion.
The opening kilometres of Le Race are run more or less through the centre of town, but the real action starts down the road at the base of Dyers Pass. This just so happens to be right where our version of Le Race begins. A short pedal from Zeroes is Dyers Pass Road: our first real lung stretcher. On race day it arrives surprisingly close to the start, so you’ll need to have warmed up sufficiently if you want to travel up the initial 6km ascent with the front-runners.
The early suburban slopes of Dyers, which snake the mountainous ridge line to the south west of Christchurch’s CBD, hit gradients of 8% – it’s little wonder Bike NZ, the country’s governing body for cycling, use “Dyers to Cup” to soften the legs of competitors in the National Championship, held in January each year.
As we ride by Cup Cafe, the names of the favourites to take out the national road title can be seen painted across the road.
The mountain itself is densely populated with grand estates, houses and a few new apartment blocks. It’s no surprise why; the views of the opposing ridgeline to the east are clearly visible from nearly every opening.
One particular site, the Sign of the Takahe – an English style manor and former restaurant – is completely fenced off for repairs, serving as a reminder of the disastrous earthquakes that took place here in 2011. The area is clearly affluent, with manicured public gardens, boutique stores and huge properties lining the first few kilometres of the climb. The irregular gradient makes it difficult to find a rhythm, but the beautiful sights and floral scents help mask the pain of a full stomach and fluctuating heart rate.
‘I’ve always tried to incorporate Dyers Pass into a ride if I could help it,’ says Rod. ‘But I haven’t used it so much since the earthquakes because Evans Pass is closed. It formed a great round trip known as “Short Bays”. It will be a momentous day for Christchurch cyclists when Evans Pass opens again.’
We’re soon beyond the confines of the championship course, and after approximately 3km the otherwise flowery estates give way to what feels like an alpine climb, complete with pine-fresh smells. Traffic is nonexistent and a turn of the head reveals a view of the entire city of Christchurch.
The average gradient of Dyers is around 5% and climbs around 300m above sea level before reaching the first crest of the day. Unfortunately for us, the crest plummets immediately to Governors Bay, and despite the temptation to
fly downwards, it isn’t part of today’s ride. Instead we take a right, rumble over the cattle grid and head up again along Summit Road.
During Le Race the first KOM points await here. For the Strava junkies out there, you’ll be expected to reach this point in well under 14 minutes (from the base) in order to gather said points in the classement for the race’s best or most tactically astute climber. ‘This is one of the standout spots along the Le Race course,’ says Cameron, who has been riding a full wheel in front most of the way up Dyers.
Even with the local pacing of Cameron and Rod, our effort up Dyers today – closer to the 20-minute mark, including a few stops – would leave us well out of touch of the leading group. We tell ourselves that today isn’t a race, though if it was then we’d have ample time to chase: 10km down, 90 to go.
Quails and other tales
‘The course is filled with amazing scenery,’ says Cameron. ‘Both Dyers and Summit are part of my usual training rides and even though I was riding here all the time as part of my Ironman prep, it never gets old. How could it?’
We may be trailing well behind any course-breaking times but that simply
means there’s less pressure to push on and we can instead take in the breathtaking sights. The views at the junction of Dyers and Summit are something else. The perfect blues of Governors Bay, a small township of 1,000
people some 300 vertical metres below, are a stark contrast to the cityscape and flat plains of Christchurch directly behind.
Once onto Summit Road the land opens up to farm country, with sheep the main residents. Combined with the aforementioned beautiful waters, it’s fair to say most city slickers would kill to have such a visual spread just 10km out of town. As well as Governors, there are around a dozen bays within site below and a single island in the middle.
Quail Island was named in 1842 after the birds that were once its main residents – although just 30 years later they were there no more. Over the next 50 or so years the island had various uses, including being the home of quarantined animals ahead of Antarctic expeditions; as a leper colony; and then, later, home to a general hospital in the early 1900s. In more recent times it has become a nature reserve with a daily ferry service. It’s fair to say that, Le Race aside, this area has plenty of tales to tell.
We continue along Summit Road for another 10km, rolling up and down to a maximum height of just under 500m above sea level. We’ve seen a couple of cars, but otherwise the only hazard is the constant distraction of the views to our left. The ridge soon comes to an end and we can see the twisting descent to follow. We pull over to regroup and, while there’s a temptation to pull on a jacket, the weather is mild enough for us to forgo it.
The sun is out now and the fast-dropping 10km downhill brings some welcome relief after what feels like nearly an hour of climbing since leaving Christchurch. ‘Watch out for the cattle grids,’ warns Rod. There’s a number of them that have to be negotiated on the way down, with one steel-rodded obstacle in particular surprising me on a sweeping left-hander. ‘That’s the one to watch out for,’ he laughs after we’ve rattled through.
The downhill is a chance for us to let everything hang out. Cameron and Rod’s local knowledge comes to the fore as they continue to catch our piloting vehicle on the way down. ‘Steep, tight and twisty – the descent off the top of the climb is one of the best. It’s great!’ yells Rod.
After the final cattle grid we reach aT-intersection, marking an abrupt end to Summit Road. It would be easy to plow out across the road here, so we make sure to wash off plenty of speed and check for vehicles. As we take a right turn onto Gebbies Pass Road and enjoy the final few sweeping corners before making a left onto Millers, the scenery changes completely. Gone are the opposing ridgelines, harbour and ocean views; instead we’re met with tussock expanses and pan-flat roads.
This is where it helps to have a few strongmen with you. It’s about 30km to our next climb, and while the road is flat, the surface is heavy. Thankfully the wind is in our favour, so we’ll knock it over in no time. We start riding two abreast until the unsaid single-file moment occurs. We blaze past the numerous ranges that shoot off adjacent to our left on Christchurch Akaroa Road. There’s also a famous rail trail just a little way from the main route. It hugs the shore of Lake Ellesmere to our right before shadowing along Lake Forsyth once we turn north-east toward Little River. The 49km rail trail from the city to Little River is mainly hard-packed gravel and takes the flatlands out of town instead of heading up and over Dyers.
We eventually arrive at the Little River Cafe and Gallery, just a few kilometres shy of the next climb, for a well-deserved break of coffee and muffins. At the time we arrive, construction of SiloStay accommodation is taking place. Cyclists are clearly catered for with pulley systems being fitted to hoist your precious ride into a safe and weather-sheltered spot without having to take them inside. This is definitely my kind of place.
Meet Mr Steepy
Despite the warm sun bearing down on our freshly baked muffins and lattes, we know there’s still plenty of pedalling ahead before we reach our finishing spot for lunch. We set off again and the land turns from orange to lush green as we pass through the tree-lined road shortly before the right turn upward. The 6km climb twists and turns at an average of 7% and again, if you’re wanting to stay with the quickest up here during Le Race, you’d better be ready to unleash a sub-20-minute effort.
Much of the climb is visible with a tilt of the head upward and it coincides with thoughts that we must be on the wrong road – surely we’re not going up that far? It seems we most certainly are.
Fear not – if the vertical metres still to climb become too much, you can check your progress by taking a look at the lush valley to the left. There’s still plenty to like about this climb and the surface feels quick. Like the top of Dyers, however, the peak isn’t really the summit at all.
The road ahead tempts with a jaw-dropping descent to Barrys Bay and a flatter alternative along the Akaroa Harbour shoreline, but we again turn away from the easy option and make a left onto another Summit Road.
For all intents and purposes there are 30km remaining. We’ve clicked over about 60km and the final 8km are downhill. Before that though, we welcome a short downhill, and Rod informs us the next 10km are fairly quick. He’s not wrong. We fly along the ridge with a few little dips along the way. The corners flow with ease, but step off the sealed road and the terrain becomes a lot more severe.
As we make our way steadily along Summit we’re gifted with views of the Pacific Ocean to our left and the vast Akaroa Harbour to our right. It’s not often you get to experience a bird’s-eye view like this. But we can enjoy it only briefly. ‘We’re coming up to what I think is the toughest part,’ warns Cameron as we start the first of two significant climbs up Summit Road. ‘Mr Steepy gets its name for a reason.’
We start the steady 6.5km ascent. At this point in the day we still only regard it as somewhat tough – that is, until we take a slight right bend and hit Steepy in full force. It may be no more than a tad over 500m, but the Garmin quickly begins to tell the tale: 15, 17, 19, 20%! Tree coverage is sparse around here so you can really see exactly what lies ahead. If it’s within sight, you’ll know it’s coming.
The chatting stops as we put on our best game faces. Our support car is alongside. ‘Don’t look like it’s hurting too much,’ they jibe. Rod grins: ‘If there isn’t much left in the tank at this point in the race, this little pinch climb and the ones to follow can be enough to break you,’ he says. Don’t forget to eat.
A race to Akaroa
From the top of Mr Steepy we’re treated to a wicked but all-too-short descent. I say too short because I can see the opposing ascent that approaches like a roller coaster at the bottom. It heads straight up for the final 10km, but our Christchurch duo seem keen to test our resolve over the last stretch. It soon turns into one of those rides where, for no apparent reason, the skirmishing begins and it’s every man for himself. If this was the case from the get-go I wouldn’t be impressed, but with the finish nearing, I’m all for it.
We climb another 200 vertical metres before the intersection that takes us down to Akaroa Harbour. ‘Take it easy down here,’ says Rod, before recalling his near three-hour moment back in 2007 – before a rider crashed in front of him. Ever the good Samaritan, he pulled over to help. ‘She had dislocated her shoulder. I stayed with her until the ambulance arrived, but by then I missed out on making my three-hour goal,’ he says.
‘There are plenty of stories like that,’ adds Cameron as the two take off at a speed much quicker than I’m willing to follow. Cheers fellas. Soon enough they’re tiny dots further down the road.
There’s one last right-hand corner to negotiate and then we’re cruising along Beach Road in the suitably named French Bay. The town has kept its French and British heritage alive with the local pharmacy, churches and other buildings retaining their original colonial architecture. These days Akaroa is a mainly a tourist town with around 1,000 residents, so there are plenty of waterside restaurants to choose from, but with the weather so nice we don’t want to be indoors. The Stables Cafe and Bakery has everything we need plus room for a pack of sweaty cyclists to refuel.
We pull up at a huge vintage-style wooden table and begin the all-important refuelling process. The day has taken its toll on the group, Cameron’s eagerness to ride home quickly diminishing after a sandwich and pastry. ‘If it was “back in the day”, we’d be riding home the same way we came,’ I suggest to Cameron and Rod. Now that would mark the true sign of hardmen – by today’s standards especially. From the expression on their faces, it’s safe to say we can leave that for the record books.
The rider’s ride
Guru Photon R with Shimano Dura-Ace, $10,000, gurucycles.com
By the time we’d reached Christchurch the French-Canadian-bred Guru Photon R had done some serious mileage. It had undertaken a rigorous testing and review process for Issue #8, but we liked it so much that we kept it a little longer than normal. For those new to the brand or our magazine, this particular frameset is one of only about 1,500 that are made each year. It’s a minuscule quantity in comparison to the big players, but with an impressive finish both inside and out, a weight of 6.69kg complete (as ridden), 800g claimed for the frame and a range of tubing lay-up options available, it’s clear this Québécois manufacturer means business. The Photon is a top-level race machine and includes all you could expect from a bike designed by folk who are, according to R&D and composites engineer Nicolas McCrae truly making their ‘dream machines.’
How we got there
Air New Zealand took care of all our above-ground transport needs. The city is not far from the hotel but if you really can’t wait any longer once getting off your flight, the airport even has a dedicated mountain biking track just outside the terminal. We didn’t have the off-roadies for this leg so instead ventured to the Natural High Christchurch office to meet our guide Andy Hunt. They have a full workshop and mechanic on site just in case your precious steed suffers during the trip. Ours simply needed to be built and Natural High took care of that before we headed to our accommodation.
Post-ride recovery is a serious matter and we utilised the comfy beds and overflowing buffet of the Copthorne Hotel Commodore on Memorial Avenue – just 10 minutes from the airport.
Food and drink
After building our rides, we stopped off at the Copenhagen Bakery on Harewood Road to fuel up before reconning the Le Race course. The Scandinavian establishment has everything you’ll need pre- or post-ride.
Andy Hunt from Natural High was our guide for most of our Kiwi trip and it’s thanks to him that we found a number of hidden gems during our time. There’s a Natural High base right at Christchurch airport and another conveniently located near the Copenhagen Bakery. If you’re new to the city and want to know where to ride, need to hire a bike, get some repairs done or even want a cycling-friendly campervan, Natural High can get the job done. Finally, cheers to Tourism New Zealand for helping to make it all happen.