Sunday, February 28, 2016

Family fun in the Far North

My most anticipated ride of 2015 was actually not until the first week of this year. 

Despite all the road racing I've been doing, I'm a cycle-tourist at heart.  After very successfully sharing that passion with Sarah back in August (a somewhat outrageous month in NZ to try touring for the first time), I figured it was time to give my beautiful daughters a taste of it.  

I've been to Bluff once, about 16 years ago, but have only been north of Auckland on a small number of occasions, and never further than Goat Island. Aside from my own urge to colour in that bit of my Age of Empires-style map of NZ, my proposed route - from Cape Reinga down to Auckland - was surely one of the flatter rides possible in NZ, and I thought, a sensible taster.  The Kennett Bros seemed to think it was a good idea too, and it would be a matter of linking together the Far North Cycleway (from Cape Reinga to the Rawene Ferry), the Kauri Coast Cycleway (from Rawene to Dargaville), and the Kaipara Missing Link (from Dargaville to Auckland).

Apart from keeping the riding vertically modest, I had in mind lugging all the gear too, which I hoped would help with the not insubstantial length of the ride.

That lead to my first logistical success.  Simon was very happy to lend me his BOB Trailer with its ample capacity for four sets of evening-wear.  But with the sandy stretch of Ninety Mile Beach early on in our ride, and a smattering of gravel later on, I realised I might have to take my Giant CRX (flat-bar roadie) with the fattest tyre I could find that would fit.

A little internet sleuthing later, I was able to indulge my 2nd or 3rd favourite hobby - shopping on the internet (the others would be riding, and writing about riding). Courtesy of the Robert Axle Project I had soon landed a 142x12mm through axle which would allow me to hitch the trailer up to my Yeti Big Top.

After that win, there were several fails which eventually saw me starting from scratch with the route. First, I discovered that Cape Reinga is not only far from Wellington, but it's pretty damn far from anywhere else too.  The Kennett Bros made the first leg sound tantalisingly simple ("From Cape Reinga, cycle down Highway 1..."), but it soon became apparent that getting four Wellingtonians to the top of the country would be expensive and time consuming, and throw in four mountainbikes and a trailer, a thoroughly non-trivial exercise.  

The second hurdle was the Kaipara Harbour.  The crossing of the Hokianga was a piece of cake, with the Rawene ferry running regularly to a published schedule.  On the contrary, the Kaipara Harbour was again looking like mega-bucks, and it would be dependent on both tides and weather.

There are some things I do very confidently, but I have a bit of a mental block when it comes to picking up the phone.  In fact, dealing with logistics by actually talking to people is at the other end of the scale to shopping on the internet.  A few years ago, I'd even planned an entire 4800km trip around France so that the only conversations I would need to have were relating to food and beds...

After scouring the 'net for boats and vans, I started to get very cool on the idea, and put my mind to finding an alternative route.

I wasn't so worried about the girls' distance capabilities, but time was going to be the scarce commodity.  We weren't going to be able to spirit Kaitlyn away from Wellington for too long, and I wanted to spend some time visiting my extended family in Auckland before boosting North.  I wanted us to get to the Cape, catch the Rawene Ferry, and to see Tane Mahuta.  After factoring the travel from Wellington, and putting a couple of dots on the map, it was time to dust off the MTBO skills and make a plan.

It didn't take long to materialise, and despite its complexity, it looked like it would have a nice balance between riding and playing tourist.  Kaitlyn was happy to fly to and from Auckland, which bought us a fat stack of time, and Khulie thought it would be fun to join her on the first flight.  Sarah and I would drive the bikes up, overnight in the Central North Island somewhere, and meet them at the airport at lunchtime.  From there we'd go and have a night with the family out at Muriwai.

We'd book a motel in Kaitaia, and would drive from Auckland, pop up to the Cape in the car, after ditching our bikes on the way through.  After a night back in Kaitaia, the riding would begin.  Opononi, about 100km away from Kaitaia seemed like a good target for Day 1, and then Kaikohe for Day 2, and a short ride to Kerikeri on our third day would put me within 90-odd km of the car back in Kaitaia, which I could knock out in the afternoon, sans trailer and companions...

The plan didn't seem madness, but nor was it going to be a walk in the park. Khulio has been clocking up some 100km rides on the roadie, but we'd be on MTBs, and the Timber Trail ride earlier in the year had been both ambitious and only 85km.  The second day, about 100km, unlike the first, had some serious vertical gain in it, which I decided to keep fairly quiet about.  On the other hand, I pimped the hell out of the last day, clocking in at a mere 40km!!

Simon peer-reviewed my "final" (and complete) route, and gave it a thumbs up. And that was that.  We all got about our preparations, including, in my case, a monster one-day ride during which I'd cover the total tour distance and then some!  At least once or twice a week, I'd declare "I can't wait until our cycle tour" or some variation of that, just like a broken record.  

The final tweak to the plan happened at the New World carpark in Carterton about a week before we left.  I had four things in my hand, and managed to drop the only one that would mind.  I smashed the top inch of the screen of my phone, rendering that part of it useless.  It was the 28th of December, which is a pretty shit time to need anything in NZ, and over the next days, I became intimately aware of which of my regularly-used apps supported screen rotation...  I tracked down a repair chap who not only lived near Auckland Airport, but was cheap as chips, had a screen in stock, and was happy to receive visitors on 4 January.  Highly recommended, and a life-saver.

Sarah and I left Wellington on the 3rd, and made a beeline for Simon and Sarah's in Rangataua.  Since they had a fullish house, we decided to decline the offer of a bed, and in turn, Simon declined our suggestion of a ride up to the Turoa ski-field carpark, 1000vm and 17km uphill from Ohakune.

Part of his justification was the low cloud, which meant there'd be no view to speak of at the top.  In that moment, I realised I'd never actually gone up for the view - the road itself is reason enough for me to ride up.  It was going to be Sarah's first time up there, and reminded me of a pivotal conversation I had with Dave Sharpe at the start of our Raid Ruapehu - where he'd suggested that continuing to fend off Sarah's advances might not be such a good idea.

In any case, Sarah and I made it up to the top, and while the climb didn't trouble me, the descent sure did.  My hands froze like never before, and while I didn't get the sharp pain that coldness sometimes brings, my fingers stiffened up to the extent that I needed help to undo my helmet at the end of the ride.

We hung out with Simon, Sarah and co for a while, before heading as far north as Taumarunui for the night.

The phone mending and airport mission went well the next day, and we enjoyed catching up with my Aunt Rose and Uncle George that afternoon, and Para and Theo out at Muriwai that evening.  The following day was action-packed too, including me having to sprint up a massive sand-dune, hoping very much to find the good-as-new phone that had dropped out of the torn seam in my rarely-used rear pocket (ironically, I'd put my phone in there on account of the zip...).

So, to the riding...

Day 1

The next morning, the women started their ride a bit sooner than I did - once we were ready to roll out, my first task was to move the car from our motel.  I parked up across the road from the Police Station, which seems an unlikely place for a car to be broken into.

I met up with Sarah and the girls back on the main drag, and smashed back a coffee.  Then, it was time to hit the road.

We left town on the Kaitaia-Awaroa Road.  Sarah, Kaitlyn and Khulan rode ahead, while I lumbered along with the trailer behind.  About 1km short of Ahipara, on the coast, we turned inland, and made our way up the first of a few climbs.  I'd found the handling of the bike a bit off at first, but was managing the mass OK.

The road was lovely, with very few cars, sweet native bush, and for the most part, I got to admire my family from my vantage point at the back of the peloton.

One of the nicer things about touring alone is the ease with which you can stop - for photos, or anything else for that matter.  Being quicker than your cobbers was similarly useful, and whenever anything took my fancy, I reeled the bike in, snapped away, and then chased them down.

Something that took my fancy...

There was very little navigation required, though we did make the left at Herekino as recommended by the Kennett Bros.

In much the same way as Khulan and I had once watched Sarah being harrassed by a magpie 100m up the road, this time Khulan was ahead when a rather large and vocal Rottweiler sprinted towards her.  His fence was of the log variety, and he ran through it like it wasn't there.  A very high-pitched scream filled the air, and we all watched the dog, powerless to do anything to change its mind.  Luckily, it retreated, as did our collective heart rates to their previous positions...!

While Sarah and Khulan had ridden together a fair bit on the Wairarapa back-roads, Kaitlyn had little experience drafting.  After some initial hesitation, and some coaching, she soon got the hang of it, and quickly learned to enjoy the shelter that sister and step-mom had to offer!  So far, so good.

Our major milestone for the morning came at Broadwood - the first shop we'd seen since Kaitaia.  We browsed for quite some time, before making our selections and enjoying them on the bench out front.

There was an impressive statue across the road, which I'd mistaken for stone.  He'd actually been carved out of a decent size kauri log.

Not long out of Broadwood, we justified the use of our four mountainbikes for the first time.  Even though the original motivation for bringing them had been Ninety Mile Beach - which we hadn't ended up riding on - the gravel road we headed up a few minutes out of Broadwood was 20km long, and was all the sweeter for our fat tyres.

Paponga Road
Both the quality of the road, and the quality of the scenery were off the hook, and it was also nice to be off the relatively windy and narrow state highway (even with its low traffic volume).


We had subjected ourselves to a bit more climbing, but we kept the pace civilised, and enjoyed being able to ride side by side a bit more.  I was well used to the trailer by now, and the tiny tyre behind my 29" bike wheels was pumped up real hard (I had no spare tube for it), and the whole package seemed to be coping really well with the occasional rough sections.

The road was very quiet indeed, though we weren't completely alone.  We occasionally met a car, and even a couple of people on foot.  This sign, near the end of the road, had us scratching our heads for a bit...!

We got there in the end, and I'm sure you have...!

By the time we started the final descent into Kohukohu, we had about 200vm to peel off.  I kept waiting for the upper reaches of the Hokianga Harbour to come into view, but we got only glimpses, and they weren't much to write home about.

At Kohukohu, we found a table at the local cafe, and upon hearing the next Ferry wouldn't leave from down the road for almost an hour, settled in for afternoon tea.  The girls didn't seem to appreciate the significance of an actual shop, and I almost had to force them to buy something.

The warm pulled-pork and apple sauce sandwich caught my eye, and not long afterwards, I was proclaiming it the best sandwich I'd ever had.  The iced-coffee was pretty sweet too.

Beautiful daughters!
After first admiring the Hokianga Arch of Remembrance...

... we figured we'd better follow the sign to "New Zealand's Oldest Bridge" 100m down the road.  What a fizzer!! It might have been built long ago, but it hadn't been particularly ambitious!

Built sometime between 1843 and 1851, from Sydney sandstone
The ferry terminal was only a few minutes down the road, and we were in good time.  The settlement at Kohuhohu looked not only lovely, but like it had been there a good long while.

It had also been a good long while since the rugby field had been mown! 

The Rawene Ferry was just arriving as we pulled into the waiting area.  It docked, and unloaded about a dozen cars, before we made our own way on.  Very exciting!!

Boarding the Rawene Ferry

The short trip cost only a few dollars each, and took about 20 minutes.  Apart from the novelty factor, and the views, it was a nice opportunity to further rest our legs for the final 25km ride into Opononi.

Rawene itself
We had one short climb out of Rawene, and then a couple of bumps to negotiate.  Rather than metres, it seemed more useful to describe them as "about-half-a-Mt-Vic" - a more familiar metric.

Not long after Rawene, we joined the SH12 from Kaikohe, at which point we were given a nice teaser of what was to come the following day.

I gave the first climb one hell of a nudge, and at the top had that horrible metallic taste which, whatever its actual origin, I've always thought of as my legs...

We proceeded somewhat more sedately, though the mass which I'd successfully defeated on the way up the hill, defeated me on the way down, and I had to wait for the girls at the bottom too. Unfortunately the somewhat intriguing shed was closed for the day.

John's Fair Dinkum Kiwi Shed
My legs weren't quite so eager on the final hill, and by the time we reached the Opononi "city" limits, we were all quite glad to see it!

As we passed the various stores at the northern end, any food anxiety quickly evaporated, and we checked into our cabin overlooking the harbour before heading out for dinner and to get breakfast supplies.

For the first time ever on a cycle tour, I enjoyed heading out in a pair of jandals.  Given the weight of the trailer, its capacity, and my long, tense history with this particular issue, it seemed crazy to skimp on this comfort once again!

Our cabin on the hill, bathed in sunshine
The campground owner had recommended the fish'n'chip shop, so we got dinner there, and due to the long wait, I popped back to the 4 Square for the second of three visits for some crackers and dip to tide us over.

Back at the cabin, I proudly presented some entertainment (also a first)!!

PASS THE PIGS YO!  And that's a leaning jowler, if I'm not mistaken...

Day 2

The 100km to Opononi had gone well, but today's 100km had some decent climbing in it.  First a pair of 100vm climbs to loosen the legs, and then a 400vm whopper up into the Waipoua Forest.  Err, and then another 500vm climb with a few short downhill sections which probably meant it was more like 600-700!  But, from there it was mostly downhill into Kaikohe...

Kaitlyn was rightfully nervous about this, and I could tell that her subtle change in speed this morning was more to do with a pacing strategy than because her legs were tired from the day before.

Opononi sort of flowed into Omapere, and before we'd really got going, I was diving into a petrol station cafe for a coffee!

It was worth a bit of extra riding out to the lookout over the harbour mouth, though the book was wrong about where on the climb it was, and I got a couple of dark looks once the troops realised we were going up some more.

Finally, a decent harbour view!
About half an hour later, there was another mandatory coffee stop at Morrell's Cafe in Waimamaku.  The coffee was good, and it seemed rude not to have a scone too.

Sarah and Khulan drifted off the front as the road tipped up, and I rode behind Kaitlyn, admiring the aplomb with which she dispatched one of the longest climbs she's done in one hit.

The scenery continued to be fantastic, including a couple of fine examples of a  tree-within-a-tree.

Soon, we had forest on both sides of us, and I kept scanning the bush for unfamiliar giants.  But, for the time-being, it looked like pretty standard fare.  We crested the top, and had a nice fast run down to the carpark for Tane Mahuta.

Rather than worry about unlocked bikes, or face the rigmarole of digging out the big combination lock and wrestling with it for the 3 or 4 attempts it usually demands before the thing opens, we walked our bikes along the boardwalk.

It really was quite amazing how close we got to Tane Mahuta before actually seeing it.  And what a sight he was.  The scale really was very impressive, and DOC had a couple of well placed platforms from which to admire the biggest kauri alive.

King of the Forest (with a few puny humans hiding in the ferns for scale)
We sat for about 15 minutes, before heading off.  A few kilometres later, we took a gravel road up to another carpark, and from there we walked for about an hour - here, the kauri were more common, though they still crept up on us. 

Two sisters in front of the Four Sisters
Back on the road, we had a lot of elevation to peel off down to the Waipoua River.  Unfortunately I was at the back of the bunch, so wasn't able to bring the mighty kauri-squeeze to my companions' attention. 

Darby and Joan
Once at the river, we took a very pot-holed gravel road down to the Waipoua Forest Cafe, enjoying a sandwich each, and a coffee for those inclined. Unfortunately we were a day or two early to enjoy the labours of the carny crowd that were setting up for a show.

I'd misread the map somewhat, and the long gravel climb I was expecting was actually mostly on the highway still.  While the Tumens were quicker, Kaitlyn continued to do a great job of knocking out the hard yards.

As we neared the top, I was able to point out the long (and relatively benign) ridge to our left that we'd be continuing our climb on.

This gravel road was something I'd really been looking forward to.  While Paponga Road the day before hadn't taken us anywhere the highway wouldn't have, this one was about 50km long, and was taking us well off the beaten track.

Simon's always had a great nose for roads like this, and I've thoroughly enjoyed them on our various trips together.  I hoped my current companions would get a similar thrill out of this one. 

Heaven on earth?
The road was as kind to us as I'd hoped, and the gradient was very mellow.  The views from close to 600 metres above sea level were also pretty majestic.

Waipoua Forest from above
There were occasional short descents.  These were invariably fast, and the combination of the rigid carbon fork, and the rattly trailer behind typically saw me lag behind.

On one such descent, Kaitlyn did a fine job of bringing her bike safely to a halt on a completely deflated tyre.  I asked her what she'd hit, but we soon discovered that the answer was "absolutely nothing".  There was no patching this sucker!

Something missing!
After slowly mending our only puncture of the trip - taking the opportunity for an impromptu rest - we got underway again.

We soon passed a couple of beekeepers, who must have been fair sweltering inside their suits.  At least they weren't being stung, I suppose, and nor were we. 

I made sure to zip my jersey right up before passing these two and their thousands of charges
Not long after this, we dropped down to a major intersection.  There, Kaitlyn experienced a similar reaction to the kilometre markers on the Timber Trail, which had taunted her in the middle half of the ride.

Here, a sign pointing towards Kaikohe included the distance:  a troubling 41 kilometres.  She was feeling pretty pooped, after two seriously big climbs, and a long day already, by virtue of our kauri-tourism.

Say what?!?!?!
The thought that we still had another two-thirds of what we'd covered to go really upset her.  The poor thing wasn't particularly conscious of the fact that we still had a lot of altitude, and nor that the quiet roads might easily afford some power-assist from the old man.

For parts of the next climb, I rode alongside her, and with a hand in the small of her back, gave her a few extra watts.

A long descent followed, and hopefully reassured her that at least some of my reassurances were accurate.  I took the next hill as an opportunity for a big interval, and successfully rode the Tumens off my wheel, all the while towing the trailer and helping Kaitlyn up the hill...!

We stopped at the top for a snack, and by virtue of the cell phone reception, busted out the Duolingo app on my phone for a French lesson or two.

The next descent was the roughest we'd had to date, and I was pleased to stop for a couple of photos...

... including one of the strangest signs I've seen.

One of these things is not like the other...
While the forestry operation had been fairly photogenic, it also brought with it significant deterioration of the road.  Corrugations were now frequent, and while the road was now fairly flat, it was no longer a pleasant surface to ride on.

After a long while, we broke out onto the seal, and a few short climbs later, we turned right onto the State Highway that connected Kaikohe to Rawene and Opononi.

We soon arrived in Kaikohe, and I was pleased to note that Kaitlyn perked up a lot, once the positive psychology took over and her fatigue was overcome by a strong sense of satisfaction.

In an attempt to distract her from her labours, I'd nattered away almost incessantly, at one point making the point that every cycle tourist in the history of the world had at some point felt exactly like she did.  She was joining a BIG club!

It took us a little while to find our accommodation, and were welcomed by a lovely proprietor, even though the building wasn't much to look at.  We took his dinner recommendation too, and enjoyed strolling down the main drag afterwards. 

Pretty (x4)
Before heading back to base, we did our grocery shopping, only barely resisting the temptation to buy some mutton...! 

Not something you see every day!
Day 3

The weather forecast hadn't been too good for our final day's riding, and when we scraped ourselves out of bed, it looked like the met office had got it right.  Gone were the blue skies of the previous days.

The breakfast and packing routine was now pretty familiar, and it didn't take us long to get organised.  Although the girls had a relatively short day through to Kerikeri, I had another 90km to ride, and then a 100km drive to reunite with them.

We rolled out of town the way we'd arrived the evening before, and picked up the access path onto a 14km rail trail.  Simon had been keen for us to do more of Pou Herenga Tai (the Twin Coast Cycle Trail), but neither end of it was particularly well placed (for us, or at all, by the looks of it).

Don't mind if we do!

However, this short intersection of that trail with our north-east traverse was perfect.

Not so perfect was the light drizzle, though it wasn't cold, and every so often, we had the opportunity to get out of it for a bit.

Towards the northern end of the trail, the cattle stop cum motorcycle barriers became really frequent, which was a shame, because I needed help with the trailer at either end of them.  The trailer was just a bit wide to fit past a timber posts planted squarely in the middle of either end of the cattle stop, and the length of my truck-and-trailer unit meant it was nigh on impossible to lift the trailer and wheel the bike at the same time.

The views of Lake Omapere might have been nicer with clear skies, but the moody gray cloud had its place.

No sooner had we emerged from the trail on the outskirts of Okaihau (on SH1), than the heavens really opened. We initially cowered under a big pine tree, then made a run for the shop awnings on the main drag.

It very quickly became apparent that the deluge wasn't going to ease off any time soon, so we relocated to the cafe up the road.  The wonderful folk inside greeted us with towels, which was not only a nice gesture, but also a sensible way of preventing us from dripping all over their floor.  Luckily the seats were wooden, so we didn't feel bad about sitting down.  We ordered an early lunch, and enjoyed the temporarily dry surroundings.

While we were sitting there, an old timer came over, and started explaining how to calculate the gear inches of a track bike.  He would only tell us his first name - Bill - but mentioned that he'd been pretty handy on the track back in the 50s, even saying he'd held a world-record at one stage!

Eventually, it was time for us to go.  We promptly crossed SH1, and began our 21km run into Kerikeri, along Waiare and Wiroa Roads.  The rain had abated slightly, but it was still pretty damn wet.  The road was one of the busiest we'd ridden on too, but that said, the traffic volumes were still pretty damn low.

Before too long, we were on the outskirts of Kerikeri, and not long after that, were checking into our motel on the far end of the main drag.

While the girls started thinking about who would get first shower, I began organising myself for the ride back to Kaitaia.

The motellier offered to drive me there, but despite the conditions, I wasn't keen to know how much that would cost.  Instead, I unhitched the trailer, swapped out the through-axle with the original Fox one I'd been hauling, and organised a few tools, drink, and some One Square Meals for my ride.  And, before I had a chance to cool down too much, was off.

I joined SH10 at Waipapa, an immediately became conscious of my stealthy black raincoat.  It was still pouring, and there was much, much, much more traffic than I'd become used to.

Before too long, I stopped and put my fluoro Gabba on over my coat, which made me immediately feel more conspicuous, and despite the nasty feeling of the wet coat against my upper arms, was glad I'd done so.

I stopped at Kaeo for a coffee, and asked the barista about the likely road conditions up ahead.  She recommended I call in at the petrol station, and there I was told that the route I had planned was likely to be pretty cut up in this rain.

I really wasn't enjoying the highway, so when my GPS bleated that I'd missed a turn soon after, I wheeled around, and made my way onto Weber Road.  I was very pleasantly surprised, and while my expectations had been set pretty low by the service station attendant, the gravel road was showing less sign of the rain than the highway was.

I almost immediately turned onto Weber Waihapa Road, and started climbing.  So far so good.

I was further reassured by a couple of cycle tourists I soon met coming my way.  From astride their CX bikes, they reported that the road had been absolutely fine, and pointing at my fat semi-slicks, told me I'd be very fast.  Excellent.

I made the next left onto Otangaroa Road, and a while later a right onto Fern Flat Road.  That second intersection signalled the start of a particularly lovely climb, on one of the finest gravel roads I've had the pleasure to ride.  The bush cover was stunning, and it was rather fun watching all the water running this way and that.

On that front, the descent was even better, and it was just a shame that my camera was out of the picture, so to speak.

Near the bottom of the descent, Fern Flat became Kohumaru Road, and there was even some tarseal for a while.  I made the left onto Oruru Road, and soon after was shocked to find a cafe!  Peria was an actual place afterall, and it was a pleasure to stop in at the Bush Fairy Dairy for a pie and a coffee!   

The hot food was great, and the weather was clearing too.  I felt compelled to stop and take a photo, just because I could. 

Peria Road
Just before I passed a wildlife park of some sort, the gravel ended for good.  Even though progress improved slightly, it was still a bit disappointing.  Not so much though that I was prepared to take the long-cut I'd mapped through Clough and Church Roads.  My legs were fading, and SH1 afforded both much more space than SH10 had and a faster route to the car.

It was somewhat of a relief to arrive in Kaitaia to find said car unmolested.  I'd also not forgotten the key, which would have been similarly disastrous. 

The drive back to Kerikeri passed quickly enough and I was soon both clean and reunited with my family. 

While in many ways the afternoon had been a happy ending, the solo ride in foul conditions had been an abrupt change.  I'd been expecting a turbo boost after decoupling from the trailer, but of course, I just went faster.  The sensations were largely the same, in some ways testament to the sound logic of me towing the whole party's gear. 

The next day, we visited Waitangi, and then caught a boat from Paihia to Russell for lunch. Later that afternoon, we dropped Kaitlyn at the airport, before driving as far south as Taihape for the night, in the ever-welcoming Taihape Motels.

By the time we arrived back in Wellington the next day, I was pretty shattered, having driven almost exactly 1000km since Kaitaia.   One of the big frustrations of doing anything cycling-related away from home is the hassle of getting there, and however much I'd love to explore more of Northland, its possible that the logistical costs are too great for it to happen any time soon. 

The trip had been a roaring success in almost all other respects.

Kaitlyn, Khulan and Sarah (from most surprising to least) had coped incredibly well with the schedule, and had seemed to have a wonderful time.  I am an incredibly lucky man to have these three amazing women in my life, and even luckier that I'm able to share my passion of riding with them. 

The surroundings had also been among the finest I've enjoyed, to the extent that I wonder if there's a dud gravel road anywhere in Northland!  Now, if only someone would invent a teleporter, I'd be back up there in a flash!!!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Introducing Roadworks Reparto Corse: The 2015 North Island Series

Not everything deserves careful analysis, but I've been fascinated to trace back the outcome of this year's North Island Series to the local Vet's club two-day tour.

There, a couple of things happened.  First, I met Brendan McGrath - one of those chaps that oozes "bike racer".  I didn't know his face, nor his name, but recognised the tanned skin, cut legs, position on the bike, and immaculate sock game.  I'd been in a good mood in the opening stage, and had managed to get myself in a breakaway with Brendan and local legend (and first-year vet) Andy Hagan.  I'd struggled, being by far the junior partner in the trio, and was dislodged by Brendan on the final roller 10km out from the stage finish in Martinborough.  It had been great racing!

I had a crap time trial that afternoon, riding to a power target that didn't take into account the morning's stage, and didn't look after myself particularly well in the final race the next morning.  I'd started in 3rd overall, but my Rivet team-mate, Ben Storey, had laid down a solid attack on the ascent of Hinakura, and I couldn't pull him back.  It had left a sour taste in my mouth, and was an experience I couldn't bring myself to write about.  Had I, it might have purged it from my mind, but instead it festered...

On the other hand, I'd spent the last 15 minutes of the tour chasing Ben, Brendan and Andy, and had admired the way the other two had left Ben on the front.  They'd known what was at stake, and had ensured the result came down to whichever of Ben and I were stronger - Ben, as it turned out. 

A bit of internet research later, I knew a bit more about Brendan - he'd won the first race of the North Island Series the year before, having ridden clear in the first few minutes of the stage.  He'd just moved to Wellington with his family.  I reached out, and we rode together a few times - I enjoyed showing him a few roads that it might have taken him a little while to find on his own:  the Makara loop, Horokiwi, and the road up the back of Korokoro.  We clicked instantly.

I've only ever lived in Wellington, so have never been in a position where I've needed to settle in a new place.  So, I was impressed at how Brendan was tackling it - while contacting local riders seemed an obvious way to make friends, I wasn't certain that I would have done it myself.

Another he introduced himself to was my good friend, Rivet team-mate and coach, Joel Healy.  The issue of Brendan joining Rivet was soon raised with the wider group, but the already-large team was hesitant.  Joel and I both wanted to race with Brendan, not so much so we didn't have to race against him - though that would have been a good reason - but due to the clearly positive approach he had to the sport.  Rivet's demographic, and the NI Series roster limits weren't a great match, and so Joel and I dusted off an idea I'd failed to bring to fruition in 2014 - a Roadworks team.

Joel's a forthright chap, and much less manipulative than I am, and so before I knew it, he'd declared to the Rivet team, that he, Brendan and I were going to be the nucleus of a Roadworks team.  Despite most of the Rivet guys knowing Oli well, and this being a sound solution to their over-subscription in the 35-44 year bracket, this caused a right shit-storm!  But, like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the die had been cast.

The three of us put our thinking caps on, and the recruitment began.  Brendan contacted a few out-of-towners he'd raced with over the years, and Joel and I got to work on local riders.  We also bank-rolled the team-entry, and with Oli Brooke-White's unequivocal blessing, Roadworks Reparto Corse was born.

Our prospects took a sad turn not long after, when Joel had had an horrific accident playing at home with his son.  He'd fallen and shattered his elbow, a trauma he is still recovering from today.  Completely aside from the sadness I felt for my friend, it was a blow knowing Joel would not be out on the road.  We'd lost a massive asset - Joel's not only a great rider, but also an excellent road captain.

But, the show must go on, and it was pleasing to note that while Joel couldn't be out there with us, he was going to play as full a role as ever behind the scenes.

With Race 1 looming, we were looking good, literally and figuratively.  Local riders Kerrin Allwood, Callum Kennedy, Mark Donald, Brendan and I, would be supported by Yancey Arrington and Scott Macdonnell from Christchurch, Glen Carabine from Tauranga, and Peter Murphy from Gisborne.  On the management side, we had Joel and Dan Waluszewski, and of course Oli, one of the finest mechanics you'll find. Ultimo had done a fine job with our team uniform too, a slimmed-down version of Oli's shop jersey. 

Race 1

The wait for the first round was a long one, and we went into it with high expectations.

Brendan and I had been training hard over winter, riding most Saturday mornings, rain or cold, windy rain.  We had also raced well in the Kapiti Winter Series, placing 2nd and 3rd to Vaughn Pretorius in Race 2, and 1st equal in Race 3.  We'd keyed off each other, capitalising well on my power on the flat, and Brendan's ability to bridge gaps quickly and alone.

Jorge Sandoval had listened thoughtfully to feedback after the 2014 Series had concluded, and one of the innovations had been to split the massive master's bunch into two.  So, the field in the first race was much smaller than it had been the year before, and as a result, much more pleasant to be in.

Gruppo compatto.  Photo: Di Chesmar

It was cold, but dry, and after a few gentlemanly kilometres, Roadworks started trying to light it up.  It was an absolute train-wreck.

Brendan and I were both neutralised, but in different ways.  He'd been clearly identified as the man to watch, and was given a very short rein indeed.  He'd break clear, and then those with him would refuse to work.  I was guilty of not going all in, and after opening a gap, would ease off too early, hoping that Brendan would jump across, as he had at Kapiti.

There's winning, and there's learning (thanks to Dan Waluszewski for that gem, now etched into my mind), and this was certainly a learning experience.  The striking message was the strength of a coordinated team.  Months on, I can still see Rivet's road captain, Chris Stevenson, marshalling his troops.  Chris is the best race-reader I know, and regularly punches above his weight, due to his excellent ability to put himself in exactly the right place, at the right time.  And he was making good use of his skills as a road racer to ensure his team kept the race together.

Towards the end of the second lap of three, I had a bit of an epiphany moment.  I was about two-thirds of the way back through the bunch on a downwind leg, and I was astounded at how easy it was.  We were hauling along at around 50km/h, and I was hardly having to pedal at all.  The other side of the course was a block headwind, and I knew even a few wheels from the front was similarly easy.  I decided at that point to stop trying to get off the front.  I had a lap to restore some real strength into my legs, which hopefully I could use at the end.

I didn't communicate that to the rest of my team, though...

Mark and Yancey made a bold attack going over Millar's Road with half a lap to go.  They got a good gap, and with only a few kilometres to go, the race was in the balance.  I had a good spot near the front of the peloton, and was willing them on.

With only a couple of minutes left to race, the gap evaporated, and with less than a kilometre to go, as Mark and Yancey were absorbed into the bunch, Kerrin attacked.  I wanted to go with him, but find it very hard to break clear at obvious points in the race - I don't have a sharp acceleration, and I cut a mighty fine wind shadow - so, I sat tight.  "GO KERRIN, GO"

Alas, he was caught in the last seconds of the race, still finishing a solid 5th.  I had checked out, not finding the jostle for the line pleasant, I focussed on trying not to go backwards too much, but more importantly, not to go down.  Hannes Venter made his first appearance at the front of the bunch count, and won the race outright.  

Hannes takes a fine win.  Photo:  Di Chesmar

We were bitterly disappointed, and unfortunately let some of that creep out into the public arena.  It stuck in our craw that Rivet had apparently succeeded only in shutting us down - Chris was their highest placed finisher, one spot behind Kerrin.  Brendan's been racing a very long time, and has always actively raced, i.e. he rides to win.  He took it particularly hard, motivated in no small part by how shattered I'd looked at the end of the race, and blasted out a facebook rant in the Rivets' direction. 

Before leaving for work on Monday, I commented on Rivet's own summary of the race, complimenting them on their team work.  We'd got a bit of a bollocking from Dan, and this seemed a step in the right direction.  As luck would have it, I bumped into Chris on Lambton Quay an hour later, and was able to provide a bit more context to Brendan's comments and my own.  It was great that we'd met, and I think it helped both teams clear the air a bit.

Despite our disappointment, we hadn't come away completely empty handed.  We were in second in the team's competition - we'd had the highest placed third-finisher (our third rider beat all other teams' third riders), but had missed out on bonus points for the first three across the line.

For the moment, it was back to being fathers and employees, the start of a long four weeks until we'd line up together again.

Race 2

We made good use of the time, both physically and mentally.  There was a lot to analyse from the first race - we certainly hadn't won, so needed to learn.  We'd seen how powerful a team can be, and we'd also seen how closely Brendan had been marked.  It wasn't going to be easy for the two of us to go anywhere together.  That was an important lesson for me.

We were light-handed leading into this race, which made for some late scrambling to put together the team on the day.  Dan introduced us to Jono Leonard, a big, strong ex-trackie who was keen to join us, and we welcomed him onboard.  Cliff Clermont was also in town, visiting from California, and liked the idea of racing too.  He had only a mountainbike with him, so Oli set up my Colnago to Cliff's liking.  We'd been ably assisted by CJ as DS in race 1, but Dan was available this time, and was keen not to have a repeat of the first round's on or off road activities.  Finally, Mark had given us some disappointing news, and was having to withdraw from the racing side of things, but was very keen to remain onboard, and was Dan's driver for the day.

So, we lined up with Callum, Brendan, Kerrin, Jono, Cliff, Peter, and myself.  Dan laid down the law, but constructively (I was expecting a lot worse), giving Kerrin and I free reign in the early stages.  We were soon underway, and on the long straight road leading from the start at the Masterton airfield, Peter sat on the front as if he was leading out the final sprint.


The bunch strung out, and Kerrin shouted at me to grab his wheel.  We went up the outside from about a dozen riders back, and as the pace eased off every so slightly, I put my head down.

It was great to find Jase McCarty on my wheel - I had a hunch Rivet were going to ride much more positively this round, and knew he'd be keen to work with me.    We were soon joined by Chris, Ben Knight, and a guy I didn't know - Todd Carpinter, riding for Jeremy Vennell's squad. 

In the same position in Race 1, I would've eased back, but this time, I knew establishing the break was the right thing to do.  The five of us worked well together, though before long, I caught sight of Brendan and a few others coming across to us.  This was good news.

No sooner had Brendan, Andrew Young, and Hannes Venter joined us, than I heard a loud bang, and a loud "FUCK" which I knew had come from Brendan's bike and Brendan, respectively.  This was not good news.

Road racing comes down to many split-second decisions, and I made one then and there.  I didn't like the fact that Hannes had joined us, and while the finish line was still a couple of hours away, didn't particularly want to be outsprinted by him again.  I hit the next roller hard, and this had the effect I was after.  Andrew and Hannes disappeared as quickly as they'd appeared, though it was a shame to lose Jase as well.

I got told off by Chris, which was fair enough.  While he was right that "we could have used them", I didn't apologise!

It was now just four of us, and we worked together really well.  We soon got a time split from the commissaires, and found we had a buffer of over a minute.  We passed Gladstone Hall, and turned towards Martinborough.  It was nice to be in a small, constructive group, and we rotated well, and at a solid pace.

Ben, moi, Chris and Rod's bum.  Photo:  Jorge Sandoval
As the kilometres ticked by, it was interesting to size up the other guys.  It was clear that Todd and I were stronger.  We were taking longer turns, and not missing any.  At one point I needed to play peacemaker as Todd took umbrage to something Chris had done.  We were driving it hard, and both riding lines and tempers were getting a bit ragged.

Shortly after Martinborough, Ben started swinging off the back, and fell victim to one of the short rollers after the Hinakura turn off.  Chris also stopped taking turns, much to Todd's annoyance.  I sensed that this Chris was genuinely on the ropes, and because he wasn't slowing us down, took no steps to dislodge him.  He took a turn once in a while, mainly to placate Todd, I think!

After the rollers, we received an interesting message.  Mark pulled alongside, and Dan let me know that Brendan and Callum were on their way.  I was told to stop working, which I kind of did.  While I was very happy with the prospect of their arrival, the time gaps we were getting suggested the bunch was not that far behind them, and until it was clear that we were not going to get swamped at the end, I was happy to keep the pressure on a bit.

They did finally catch us, near the place that Brendan had punctured on the out-bound journey.  I'd enjoyed a bit of a rest, and thinking that Brendan was our best bet for the finish, started working again to ensure the main field wasn't going to be a threat.

In the long finishing straight, I made a few attempts to break clear.  I figured Brendan and Callum would then be able to keep their powder dry while the opposition scrambled after me.  My last effort took me to within coo-ee of the line, and I was surprised to be passed only by Todd.

I was so surprised to finish second, I didn't dwell too much on losing first.  But, I will now - Brendan, Callum and I had a strong advantage, but didn't talk with one another.  We should have, and I should have won the race.

Andrew Young was credited with third place, and following his 4th in Race 1, took the leader's jersey from Hannes. 

2nd!  Andrew Young (c), Rod Carpinter (1st, r).  Photo:  Jorge Sandoval

The race had an interesting postscript, when someone posted a finish-line video to facebook.  Kerrin was the first to notice that it looked like Callum had beaten Andrew to the line.  A short while later, he'd put together a document complete with screenshots, and fancy terms like "parallax".  We submitted this to Jorge, and Andrew was soon relegated to 4th place.  He kept his leaders jersey though, with Brendan, Chris, Lyle Cumming and I eight points back on second equal.

Roadworks raked in the points in the teams competition, claiming the highest-placed third rider again, and bonus points for 2nd and 3rd.  We were considerably happier with our performance this time round.

It was back to being middle-aged men on Monday though.  

Race 3

There was some apprehension leading into the third race, due to a short section of gravel road which we'd race through five times.  We'd checked it out, and while the road surface itself was pretty benign, there were two 90-degree turns we'd have to negotiate.  These were nicely cambered, but both had a fair bit of debris which we'd need to be careful of.

There were murmurings of dragging out B-bikes and wheels, but in the end, we all started on our best gear.

Peter, Yancey, Kerrin, Jono, Callum, Brendan and I were all riding again, and we were joined by Glen for the first time.  He'd driven down from Tauranga on Friday, and overnighted with Brendan and I in Carterton.

On the start line, it was nice to see Jeremy Vennell himself lining up.  He and I had done some night-time mountain-biking together one winter in the late 90s, and I'd enjoyed following his successful career in the US since.

By the time we got onto the Carrington circuit, we'd been fairly active, but the bunch was almost all together when we hit the gravel for the first time, aside from Brendan who had attacked drawing out Ben Storey for company.

Backing myself to be able to close down a 20m gap once we were back on the seal, I was last onto the gravel and hung back to watch how things went in the bunch ahead.

Cautious, lap 1.  Photo:  Ricoh Riott

Mid-pack, mid-race.  Photo: Ricoh Riott

Lap 4, driving it.  Photo:  Ricoh Riott

Near the end of lap 3, it was clear Brendan and Ben were going to be caught.  Before that happened, I tried to get across to them to see if we couldn't get away together.  I made the bridge, but not alone, and ten minutes later, when we crossed the start-finish line at the start of the penultimate lap, I was surprised to see the relatively large size of the bunch.

I went off alone about five minutes away from the base of the short climb.  Sitting on my saddle, I simply pedalled harder, and without any visible "attack", I attacked nonetheless.

I wanted to get to the top of the climb alone, hoping that Brendan and Callum might attack on the climb, and come across without the majority of the bunch.  That didn't happen, and with the whole peloton snapping at my heels, I eased off, had something to eat and drink, and fumbled around for some matches to put back in my box.

I attacked in exactly the same place on the last lap, this time followed immediately by the ever attentive Jason McCarty.  As the course ducked and dived through a series of 90 degree turns, we had good visibility behind us, and I was surprised to see no response from the bunch.

Brendan describes that moment in very entertaining fashion.  Joel is privy to my power numbers, but Brendan had seen more of me on the road than anyone else leading into these races, and knew how hard I'd been working.  He knew in those early seconds when the field didn't react, that they'd just lost the race.

Jase and I weren't so certain, but we worked very hard to make it so.  We knew our own teams would not be chasing, and knew Andrew Young had little support with which to defend his jersey.  It seemed likely that there was going to be little coordinated chase. 

Jase and I traded turns, not quite in equal measure, but fairly, nonetheless. 

Last lap.  Photo:  Peter Moore

We were soon approaching the finish line, and I was increasingly conscious that one of us was not going to win this race.  Had it not been a team series, I would have gladly ridden across the line side by side, but knew I had to try to deliver for my guys.  A kilometre out, I couldn't stand the tension any longer, and swung off Jason's wheel and attacked as hard as I could.

It has instant effect, which in some ways made me feel even more of a prick for doing it!  I reached the line alone.  Despite having all the time in the world, I mustered what Kerrin rightly described as a pretty lousy victory salute.

Jase in the near distance, and the main field at the other end of the straight

Inside I was elated, outside, not so much!  Photo: Ricoh Riott

I've had some decent results on the road - a few tandem records, and line honours a couple of times in club races - but this felt very special.  And it got better.  Andrew had finished 5th, behind Jason, Hannes (who'd got the bunch kick), and Callum.  His resulting 9-point deficit to me had cost him the leader's jersey, by a mere point.

When I was announced as the winner of the stage, there was a lovely cheer from the crowd.  I've been road racing on and off with many of the guys in both masters fields and in the open grade, and I think they were conscious both of how hard I've worked over the years, and how little I've had to show for it!  I've been told sitting behind me is like drafting an apartment block, and I suspect those cheering the loudest had all enjoyed that at one time or another - to their advantage and at my cost.  It meant a great deal.

Race 3 podium:  Jason (l), moi, Hannes (r)

Another touching gesture was from Brendan, who admitted that he'd never been happier to lose a race!  We both knew that he'd set it up, by breaking away with Ben early in the race, and I think we'd both realised after race one that how ever hard it might be for both of us to break clear together, separately was another matter entirely.

Race 4

I've never regarded myself as a particularly competitive man, loving the thrill of the chase more than the result, the journey rather than the destination.  But, over the period between races 3 and 4, I was shocked at how much I'd enjoyed winning.  The buzz took a long time to die away, and I realised I wanted more of it.

At 85kg, the parcours for the next event was one I was ill-suited to.  After one lap of the (Race 1) Millar's Road circuit, we'd head over Kourarou, Limeworks, and then up the infamous Admiral's Hill.

Brendan and I had ridden the final climb one weekend earlier in the season.  Despite having the course profile accessible from our phones, we'd turned around at the first summit, discovering only once it was too late, that the stage would finish at the high-point of the road, a few kilometres after our turn-around point.

The weekend before the event, I headed out on my own, and hit both Kourarou and Admiral's pretty hard.  I was doing the Tour de Whitemans with Simon on the tandem the next day, but wanted to get a feel for Admiral's with heavy legs.  Some of the Rivet boys had been out there the same day, and before Joel instructed me to pull my file off strava so no-one could see how quick I'd gone, I was pleased to note I'd done well.

The Tour de Whitemans had been incredibly tough, and I spent the days before  race 4 really stressing out.  Andrew Young in particular had finished in front of Simon and I, and I found it impossible to infer from our placings how I might have fared mano-a-mano.

While I was concerned about my own capabilities, I had absolutely no worries about our team.  Kerrin and Jono had designated responsibility for the Millar's lap, at which point, Yancey, Glen, Callum, Brendan and I, supported by our final rider for the series, Scott McDonnell, would take over.

Mark was feeding us on Kourarou, and Oli and CJ were in prime position in the race convoy.

It is hard to imagine a team's race going any better.  Kerrin and Jono executed their roles to perfection, and for the first 30km or so, the rest of us were able to keep our powder totally dry.

We rode a solid tempo on Kourarou, with Brendan at the front for just about the whole climb.  I wasn't far behind him, and loved seeing how at ease he was as he regularly checked behind him to see how everyone was doing.

Te Wharau Hill.  Photo: Jorge Sandoval

Jorge Sandoval posted an amazing video to facebook the next week - it lasted about a minute, but as he drove past the main field, we were able to witness the moment each of a dozen or so riders lost touch.

Brendan's suffocating tempo had so effectively thinned the bunch out, there'd been no need for an attack of any sort, and after grabbing a bottle from Mark, and successfully negotiating the short, fast descent, and the nasty left-hander at the bottom, we were able to take stock.

Six of us had made it over, accompanied by Craig Chambers, Ben Storey, Matt Webber and the ever-impressive Jase McCarty from Rivet, one of Jeremy Vennell's team, Chris Clark, and Andrew Young himself.

As Callum, Yancey and Glen took control of the bunch, from relative shelter a few wheels back, I had the opportunity to lean over and say to Brendan, "what a team..."

Limeworks was negotiated with little fuss, aside from Callum shouting at me that I was dropping Brendan and should go faster (I wasn't, of course).

So, with just the main event to go, it looked like it was all coming down to Admiral's.  Andrew hadn't had his nose in the wind at all, happy just to sit in the wheels, watching his jersey on my back.  I hadn't fired any bullets either, and I was very uncomfortable putting all my eggs in the Admiral's basket.

So, I attacked - at full gas for a few seconds, and then easing off in the hope that Andrew would somehow burn more matches getting back to me than I just had luring him out.  I projected it a little too much, and I think he knew something was up and had moved up from the back of the bunch when I first launched.  Otherwise it felt like the right thing to do.  And a couple of times more for good measure.

Scott and Matt Webber took off soon after, and with them 30 seconds or so ahead, we ten remaining made the left turn onto Admiral's.

The first kilometres are not at all steep, but when it kicked up, things got interesting.  Brendan immediately vanished up the road ahead.  Perfect!

I did my very best impression of the incredible riding in the mountains we'd seen from (large for a pro-cyclist) Dutchman Tom Dumoulin in the Vuelta, and tapped out the highest tempo I felt I could cope with.

Callum rode alongside me for the most part, and behind, I could hear Andrew, or at least, Andrew's bike.  I took it as a good sign that every few seconds, he would change gear.  He was uncomfortable, and I made every attempt to keep him that way.

The three of us endured "The Wall" and after a very short descent, started climbing again.  The next section was a lovely gradient, and I really pushed hard - no sharp accelerations, but more of an asphyxiation.  About half way up, I heard Andrew falter.  I had no capacity to attack, but nor was I about to ease up.  There was more work to do, but this was an excellent start. 

Callum and I crested the first summit together, and he took point for the fast descent that followed.  We'd seen no-one else on the hill as we'd come up it, so got a hell of a fright when an SUV appeared from nowhere.  On a fairly sharp right-hand bend, I had to come off my line, and thought I was going to end up in the fence.  Somehow, I managed to keep it all together, and then turned my attention to catching back up to Callum!

We had a few minutes of relatively flat road before the road tipped up again for the final push to the line.  We could see Andrew behind, with company, so drove it hard.

We passed Matt Webber, and were now in 3rd and 4th places!  Nearing the line, I eased off - Andrew was well back, and while Callum probably would have let me take the final podium spot if I'd asked, I had a pretty sweet photo in mind...

Oli and CJ were waiting for us at the top, and this time I allowed myself a small celebration at the line.  Yancey was just behind me, having drafted Andrew to within a few minutes of the line, before attacking mercilessly to push him another couple of points back in the series!

Celebrating a job well done.  Photo:  Kirsten Hagan and Wheelworks Racing

Glen arrived soon after, in a fine 9th place, with Andrew, Matt Webber and Ben Storey between he and Yancey.  Jase was 14 seconds back, and it was amazing to think that our 6th rider had beaten every other team's third.

We were still celebrating when the leading open riders arrived, and it was a surprise to see Kerrin too, who'd ridden alone from Kourarou, stubbornly refusing to sit up.

Sarah and Khulan had ridden up the hill, and we kind of rolled down the hill together, and then back to the Gladstone Hall. 

I took the leader's jersey off, and took it to Jorge for the ceremony.  He laughed at me, and with scorn in his voice, said "this is not PNP"!!!  It was his way of saying I'd get another and could keep the one I'd worn!

The podium photo I'd imagined was everything I'd hoped for.  After Scott, Brendan and Callum had gone up for their top placing's, I was summoned to collect the leader's jersey, and for a brief moment, half the team was up on stage together, brogues, aviators, and all!

Jorge grabs the official podium photo, which could be mistaken for a team's presentation.  Photo: Oli Brooke-White

Our deeds had certainly not gone unnoticed, and we were soon treated to Dirty Nomad's glorious account.  Rereading it just now, makes we want to delete what I've just written, and apart from my beautiful and innocent daughters, send you all there...!!!  It was very nice to stumble upon a comment buried in Wheelworks' photo album of the day: 
"A huge ask for Roadworks' big unit John Randal at race four - hold the leaders jersey up Admiral's Hill, the nastiest and longest climb around. So how did he do? Roadworks took all five places on the day with John fourth. Best team tactics I've seen in a long time in Masters"
That generous endorsement of our ride meant a lot, and capped off a magic day nicely.  With one race to go, we'd carved out an insurmountable lead in the team series.

Race 5

The lead-up to race five featured a somewhat unlikely "training" session.  One arithmetic-laden hour, crunching the various permutations so that we fully understood what implications our finishing order might have.  Things were going to be interesting!

I was sitting 5 points ahead of Andrew, Brendan 4 behind him, and Callum another 4 adrift, with daylight between Callum and Chris Stevenson in 5th.  I sent an email around team management, describing how we might knock Andrew off the podium - if Callum and Brendan were 1st and 2nd, and Andrew as far back as 5th, I'd need to muster 3rd, 4th, 6th or 7th to determine where on the podium I stood. 

Brendan's response was interesting.  We'd both ridden for the Placemakers team in the South Island's Calder Stewart series, helping put Justin in the leader's jersey for the final round.  Things hadn't gone to plan, and on account of some bad luck, but also some bad management by his team on the day, the jersey had been lost.  Brendan was adamant 1st place was the only important one, and that we'd be best not to lose sight of that.

My take on it was different.  Andrew had the unenviable task of needing to contain three of us, since any one of us would be able to beat him in the series.  I was firmly of the view that our best chance of winning the series was to attack the living bejesus out of him (a technical roadie term, I'm sure), and that our strongest defence would be our collective willingness to see a team-mate win the series.

We had a three week gap, and it was a mixed bag, training-wise.  I had a confidence inspiring session on the wind-trainer, where I scored a PB on Sufferfest Revolver, followed by a not so inspiring ride at Taupo.  The weekend prior I went and rode the course at pace, just to get a feel for it.  The parcours was not hard, so we'd need to rely on our legs to put people under pressure.

We had a full house, which was great.  Scotty had asked if he could join us again, and although we had to ask Jonathan to step down, Jorge opened the race to all and sundry, so he was able to ride incognito.  Kerrin, Yancey, Glen and Peter made up our eight.  Dan was able to DS, and even Oli had managed to clear his decks, and would be there for what would hopefully be a glorious day for the Roadworks team.  We were also blessed with CJ's presence once more.

The wind was up, and once we were racing, it was coming left to right across the road.  The pace went up, and the ensuing shambles was pretty embarrassing.  It was a great shame it took a nasty crash in the right hand gutter (of all places) to bring us all back into line. 

We were neutralised for quite some time, with the commissaires trying to allow those caught up in the crash (whose bikes had come through relatively unscathed) to be paced back up to us by their team cars.  This all took so long, we actually started to wonder if the Masters Two peloton would be snapping at our heels.

Eventually we were cleared to race again, and boy did we.  I don't think I've ever spent so much time out of my saddle in a race as I did over the next hour or so.  There was barely a moment when one or other of us wasn't going off the front. And time and again, we'd be brought back, often by Andrew himself.

Kerrin leading the way, something Callum was clearly enjoying!  Photo: thanks to Di Chesmar

Despite the aggression, nothing was visibly happening, and the peloton was largely intact as we approached the turn at Alfredton.  Things were happening under the hood though, and when it was full gas out of the turn, the bunch got cut in half. 

We were well represented - only Peter and Kerrin (and Jono!) were caught behind the split - while Andrew had only one team-mate with him.  Jase, Ben Storey and Grant Perry were there from Rivet, and Ben and Kevin from Tararua Builders.  Judging by their faces, they were enjoying themselves, following wheels and watching the fireworks as we incessantly tried to break Andrew. 

And failed for the most part.  It was actually amazing what he endured, time and time again winching himself back up to whichever Roadworks wheel was up the road. 

We kept trying, and the inevitable finally happened.  Brendan unleashed, and it was as if the bunch breathed a collective sigh of relief, and watched him go. Saying they let him go wouldn't be quite right - it implies not doing so was possible.

At that moment, I knew we'd won the series.  I've heard plenty of tales of Brendan's racing career as we've enjoyed the countryside together, and I knew this man was no stranger to riding to the line alone.  He had 20km or thereabouts to ride, but I knew he was not only in his element, but had a strong desire to perform.

Perhaps it was effect of the dozens of attacks dulling my analytical mind, or maybe it was just inexperience, but I made a serious tactical error at that point.  Despite my fatigue, I didn't change what I was doing to reflect that Brendan was up the road, and without him, simply tried to keep bludgeoning Andrew into submission. 

Nearing the finish, it was clear that this wasn't going to work, and I started trying to gather myself for something different.  Dan rolled up alongside, and told me where I'd need to place to keep the jersey.  It was far from certain, but also not out of the question. 

I'd checked out the course, and had deliberately ridden hard.  I knew that the last stretch would be tough, but thought that maybe, just maybe, I'd manage to get away.  I figured I'd have one chance down on the flatter, and if that failed, I could completely empty the tank on the climb to the line.

My first attempt, following Ben Knight, failed, and while it had seemed promising for a few moments, that glimpse had probably doomed it to failure as I'd gone slightly harder than I could cope with.  Immediately others attacked, and while Andrew was still here, and Brendan's spot above Andrew was secured, I was now fairly certain I wouldn't be taking the jersey home.

The nail in the coffin came somewhat as a surprise.  Despite the course map and elevation profile showing a 90 degree turn and a climb to the line, the finish-line was down on the flat!!!!  It took me half of the finishing straight to comprehend that it wasn't where it was supposed to be, and by the time it had registered, I was almost dead last in the bunch.  I'd not only run out of road to recover from my most recent effort, but also to get a decent position organised. 

For the next few minutes, I was in emotional turmoil.  I was thrilled for Brendan  that he'd won the race, and for the way he'd won it.  Callum too had been well ahead of me, and I'd been right behind Andrew, so it was pretty certain that we'd managed to knock him off the podium entirely.  Adding to the already secured team prize, the race had been a complete success.

Tempering my elation for the team and my friend, was the urge to cry.  My brain wasn't able to focus at all, and it made for a somewhat confusing time, as I swung from one emotional extreme to the other.  I was exhausted, and frustrated, and I felt like I'd let an amazing opportunity to succeed slip through my grasp.  It was hard to process.

My family were on hand - Sarah and the girls, and my parents too, and embracing them helped.  So too was it good to hug Oli, and Dan, both of whom knew what I was going through beneath the hood. 

I sought out Andrew, first privately, and then again in front of his team, telling them how impressed I'd been at his riding.  It was unbelievable how long he'd been able to weather the mighty Roadworks storm.

 "A great moment of top sportsmanship between the classy Andrew Young and John - these guys had a ding-dong battle most of the series, but the mutual respect was always evident." 
Photo and caption: Oli Brooke-White

We rolled back to Masterton as a team, and once back at my car, I couldn't wait to take the orange jersey off.  Completely aside from the fact that my team jersey was clean, I felt much better with it on, and more pointedly, the other one off.  We had quite a long wait before the prizegiving, due to the Elite field's longer course, but Jorge had provided some food, and the bar at the venue was a good source of cold drinks. 

Shortly before the ceremony, the results were posted up, and for a while I felt certain I'd slip to third in the series.  Callum had finished a fine fourth place, behind Brendan, Scotty and Jase, while I was back in eleventh.  In the end, I was saved by the single-point margins that kicked in after 8th place, with final points for the series being:   Brendan (87 from a maximum 125), me (78), Callum (76), Andrew (75) and Jase (59). 

The final kick in the guts for the day, and one which was much harder to recover from than the result, was when I was handed the microphone to introduce Roadworks Reparto Corse for the team classification.  I had no trouble remembering who everyone was (unlike the Elite guy who called out his team-mates!!), but while I'd called Oli and CJ to the stage, had not brought Dan up.  Despite him telling me he thought the stage was for the riders, I felt responsible for omitting him. 

Roadworks Reparto Corse: (l to r) Peter Murphy, Scott McDonnell, Jonathan Leonard, Kerrin Allwood, Yancey Arrington, Glen Carabine, me, Brendan McGrath, Callum Kennedy, Oli Brooke-White, Christopher Johnston.  Absent:  Mark Donald, Cliff Clermont, Joel Healy and Dan Waluszewski
While a few guys had to scoot, many were able to come back to Lincoln Road in Carterton for a late lunch.  I'd managed to put together a lasagne between breakfast and leaving for the race, and Sarah had done a chicken curry in the slow cooker.  I'd also busted out my sister's famous trifle recipe, and we were all armed with a good excuse to hoe in.  

Before we called it a day, I took the opportunity to thank those there.  I passed on my regret that Joel had been cruelly prevented from being on the road with us, but stressed his integral part in putting the team together.  I also said how much I'd enjoyed riding in this team, not least because of the way we'd approached the racing.  While the team clearly had talent: 1st, 2nd and 3rd on GC, wins in 3 out of 5 stages, and 1st in the team's competition, it was the positive racing (and attitudes generally) that had lead to those mighty results which made them for me.

* * * * *
After almost a couple of months to reflect, I'm incredibly proud of what we achieved as a team, and what I achieved personally.

Had someone told me earlier in the year that I'd finish second overall to the M2 National Champion in a 5-race series, I would have thought them slightly crazy, and would have acknowledged that it would be an outcome I'd gladly take.  I've been careful to remind myself of that - coming 2nd was a great achievement, not a failure.

Losing the jersey to Brendan had been tough, but something I'd pointed out to him was that under no circumstances should he feel like he'd taken it from me.  I had indeed lost it.  With the benefit of hindsight, I know now that I needed to completely reset once he'd got up the road, and should've switched into a completely defensive mode thereafter.  That was my fault, not his, something I think we're both glad about.

I was also fascinated to note that we'd kind of gone full circle with the way we'd approached the races.  In many ways, the fifth was most like the first, except for the fact that it had been successful.  I think the main difference was actually not how we'd ridden, but how the other teams had - in the end happy to sit back and watch the fireworks. 

The series was a massive learning experience for me, and the win in the third race is something that I'll be proud of for years to come.  In the last 12 months I've hit a level that I've never been at before - and its fascinating to still be on an upward trajectory at the ripe old age of 42.  I put a lot of this down to Joel Healy, who has been an excellent coach since he took me on during the 2014 NI Series.  The things he gets me to do are almost all unpleasant, yet I greatly appreciate them.  But too, I take them seriously.  As Brendan said to me early in the series:  "anyone can suffer during a race, but suffering during training is less easy to do."  Man, I suffered.

I had the pleasure to ride in a team with some amazing guys.  I've always loved the way Callum rides Wednesday Worlds, and it was great to have him on board.  While I reckon I did alright, Kerrin gets my nod for most-improved, and I look forward to seeing him win a big race soon.  It was cool to meet Jono, Glen, Yancey and Scott for the first time, and to ride again with Mark, Peter and Cliff. CJ and Dan were great in the DS role, and as always, Oli and the Roadworks brand are something that fuels the cyclist in me like nothing else.

Thanks to the other teams in the series, and too to Jorge Sandoval and his team for giving us all the opportunity to add the team dimension to our weekend racing. 

Best of all, this series was the vehicle for a great new friendship.  Brendan and I have ridden regularly together since we met early in 2015, and during many wet and cold hours on the road in the depths of winter, found something highly motivational in one another. 

Recently, he reminded me of a single defining moment for him - in the early hours one weekday morning, wet, and enduring single-digit temperatures, we passed each other on the Makara Loop.  He was going towards Karori, and I was going towards town.  He knew at that moment we'd do well, given the shit we were both putting ourselves through.

He was right.