Episode 14: The mighty Crown Range

Route: Queenstown to Wanaka via Crown Range Road
Distance: 70.5km
Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes

View from the Crown Range
View from the Crown Range, inc. Lake Wakatipu

I’m sure most of you will be able to relate to the feeling I got when my alarm went off at 7am this morning. The bed was feeling really warm, it was cold outside and I could really have done with a sleep in. On the other side of the coin, I would kick myself later on if I missed a chance to ride over the Crown Range just because I was a little sluggish in waking up.

After much groaning and whinging I got my gear together, packed my bags into the car and set off from our Queenstown accommodation at about 8.30am. Sharon was going to catch a few extra hours of sleep and then drive out to meet me at Wanaka, 70km into our 400km of driving for the day.

Yesterday’s rain had cleared up and once I was on the bike and heading east, I couldn’t work out what all my earlier whinging was about – it was a lovely day to be on the bike, I was feeling good and looking forward to the challenge of climbing up and over the Crown Range.

Start of Crown Range Road
Start of Crown Range Road

The first 19km of the ride took me back along the main road between Queenstown and Cromwell a road which, as touched on yesterday, carries a significant amount of traffic. With drier weather and being early in the morning things weren’t as unpleasant as yesterday and before I knew it I was staring up at the imposing site of the Crown Range Road hairpins snaking away above me.

As with my experience on Coronet Peak yesterday I didn’t really know what to expect from this climb. All I had heard and read was that it pretty solidly ‘up’ for the first 3km and that the 70km from Queenstown to Wanaka would see me me go ‘up and over’ the Range. That was it.

Crown Range Road switchbacks
Crown Range Road switchbacks

As it turned out, both parts of information were correct. The first section of climbing was a pretty sustained section of around 3km long that saw the road doubling back on itself many times, providing spectacular views into the valley below and beyond. I struggled in the early parts of the climb but by the top of the initial three kays I was feeling good and looking forward to the next section.

After those initial kays of climbing the road flattened out somewhat for a few kays, still climbing gradually, but certainly not with the intensity of the first section and definitely not with the intensity of the section I was approaching.

Climbing the Crown Range
Climbing the Crown Range

After a few kilometres of rather pedestrian climbing the road kicked skyward again and stayed that way for the best part of 5km. If I had to guess, I’d say the average gradient for the those final 5km was about 8%, much like the ascent to Coronet Peak. While that gradient might sound manageable, throw in a number of sections of 12% or so and you are looking at some pretty hard yakka.

The road itself reminded me a bit of the climb up to Mt. Hotham, the last 10km especially. Not just because of the stretches in excess of 10% gradient but because of the way the road wound tightly around the ridgeline. Every corner of the climb looked like it could be the last but then, sure enough, I’d turn the bend to see another couple hundred metres of climbing ahead of me.

All in all, it was probably 11km of climbing from the start of the Crown Range Road to the road’s highest point. Incidentally, it wasn’t just the road’s highest point but the highest sealed road in New Zealand. It’s quite amazing to think that in a country that has mountains that extend well above 3000m that the highest sealed road is less than 1100m above sea level. That’s lower than Mt. Donna Buang!

Top of the Range
'The highest sealed road in New Zealand'

So, after 30km of riding I still had 40km to go before reaching the lakeside town of Wanaka. Luckily, most of it happened to be downhill, with only the last 15km or so being flat. I made good time down from the Crown Range and I would have made better time were it not for a brutal headwind on the descent and the fact that the road surface was quite horrific in places. I’m used to the rough road surfaces of rural Victoria but these roads were uneven as well, with potholes and bumps aplenty.

That aside, it was a fairly swift descent into the valley and after less than three hours of riding I reached Wanaka and met up with Sharon. What started off as a bit of a reluctant effort to do the training I desperately needed turned into a pleasant and satisfying ride across some truly memorable landscapes.

Rolling into Wanaka
Yours truly, rolling into Wanaka

It’s been said before, and will surely be said again, but the sheer diversity of landscape in New Zealand is breathtaking. No sooner have you left the alps behind than you are driving through the most lush rainforest imaginable, as we did today on our way through the Mt. Aspiring National Park out to the West Coast and glacier country.

New Zealand is a truly amazing country and with that comes some equally amazing cycling opportunities. I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to get in three rides already this trip and with any luck, I’ll manage to get in a few more.

Thanks again for continuing to follow my progress and I hope that you are all managing to keep dry back in Australia. It’s amazing and quite heartening to see how much media coverage is given to the Australian floods here – despite the obligatory teasing and stirring, Australians and New Zealanders do seem to share a strong bond. Or, as one tour guide put it to Sharon and I in Queenstown, ‘you are our little cousins, bro!’.

53 days to go…

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