Words Liam Friary
Images Cameron Mackenzie

The southern mountains of Aotearoa have a certain mystique. Their snowcapped peaks reach into the heavens and, nestled deep in the valleys, are settlements. One such place is Glenorchy, which is a small settlement at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu in the South Island region of Otago, New Zealand.

It is approximately 45km by road or boat from Queenstown, the nearest large town. There are two pubs, a few cafés, and a range of small shops in the town, catering mainly to tourists but also to the resident population. The inaugural Glenorchy Gravel Grind, which is a non-profit fundraiser for the Glenorchy Trails Trust, was held in October 2023. Of course, it piqued my interest when I first learned about it through my social media algorithm. I mean, the region is home to some of the most amazing scenery in our country. There are numerous ways of accessing the southern backcountry from basically any direction. Glenorchy also has an abundance of gravel roads which is how the event was conceived.

Nothing is certain until it happens. Life is a fluid situation that’s constantly shifting. We fool ourselves into thinking we have control over everything. The reality is that shit happens and generally more frequently than we would like. The journey to the start line of any event is never straightforward. And, like most, I’ve had a few setbacks blending bike time with actual life. However, regardless of the trials and tribulations, I was excited about heading to the inaugural Glenorchy Gravel Grind. It’s the scenic location of this iconic event that really enticed me.

The first of my false starts was turning up to the airport a fraction late. I had hustled to have everything packed beforehand. That’s two bikes and a plethora of other cycling bits and bobs that are neatly packed away in my garage. I sipped on my third black coffee and thought, is the taxi van running a bit late? The driver called and said the road was blocked by a crane on a truck, trying to get into a driveway. He eventually turned up 15 – 20mins after the call and we loaded my bike boxes and bags into his van. The driver donned his rally hat and got me to the airport within a New York minute. I jumped outta the van and made the gate exactly on closing time. I’d missed the bloody flight. A bit gutted, I asked the airline staff, “what next?”. Unfortunately, no flights could be taken to Queenstown until that evening. And at this time, it wasn’t even midday! I got the flight refunded and walked over to Jetstar. There was a flight leaving in an hour and a half. Problem solved, right?! Well, not exactly. I checked in both bike boxes and another bag. They weren’t happy with my bike paraphernalia, even though I’d booked for extra baggage, and asked me to pay a ludicrous fee. I refused and asked for a refund. That was a hassle, and I would never recommend that particular airline if you have bikes – but we’ll leave that there. At this point, I wasn’t hopeful of the trip going ahead. I slumped in a stall and chowed down a Best Ugly bagel. I felt a bit helpless but needed to go through with it. I rebooked with Air New Zealand for the last flight of the evening and sat outside the airport for most of the day attending to the bike related admin that trickles through my inbox.

The second false start was the impending weather. It’s fair to say it’s been problematic on our antipodean island of late. My ‘carb load’ grub was large plate of fried rice paired with a beer beforehand. I had now spent more than half a day at the airport. I checked my inbox and had received an email from Glenorchy Gravel Grind that the event would be shortened due to bad weather and high rivers. I was a little disappointed – as any rider would be – at not being able to do the full distance, but at least we’d still be getting to ride in one of the most beautiful places in Aotearoa.

The long transfer day proceeded. I jumped off the flight, in Queenstown, just before 10pm. The flight itself was a sight to behold as we headed west, watching the sun set on the horizon and, once south, the mountain’s silhouettes became visible with the last of the light sitting behind their tall peaks. Once landed, I unpacked the bikes in the airport carpark so they could fit onto the bike rack of my mate’s truck. We loaded the rest of the bike paraphernalia into the Ute tray. I had asked my buddy – Andrew Pike, whom I’ve done many rides with – to come across from Oz for the event. Of course, he was into it, but as I’d had flight complications, he had actually turned up hours earlier. Luckily, the many watering holes in Queenstown kept him and my other mate occupied. We checked into our digs just after 11.30pm. This wasn’t the way I had wanted things to go but, like I said, we don’t always have control. Whatever happens, you just need to move forward, dealing with problems as they arise. The wind was howling down the valley, you could just see white caps glistening on Lake Wakatipu under the dark night skies. After a few ales, I tucked myself under the duvet just after midnight.

It’s amazing the bond you can share on the bike when you’re suffering; it’s quite special.

The next morning was race day…. and also Election Day (14th October 2023). I would race and then vote. A good day out in my books. The morning was grim with hard rain bucketing down, mixed with severe strong winds. The night’s digs, Kinloch Lodge, served breakfast and coffee whilst we hustled to put our rain booties on. I think we arrived at the start line with about five minutes to spare. It was still heavily raining as we lined up for the briefing – by the end I was wet through. It was quite hard to see for the first half of the race as the rain was driving. The course entered several gravel sectors which were tough, as it was soft with the rain. I was expending a heap of energy, but focused on the moment and just being out here. We are always at the mercy of the weather in this country, and perhaps more so in the mountain environment.

After a few hours, the rain finally started to clear. Low cloud lingered around the mountains, and we really started to take in the place and all its beauty. This sport isn’t for the faint hearted and this day reminded me of that. The wind started to get up for the remainder of the ride, draining most of the remaining energy I had. I had been swapping between small groups for most of the race but, at this point, I was with one other rider. It was like we knew what each other needed without talking; swapping turns whenever one of us dropped a little pace. I suppose this is the universal language of cycling. I helped him get over the last final climb knowing that we were stronger together. We then rode into the finish and yarned like a couple of old friends but, soon afterwards, went our separate ways. It’s amazing the bond you can share on the bike when you’re suffering; it’s quite special.

I celebrated the race with a bottle of Speights in the Glenorchy Hotel with Andrew and a few locals. It wasn’t a false start after all, and perhaps more satisfying with the adversity before and during the race. I popped over to Glenorchy School and cast my vote. That day was one for the books and will be etched into my memory forever.