Sunday, June 9, 2019

A quick lap of the East Cape

I've been unexpectedly in rebuild mode, after the longest lay-off I've had since back in 2010 when I finished the Kiwi Brevet with a sore knee.  After an ill-fated February trip to Melbourne with Sarah, during which time she steamed chin-first into some tarmac, I had my back go into spasm again, and for various reasons (not least, enjoying walking to and from work), it was almost ten full weeks between rides. 

I was back on the bike finally at the very end of April, giving me just over three months to "get ready" for the Mongolia Bike Challenge in August - completion being the primary aim now. 

A solid few days' riding over Queen's birthday weekend seemed like an ideal opportunity to see both where the fitness was at, and to give said fitness a bit of a helping hand.  Even better, it enabled Brendan McGrath and I to finally get out of town together for a multi-day bike ride. 

We decided to fly to Gisborne, and ride a four-day loop of the East Cape, before flying home to Wellington.  Contingency for late arrival and/or slow departure on the Friday dictated an anti-clockwise loop.  To reduce stress at the far end, we booked the earliest flight home on the Tuesday morning, giving us all of the Monday public holiday to ride between Opotiki and Gisborne, without the stress of a hard deadline. 

Preparation went smoothly, though I found myself stuck in Auckland on Thursday, after very high winds in Wellington prevented a few morning flights from landing, mine included.  Brendan and I kept ourselves entertained through the day by developing various contingency plans, though I finally got home at 9pm and was able to pack my own bike and gear.

Sarah kindly dropped me to the airport in the morning, and I enjoyed the flying-with-bike ritual of photographing it heading through the oversize scanner!

Looks like I may have forgotten to pack the carbon fork!
Brendan had reached out to Stephen Sheldrake, who owns the Avantiplus store in Gisborne, and he was very happy to help us out with storage of our bike bags (oh, I do miss the days of banging the rear end of the bike inside a large plastic bag and rotating the handlebars...).  Not only that, but he picked us up from the airport, and helped us out with a couple of last-minute technical problems. 

Brendan dropped and lost a bolt during bike reassembly, while about 1km into our ride, I diagnosed a fraying rear derailleur cable, and returned to the store for an emergency replacement - getting through the ride would be challenging enough without a snapped cable and single gear!

Dan doing all the hard work while Stephen and I "supervise"!  Photo: Brendan McGrath

The shop was a nice place to hide from the downpour outside, but we soon ran out of excuses, and set off for the second time in an hour. 

Leaving Gisborne, bound for all those places
Our afternoon's target was Tokomaru Bay, some 90km up the road.  After filling bottles and pockets at the Okitu Beach store, we were on our way proper, and due to the temperature and occasional rain, didn't stop much before reaching Tolaga Bay, at just over the half-way mark. 

There, we took a short detour to check out the 600m-long wharf (the second longest in NZ after a whopper down at Tiwai Point, apparently), which we rode the length of without coming a cropper in the train tracks which run the length of it. 

Tologa Bay wharf
The store was a good chance for a snack, but we didn't pause long and were soon underway again.  A short distance out of town, we passed a gruesome sight - a goat or sheep that had been killed on the road, and which was being slowly ground up by the traffic who presumably were unable to go around it.  Fortunately, the climate meant we didn't have to hold our noses, and so only one of our senses was temporarily overloaded. 

After a bit of a climb, we were treated to a fast down-hill run all the way into Tokomaru Bay, and after scoping out the 4-Square's closing time, quickly found our very cool accommodation, the old Post Office building, and now a very nice B&B. 

Tokomaru Bay Post Office B&B
After cleaning and warming up, we went out in search of dinner.   Unfortunately, our excursion coincided with drizzle starting up again, and so we decided against a 3km return trip to a local pub/restaurant, and instead made do with takeaways and crumble.   The two-course meal slid down very nicely indeed, and we managed not to get too wet - all in all, a great success.

The next morning, we woke to blue skies, and after a nice continental breakfast, we did a lap of the bay... 

Looking back towards Tokomaru Bay township
Back on the main drag, we popped to a lovely wee cafe for some much-needed coffee.  I couldn't resist a pulled-pork pie, which was the first and best such pie I've ever had!  By the time we'd finished there, the blue skies had also finished, and we set off in fairly dreary conditions again. 

Not far up the road was Te Puia Springs - soon enough to stop for wardrobe adjustment, but far too soon for another coffee - a shame, because it was the last opportunity for some while. 

The grim conditions didn't seem to bother either of us, thanks to great clothing (Gore shakedry jackets, in particular) but also our shared attitude towards bike riding.  Traffic was light, so we were able to ride side-by-side a lot of the time, something we've both missed over the last couple of years due to incompatible commitments.

We took the turnoff into Ruatoria (or rather, didn't make the turn to stay on the main highway).  Unfortunately, someone with a leaky gas tank had also been this way recently, and the rain had spread it around a lot making it hard to avoid.  They'd gone all the way to the supermarket - our destination - and then gone back the way they'd come, just as we planned to do.  Argh!

At the supermarket, we had a brief conversation with a young girl who was fascinated by our bikes and mission.   I had my second pie of the day, before heading out into the diesel-slick again.  About 5km up the road, it stopped abruptly - presumably this was where the tank had finally run dry! 

Not the best pie of the day, but a good one nonetheless
We both had high-hopes for a coffee at Tikitiki, but as with Ruatoria, we left town disappointed.  The weather conditions were constantly changing (from dry to wet and back again), so we were stopping often to reconfigure clothing. 

Te Araroa couldn't come soon enough. and there we finally got our coffees.  We had one for each of Ruatoria and Tikitiki's failures, and didn't rush them on account of a sudden downpour outside. 

On the way out of Te Araroa, we swung past the largest Pohutukawa tree in the country (which makes it the largest in the universe, probably). 

The heavens opened not long after, and as if the drenching from above wasn't enough, we rode past the largest puddle of the trip just as a car drove through it, drenching us from the side for good measure.  Our jackets were impervious to both, impressively. 

Not 10 minutes later, we climbed out of the bay only to look back and see weather conditions we only could have dreamed of when leaving the town back in the distance. 

Looking eastward, and running out of land quickly
As the skies yo-yoed between blue and dry, and grey and wet, the wind had made its mind up to be in our faces pretty much the whole way from Te Araroa to our overnight destination at the far end of Waihau Bay. 

It was dark by the time we got there, largely thanks to the grovel into the wind.  We were booked into the Waihau Bay Hotel, and after a really good shower and a quick stretch, we shared a fisherman's basket before retiring for the sort of sleep that you get after a fairly tough day on the bike. 

By virtue of running out of both energy and things to do the previous evening, and breakfast not being available too early on a Sunday,  I managed a really long sleep.  Brendan had made better use of the morning, not to mention the whopping SLR camera he'd been hauling around.

Sunrise at Waihau Bay.  Photo: Brendan McGrath

Breakfast was solid, which was just as well, as so too was the wind - it would be in our faces pretty much the whole day.  The sun was out, at least, but it was far from warm.

The Waihau Bay Hotel, just before 10am roll-out
We made a short visit into the wee church at Raukokere.  Being a Sunday morning, the local pastor was getting organised at the front, and seemed to pay us no mind.   It was nice to be out of the wind briefly, and while I have not a single religious bone in my body, I do always enjoy sitting quietly in a church. 

After a few minutes of quiet contemplation...

Photo:  Brendan McGrath was time to roll out again.

We'd left Wellington a little over 48 hours ago, and it had been striking that almost everyone we'd seen since our ride had begun was Māori.  It felt like a real privilege to be passing through this area, where the way of live is clearly very different to that in the nation's capital. 

An old ambulance and a well manicured lawn
No one was making coffee at the macadamia farm, and the cafe as we entered Te Kaha was also closed.  We grabbed a snack at the adjacent dairy, and were relieved when a local told us the Te Kaha Beach Resort would be open at the other end of town. 

I was feeling a bit cold, so was keen to get stuck into a pie.  Unfortunately, I failed to read the instructions on the pie-warmer, and only realised the plate under the pie was far too hot to hold once it was too late.  I used my "wallet" (a bank coin baggie) to insulate my fingers, but of course it didn't like the heat either.  While waiting for my coffee, I retrieved a roll of duct tape from my bike, and fashioned a repair of the rather large hole in my wallet which matched the large blob of molten plastic on the bottom of my pie plate...  As far as on-the-road repairs went, this was the only thing needed other than applying chain oil. 

Te Kaha marae
Our only respite from the wind came when the road deviated away from the coast to cross the Motu River.  The bridge was a few kilometres up the valley, and had been put in a perfect spot, given how long it would have had to be, had it been any further downstream.

After the crossing, the road hugged some cliffs for a wee while, giving us a bit of a break from the wind, and nice views down into the valley.

Looking up the Motu River
As Opotiki drew nearer, things started to look a little more familiar, and when we passed the Motu Road turnoff, I knew we hadn't far left to ride (I'd driven up the Motu Rd back in January 2018 with Sarah, Kaitlyn and Khulan en route to the Pakihi Track, and then ridden up there a few hours later to retrieve the car). 

We'd arrived at the Airbnb Brendan had booked sufficiently early that we felt inclined to cook rather than eat out, but not so early that we had much down time before hoeing into a plate of pasta.  Crumble and custard washed that down nicely, and by then it was well dark.  I even had a hot bath before bed, and slept soundly as a result. 

We woke to blue skies, which was great, but the sub-zero temperatures were not so nice.  After breakfast at home and a couple of coffees out, we set off on our final day's riding - to close the almost 500km loop back to Gisborne. 

In some ways, we were lucky, as the first 62km of the ride were all pretty much uphill.  This both generated more heat and kept our speeds a little lower than had it been flat. 

This was about as cold as it got...
The scenery was very lovely, especially once we were into the gorge.   The only downside was that we weren't getting too much direct sunshine, not that it was making much difference!

It was nice to see it in this direction - I'd been through almost exactly one year earlier on a TdF training mission, but the views were definitely better heading uphill.

Did a U-turn for this one
Just before the road steepened up for the final part of the climb, we were surprised to see a "COFFEE" sign.  In Wellington, it's hard to be more than a few hundred metres from a decent coffee source, and we'd become accustomed to very limited opportunities.  This came as a very welcome surprise, and it was quite the set-up, with fresh muffins (and sunshine) to boot.

By the summit, we'd climbed over 700m, most of it imperceptibly.  Once over the top, a fast descent took us down into the headwaters of the Motu River, significantly smaller than when we'd last seen it a day or so earlier. 

We had a short stop at the Matawai Camp cafe, and while sitting in the sun with our coffees and muffins, did wonder exactly how bold a massive rat was going to get - it must have been hungry to loiter so close to us (but luckily not so hungry as to attack!).

After Matawai, there were only a couple of short climbing sections, and otherwise it was a downhill run all the way to Gisborne.  That said, we'd also picked up yet another stonking headwind, which at times all but negated the gravity-assist.

Job well done!

By the time we reached the outskirts of Gisborne, I'd chatted briefly to Peter Murphy (who was driving to Auckland and pulled a u-turn to say gidday) and Craig Hoskin (heading back to Gisborne after MTBing at Whirinaki and who stopped after driving past us).  Stephen not only met us at his shop, but also drove us to our motel once we'd packed up our bikes!  It was quite the social afternoon, all things considered!!!

Brendan and I celebrated the end of our ride with a meal at a nearby Indian restaurant (and wearing clothes we hadn't hauled around the cape, no less).  We had a very early flight the next morning, which was only a little longer than the Wellington Airport bus ride I had to a stop about a minute's walk from my office door.   The icing on the cake was that the motel had a free washing machine and dryer, so I returned home that evening without a single piece of dirty laundry.

Brendan had been great company (thanks mate!), and while the weather didn't exactly turn it on for us, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.  The daily distances had been about right given the conditions, and we'd done well with accommodation choices and food options. 

Most pleasingly, my legs were remarkably up to the task after only a month's riding in them post-injury.  I've got more of the same coming up in just over a week, when Sarah and I travel to Taiwan for eight days of riding.  Temperature forecasts of "10 degrees, feels like 3 degrees" are being replaced with "33 degrees, feels like 40 degrees", which is much more my cup of tea. 

* * *

Nitty gritty:  gear list (tried and true) // Day 1 // Day 2 // Day 3 // Day 4

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Back to where it all began: the One Day Ahead premiere, and Hobbiton Grand Fondo

With the exception of a month or so of sporadic email correspondence, Team NZ's Tour de France journey started in Cambridge, in early December, 2017.

We were warned by Jonathan, (directeur sportif), that:

Matt, my good mate, Google NZ man and expert vlogger may join us at some point over the weekend and take some footage of our riding using his drone. I'm trying to persuade Matt to join us on the tour to document the trip and assist with vlog daily updates.

Jump forward to early August, 2018, and Matt had arrived back in his home town of Nelson with no less than two terabytes of video data, and immediately got to thinking about what to make of it all.

Matt, about to interview coach, Hayden Roulston, at Hobbiton (December 2017)
In France, we'd quickly become accustomed to Matt's presence.  He'd made it clear to us that we could tell him to piss off, but for whatever reason(s) - his own good management, and our trust of him, among others, we generally responded well to him.

He had a dedicated van, and would film us out of the boot, his passenger window (often while sitting on the door), by drone, and occasionally from the roadside.  Hardly a stop went by without him asking at least one of us how things were going - and he quickly became more than just the guy behind the camera.

Matt was, and is, part of the team.   He not only joined us for the punchy 65km stage in the Pyrenees, but alongside Bill Boakes (usually literally), did as many push-ups each day as we'd ridden kilometres.

While the riders' Tour de France pretty much wrapped up when we got back to NZ, Matt's had only really begun.  While we'd trained our guts out for 6 months prior to the trip, he spent 6 months afterwards diligently finding a story tucked away in the hundred or so hours of footage he had shot. 

Eventually, the word came:  our fourth team assembly would be back where it all began.  Matt's film (and our story), One Day Ahead, would premiere in Cambridge as part of a week-long cycling festival.

Trailer #2 available here

As the big day approached, the excitement I was feeling to see everyone was fortunately dominating the nervousness I had about seeing the film.   Sarah and I flew to Auckland with Bill, and the three of us drove south together to the accommodation Mike had organised on the outskirts of Hamilton - the joys of him having "left [his] job to ride the Tour de France."

There we found Aaron and Sonya, Dr Fish, Jason, Jonathan and Julie, and Mike and his partner Lisa.  There were so many conversations to have, but a warm hug for everyone was as good a place to start as any.

Our arrival has slowed everyone else's departure down a bit, and when we finally arrived at the Good Union pub in Cambridge, my parents, who'd driven up from Wellington, were contemplating their second wines!

Paul and his wife Lena arrived soon after, followed by Cam and his family, and then Stu and his partner Fiona.

After an early dinner, we made our way to the film venue, where I was delighted to find my colleague Trish.  Part of the university's HR team, she'd kept a very close eye on me throughout the awareness-raising project at the university, and it was so nice to know she'd have a chance to keep an eye on me again at this event.

Mere moments before Brett Cotter from the Big Bike Film Night first addressed the crowd, Bruce appeared - his new job at Rocket Lab (yes, the Rocket Lab) and the start of Auckland's anniversary weekend, had meant a less than quick getaway.  We all breathed a sigh of relief, and as the lights dimmed, only the UK-based Dave, and Belgium-based Roger were missing.

The band was back together.

What followed is impossible for me to objectively comment on, though it struck me as a genuine story, beautifully told.  We were all completely blown away by the job Matt had done - the film is more than we could have ever have hoped for.

Brett wrote:
The response from our 150 plus audience was full of praise for the efforts of film maker Matt Jenke from Silver Eye Films. Matt has accomplished so much in this breathtaking journey following these 8 ordinary Kiwi blokes riding the Tour De France riding one day ahead of the pros.  As to be expected the cinematography was awe inspiring, and the story offers messages of comradery, support, and friendship; this is so much more than just a cycling movie!!!
Brett's in his fifth year of taking compilations of short and long cycling films around NZ, so has seen plenty that have not made the cut, and also plenty of great ones.  He'd taken a punt on this, agreeing to screen it sight unseen, but seemed positively delighted with it.

After a short break, during which time Bruce got his hug too, we all assembled on the stage for a Q&A session.

(L-R):  Jason, Jonathan, me, Steven, Mike, Aaron, Bruce, Paul, Stu, and last but not least, Matt

We were asked by one audience-member, how we'd each coped upon return to NZ.  I knew already that the answers were mixed.  Some had experienced at times extreme post-event lows, and for a few, ongoing dampened enthusiasm for riding.

I hadn't had a mood crash, and if anything, had fared better mood-wise in the second half of the year than I had in the first.  Rather, I described an overwhelming sense of relief that it was over - a welcome end to the fundraising, and structured training - neither of which I'd really had enough time for.  But, I also described what is best described as a period of mourning, for the people I'd been with day in, day out, for a month.

We'd entered the fray as strangers, became a team, and emerged out the other end as nothing less than a family.  For several months, I'd grieved in their absence, and being surrounded by them as I spoke had made that simple truth ever clearer.

I'd managed (to my surprise) to keep control of my emotions - throughout both the screening and the Q&A session.  The story Matt told had been sensitively put together, and at times funny - but my inner calm all came to a screaming halt when I met Stu's sister.

Whether the film had shown it or not, there were brief but pivotal moments in France where I alone had looked after him, and he alone had looked after me.  And, the loving bond that formed in no small part due to those moments has helped me immensely in the months since France.  Hearing Stu's sister's take on things overwhelmed me momentarily, well and truly cutting through my brain's general tendency to flat-line my emotional state. 

I was reminded of how I'd felt after my grandmother died, a time at which I'd noted that it was nice to have "normal human emotions", unfiltered by a mood disorder or medication.

After mingling a bit more, the majority of us retired to the motel, and chatted for as long as our eyelids could manage.

The next day, most of us were entered in the Hobbiton Gran Fondo.  After the late-night, the morning nonetheless went smoothly, and just before 8:30am, I found myself on the startline next to Stu and Jason, wearing only my second race number since the Graperide, almost a year ago.

Stu had been keen for a good hit-out, and had entered start wave 1.  I'd decided to join him, and hang on for grim death until Hobbiton, where I planned to stop and wait for the others.

Stu.  Brother from Another mother
And, that was pretty much how it played out.  Hamish Bond proceeded to ride almost everyone off his wheel, and Stu, Jason and I were left in a chase bunch of about 25 riders who were about one minute down an hour into the event.

After a torrid start, I was feeling OK once properly warmed up, but had to chase back on to the bunch a couple of times.  Actually succeeding was an unexpected surprise the second time - unbeknownst to them, I was a beneficiary of the group collectively deciding to ease back after the effort they'd put in had unhitched me.

Predictably, I was the only one of the group to peel off at Hobbiton.  On my lonesome, I enjoyed a big blueberry muffin, and glass of ginger-beer, much to the bemusement of the helpers.

I rolled back around the corner, where I had a better view of the road below.  A couple of small groups - remnants of my start wave - passed by, and I had time for a slash before eventually a few familiar white jerseys appeared over a rise.  I pulled a u-turn, and slotted into a group of 20 or so, which contained Steven, Mike, Paul and Bill.  Of the Team NZ starters, only Jonny had evaded my company!

Also in the bunch was Stu's lovely lady, Fiona.  Before Hobbiton, I'd asked Stu how I'd recognise her, and he'd described her to a T.

Before we all rolled into Cambridge, I had a couple of opportunities to do my best motorbike impression, and pull Fiona back across gaps that had opened up on a couple of short climbs.  It was nice to open the taps, and to feel some of my old power lurking in legs which haven't been fired in real anger for quite some time.

Aaron, Bruce and Sonya were waiting for us at the finish, and for the next hour or so, we all enjoyed hanging out in the sun, continuing the process of catching up that had begun the previous afternoon and had only stopped for sleep.

After prize-giving, the day's farewells began - Stu and Fiona were staying another night in Cambridge, and Jason was heading back to Hawke's Bay.  The rest of us drove to Auckland, and regrouped at Paul and Lena's place for a very lovely BBQ and hours more chit-chat.

It was abundantly clear that we hold a common a desire to keep writing the TDF Team NZ story.  The shared experience (and what an experience!) helped us form deep bonds, and it is clear that everyone is keen for opportunities to be together once more.  Bike riding will ensue, no doubt, but we will also continue conversations about our lives, hopes and dreams, victories and defeats, ups and downs.  Just like families do.

Jason, John, Aaron, Bruce, Paul, Stu, Bill, Jonny, Mike, Steven.  Brothers

One Day Ahead is screening in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch as part of a Big Bike Film Night feature series.  Beyond that, there will no doubt be other opportunities to see the film - I personally hope it'll end up in Air New Zealand's seat-back catalogue, and it wouldn't be out of place in a film festival or two.  I'm also keen to organise a screening or two at work, but all in good time.

Stu, Mike, and hopefully Matt, will be in Wellington on Wednesday 27 February for the two screenings that night, and I'm heading down for the Christchurch show on the Friday, with my bicycle.

In the meantime, many wonderful memories have just had a good polish, a few new ones have been added, and all is well in the world.

I can't wait to see that wonderful movie and those wonderful people again.  I'm excited that so many friends and family who've spurred me on over the years will also get a further glimpse into what went down last July.