After 12 hour work days and being inside a 16 mile radius for nearly 90 days straight, it is enough to drive anyone crazy. With the occasional rocket attack and the stress of all work and no play, the days blend together and daydreams of far away destinations take place. Being deployed in Bagram, Afghanistan as a Department of the Army civilian for nearly 18 months, it has been worth the sacrifice of supporting the military and the war effort but challenging indeed.

Freedom is spinning the wheels and living the dream, especially when living and working in a war zone. This statement became true when I realized that all I wanted to do was mountain bike every day while on Rest and Recuperation (R&R)! I wondered if this was too big of an endeavor for me to bite off, even while in the planning stages but the Pacific Cycle Tours Operations Manager Axel encouraged me to join the group and said that it would be challenging and fun!

Anxiety of what challenges I was to face began to build during the 21 hours in the air from Afghanistan to New Zealand. Not knowing what to expect or what the group was going to be like was unsettling for me. I was told two Germans, two Swiss and a man from Australia was accompanying me on this mountain biking adventure. After hearing this, I thought I was definitely in for a full can of whoop ass! I landed in Christchurch airport and spent 2 nights on my own before I joined the mountain biking group on Monday afternoon.

Axel, our mountain biking guide who was born in Germany, took us to a local Christchurch park called Bottle Lake Forest that had a smooth, flowy single track and a bike obstacle course at the end of our ride. It was a fun, easy day for us to try out our bikes, to bond with one another and ensure everything was ready for our couple weeks of riding. All anxiety was erased and replaced with excitement and a lot of laughter, even on the first day our group seemed to mesh extremely well.

Port Hills: It’s all About the Climb The second day of the tour, we left from the Latimer hotel after a nice breakfast. It was great sitting with everyone and chatting before the adventure of the day. We drove to Halswell Quarry Park outside of Christchurch and rode up and up and up. It was around a 2-hour continuous climb up to the peak where Christchurch could be admired in the valley below. Miley Cyrus was not kidding when she said it is all about the climb!

I had the most difficult time climbing at a continuous pace and on top of it all, I was last. It was frustrating! There were quite a few times I had to walk the bike up the hill and at one point I felt like crying because I was so angry with myself due to my poor climbing skills and lack of endurance. I managed to underestimate the difficulty of this mountain biking trip. The mountain bike guide Axel would ride back down to check on me and ride for a bit. He would encourage and talk to me about technique and how to stay in aerobic mode. He would often say there was only one more hill to go and then we would get to the rest point and there would be more!

This went on for quite awhile and I was getting exhausted. Regardless of my burning legs I kept pushing to make it to the top, whether it was walking or riding. During my ride a familiar yoga mantra came to mind, to be present and accept where you are; to have neither attachment nor judgment towards self. It was about being present regardless of circumstances. During this ride I kept feeling inadequate, stupid and slow, constantly judging myself. It was literally a mental war in my mind that kept badgering and saying horrible things. At one point, Deb who is from Switzerland joined me in my climb and pushed both of our bikes up the hill. The support offered by everyone was tremendous and made me feel less critical of my ability to climb.

What goes up must come down! Thank God! I would say the downhill portion was easier than climbing but it was still very difficult. There were times I had to get off of my bike and walk because of rock gardens and narrow passageways. Serious switchbacks that were extremely complex to ride were pushing me to my limit as a novice rider. After riding those hills in the first half my legs were toast, so I could not take the little hills without tiring out easily. It was definitely a mental test along with the physical. We started at 10 am and ended around 2pm to have lunch which was well earned.

We had really awesome bread, salad with blueberries, cherry tomatoes, peppers, mixed green lettuce, pomegranate juice, olive oil and balsamic mix. It was fresh and delicious! I had Swiss cheese and brie. Lovely lunch and great company after all of that work! After we restored some of our lost energy, we loaded all of our bikes and got on the road to drive to the next location.

Throughout the ride, I would say that everyone was really supportive and great to ride with. I was told to take my time and get there at my own pace, which was great advice.
__Overcoming the Rocky Roads – Aoraki/Mt Cook We arrived to Aoraki/Mt. Cook after a scenic drive past a large, beautiful aqua filled lake. It was a great clear day to observe Mt. Cook and some of the other mountain ranges that are similar to the Himalayas. I saw my first glacier today! The view was spectacular!!! We had the joy and lots of laughter while visiting the Observatory Center with all of the collected taxidermy animals and specimens that were on display.

Late in the afternoon, Axel drove our mountain biking group to Moraine Road that lead to a great view of Mt. Cook. The bike ride was about 12K but it was on lots of loose rock! I called this the “Rocky Road Challenge” because of the continuous rock garden that went for several kilometers. It was very challenging and I was the slowest (of course) but I was sound and determined in my task of making it to the scenic lookout. If I was told to turn around I was going to have a full tantrum right then and there!

For at least an hour there was not a soul in sight and all that surrounded me were the mountains and thousands of rocks that spread before me. I would turn around and look at where I had just ridden and it would not appear as if I had gotten any closer to my destination. I was chasing a mirage and after a while I didn’t know if I was going in the right direction. As I am climbing one of the hills, around the corner there is Deb, Matthias and Axel. Though I am excited to see my mountain bike group, I quickly acknowledged them but continued pedaling to the top because I didn’t want to lose my momentum or my motivation. Axel turned around and accompanied me as I pushed myself to complete this endeavor I set out to achieve.

I made it finally, as the sun’s light and warmth disappeared behind the mountain range. It was starting to get dark and the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees in the valley as I arrived at the end of the road where the sunlit Mt. Cook gleamed down at me. Strange enough it didn’t seem any closer than when I started but it was a spectacular view from where we were standing. It was definitely worth the difficulty I faced pedaling over those rocks. Axel took a few pictures with the mountains in the back drop and then we went rolling back downhill. It was getting dark, so Axel told me we needed to hurry and advised me to allow speed to guide me down the rocks.

It was easier than I thought! At the end of the day, this taxing ride made me proud of my accomplishment and made me really appreciate my Bergamot Full-suspension bike during the downhill portion! Riding down a bunch of lose rocks taught me to trust my bike’s ability and just roll over it. Speed was my friend and the bike absorbed most of the shock, along with my knees and arms. It was a lot of fun and increased my confidence when dealing with rock.

Afterwards Deb shared with me that she didn’t think I was going to make it to the top but when she saw me ride past her, she was very impressed with my determination. As each day went by during this trip, improvements as a mountain biker were made in great strides. Matthias and the others voiced their opinions and stated that I was improving a lot over the week that we had been riding together. My skills were coming back full force! As my good friend Peter would say on our weekly rides around Bagram, “Ride it like you stole it!” And that is exactly what I did. Successful Downhill at the DH Gondola

The mountain biking group arrived to Queenstown, NZ, the place of tourism and lots of different ethnic groups. This place is definitely the road most traveled and there was a plethora of adrenaline junkie activities that were available but very expensive. Today was everyone’s day off to do whatever they felt like doing and we all split for the day. For DH mountain bikers this is one of the best places to ride downhill and the trails are designed for different levels of riders from beginner to the expert that can maneuver through everything and anything that comes their way.

Phil Oliver, our mountain biking guide, and also the business owner of Altitude Tours and partner for Henderson Cycles. He allowed me to tag along with him at the DH Gondola, mainly because I wanted to learn everything I could from him and I was going there regardless if I was doing it alone or with him. Having someone to learn from and ride with was off the charts! Phil has the patience of a teacher and enjoys sharing his knowledge to less experienced riders. As I rode the Hammy Track the first time I followed his lead and took cues from him. Then the second run Phil followed behind me giving me pointers and telling me to lean my bike, dip my shoulders and use my hips. I was cornering like I had never done before! It was scary but fun! From one day of riding downhill with Phil, it gave me more confidence and skills that I will take with me when I get back home in October 2011.

I did 5 runs on the Hammy track, one on the Terd Sandwich track (because of the dirt that leaves stains on your arse) and one on the Vertigo trail. These last two are black diamond runs and I was amazed with what I was capable of doing. I managed to pedal through steep declines that I never thought possible! This DH day was probably the highlight of my trip and what has gotten me more interested in future DH riding and possibly racing. Humbled by Queen Charlotte

Our morning started earlier than usual; by 7 a.m. we were on the road driving to Picton to catch the ferry for our epic two-day ride on the infamous Queen Charlotte Track, which is respected as one of the best single tracks in NZ. As we are waiting on the dock, Matthias takes pictures of all of our bruises from our last few weeks of riding the South Island. It was fun to compare our scars with one another, not even knowing where they came from. Many people were sitting around with their friends and families, stacks of colorful luggage of many shapes and sizes sitting on the pier. Our five mountain bikes were parked in a row, ready to be loaded onto the boat, which would take us to the beginning of our journey. We laughed and joked around as usual, this was our normal daily routine we grew accustomed to. Angelika, Matthias, Andreas, Phil (the guide) and I got along so well and there was not a moment without laughter, jokes, taking funny pictures and enjoying each other’s company.

The ferry arrives to the dock; we all embark the vessel to find our way to the bottom in a half moon booth that we all shared. As the boat left the pier, Angelika and Andreas walked around observing the fellow passengers, enjoying the different outfits and facial expressions. At one point, Andreas pleaded with me to go see what he was laughing about. I followed Andreas and he was on target with his comments and scientific observations of human interaction and behavior. Really interesting!

I settled back down in our comfortable seat with Phil and Angelika. Matthias was behind us in the other seat beginning to nod off. It was nearly a two hour ride and it was fun for the first hour but after a while, the stuffiness of the cab put me to sleep. With this group you had to beware if you fell asleep because it was guaranteed to be a camera snapping event. What did I tell you? Click, there went the flash and my eyes snapped open, yep Angelika got me once again! Sneaky bugger!

Finally we arrive to our destination, Punga Cove where we will start our bike ride of the Charlotte track. I In the end, this will be an intimate relationship formed between Queen Charlotte and myself, though I didn’t realize how close until it was all said and done. We all pop on our bikes and clip into our pedals as we ride up the single track leading us to the start point. Out of the 12 days of the South Island, this day was by far the hottest, muggiest we had ever encountered in NZ. Sigh! This is probably where it all started to spiral downward quite fast for me. At this point, I was used to the idea of being last and knew that I would be challenged but low and behold I didn’t realize HOW MUCH I would be pushed to my limit.

As soon as we started the ride on Charlotte it was an instant climb that went on for what seemed like eternity. It never ceased to amaze me that around every corner or bend, it was another incline to push myself up. Sweat was pouring from my face and my body was drenched in the first 5 minutes. My burning legs continued pushing, paying close attention to my increased heart rate and diminishing oxygen capacity. At this point I started to question my validity for being here on this mountain biking vacation.

I thought I had set one foot in the grave. Or possibly I had entered hell and didn’t realize it. I am not kidding when I say that after the first half hour, I thought I had caught a fever and then the voices started whispering, getting louder and louder as time pushed on. My tolerance level plummeted and here I was alone again. The group was ahead of me as usual, though they were very supportive and wonderful, it didn’t quiet the judgment and criticism that soon consumed me!

Phil, our mountain bike guide, was extremely supportive and would come back to check on me, and then ride back to the group ahead. He tried talking me through the hills, telling me to keep a steady pace and that slow was alright. At one point, I was very quiet and not a peep came out of me for the fear of unleashing a cry of frustration and anger. I silenced my sobs as much as I could and took long, deep breaths to stay under control. Once I was alone and everyone was completely out of sight, the tears started falling and the voices continued to badger and ridicule my lack of experience, endurance and skill to keep up with the rest of the group. My mind was at war and my body was pushing as hard as it could, gasping for air and drinking water from the camelback as if my life depended on it.
At the half way point, the rest of the gang stopped at this great vista and as I rode by I said I would keep on going because I wanted to get ahead of them. Well, I realized when I flew down to the bottom of the steep hill; it was a mistake on my part they were not riding in behind me. They had stopped for lunch and I was dead against climbing back up the hill I just sped down. I sat under the bush and ate my peanut butter banana sandwich that Matthias so kindly made that morning. In my solitude, I ate in peace and thought about how much I hated this ride. It was good that I was alone because I needed to keep from breaking down in front of the group that had been great from the very beginning of this mountain biking trip.

We get started back on the trail after lunch and here we are riding together for about 5 minutes and then here I am alone again. The Whitesnake song, “Here I Go Again” playing in my head as I steadily pedal in as smooth of a circle as I can, in the lowest gear possible. The heat, dehydration, exhaustion, frustration are all key contributing factors to making me vulnerable to the negative self-talk that implodes within me, telling me that I should not be there and that I am no good. I yelled back at the voice, to shut the f$#@! Up but it would continue pushing me to the point of a blubbering idiot, wiping tears from my blurred eyes as I continue grinding forward into the beautiful wooded area.

I stopped to take pictures along the way of bright red mushrooms, trees and bike and tried to at least enjoy that part of it. We started our ride around 12:30 that afternoon and was finished by 4:30 or 5pm. When we got to the main road where it was a decline, I let myself roll as fast as I could and allowed the crisp breeze to dance around my damp body, cooling my taxed body from the day’s heat and humidity. That was the happiest moment, when I saw the Portage hotel below me as I glided down the paved road.

The first thing we all did was get a cold pint of beer after the ride. It was by far the hardest day of this tour and I felt terrible for not being able to keep up. I was barely talking and was bummed. Matthias told me that we had climbed over 1000 meters that day and that he was very proud of me. I played it off and said that I walked my bike up a lot of the hills. He said it didn’t matter one way or another you climbed 1000 meters whether it was on your bike or your feet. Once nearly one beer was down the hatch, I began to relax and unwind from this day’s ride. All the anger and criticism subsided with more positive, happy thoughts from the beer and my mountain bike buddies that made me laugh and forget about what I didn’t do but what I did accomplish.

So many times this day, Queen Charlotte and I were in a constant fighting match, over and over I wanted to give up and say the F%$#! with it all but something inside me kept me moving forward. Was it pride, heart or stubbornness that I made it through this ride? Regardless of how I got to the finish, I made it. It didn’t matter how slow I was or how much I walked as long as I put one foot in front of the other. I was not racing the Swiss or the Germans; it was a race for my own life. This day I realized how much more I was out of shape and how much I needed to improve my health. Many times as I walked up the hill pushing my bike with snot running down my face and quiet sobs escaping, my determination and tenacity would not let me give up. When I finally relaxed and had time to reflect on the day, I had accomplished so much more than I thought I ever could. I did it! That voice that was badgering, calling me names and making me feel terrible was all of a sudden gone. My true self stepped up to the plate and hit a home run, it didn’t matter how long it took just as long as I finished.

That evening Angelika, Phil and I did cannonballs into the pool and laughed to the point of tears. Everything that I was feeling bad about disappeared. The five of us got a few bottles of wine and sat on the pier watching the sun go down, as big, cumulus clouds rolled into the side of the mountains, casting this magic feel across the water. These people I was sitting on the pier with, were not just my mountain biking buddies but they had become really good friends of mine that I will cherish for years to come.

The next day ahead of us was the mother of all mountains to embrace. I don’t know how else to describe this mountain. I don’t know what changed this day but it was a like a different person emerged from the intimate encounter with Queen Charlotte the day before. No longer were the negative voices taunting me. Regardless of being last and all alone on the trail, I was finally content with where I was in mountain biking. Phil did come back to ride with me several times and even carried my bike up the mountain because I was winded and it was ridiculously steep. My ego was put to rest. It did not matter to me anymore. I finally accepted that it was what it was. All I could do was my best and that is what I did. The day before was ten times as worse for me and today all of sudden it was quiet. True peace and a quiet mind had finally taken place. This was a celebration for me! Not only did I finish this difficult trail, my ego did not have anything else to say.

We finished the 25k ride at high noon, Angelika, Matthias and Phil jumped into the lake. I put my legs in to wash off the dirt and mud but it was a little frigid for me. We cleaned up and got ready to hit the road for our last lunch together as a group. We stopped at an information center for me to get a bus ticket from Blenheim to Nelson. In a half hour we drove from Picton to Blenheim. My tour ended a day earlier so I could go to Nelson to see my friend Shelley Monrad and finish my last 3 days relaxing before flying back to Afghanistan.

Never Say Good-bye I reluctantly finished my 14-day South Island New Zealand mountain biking tour with Pacific Cycles. It was really sad to leave everyone. I got misty-eyed having to leave a day earlier than everyone. Through challenges, sweat, laughter and beer we became very close as a group. There is no such thing as saying good-bye; it is more like a “see ya later” because we plan on meeting in the near future in Europe.

Her Beauty & Grace As I sat in Christchurch Airport and reflected, many thoughts and emotions went through my mind. I was at the Coffee Club, just finishing a pesto bruschetta and an orgasmic bailey’s cheesecake. I could not believe my vacation was finished. It went by that fast and now the journey is nearly complete and then back to reality.

A moment of nearly breaking down transpired when I was in the Nelson airport right before boarding the plane. I saw two ladies (perhaps a Mum & daughter) and they were hugging each other tightly for a long time. I could feel the emotion emitting between these two beings. The energy transferred to me and my eyes misted uncontrollably. Sadness had set in like the low lying clouds right before a rainstorm.

I am really going to miss this place! I am not leaving a friend, lover or family member, I am leaving a place that is welcoming and warm; somewhere I could call home. The mountains bowed to my heart as if embracing me one more time as I walked towards the plane. It was tough to imagine not seeing these beautiful mountains and aqua, teal waterways for a long time.

Before I embarked the plane, I knew I had one more chance to see her beautiful terrain and gorgeous face, so I prepared myself mentally while I waited for the plane to arrive at the gate. This was not a “Good-bye” like I said before; this was a “See ya later!” My heart was filled with an intense love and warmth for the people I had met during my mountain biking trip and for a heavenly place that exudes nature, freedom and openness.
May New Zealand always keep me in her heart; I will keep her in my heart. It is a long term relationship that I will continue to build from now and into the many years to come. Until next time, bon voyage and safe travels.
By Sharon Strickland, New Zealand Mountain Bike Tour – Southern Off-road Adventure, 2011.

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