Thursday, April 10, 2014

In the box at the GrapeRide... goes a big tick

Every now and then, I do an event which is no sooner finished than added to the list for next time.  Sometimes this is because the event is fantastic, but more often, it's because it doesn't go as well as I'd hoped it would.  My first attempt at the GrapeRide was a bit of both.

In fact, I'd only ever done it once before, in 2013, with Simon on the tandem, flat battery and all.  We'd won our class, and finished with a good, fast time, but were hampered by our lack of gears (from 20 down to about 4) and missed out on the tandem record by a minute or so.  Surely sub-optimal gearing cost us that?  On the other hand, I'm not sure I would have pedalled so hard had we not been forced to.  The only way to tell was to go back.

As is often the case with events, this one made a nice carrot.  Simon had a very disappointing Karapoti in early March- shearing the freewheel hub on his Ibis tandem on the way up the first main climb - and the GrapeRide a month later would provide an outlet for some pent up frustration, not to mention an incentive to not let good form slink away too much. 

I'd had no Karapoti at all, and in fact have done very little competitive racing since returning from France with a humungous base and bulkier legs.  That particular transformation has me a little unsure as to what my "race weight" should be, and gave me little incentive to replace the batteries in my bathroom scales.  Still, I'm not smart enough to not fret about it.

We'd done a fair bit of tandem "racing" leading up to the Taranaki event in February, and in the few weeks before the GrapeRide.  Latterly, this included a Wellington Bays TT, where on our second attempt, we rode about 4 minutes faster than I've ever been on my own, and, some hill interval sessions.  The last one of those, on Mt Vic, saw us climbing together faster than Simon had been up the hill on his own, a source of much excitement and optimism.

My training had consisted mostly of Wednesday Worlds rides, and about 4 or 5 bays TTs of my own.  I got within 8 seconds of my PB on the Colnago on one ride, and then was 30 seconds faster on my first ever ride on a TT bike - without really trying - damn those things are fast...!  (Watch this space...)  The one race I did do, was a cool criterium on the Wellington Stadium concourse.  Unfortunately, I got my cornering sorted a few laps too late, and was out the arse pretty much for the duration.  I dangled off the back of the bunch for 40 minutes or so, narrowly avoiding getting lapped by them (but not by the winner, twice).

Thanks to Rivet Racing for the photo.

Simon and I joined the Worlds bunch twice before the GrapeRide, both to mixed effect.  We hit a cateye during a big attack the first week, and stopped on the other side of the road expecting a puncture.  A few days before the main event, we drove hard after Andy Hagan, but couldn't catch him at Pass of Branda, and then did the bunch a low-speed leadout into a howling northerly along the Airport Straight.  Then, it was off to visit Oli for a last-minute gear tune, and then home to put the feet up.

Simon had booked us on the Interislander south to Picton, and I'd handled the GrapeRide entry for "Captain Kennett and his Rear Admiral".  I was delighted to see my e-ticket for Admiral Randal, accompanying none other than Captain Kennett.  Simon's family were on the boat with us, and we were going to be staying at his in-laws' place in Blenheim.  On the way down, he jacked up a rental car for us, all the better to keep our legs fresh, and to avoid steep shuttle prices for the four of us.

The 3pm ferry was delayed an hour, but we got to David and Jennie's before 8pm.  We dropped Sarah and Miro off, and then made for New World for a scratched-together dinner, before driving out to Renwick to register.  I munched on a rather-tasty loaf of ciabatta throughout, and quickly polished off a bit of Indonesian rice salad once we got to our digs.  We socialised for a bit, before slipping into sleeping bags on the loungeroom floor.

My alarm went off at 6:20am, and preparations began.  I got the tandem out of the back of the car, and then moved the car itself out onto the street.  I put the transponder on my seatpost, and loaded bottles onto the bike.  Lights came a bit later (for the ride out to Renwick), and just before we left, David fired a few more psi into the tyres.

Back inside, I scoffed down a couple of hot cross buns, and a can of creamed rice.   And, David made me one glorious coffee.  Once the 3rd toilet stop was done, it was time to fire on the skinsuit, and roll out.

We had almost 20km to ride to get to the start at the Forrest Vineyard, just beyond Renwick.  It wasn't yet light, given Daylight Saving was still in effect, and nor was it warm.  Simon was wearing trousers, and after a few minutes coveting them, I asked if I could put my hands in his pockets.  "No, but you're welcome to sit up and put your hands in your armpits" was the not completely unhelpful response.  I did just that from time to time, but the extra cool air my face copped when I did so kept it to a minimum.

One nice side-effect of setting out in the cold, was that when we arrived at the vineyard, we felt nice and warm, and the 30 minute wait for the start wasn't too bad.

I went for yet another dump and then took the tandem off Simon, and went to find a start position.  "Fast tandems" were supposed to start in between the 1000 and 2000 numbers, and when I detected the swing to the former, I found a hole in the barriers and went through.  The next 10 minutes was a bit of a nervous wait for Simon, though I figured there was actually no issue if we went off dead last.  We were expecting a lonely ride.

I moved forward 10m or so before I finally heard Simon call out, from the other side of the course from that which I'd been watching.  I'd seen a couple of tandems in the mass of bikes ahead of us, and also spotted Alex's lovely dad, Mike, who politely asked for a spot just behind us for the duration of the ride!

We had one goal for the event, and that was to break Chris and Bob's tandem record.  Starting at the back of a bunch for the few hundred metre long driveway was going to set us on the back foot immediately, and so despite being cleared to start, we waited on the line for another few minutes.

And then, we were off.  We made good use of the clear road, and got quickly up to a decent speed.  Just as we turned onto SH6, we passed one of the "Bunch Police" - a nice feature of this event.  I guessed he belonged to the group we hadn't started with, but more likely, now I think about it, was that he'd jump into the bunch behind Simon and I.

As we straightened up on the highway, I asked Simon if he'd started the timer - he hadn't, so it was good I asked.  We'd probably been underway a minute or two at most.

We're Oscar Mike

In order to crack the record, we needed to average about 40km/h for the 101km, and so there was no opportunity to ease into things.  I couldn't really see what was ahead, but Simon could no focus on the next bunch that would become our prey.

We passed at least one before making the left turn onto SH1, bound for Picton.  Around about this time, visibility dropped from as far as the road was straight, to about 100m, and sometimes considerably less.  Or, so I heard.  I see Simon's back, and my drink bottles down below, both within about a half-metre arc of my eyes. 

We endured a horribly rough section of road around Spring Creek and soon after rolled onto the back of a bunch of 30 or so.  After a few seconds, I asked Simon, "what's the plan, mate?" and he said he was intending to wait until after the Wairau River crossing to make a move.  While the lull was nice, we were going to slow, and we both quickly concluded we couldn't wait.  Up went the cadence, and we were quickly on our own again.

Before too long, we were on the climb that would take us over the railway line and into Picton.  We'd just passed a bunch containing the second of two tandems ahead of us at the start.  They'd jumped on our wheel, with the bunch strung out behind them.

On the way up the hill, I recalled riding this in 52-11 the year before, and could not believe we'd done it.  I stared in disbelief at a solo rider who chose to pass us over the top of the hill, only for us to roll past him as our combined mass responded to the gravitational pull of Picton.

Simon did a fine job of the left hander off SH1, and when I looked back 100m later, I was surprised to see we were on our own.  We hadn't tried to get away from the others, but it had happened nonetheless.

We caught a couple of solos over the short climb to Shakespeare Bay, and then it was into the main climbing event of the day.  We continued to make ground on those ahead of us, and passed a dozen or so riding together about half way up the climb.

2/3 of the way up the hill...

Simon was putting me on the ropes with just about every left hand bend.  I did briefly beg him to take the longer, less steep, route a bit closer to the centre line, but he continued to ride through the apex of these corners, bless him!  I didn't bother objecting again, and suffered in silence.

... working hard
Unfortunately, we were passed by a car towing a boat 50m from the summit, and this caused us to lose our focus for the next 5 minutes or so.   The road ahead was downhill, and would have been pretty fast, but we had nowhere to go with the car only a short distance ahead.

By the time it had pulled over, the road had tightened up significantly, and we had trouble keeping the bike up to speed.  On one tight right hander, Simon did a fine job getting us through the patch of loose gravel through which the optimal line went. 

By the time we'd been through Ngakuta Bay, it felt like we were back on task, and the short power climbs were quickly dispatched.  We were passing odds and sods quite regularly, but didn't collect any company.

Once back on straight roads, Simon reported our average speed had dropped to 39.1km/h.  I didn't even contemplate trying to work out what the implications of that were for our finishing time, and simply pedalled as hard as I could.

Life got temporarily quite horrible when we hit one of NZ's stretches of cheap seal.  I suppose Simon was able to observe the hit our speed took, while the only feedback I got was nasty vibration through my hands, feet and arse.  It lasted a couple of kilometres, and when we finally got to the end of it, I did divert enough energy to mutter "thank god".

For the remainder of the race, I'd get a report from the Captain, indicating that we'd successfully increased our average speed by 0.1km/h.  40 was the target, of course, and it was nice to observe how close "39.2" and "39.3" were.

We passed a large bunch soon after Linkwater, and as we did so, calls of "tandem" went ahead of us like a Mexican wave.  Initially there was no response at the front of the bunch, but about a minute later, I heard someone on our wheel.  The man sounded like he was about to be sick, and I got perverse pleasure imagining how deep he'd dug to get on our wheel.  I think he'd pulled a couple with him, and they held that position until we reached the next bunch.

That occurred a couple of minutes before the turn overlooking Havelock, and I was pleased to see Peter James nestled safely a few wheels from the front.  I often reflect on the fact that he'd made me feel very welcome when I'd turned up to the Freyberg bunch on my flat-bar Giant seven years ago or so.  Had I been treated like a freak, it might have been a very short foray into the world of road cycling.

Our lines weren't great on the fast and unfamiliar descent to the Kaituna River crossing, and I could sense the riders behind us.  We wound it up nicely in time for the road to kick up to the SH6 intersection.  We couldn't quite hang on to that momentum though, and I was surprised that no-one came around us at the turn.  We did manage to get back on top of our gear (possibly by changing it judiciously) relatively quickly, and we were soon hunting that next 0.1 increment.

We passed a sign indicating 28km to Renwick.  The finish line was probably 1km short of that, and Simon reported our average speed.  I told him there was no way I was capable of the sort of arithmetic that would tell us how fast we needed to go for that distance.

After 10 minutes or so, someone behind made a comment that I didn't catch, but made me look around.  I was astonished to see we only had 4 or 5 riders with us.  "We smashed the bunch" I shouted to Simon - quite a contrast to the 50 or so we were towing along a year prior.

Peter James announced he was one of those, but pulling through beautifully for a minute-long turn.  Another tried the same a few minutes later, but did so over the top of a rise, and within a few seconds we were steaming past him.  Apart from that, we were left to our own devices.

The average speed was still ticking up, but I was getting tired, and I could increasingly feel Simon through the bike.  He was starting to pedal in squares, but it didn't matter - we were nearly done.

There's one short rise before we dropped down to the Wairau River, and it was nice to get it over and done with.  "39.9" and then, soon enough, the line of cones down the centre of the road signalling the end is nigh.

"40.0" as we swung, unmolested by our solo friends, into the Forrest driveway.  We didn't ease off particularly, but Simon did a fine job of negotiating the tight bends, and moments later we were stopping.   

A nice aero package, innit?!

The weren't many people ahead of us, but we did see Jim Ashley, who'd chatted to us on and off the ferry, and who'd ridden with the Elite bunch.  Also, I was very glad to bump into Rhys, who'd been our companion throughout the vast majority of the 2013 ride, guarding our wheel like a pro!  Our GPS read 2:28:30, and so we were certain our time was well below our target of 2:34:05.

Peter James, and the other riders from our exclusive bunch, thanked us profusely for the tow, and it was pleasing to see PJ and one other collecting podium places for their age group later in the afternoon.

Simon and I drifted apart for a few minutes - it's something that usually happens, and an occurrence which almost always prompts me to notice it - strange after we've been literally joined at the feet for so long.  Eventually though we regrouped, Simon lying in the sun alongside the bike, and me sitting behind him, maintaining formation even then.

We had a good chat to Tim Vincent, and then started getting restless.  I'd left my wallet and phone back in Blenheim, so while my options were limited, I didn't really feel like eating.  Simon headed off for a massage, and I wandered around, bumping into various folk from Wellington.  Last year's wait for the results had been torturous, but this time, they were up quickly, confirming our time at 2:30:20.  Sweet, a job well done.

I hadn't noticed the massage tent over by the portaloos, so only randomly bumped into Simon as he finished up there.  We hung out for a bit longer, and then got organised to ride back to Blenheim.  Simon asked me to sit up front, and I was surprised at how jaded my arms and shoulders were.

The ride didn't exactly pass quickly, and was uneventful, save for a roundabout which I entered without noticing a car's right indicator (if indeed it was in use).  A quick U-turn down the road we'd quickly exited on, and we were soon back on track, no harm, no foul.

Jennie, Sarah and the kids were about to go off to a school playground, so we arranged to pick up Miro in 90 minutes or so, got changed, and then drove into town for pancakes.  We sat out in the sun, and followed them up with a short walk along the main drag.  It was a nice opportunity to chat, side-by-side.

Soon after, we had Miro and Arie on board.  There was pair of bumps in Old Renwick Road which I was sure to hit at 100km/h.  The report from the back was "that tickled my tummy" which I thought was a fantastic expression.

We found the very long queue for the fresh-fruit icecreams, and, as we passed the non-existent queue at the potato-shack, I suggested to the kids we go there instead.  They must have thought it better not to respond.  "Perhaps if we don't answer, it'll be as if he never asked?"  The icecreams slid down perfectly - mine was just the thing to ease my slightly sore throat.

The organisers did a great job with the prizegiving, calling up the first three in every category, but getting through it efficiently.  We had the kids in tow when we went up on stage, and they got a hand-shake too!  We left with a couple of nice bottles of Pinot Noir, and some much appreciated Ground Effect cash, and a rather large silver cup, which we'll need to get engraved.  After sitting for a bit longer, we made our way slowly down the driveway towards the car, still within earshot of the major spot prize draw.

A couple of hours later, I was showering in a single cabin on the Bluebridge ferry, and not long after that, I was dozing and then sleeping properly en route to Wellington.

My legs felt superficially fine the next day, but even by Wednesday the effects of the race were still there.  I made a fine break from the bunch at Owhiro Bay, only to look down at my legs 5 minutes later to check if they were still there.  It reminded me a lot of the weedeater running out of fuel - one minute great, the next minute not.

One of the cool things about racing is that you never really know how it's going to play out.  Sometimes, within moments of finishing, I know I'll need at least another crack.  With the GrapeRide this year, I finished knowing that we couldn't really have hoped to do better, and that there was absolutely no need to try.  Not that we might not...

Our "fast tandem" really did prove itself so, and it is very satisfying to think that since we got it, Simon and I have endured a really testing period of adjustment, and have not only come out the other side stronger, but we've also collected three big tandem records:  Taupo, Taranaki, and now the GrapeRide.

We always thought it would suit us well, personality-wise at least, but I'm not sure either of us thought we would ride so successfully on the thing.  It remains a bit of an emotional roller-coaster for me, but I'm rolling with that a lot better now, and it's (almost) always a pleasure to get out behind my great mate. 

I've washed the bike lovingly, and have put it up on its hooks on my garage wall, where, from time to time, I'll gaze at it, and wonder what's coming next. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Taking a hit for the team

One of the most difficult experiences I've had as a cyclist, perhaps even as an adult, was adjusting to the back seat of a tandem.  Simon and I had decided to purchase a Co-Motion racing tandem from the good blokes at Cycletech early in 2012, but when it was finally ready to roll, it was far from plain sailing.  To this day, I've unanswered questions about what was actually going on, but whatever it was causing problems, I'm really glad we got it sorted.  There's been some good, hard fun had on that thing since.

After our Longest Day ride, during which things finally clicked, the tandem didn't get much use - the Graperide being a notable exception.

While I was off scaling French cols, Simon had been hunting around for events which were suitable for a tandem.  And, when I got home, aside from family MTB rides, it was one of the few things I felt motivated to do, bikewise.  First cab off the rank was the Martinborough Charity Fun Ride in early November.

We borrowed Bike Wellington's capacious van (named Bruce, I think) and drove over to Martinborough with Sarah, Simon's wife, who was winding up her training for the Kiwi Brevette.  Neither Simon nor I were in great shape, but the weather was fine, and we didn't have too much climbing to contend with. 

Getting ready to ride at the Martinborough Charity Event
The race consisted of one short loop over Miller's Road, followed by a longer loop out to Gladstone.  We nursed ourselves over the rolling terrain in the first part of the race, and got popped off the back of the leading bunch on the Miller's climb.  Our combined mass helped us catch up to the bunch quickly, and rather than linger with them, we ripped past.

David Meo and Matt Webb-Smith were up the road, and in took us a hard 10 minutes to catch them.  We worked with them for most of the south-bound leg, before getting gapped on a short rise, and sitting up.

Riding at pace with these guys had been hard, and it dawned on me later, a tad frightening.  Grovelling away on the short climbs, I could feel my legs starting to go - I'd experience momentary panic wondering how much longer the climb would go on.  It's very strange not being able to see what's happening.  And, I realised we take for granted being able to predict how much longer our effort must last - mind over matter, and all that.

In any case, the break gave us a good chance to talk about strategy for the finish - using the same stretch of road that we'd just been dropped on - as well as to recover a little bit before being swept up by the bunch.

The chat paid off, and we knew exactly where to attack 60-odd kilometres later.  About 5 kilometres from the finish, we dropped the hammer over the top of a rise, and got an immediate gap.  I monitored it for a while, giving Simon encouraging feedback, and when we made the left turn a short distance from the finish, we knew we had line honours in the bag and we cruised over the line, five seconds clear of the bunch.  It was a nice result.

Three weeks later, we headed optimistically out to Otaki, for the Kevin Smith Memorial handicap race.  It had been our first event on the tandem leading up to Taupo in 2012.  Then, we'd started in Break in wet conditions, and had ridden well.

This time, we warmed up with a lap of the circuit under blue skies.  Simon tested his lines through some of the 90-degree turns.  With dry roads, and bit more experience, we were both much more relaxed about this course than we'd been a year earlier.

At the startline of the Kevin Smith Memorial.  Thanks to Rachel Anderson-Smith for the photo.  Her Dad would have been proud of the way she organises this fine event
We started with the large Scratch bunch and were immediately dropped on the first and only climb of the circuit.  We chased hard for the remainder of the 8km lap, and managed to get back on just as we passed the start/finish line.  That gave no time to recover before the climb, and we were out the arse again probably before anyone had realised we'd returned.

Getting dropped from Scratch in a handicap race is never fun - there are no riders behind to sweep you up.  We were one-and-a-half laps in to a seven-lap race though, and with a large and obviously capable bunch just up ahead, we started to consider the odds of getting lapped.

That was a useful, if not unrealistic, fear.  It gave us plenty of incentive to ride hard, and meant we got a much better workout as a result.  We had company for short periods, as we swept up those who'd been themselves dropped from their bunches, but we never saw Scratch again, thankfully.  That would've been a down-trou moment if ever there was one.

Thanks to Rachel Anderson-Smith
In the space of three weeks, we'd gone from hero to zero, and we acknowledged that the Kevin Smith Memorial race had not been the outlier.  We still had a lot of work to do to get back to some decent form.

Next event on the agenda, a couple of weeks later, was the Woodbourne Tavern Rotoiti to Renwick Serious Fun Ride.  The race itself was a 90km race from Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park, down to Renwick - just short of Blenheim - in the Wairau Valley.  While a point-to-point ride presents some logistical hassles, a selling point of this particular event was that you lose a few-hundred metres elevation from start to finish, to the extent that the race record was in an average speed of 48km/h.

Rather than get a shuttle up to St Arnaud, we decided to ride to the start.  Our original plan was to catch a Friday afternoon ferry to Picton, ride to Nelson that evening, and then up to St Arnaud on Saturday, in time for the Sunday morning start.  But, as seems to often be the case when I visit the top of the South, the weather forecast was pretty dire, so we opted to go straight up the Wairau on Friday night.

As luck would have it, our ferry was delayed, and we arrived in Picton 90 minutes later than expected.  We were suited up, and ready to roll out though, so got underway within minutes of berthing.

Arriving in Picton.  Better late than never.
The delays had kind of screwed up our dinner plans too, and we made just a short stop in Renwick for some shitty snacks.  The Wairau Valley road climbs imperceptibly to the eye, but our legs could feel it.  The road is straight for long sections, and it - and the wind - really were sapping our wills to live.  We swapped seats a few times, but both were getting bogged down in the monotony of the ride.

Just after dark, we sat on the side of the road for 10 minutes or so, had a bite to eat.  We also momentarily stopped focusing on our progress, or lack thereof, and just enjoyed the peace and quiet.  The break did us both the world of good, and even as the road tipped up soon after, we both felt better than previously.  We arrived at our accommodation at 11:30pm, tired, but very pleased to be done for the day.

We had absolutely nothing we needed to do on Saturday, and that suited us both down to the ground.  We enjoyed a leisurely day, which included a sleep in of sorts, a short walk down to the shore of Lake Rotoiti, and a gentle 30-minute spin on the bike.

The ubiquitous Lake Rotoiti shot.
By virtue of staying the night in St Arnaud, the next morning wasn't too urgent either.  The event info had hinted that aero bars would be OK - "if you can pedal it, bring it", but they weren't welcome and we took them off for the race.  They got stowed in the organiser's vehicle, along with our minimal overnight gear. 

There was a short downpour while we were waiting at the start line, and it was standing room only in an ezy-up the organisers hadn't yet taken down.  That, and the early-morning chill, made it hard to know quite what to wear, but when the "gun" went, we were both dressed as if we expected to get hot.

The race was neutralised to the outskirts of town, so we got at least half way up the climb to the Tophouse Road intersection without any pressure.  There was one other tandem in the field, and they were behind us when the A-grade field accelerated away from us both.  Simon and I were expecting to be left behind, and we simply focused on minimising the damage.

We also expected to be alone off the front by the bottom of the steep descent, but we hadn't thought the margin would be so slim.  A combination of wet roads, and a sizable gap saw us pass the lead riders just as the gradient started to ease off.  Nonetheless, once we got out of our aerodynamic tuck and started into pedalling again, we had a gap of a hundred metres or so.

We managed to hold that until about an hour into the race.  They bunch finally went by on the short climb near the Argyle Dam, again, just as Simon had predicted.  A chasing bunch of about a dozen riders had never given us more than a few hundred metres, and they gobbled us up on the short rise as our pace plummeted, and theirs barely moved. 

Despite catching us, the bunch didn't really ease off, and we simply slotted in with them, occasionally taking a long pull, but for the most part, riding as if we were just one of them.  Among the bunch was Rhys, who'd enjoyed our wheel for much of the Grape Ride.  It was good to see him again.

Riding in this bunch was significantly easier than the torrid first hour had been, and we had a good chance to recover for the finale.  The wind was almost coming head on, so Simon was sitting off to the right of the wheel ahead.  This gave me a chance to vary my effort to keep us on that wheel - something I can't do when we're directly behind - all I can see is Simon's back! Another useful revelation...

For whatever reason, there were no attacks as we neared the finish line.  On our way up the valley on Friday night, we'd scoped out the finish straight, and we got some intel from one of the guys in the bunch too.  As things wound up, Simon's positioning was perfect, and when we started our sprint, we had clear road.  And, we used it well, taking line honours once again.

Before we headed off to the prizegiving, one of the guys from the bunch described to us how hard they'd been working in pursuit of us.  He admitted he hadn't seen us go by, so thought he was chasing just me.  That was doing his head in, thinking a lone rider was holding off the bunch.  

After collecting what little touring gear we had, we made for Woodbourne, only to find that the Woodbourne Tavern is actually in Renwick - the 8km out and back trip felt symbolically much more and I got a bit snippy - after the fact it's embarrassing how a bit of fatigue affects the importance of things.

We enjoyed the prize giving, and associated bar-snacks, and we were happy to donate our bottles of wine back to the organisers rather than try to stow them on the bike.  Then, it was time to hit the road again...

Getting ready to leave the Woodbourne Tavern for Picton
We stopped for a break during the 40km ride back to Picton, and reminisced about the challenges we'd faced in the Graperide.  We were in no rush to get to Picton, and our legs were pretty toasted from the high-speed race.  When we reached Picton, I had a spot of roast pork for dinner, and soon after we boarded the Bluebridge bound for home.  We'd booked a twin cabin, and it was a real treat to shower before lying down in a clean bed, and dozing most of the way to Wellington.  The late night commute wasn't as much fun, though my legs felt a little better once Simon had jumped off in Northland.  I suspect some sneaky cross-subsidy had gone on, unbeknownst to me at the time...!

The rest of December and start of January saw tandem riding on the back-burner, but once we were both back in town after our respective holidays, we dusted our Ferrari-red long-bike off for a Wednesday Worlds hitout, in preparation for the Wellington Vets Cycling Club's Two Day Tour.

Worlds didn't go at all well, and I felt totally flogged well before we dropped our synch chain in Island Bay.  A few minutes' hard riding later, it fell off again, and we gave up on chasing the bunch, and nursed our bike, legs and egos the rest of the way up "Col de Happy Valley". 

The organisers of the tour had promoted the new tandem class quite heavily, but the response had been poor.  They attempted to cancel the grade late in the week, but objections were upheld, and at the first stage on Saturday morning, the three tandems were started with E grade.  Mkay...

Ray and Sue rolled off the front of the bunch soon after leaving Martinborough, and we took chase as the climb up to Bidwell's Cutting loomed.  The third tandem initially followed us, but the last time I looked back, they were wallowing in no-man's land, between us and the bunch.  We hit the front half way up the climb, and had a decent gap on Ray and Sue at the top.  Nonetheless, we eased off and let them take our wheel.

They held it for the next 30km or so, wisely, since the headwind we were battling was quite viscious.  The course took us down Te Maire Rd on to Kahutara Road.  Ray later said they made a couple of attempts to come by for a turn, but baled each time.

We attacked them hard as soon as we turned onto Lake Ferry Road, and kept the hammer down for a few kilometres, enjoying the boost the wind was now giving us.  About half way home, we eased off and cruised to the finish, better to save our energies for the afternoon's time trial stage.

Back in December, we'd had a bit of a play at the Hataitai Velodrome, swapping seats and riding 1km time trials with mixed results.  While the scientific jury was still out on which configuration was faster, we'd nonetheless decided that I would ride on the front for the short 8km time trial. 

We mounted Simon's aero bars, and set to getting me used to using them.  It was still a work-in-progress when we lined up, looking splendid in our skinsuits and pointy helmets. 

Warming up for the TT
The course was a short, sharp out-and-bag configuration, with a high-point at about 3km (and again at 5km).  I spent the whole outbound leg in the drops, fighting to regain my senses after a fast start, but enjoying being able to choose the gearing myself.  While I could feel my power was down a few minutes in, it was great to have Simon on the back and I could feel him helping my feet around.

About 3/4 through, still not brave enough to use the aero bars.  Photo thanks to Place Recruitment Cycling

We safely negotiated the turn, and after a short climb, I finally jumped onto the aero bars for the last kilometre or two to the finish.  We'd pushed hard to the line, and it wasn't obvious where we could have gone any faster.

We lingered around afterwards, hoping to learn whether or not we'd managed to ride the fastest time of the day.  We made ourselves scarce, suspecting, there'd been a timing glitch, and this was confirmed in the morning.  Unfortunately, neither we nor the organisers had any backup system, so our time remains a mystery.

The next day, we were offered the chance to start with C grade.  The other two tandems stuck with E, initially claiming solidarity.  It was weird to learn Ray and Sue had broken clear at the gun, and had ridden solo to the finish, despite not wanting to leave the third tandem in E on their own. 

By virtue of joining C, we had a nice figure-8 course to ride, climbing Miller's in the opposite direction to the fun ride in November, then doing a Gladstone Loop before Miller's again and back to home. A and B were doing the same course, so at least we'd be able to judge ourselves against them.

Warming up for Stage 3
We enjoyed the company of C grade for the north-bound leg, but rolled off the front as we neared the Miller's climb.  Simon was expecting us to be caught and potentially dropped on the climb itself, and wanted a buffer.  As it was, we crested the hill alone, and from then on, we pinned our ears back and went for it.

Breaking away on the Millers climb.  Photo thanks to Place Recruitment Cycling

It was funny to be riding solo for essentially the third stage of a tour, but also somewhat frustrating.  I'd had a great ride in A grade the year before, and had really enjoyed the challenging racing.  Three time trials in a row had less appeal, and I'll need some serious arm-twisting to make that sacrifice again.

We could see B grade up ahead on Miller's the second time over - pleasing, since they'd started five minutes ahead.  Unfortunately we dropped our synch-chain again on the descent, and had to stop to remount it.  We still hadn't quite closed them down when we turned up the Hinakura climb, and when we got to the turnaround point a few kilometres up the hill, we were between about half a dozen B-graders and their main bunch.

We tried a couple of times to break free of the guys behind us, but we were running out of power, and couldn't get away.  Instead of towing them back to their bunch, we eased right off, and rather than spoil their race, we spoiled our own.  Despite the disruption to our tempo in the final 10 minutes of the race, it was satisfying to record the fastest ride of the day on the same course as the A and B grades, even though the results still show us 40-odd minutes down in E grade.  My dear friend and sponsor, Oli, bless him, had seen that result and thought something must have gone horribly wrong.  On the contrary, we'd had a great ride, averaging almost 39 km/h over a somewhat hilly 83km.

One week later, we were on the road again, this time to New Plymouth, to do the Taranaki Cycle Challenge - a 148km lap of Mount Taranaki.  We enjoyed the drive together, stopping just out of Whanganui to eat dinner at William Birch Pool, a wee gem from a bygone age.

William Birch Pool on SH3, a few kilometres west of Kai Iwi. Simon, starting dinner.
The drive was eventually done, and we picked up our registration packs on the way to the Lindup's place, where we were kindly hosted.

The next morning, we expected to be on the road first, promised a two-minute buffer to the first solo riders.  There were at least four other tandems on the start line with us, but in the end we got no head start at all, which put paid to any hopes of going long.  We rode behind a pace vehicle until the outskirts of town, and then got stuck in to the undulating roads out to Opunake.

As with most of the races we'd done on the tandem recently, riding in a bunch with the solo riders was a headache - for Simon mostly.  Due to our mass, we're a lot faster down a hill, and in undulating terrain, we're faster up the first part of a rise.  Then, we're not.  At the front of a bunch this is fine, and we just drift to the back of the bunch as the climb progresses.  Worst case scenario, we have to chase back on for a few seconds.

Trying the same thing at the back of the bunch is terrible though.  We're on the brakes on the descent and the first part of the climb, and then we're out the arse.  Captain and stoker share the experience, but with different levels of control, and I find it psychologically tough as we're both burying ourselves to get back to the bunch.  The physical costs are not insignificant, and they conjure up frustrations at my lack of control.  Simon momentarily becomes my torturer, not the bunch and the course.  

Working hard to stay in the first bunch in the hilly opening stages

Soon enough the course flattened off, and it was a pleasure to go to the front and set a high tempo.  We probably rode there for much of the leg to Kaponga - the bunch was content to sit behind us, and we were just happy to be riding a steady pace.  The was little wind to worry about, and the mountain was looking stunning.

After Kaponga, we started to climb again, and we struggled as we'd done in the first hour.  This time, our legs were tired too, mostly from our own doing.  Luckily, we held tight, and were still in touch at the highpoint near Pembroke School.

Dangling at the back on the climb up to SH3
When we turned onto SH3, we had a strenthening wind in our faces, but again, we were happy enough to go to the front and drive the bunch on.  The faster we got back to New Plymouth, the sooner we could stop. There were a couple of guys who would give us a few seconds off, perhaps out of duty, or pity, but for the most part we took the wind with a long line behind us.

After Egmont Village, we had only two hills to worry about, and together they caught us out.  We were on the ropes at the bottom of the second, and had I been on my own, I would have given up chasing.  Riding as a team is different though, and we both pushed as hard as we could up the climb to Coronation Avenue, for each other maybe, and we had about 100m to close to the bunch.  I thought we had no hope, but kept pedalling.

We made the final turn, a kilometre later, only a few metres behind, but with little left in our legs, and with no room on the road.

Finally, the last turn
Poking my head up, done.

The results have us 10 seconds down on the first solo rider, with about 40 people crossing the line between us.  The next big bunch came in about 25 minutes later.  It's hard to tell, but we think we posted the fastest tandem time by a similar margin, and the bunch time was possibly a solo record too.  I could not recall pedalling as hard for as long, and definitely felt like we'd earnt this one.

We headed back to the Lindup's place, showered, and then drove into town for a late lunch. We found a nice French cafe, and I ordered in French - for the first time in over 6 months - possibly too well, because I was offered some twist to my order which I did not understand, and answered lamely "non, merci".  Oh well!  My pain au chocolat (unheated, which I think was the topic of the question) was delicious, and the coffee chased it down nicely.

We walked up to the event HQ through Pukekura Park, and I got in line for a massage.  After that was done, and I'd inhaled a tasty curry, we found a spot in the shade, and had a bit of a rest.

Getting ready for prizegiving
Having put in such a hard effort, it was disappointing not to get called up at prizegiving, and nor did we win one of the sweet spot prizes on offer.  But, the evening was nice and warm, and chilling out on the grass while others collected their booty was a nice enough way to pass the time. 

We both agreed that had been our best race together yet.  We went for a short mountainbike ride the next morning, before making the drive back to Wellington.  It was uneventful but for a car giving the bike rack a gentle shunt at the roundabout in Otaki.  We got her number, but it had totally slipped my mind until now.

The mental aspect of stoking a tandem is still something I'm yet to sort out, but with each race we do, I learn more about my part in it.  Simon has a hell of a lot more experience on a tandem than I do, and so his learning curve is less steep, but I think we're still fine tuning our team work, and race craft.

Of all the riding I've done, this tandem lark has been the biggest bloody roller-coaster, physically and mentally.  But, whatever the opportunity costs of racing that bike with Simon are, however god-damn hard it is, and however snippy I might get when I'm rooted, I'm pretty sure it was just meant to be...

(As seen in the registration pack at Taranaki.)