Thursday, December 1, 2011

Enduring stormy Taupo

I've got a list of "unfinished business", and last weekend, I was hoping to put a big red line through "Taupo Enduro".

My first attempt at it was a disaster, even as support crew. I hurt my right knee on the way home from a time trial event, and had to withdraw a few weeks before the race.  Nonetheless, I went up to support my good buddy Simon, with whom I'd been training before my injury.  He was 7 months away from tackling the formidable Great Divide Race, and the 320km event would be a useful confidence builder in advance of successive (i.e. 2-and-a-half-weeks of) 200km days on a mountain bike.

What transpired was horrible from the Taupo Enduro point of view, but probably great training (physical but more importantly, psychological) for the GDR.  Simon's daughter was only a few months old and not yet sleeping through the night.  Knackered, and in a relatively quiet home for the night, he duly slept through his alarm.  His back-up plan was me.  I failed miserably, and had set my alarm for half-past midday, rather than half-past midnight.  Simon woke at 3am, and was on the bike by 3:30am, 2 hours behind the rest of the field.  I followed behind in Ben's station wagon, watching his feet go up and down, and berating myself constantly for letting him down.  It was a long few hours, but I was glad to at least be there to shelter him from passing traffic and hand him a bottle when he signalled for one.  Despite knowing that overcoming that hiccup and completing in a slow but respectable time was ultimately good for Simon's confidence going into the GDR, I've still never forgiven myself for letting him down like that.

Since April this year, I've been looking forward to exorcising at least some of my Taupo Enduro bogeys.  It seemed to me to be a convenient target for getting my endurance up through winter and spring.  As the months rolled along, things looked to be falling into place nicely.  My ride at Queen's Birthday showed that I'd be capable of finishing, even without specific work.  I wasn't doing it to finish though, and I'd set myself a target of 10 hours (an average speed of about 32km/h).  While long rides had been elusive through October, a ride in the first weekend of November gave me the confidence I needed:  a 200km solo smash around Wellington's Makara loop, Greys Rd in Plimmerton, Moonshine, Blue Mountains and Whitemans Valley to Te Marua, the Akatarawas to Waikanae, Paekakariki Hill and then over Haywards before finishing back to the city and up to Karori - all in 6 hours 43 for an average elapsed speed of just a whisker under 30km/h. 

I followed that effort up with a local race in the Tour de Whitemans, then just under 6 hours on the MTB at the Great Forest Rogaine, and finally Le Petit Brevet.  I'd managed a few short-sharp mid-week efforts around the bays, so my speed was OK, and most importantly, I was feeling "strong, and enthusiastic".

While I was down in Christchurch, my Colnago was in the shop - getting a full check up from master-wrench, Oli Brooke-White.  I'd had some lower back discomfort on the 200km ride, and while no spacers had been left above the stem by the shop I'd bought it from, flipping the stem upside down and swapping a 10mm spacer out had the effect of raising the bars 10mm or so, hopefully enough just to take a bit of pressure off during the race.  I'd had no doubt Oli would come up with a simple solution to my problem, but nor should I have been surprised by the incredible attention to detail - when I picked up the bike, Oli had carefully covered the now upside-down "Colnago" logo on the stem with black tape, carefully trimmed to avoid blacking out any of the white part of the stem.  While I love my bikes, my "function over form" inclinations would often see such attention to detail resulting in a less aesthetically pleasing package.  So much of sport is psychology, and Oli always ensures I hit the start line with pride of, and complete confidence in, my machine. 

The final aspects of my preparation were logistical.  While I wasn't super-keen to impose an early start on anyone, Simon had suggested my parents would probably really enjoy driving support for me on lap one.  They were nervous about letting me down, so I tried to describe how I thought the race would pan out, and what I'd need from them.  As we all slipped off to bed on the Friday night, I'd be surprised if they were any less nervous than I was.

I woke about 30 seconds before my alarm went off - just enough time to pick up my phone to check the time before it started vibrating in advance of the speaker kicking in.  I was soon up, and dressed.  For lap 1, I'd set off in my Assos bib shorts, a Ground Effect Baked Alaska and Vespa combo, knee warmers, thermal gloves and booties, and a cotton cap under my helmet.  I had one bottle of replace mix on the bike, and diced chocolate brownie and one-square-meal in my feed-bag.  My Ayup lights and small battery were on the bike, spare tubes and patch kit in a saddle bag, and pump in my pocket.  My parents had a spare front wheel in the car, some full bottles, and kit for a change at half time.

Final prep before rolling out
I scoffed a banana, but my guts started to object, and I only managed half a tin of creamed rice.  Mindful of my second day at Le Petit Brevet, I smashed back an instant coffee, and filled in the remaining time with some quad and hip stretches. I bade Mum and Dad farewell, and gave Kaitlyn a kiss as she slept, and then rode the short distance to the start line.

As I had my name ticked off, I was surrounded by about 90 other riders.  Three young and fast looking guys had staked out a start line, and were no doubt affecting others' nerves like they were mine.  I recognised Steve Orchard from the Freyberg bunch in Wellington and sat with him for a bit before taking my place in the mass of riders.

Start imminent
We had a short briefing, and then were off.

We rolled out of Redoubt Street, and then across the Waikato River before the road tipped up and we had pressure on the pedals for the first time.  I'd warned my parents that the field would split up on the climb out of Taupo, and that I'd be almost certainly in the front bunch.  By the time we reached "Ben Lomond, the highest point on the course" things had pretty much played out as I'd anticipated: I was in a bunch of about 20 at the front of the race.

This period was an opportunity to check out the other riders.  I knew Brian Bushe was strong, having ridden around the Tararuas with him a few years ago and monitored his continual improvement since.  Steve also looked good.  Brian had pointed out Jim McMurray as the man to watch, and had he not told me, I'd have drawn the same conclusion in this first hour or two, during which time Jim had rolled off the front at least once with apparently no effort.  He looked the business!

The pace was sensible in the context of the event, though purposeful.  We were being buffeted by very strong winds, and while things didn't feel unsafe, we all clearly needed to be very attentive.  There was one dude on a time trial bike, who was making a habit of occasionally dropping down on his aero bars and going past the bunch very hard.  We mostly left him to it, for no reason other than conserving the energy required to get on his wheel.

Somewhere approaching the Kuratau relay exchange, Jim and Mel Titter opened up a 50m gap on a short climb.  I was following Brian (both of us with deep rims), and was alongside the dude down on his aero bars on the TT bike, when all of a sudden we were hit by the biggest wind gust yet.  We were travelling probably in excess of 50km/h, downhill, in pursuit of Jim and Mel, and in an instant, we were all over the road desperately trying to regain control of our machines.  As I popped up off the drops wrestling with my handlebars as they whipped left and right, I could sense others around me doing the same.  Luckily, no-one went down, but boy oh boy did that gust knock the stuffing out of us.  For the next 30 minutes or so, the bunch was very subdued, and speeds rarely crept up to the levels that they'd previously been at.  Less than a quarter of the way into a 320km event, we were riding like nervous novices, and with good reason. 

The Kuratau climb seemed a total non-issue in the dark, and I was surprised when I recognised the descent to Tokaanu.  Jim and Mel were long gone, so when we hit the flat section through to the bottom of Hatepe, the bunch seemed keen to pursue and capitalise on its numbers and the tail wind, sort of.  In principle we had enough riders to make good progress to Taupo, but the bunch seemed intent on destroying itself.  Gaps were constantly opened up, and then the guilty party would surge to fill it, and slowly but surely the surges were starting to add up.  For the most part, I tried to stay smooth, and when we finally arrived at Hatepe, Matthew Luckie cleared out, followed a few dozen metres behind by Darryl Strachan and I.

My parents were near the top, and I grabbed a bottle from them, before finishing the climb off (note to parents: next time, right at the top - that drink is heavy stuff!). 

Second bottle change ahoy!
By this stage Matt was 100m ahead, and Darryl had stepped off the bike for a slash, so I was on my own.  I've only ever done one lap of Taupo twice: back in 2008 as a solo and with my family in 2009, and while I had no idea how long it would take to finish lap one, I knew time was of the essence - a successful second lap and overall time relies on hooking up with one of the first big solo bunches.  We were riding a different course for the first 40km, so needed a decent head start to be on the solo course by the time they came through.

My parents drove past as I was mulling over a strategy for transition, and they tucked in behind Matt.  I tried to wave them down, but there was no reaction, so I went to plan B and sprinted hard after them.  I was soon alongside, and waiting for Mum to roll down her window.  That done, I told them the change needed to be quick, and that I'd prefer a double espresso to the trim flat white I'd ordered the previous evening.  That done, I connected with Matt, and we worked together to the transition at the BP station in town.

The highlight en route was seeing my Cape Epic team-mate Megan - she'd passed us in the car, mountain bike on the back, and recognising my legs and outfit from the weekend before pulled over and gave me and my workmate a bloody good holler!  Cheers!

As I swiped my transponder over the USB gadget, my time was recorded as 4:59 - not too bad, but not as quick as anticipated thanks to the insane winds we'd battled on the western side of the lake.  Next up was to have a quick slash, and then I was back outside.  Mum and Dad were a finely oiled machine and were operating like people who'd done this sort of thing dozens of times before.  New bottles were already on my bike, and my feed-bag was again brimming with OSM and brownie.  Mum was holding a dry jersey for me.

Man on a mission
I declined a dry hat and vest, but did put new gloves on.  Knee warmers came off, as did booties, and I took the front and rear lights off the bike too.  Pump went back in my pocket, as well as a bunch of jet planes and a couple of bananas.  A small bottle of coke went into my third jersey pocket, and when I'd smashed back the coffee (in one gulp), I was good to go.

Darryl and Jim happy to wait, while I roll out
I was happy to be on my own for the next 15 minutes or so - hell, I was leading the race!  The sun was up, and my legs were feeling good, and for short amount of time, I had as much space on the road as I needed.  The wind was still blowing, but its strength seemed trivial in the context of what we'd already experienced in the dark, a few hours before.

I was eventually joined by Jim, Mel and Darryl.  I'd made no effort to not get caught, and I was expecting to see these guys.  We were joined a few minutes later by Matt, and without any discussion, formed one of the best pace-lines I've had the pleasure of riding in.  In contrast to the earlier effort north of Turangi, everyone was pulling through very smoothly.  No-one was obviously weaker than the others, and when someone missed a wheel, within a handful of seconds, rotation had recommenced without any fuss whatsoever.  As a result, progress was good, and was without undue physical or mental stress.

We'd left Taupo just after 6:30, less than 15 minutes ahead of the Elite field.  We had an extra 3.5km to ride, I believe on a more hilly course, and as a result of those factors and the fact we were not an Elite field pinning it off the start line of a 160km race, the bunch went through a couple of minutes ahead of us.  Safely on the main course, Jim, Mel and Matt stopped at a service area for a leak and a drink, while Darryl and I pedalled on.

Up ahead we could see three riders - Elites out the arse of the main field, we deduced.  They were being followed by an ambulance, and when we caught up, it was mighty tempting to draft the living bejesus out of the ambo!  It was still windy, and it was in our faces.  We did the honourable thing though, and rolled by, just as the ambulance was clearing out anyway.  The threesome included none other than Radioshack-Nissan-Trek signing George Bennett.  He and his mates perked up a little to see us, and increased their pace to match ours.  For the next while we drafted them, but they soon wanted to stop for a slash themselves, and again Darryl and I were on our own.

Someone was looming up ahead though, and before long we realised it was "Ironman" Ron Skelton, on probably his last lap of eight.  We gave him some good encouragement, and kept on our merry way.

Soon, over our shoulders we saw a bunch of a dozen or so, and soft pedalled until we were caught.  According to the photographic evidence, we were now 13, including the five Enduros, as well as Wellington's Tristan Thomas and Sam King-Turner.  "Gidday sifter!" said Tristan as I settled in next to him.

Last time around Taupo, I'd sprinted ahead in this very spot to roll across the photographer's line, netting a great shot with Dad.

This time around, I had another great opportunity, but didn't have to work so hard for it.  I filled a gap between George and Tom Francis, much to the amusement of the bunch behind.  As we past the spot where an old-fashioned camera might have been clicking away, I heard from behind "I'll have four copies of that one thanks!", followed by a few chuckles!  You know it boys!  It was a great, light-hearted moment, and it was a nice distraction from the building sensations of fatigue in our legs. 

2011, and one for the garage wall!!!!
It was a while longer before we were caught by bunch 1a - the first start wave of the Solo race.  The catch was intimidating - we were cruising along and they came by very fast, a group of GMC boys at the front of the peloton, driving it along.  I felt a friendly hand on my lower back, helping me up to speed, and looked across to see a grinning Antosh Kowalewski.  In the last few months I've finally felt able to turn up to the Circa "Wellington Wednesday Worlds" bunch, which Antosh regularly dominates on its hot-lap of the bays.

I really should have got up to speed more quickly, and I ended up well back in the bunch.  Totally understandable, but not great strategy - I could see Jim and the others safely ensconced further ahead.  The steady riding after leaving Taupo had been good though, and my legs felt up to the increased pace.  Angus Taylor was another friendly face I recognised, and it was good to hear supportive words from him.

One minute life was pretty simple: pedal.  Then, out of the blue, my ears were assaulted with the horrible sound of carbon rims being heavily braked upon, and I too was desperately reeling my bike in and trying not to go up anyone's arse while still staking my claim on a patch of road.  The problem?  One of the bike transporters at the Kuratau interchange was blocking almost the entire road, and a bunch of 100 or so riders was being forced into a gap about a third of the size of what they'd become accustomed too.

I was at walking speed when I safely negotiated the bottle neck, and then I was out of the saddle sprinting back up to speed.  I wasn't completely sure at the time, but Antosh later confirmed there were dudes up front attacking the bunch.  The effort cost me, and when we hit Kuratau Hill soon after, my match box contained mostly smouldering ashes, and not too many intact matches left to burn.

As the gap ahead of me started to open up, I didn't take much solace from the fact that around me were 1a starters who were suffering equally.  Dammit, we were being shelled.

One of the nicest shows of respect and generosity towards us enduros came from Tom Francis.  He'd asked earlier if I needed any food or drink.  I'd asked in turn whether he had any fresh legs for me.  He'd apologised then, but the 20 seconds he spent alongside me with his hand on my lower back made a couple of gears' difference on the ascent of Kuratau.  Not only did I get a speed boost and a small period of respite from the climb, but it was also a massive psychological boost - nothing like a bit of kindness to distract from a grovel.  Cheers Tom - that was much appreciated, even though I was probably too rooted to say thanks properly at the time.

I went over the top 100m or so down on the main bunch, but in company.  There was one older dude in particular trying to exhort the group into action, and while his intentions were good, I'd have preferred not to be snapped at.  I didn't think to counter with any alternative encouragement though, and instead got to work trying to help the group bridge the gap.

My legs felt OK, and I was definitely able to contribute to the chase.  I probably shouldn't have though - I had every excuse not to, and I'm sure the fellas would not have begrudged me sitting in.  I knew Dan, Mel and Matt were up ahead, and that Darryl was in the group with me.  We didn't have long to get back to the main bunch, and I knew things were getting desperate as I tried to use my strength on the flat lands to the bunch's advantage.

We were so nearly there when I found myself sliding off the back, and too late I realised I'd gone too deep.  Darryl had already popped, and was behind me somewhere while I watched the group I'd been in 30 seconds before latch onto the back of the main field, and then watched them all disappear around the sweeping turn that marked the beginning of the descent to Tokaanu.  I hung my head, knowing full well that I'd screwed up, powerless to correct it.

I rolled dejectedly down the hill, knowing that I now needed to recharge lest I be unable to hold onto the bunch behind.  I made a point of eating a few hunks of food, and take some long pulls from my drink bottle.   I kept looking over my shoulder, desperately wanting the cavalry to appear.  It wasn't until just before Turangi that it did appear, but not in the strength of numbers I was hoping for.

I slotted in behind Sam King-Turner, one of the Elite starters, and young Jack Sowry, a solo rider.  Sam made it clear he expected no work from me as he passed, my yellow helmet cover bringing me protected status at this end of the race - over 250km in my legs at this stage, to their 110km.  I was not about to argue, and sat in.

Sam took an almighty turn, but eventually I could see him tiring, and went to the front.  He came by me again, then Jack, and then me again, but when I rolled back past Jack to slot in onto Sam's wheel, he wasn't there.  Fuck!  That's a worry.  I tried to encourage Jack, and told him of my aim to get back to Taupo by 11:30.  He took a few decent turns, but soon, he too was nowhere to be seen.  Double fuck!

It was all back on me, and the distance markers were indicating I had better press on.  A minor complication in the calculations was that my GPS unit had somehow started the ride in imperial mode - around this point on the first lap I'd been a bit confused at our speed - it felt a lot quicker than 21km/h.  90km elapsed at that point confirmed it wasn't km at all, but miles, and since I'd been struggling to work out conversions.  The distance markers seemed a bit out of whack in places too, an observation confirmed by world-record holding unicyclist Ken Looi who was struggling to make similar calculations at the same point later in the day.

I passed Nick Dunne, within 40km of the end of his 1600km, 10-lap effort.  While I'm incredibly impressed with what these ultra-enduro guys do, I also reckon they're mad.  I remember commenting to a friend, while leaving a screening of the RAAM movie, "thank god this doesn't do it for me...".

I knew there were hundreds of cyclists moving a hell of a lot faster behind me, but for whatever reason, I put my head down and tried to keep the pace up around the 26mph mark.  Something like that was going to be needed to make my 10 hour deadline.  The wind was mostly behind me, but the lake itself confirmed it was still blowing a gale out...

Trying to keep the pace up on the rollers before Hatepe
While Hatepe Hill is often referred to in hushed tones, much to the bemusement of Wellingtonians, I knew this was not the biggest hurdle I had left to surmount.  My undoing, or not, would be in the flat riding beyond it.  On the climb, I managed to keep on top of my 39x25 granny gear, and enjoyed passing the folk out on the roadside, cheering me on.

Second (and last!) time up Hatepe
I didn't quite hit the descent with as much vigour as I'd done five hours earlier, but my mental arithmetic was still telling me to keep on working.

I finally knew my ten-hour target was outside my grasp when I reached the 15km to go marker.  I didn't know my GPS was running a bit fast, and thought I had 18 minutes to get back.  I'd missed the famed 3-hour mark at Karapoti in March by only 21 seconds, and I knew already that I'd be close here, but not under.  While bitterly disappointed and frustrated, I nonetheless kept pedalling hard.

My feet were killing me, I had a bit of jet-plane rattling around in one nasal cavity, and I was lacking punch in my pedalling, but was still turning the big gears over and got up the airport hill without too much speed loss.  As the kilometres ticked over, I was no longer fueled by my target time, but by reaching the end.   

I knew the lake-front was going to be miserable, by virtue of having ridden it once already.  This time though, I didn't need to keep anything in reserve.  Still alone, I got great support by the folk along the way - they'd probably been waiting a long time for someone to cheer for!

Into the final straight
I was bouyed as I turned into the final straight - not only was I almost done, but I now had a killer tail wind.  I pushed hard all the way to the finish, stopping my GPS unit just under 5 minutes past ten hours - I'd managed to knock out the last 15km in 23 minutes and 39km/h, but not the 50km/h I'd needed.

It was lovely to see the smiling faces of my parents and beautiful daughter as soon as I reached the domain.  They confirmed I'd finished in 4th place, over 15 minutes down on Jim McMurray, who I'd last seen ensconced in the big bunch over the top of Kuratau.  Matt, my companion at the end of the first lap was in second, two-and-a-half minutes down on Jim.  Mel was a further seven minutes back, probably dislodged on the Hatepe climb. Darryl arrived, with the cavalry, four minutes later!  Brian finished in 10:21, and Steve was the seventh and last Enduro under 11 hours, sneaking in by a minute.

My overriding emotion upon finishing was disappointment.  As the days have passed, this has eased, and I've become less gutted about my performance.  Riding a bike hard is a funny thing, and at the level I'm currently at, it's probably worth remembering just about everyone's hurting - not just me.  Road racing is beautiful, and probably the style of racing I'm best suited to.  It's also unforgiving, as my short lapse on Kuratau showed.  If I'd limped home, I'd have probably felt better about the whole thing, but the ride back to Taupo had been strong - apart from Sam and Jack, no one had caught me in the last 70-odd km of the race.

It's also helped to have seen the various reports describing the atrocious conditions.  The mountain bikers had been stopped mid-race on account of trees falling down, and with the exception of the elites, race times were apparently on the slow side.  I'd ridden two 4:59 laps with a 5 minute break in between for an official time of 10:02:52, and would have been well within the top 10% in the solo field with one or other of those lap times.

My legs felt mostly-fine for Wednesday Worlds, but my head is still reeling from the effort.  It's not that surprising to me given the concentration required throughout the night to simply keep the bike on course, plus the added abuse of a sub-par two hour sleep beforehand. The drive back to Wellington added insult to injury, and felt much longer than the ride had!

It was super cool to have my parents involved in the event, and they did their jobs perfectly and without complaint!   It was a privilege to ride Black Ops on my beautifully prepped machine, spurred on by Oli's faith in me. And, to have Simon's words of wisdom ringing in my ears - in response to "I'll do my fair share of work and no more" he answered "preferably less"!  I spent at least a lap preparing my justification for ignoring that advice.  This event would have been so far off my radar without his mentoring and friendship over the last five years - it seems I'm no longer a weekend-warrior, even though I've waged my fair share of wars in the past weekends. 

The nice thing about writing these things up - it helps bring closure.  I can now stop dwelling on this race, and start thinking about whatever's next. One thing is for sure though, I'm going to have to do this damn event again.  For the meantime, it stays on the list of unfinished business.


  1. Partially finished perhaps? I know you're disappointed, but I hope that feeling is tempered with a good amount of pride. Reading back I think it is, and with good reason. You did great, bro. Always remember the journey is the destination - outcomes are sometimes out of our hands, so the enjoyment of the process is key. Here's to many more attempts at bicycle challenges that get you fired up...

  2. Oh boy - I was there, but didn't understand the half of it! What I did get completely was the resolve, the courage, the commitment. Thank you for letting us live a little of it with you, my darling Sifter.

  3. Great read Sifter, tough conditions and to knock out 2 sub 5's is an awesome effort with those winds.
    Any race you finish without a crash is a good one I always say (and try to remember)
    I look forward to reading about your many other adventures.

  4. Nice write up! The main reason I went at the bottom of Hatape was to give myself time in Taupo to change clothes and use the bathroom. I was talking to some of the others who had done enduro on the first lap and they said that no one would wait at BP, so I just wanted to give myself some time.

  5. Like you, I thought I'd go faster than I did, and we can blame the gale-force winds for that. If we'd done it on Sunday we'd have been a lot faster, but we'd have less epic stories to tell.

  6. That was a great read, John. I know you got the 10hr mark into your head but I'm sad to see that your overwhelming emotion was disappointment. The resolve you showed in the race, combined with shelling class riders who were only doing one lap, and a 39km/h average at the end of a 320km ride?! Bro, fuck the 10hr mark. You did yourself proud, man.

  7. Awesome work, mate, you were just too strong, all day!


  8. The wind was the big spoiler last weekend - nobody I spoke to got the time they wanted (myself included). But finishing in one piece, just a few minutes over is certainly a result to be proud of in situations like that.
    BTW, I really am glad you miss-set your alarm back in 2007 - that ride was one of my all-time most enjoyable events (and doing the first lap by myself, with you driving behind, was a big part of that).

  9. Daddy-man I am so proud of you! You are awesome and did so well.