Steep, sustained, and highly technical natural trail.
Origin of Peen
2010-2015; derived from Kidney English penisy (adj) used to describe frightening and exciting precipitous trails; antonym: flow trail; park. E.g. “THAT was certified peen. I think I shaved my grundle on my rear tyre.”
I used to be a peen guy. Not the fastest, nor the most skilled or even the bravest—but a connoisseur certainly. I had an appetite for the stuff that eclipsed most others. Whatever was on the menu, I wanted to skip straight to the steepest, chunkiest, rootiest, most bewildering of the lot: the peen. But I am and I was just a mere organism in a system, and systems evolve. One must adapt to survive.
The theory of encephalization holds that around 2-3 million years ago, the brains of early hominids started increasing in size and complexity. The size of the brain is always limited by the pelvis it must pass through. And that in turn is limited by the biomechanics required to keep us upright and bipedal, so there was only so far it could go.
But the simple version of the theory is that in between periods of stasis, the brain underwent three dramatic bursts (encephalizations). Scientists map the stepwise increases in brain size and complexity against punctuated evolutionary change, leading to the modern H. Sapiens and casting off all forbearers.
The point of all this, is that I think we have recently experienced an encephalization in the realm of peen, and like gentle old Australopithecus, oblivious to his extinction drawing near, I fear I too might be left to poke faeces around a cave in my own dwindling Pliocene, unless I can saddle up and drop in.
What is peen today?
To answer this question involves a brief study of the modern mountain bike. Peen is eternal—it has been and will always be characterised by its demanding, janky nature. Buff trails, however steep, are not peen; nor are wooden structures or forty-foot gap jumps.
The secret, and the charm, of peen is that it just is. Its formation involves simply an uncovering of potential, and to square off against it is to confront what already exists in the world. It’s the purest form of challenge, and it is one that impresses its indifference upon you. Trail builders want to know you enjoyed their trail, because this is the only way their efforts are ennobled. Peen couldn’t care less. If you don’t ride it, it will happily squelch away, folding great stands of forest into its bogs through the eons, its essential nature undisturbed.
In that sense, mountain bikers have always had niggly walking trails to pilfer. Trampers (perhaps inadvertently) are symbiotic with peen. The minimalist tracks they’ve etched through New Zealand’s forests and over its ranges provide furtive ground for highly technical riding. And this is nothing new—it dawned on early riders that the freeze-dried meals and wholesome labours of tramping could probably be swapped out for their scrotty old bikes. You might not get the clean satisfaction of a virtuous pursuit, but you do get some pretty sick yahoos.
What’s changed is the scale of what’s achievable.
The story comprises two parts: man and machine. The machines are straightforward. A major technological shift saw mountain biking emerge from its road cycling hangover, blinking and rubbing its eyes. Stems got shorter, handlebars got wider, travel increased and angles decreased.
This saw an upscaling of sizing and stability, accompanied by the ubiquity of dropper posts. The benefit is obvious: you have more confidence and stability going into things, and you can then manoeuvre yourself into even more confident and stable positions.
Part two of the peen encephalization has seen a substratum of riders embrace (and frankly run away with) the concept of going steep and deep. In Wellington, the hunting ground of peeners has historically been the Akatarawa jungle, as well as a smattering of less-than-fully-legal trails spun between its suburbs. As peen has come further into focus, trails have become gnarlier, and wandering eyes have strayed further afield.
In Wellington, a hat tip is owed to Morepork, a steep trail diving off the Eastern Hutt hills. It was once a well-kept secret and a naughty wee outing, but it’s pretty well tolerated now. The concept is as scrotty as they come—chase a trap line down a soggy ridge to a disused biscuit factory. Its philosophical distance from any sort of rubber stamp gave it its charm and its freedom of expression, and all of a sudden riders had easy access to a succession of manky features to plunge down. People spoke in hushed tones and hatched secret little missions to have a crack at it. It was all terribly exciting, and it raised a new high-water mark for technical riding near the city. Now, it’s been deservedly cemented as a cult classic.
While trail availability has blossomed, the men and women of peen have elevated its pursuit to giddy heights. Group chats share screenshots of Topo maps and speculate on the contoured lines stacked like dimes on top of one another. Buoyed by one another and fortified by the quiet presence of PLBs, riders will gather round a huge, queasy move deep in the bush. As someone straddles their bike and lurches toward it, the group watches on in a wonderful mix of solemnity and elation that I’m yet to observe anywhere else in life.
Week in and week out, the community drives itself onward, and peen is consecrated in the hearts and minds as each awaits the next great adventure. The love was there, all it needed was to be formalised.
The Richmond Range
The Richmond range lies between Marlborough and Nelson. It was crunched skyward by the slow grind of the Alpine fault and it spans 80km, bordered by the Pelorus river and the Bryant Range to the north and falling away to the Wairau fault-angle depression in the south-east. It’s the second largest forest park in New Zealand and it contains a handful of peaks that rise above 1700m. Historically used for mining and milling, it inauspiciously became the site of New Zealand’s first passenger service air crash in 1942 when an aircraft heading from Wellington to Nelson smashed into Mt Richmond, killing all five onboard.
The range is flanked by tracts of exotic pines, which provide access to its sumptuous interior. The lower reaches are mainly beech and podocarp, thinning out to tussocks and shrubs further up. As you near the high points, the range’s rocky peaks crane out over the sub-alpine. The trails are wild and utilitarian—rising and falling unapologetically along ridges shaped by nothing more deliberate than the deep pacific plates crumpling into one another over millennia. They’re a bit manky and overgrown, and they’re relentlessly, discomfortingly steep.
It was the Richmond Range that sparked a brave new concept, and if it wasn’t itself a focus of encephalisation, it certainly marked a step in the cultural evolution. Tom Cappleman and Tony O’Halloran visited the range and camped together like the excited boys they are, trading farts in the confines of a converted Hiace. Over two days they doubled up Mt Riley and Mt Fishtail, 1314m and 1641m respectively. In the euphoric haze that follows two days of steep native forest, they arrived at the obvious conclusion: if two days’ riding was that good, surely five would be simply divine.
The Richmond Roulette
The call went out. Five days over 4 – 8 December 2019. The peaks would be marked on a Roulette wheel, spun each evening to mark the next day’s ride. No repeats. The only preordained peak was a logistical heli-drop on Day 3 to the summit of Mt Starveall (while not the highest peak at 1528m, the approach is from Nelson rather than Marlborough). The crew was to camp in a meadow at the foot of Mt Riley, and the only rules were to swim in the river each day, and not to be a jerk.
Fishtail, Richmond, Starveall, Riley, Fell.
The group found that the trails were beset by a good deal of windfall, and that some of the access was even hampered by fallen trees, necessitating quick stops with the silkie. Although most were well-versed in peen, one brave attendee Luke had never ventured into that sort of bush. Imagine having never clambered up a rooty ledge, or wrestled your bars free from supplejack, and being faced with five days of shouldering a heavy bike up successive 1300m+ peaks. Talk about a baptism by fire.
At the end of Day 2, the riders were descending off Mt Richmond (1760m). Having successfully navigated the peen without incident, they were hurtling down a gravel road, about to ford a small creek. Scotty Newman, a GP by day, got up on the back wheel. As the front lifted up, he feathered the rear brake to settle it down, only to feel it pull straight to the bar. There was no time to react as he looped out and all 95+ kg of the man slammed into the gravel, winding him instantly.
As the clinician lay there struggling for air, the group panicked. Tom initiated some strange brand of erogenous first aid and, much to Scotty’s consternation, lent down next to him and gently blew into his ear. He would later admit that he didn’t know what to do, he just wanted to help. Once Scotty had got his lungs back and swatted Tom away, he directed one of the group to perform a rudimentary spinal exam. Eventually, gingerly, they were able to get moving.
Once the group had recovered from that, they set off to finish out the access road, again at full tilt. This time Justin Henehan failed to notice a small viney bush blocking part of the track until it yanked his handlebars out beneath him, smashing him into the ground. This incident was rather more serious. Justin lay confused, clutching at a snapped collarbone, delivering the same impassioned apology, and complimenting everyone’s Richmond Roulette T-shirts repeatedly—worrying signs that his brain had collided with his skull. It didn’t take too much thought to activate the PLB, and within 30 minutes a chopper had arrived to carry Justin away to safety, free of charge.
A din of excitement surrounded the third day. For many in the group, it was their first time in a chopper, and the destination was sublime: the high point of Mt Starveall, a broad rocky ridge standing guard over the southern end of the Bryant range. The track is billed as a steep and physically difficult one-day tramp, which is surely dirty talk for any self-respecting peener. And the route is proper alpeen—the kind of place that can go from bluebird skies to clouds pouring in over the saddles within minutes.
Part-way down, one of the group squared off against a very consequential and odds-against sort of a move. It’s not clear what went wrong; perhaps the law of percentages simply asserted itself. What is clear is that when young Rhys sat up, his pinky finger was deviated 90° from its intended place. After a few minutes of the resident GP positively swinging on the finger to try and relocate it, they’d got it into some sort of workable shape.
“Look! It’s straight!”, cried Rhys with delight. As the group eagerly observed the finger, it twitched and slowly arced outward in real time, snapping back to its right angle state. Not one to gift a win, Rhys didn’t let this stop him from charging back to the front to duke it out in the Alpha-peen battle to reach the valley floor first, but at some stage his senses caught up with him. He eased up, and at the end of the day, that would be the end of the journey for both him and Scotty, who’d discovered a few broken ribs during the previous night’s sleep.
On Day Four, the heavens opened. Before the group had set out for Mt Riley, great curtains of rain were laying into their campsite, and they showed no signs of abating. Near the top, after a fairly miserable climb, Thomas Lindup was casually observing Jess Cox mooching about the tussocks, when all of a sudden a fork of lightning slammed into the ground next to her, immediately followed by thunder overhead.
They decided to get down the hill.
The thing about Riley is that it’s heinously steep, but it coaxes you into having a go. Often there is a small visible catch or feature to arrest your momentum, and it gives you the illusion of security. The problem is that you can’t see beyond that bit (not that you’re looking), and by the time you get to it you’re committed to whatever comes straight after it, which is usually much more serious.
You might think the torrential rain would have inspired some caution, but the group was overtaken by some apocalyptic instinct, and as the rain sheeted in on them, they attacked. Themselves. Each other. The steep lattices of slippery, black roots. The glistening slabs of rock.
The plump, green tussocks. The soggy, wilted cornflakes. Nothing was safe as the group rode its manic high to the bottom, inside-lining one another and flinging themselves across the track in extravagant and dramatic crashes. By the end, a day that objectively should have been among the worst had provided memories that would prove to be among the most cherished.
The final day to Mt Fell was an important lesson in taking secondhand advice with a grain of salt. Dougal (the mythical Irishman) said Fell was superb, and all rideable. After a late start, the group found that it was a punishing traverse to get in, followed by a grisly carry up, all in the same pouring rain as the day before. By the time the group was forced to turn around, they found that nearly none of the track back down was rideable. It was a true double-dickhead day. The terrain above their turnaround point might’ve been rideable; that remains to be seen. What is certain is that Dougal’s name was sullied mightily on the fifth day of the Roulette on the sodden flanks of Mt Fell.
Although the event had a 50% attrition rate, the only change for 2020 is more of the same. The group found that it delivered exactly what they hoped. It was a stunning exhibition of true backcountry adventure. Instead of five days, they’re now exploring a seven-day Roulette, finishing on a Friday to aid societal re-entry. Once again, it’s an invitational event, open to peen fiends who can demonstrate their bona fides, or to quality associates of an existing participant.
Follow the event here: @richmond_roulette (IG) and www.richmondroulette.co.nz (web) and keep an eye out for your chance to overdose on the top of the South’s finest jank.