Words by Mike Ferrentino
If one happens to be a regular bike racer, entering a bike race or two while on vacation is probably a fine and dandy way to explore the familiar competitive milieu in an exotic setting. If, however, one has thrown 12 years worth of soil on top of the grave of one’s competitive aspirations, then stomped that soil down good and hard, entering a cross country race in the heat of a Nelson summer at the bottom of the world is probably not the smartest idea.
Mike Stylianou is the New Zealand distributor for Santa Cruz bikes, amongst other things. This is how I got to know him, during my stint working for that company. Because of the company connection, and because of the long ago childhood I spent down in the land of the long white cloud, and because of a couple mutual friends and my oldest brother all living in Nelson, Mike spent a lot of time chipping away over the years at my resolve to come race this event of his – the Coppermine. And, as luck or timing would have it, during the past few visits to New Zealand, I always managed to avoid the race, and each trip to Nelson would be rewarded with rides full of insanely steep terrain, beech forests, lifetime portions of tree roots served up in single rides, and shredded tires.
Nelson riding, you see, is damn steep. Awesome, but steep. Steep as, as the locals might say.
Anyway, the fates finally conspired against me, and I realized that on this trip I was going to be in Nelson around the time of the Coppermine, and Mike’s relentless water torture over the years finally had the desired effect, and so I found myself one hour before the race doing everything there is to do wrong with a grease gun while rebuilding my pivots to silence a creaking noise. It may have been over a decade since I pedaled with intent, but at least my old pre-race habits are still in fine form. Idiot…
The Coppermine itself is a pretty sweet race, very reminiscent of big single loop XC races in the states that used to be part of the regular landscape of pain – like the old course for the Shasta LeMurian. Somewhere between 26 and 30 miles, starting with a solid hour of climbing for the fast guys, then entering a ridgeline hell of roots and gnarl that about the only suitable preparation for would have been a lifetime of pig hunting, followed by some more climbing, then a descent long enough and fast enough to make your eyes bleed, followed by a fast and flat flume run, a couple small final uphill kicks to the groin just to remind you that racing is best left to the strong and the masochistic, and finally the sweet release of a finish line and a complimentary cold beer.
Ironically, it isn’t very indicative of Nelson riding in general, aside from the pig hunter’s paradise at the top of the climb (which was this year signposted with a banner reading “welcome to trail riding heaven” upon entering the bush, a few feet after a pair of angels were serving beer at the top of the first climb. Ahhh, the subtle kiwi sense of humor…), and the steep bits of the opening climb itself. Mike had warned me this trip, after my last outing with him had been one of skating wildly down slippery rocks and being funneled into hell and back by even more slippery roots as a skinny pair of xc tires did absolutely nothing to contend with the steepness of the terrain, or the unforgiving nature of the rocks and roots, and the mud. “You’re coming to Nelson, Mike” he said, “Bring some Nelson tires. Not those things you had last time…”
As such, racing the Coppermine is a mixed bag. If coming to Nelson for the riding, there are numerous other options of sweet but gnarly terrain to choose from that would offer a more sublime trail riding experience. But, as far as races go, it is just the right blend of uphill suffering, technical “oh, look, you’re having trouble even walking on this shit now that your pulse is redlined and your legs are jelly from that hour and a half opening climb” whatever, fun descent and pedaling until one’s sacrum clenches tight. Which is kind of what racing is all about; the sacrum.
A solid 12 years after giving up on the whole pedaling hard enough to get tunnel vision, I am a whole lot slower than my once upon a time level of mediocre fast. But the other day in Nelson, while getting dropped by girls wearing tutus and men with no socks (tutus I can handle, but the no sock thing is inexcusable), I still managed to pedal hard enough for a few hours to get my lower back to knot up, just like the good old days. A little cup of beer never felt so well earned. And ironically, there was that tiny little voice inside telling me that if I trained a bit, maybe ditched the High Rollers for a day, and bit down a bit harder, maybe next year I could smoke that girl in the tutu. Dead and buried, but like a vampire or a zombie, the old donkey chasing the carrot hunger is never really put all the way to rest…