From the Flames
Following a devastating fire, the Aorere Enduro came back stronger
Words by Michael Hayward
Images by Henry Jaine & Digby Shaw
Some forests need regular fires to regenerate. Some trees will not flower unless they have been burned; others need flames to open their cones or buds to release seeds.
The pine plantations around Nelson are not those sorts of trees. So when a huge fire broke out in the Pigeon Valley on February 5, 2019, quickly growing to be the largest the country had seen since 1955, it was a disaster—and not just for the 3000 people evacuated from their homes, or the landowners who lost about 2400 hectares of plantation pine.
The blaze also forced the cancellation of the Aorere Enduro (an Enduro World Series continental round and arguably Nelson Mountain Bike Club’s most high profile race yet) just one day before it was meant to start.
But the Aorere’s seeds were ready to sprout, and the fire gave it the chance to grow into something special the second time around.
For race director Hamish Berkett, the fires were doubly stressful because he works in forestry, so was called in for some massive shifts helping coordinate the firefighting efforts on the back of some huge days prepping for the Aorere. The fire risk meant a heap of extra work was needed for the event: fire management and evacuation plans had to be made last minute and water tankers and firefighters wrangled to be on standby. But things looked like they would go ahead until the last minute—the day before it was cancelled, Hamish had gone out and marked the course.
The team were gutted when they had to pull pin after putting months of volunteer work into it, especially since in the immediate aftermath there was no prospect of running another continental round. Hamish said it was a “hard pill to swallow thinking we had done so much for nothing”.
But EWS head honcho Chris Ball, who had ridden in Nelson and knew what the masses were missing out on, soon offered the team a chance to have another go at the end of the year.
Hamish said he doesn’t know how the team found the motivation to do it all again, but there was a feeling that they owed it to the race to have another try. “Even though the event didn’t go ahead in February, we had learnt a lot from it so we came back to the table with what we wanted to change and how to improve it.”
With just six months to pull it all together, the club was under a tight timeframe. It’s the details like arranging permits, sponsorship, and shuttle logistics that take the time to organise but are barely considered by competitors when they run smoothly.
The crew made two major changes to their February plans: they moved the event village to the MCG (Matai Cricket Ground) after residents near the old site complained, and reduced the number of days from four to three (of practice and racing) to make the event a bit more relaxed and give the public more chances to come and watch. It also meant riders came through the race village more often, meaning there was more going on there.
Hamish has a (partly deserved) reputation for putting on a tough race, stemming largely from 2018’s infamous Mammoth Enduro (it’s in the name, people) that received a few complaints for being a bit too much.
Those coming back for a second dose at Aorere were pleasantly surprised by how much more manageable the course was. It was still a big few days of riding with some testing tracks, particularly the long and varied Aorere trail, which took the fastest racers more than nine minutes, and fan favourite Te Ara Koa, a five-kilometre-long technical joy dropping through native bush.
Almost 200 people entered, enjoying the great trails and weather, relaxed atmosphere, and hordes of screaming spectators. The beer and salmon burgers at the end were a hit as well.
Hamish said the race went well and he’s had good feedback but there were always things that could be improved.
“It was a very different course and style to what we have run previously in Nelson and the course relied pretty heavily on spectators making it something special, which they surely did.”
Organising a race of this calibre is a huge and often thankless undertaking, putting strain on not only those running it but also their families. It also relies on the help of a mass of hard-working volunteers on the day. Hamish said a big part of what keeps him doing it is the challenge of putting together a cool race.
“Seeing the stoke levels at the end of a successful event is really the only payment you get, which is generally enough for us to keep on doing what we do.”