Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Epic prep in the St James

The Cape Epic is looming, and in seven weeks time I'll be in South Africa, and in eight I'll be about a half of the way through the race.  I expect those weeks to fly by, with plenty of training and racing to come. 

For the last seven or eight months I've been enjoying building myself up with the Cape Epic goal in mind.  Last weekend placed another piece in the complicated puzzle: how to hit an eight day stage race physically and mentally prepared.

I've long benefitted from the amazing service and friendship of Oli Brooke-White of Roadworks fame.  In the build-up to Cape Epic, Megan and I also were able to obtain the support of Yeti Cycles, via NZ importer and XC legend, Kashi Leuchs.  Not only was he happy to help Megan and I out, but he also agreed to sponsor the Inaugural St James Epic, a 103km mission taking in much of the St James Cycle Trail, the first of New Zealand's "Great Rides".  When Megan and I got an email from Kashi inviting us to take part, heading down for the event was a fait accompli.

The couple of weeks leading up to the race were pretty low-key riding wise, and instead I had the pleasure to spend a bit of time hanging with Kaitlyn and our cousins Holly and Theo. 

I did manage a few short and sharp rides though, and flew to Christchurch on the Friday morning feeling confident in my legs.  I wrote lecture notes while I waited for Megan to arrive from Palmy, at which point we were collected by Kashi and Black Seal intern, Anthony.  Somewhat miraculously, we managed to load our gear into the back of the wagon, and my bike on the back, and we were soon heading north towards Hanmer Springs.

The drive passed quickly, with good conversation abound.  We settled into our digs, and registered for Saturday's race, before a bit of a Yeti drool-fest ensued.

A 575, an ASR5, and a couple of ASR5Cs...
Eventually, we managed to tear ourselves away from the clutch of beautiful bikes, and headed out in search of dinner.  We settled on an Italian joint, but the pasta meals we ordered were each disappointing in one way or another.  Mine was more creamy sauce than pasta, and I really should have ordered seconds and thirds (or grabbed something from the supermarket on the way home...).

The race briefing was to be at 7:30am, and we had a 45km, mostly gravel-road drive between us and it in the morning, so we sensibly had an early night.

When my alarm went at 5:10, the room was pitch black, and very cold indeed.  Over the next 40 minutes or so I ate, and made final preparations for the race.  It's always difficult to know exactly when to lather up with Sweet Cheeks' Butt Butter and pop the bib shorts up, but I didn't fancy getting my shirt off at the start and I suited up before leaving the house.

The drive wasn't too bad, punctuated only by a couple of toilet stops for Megan, who'd obviously been smashing back far too much water since getting out of bed, and a single gate on Tophouse Road. 

We knew the race was going to be a fairly intimate affair, numbers probably deflated for a number of reasons:  the event being in its first year, in a remote region, and clashing with the MTB National Championships in Nelson, all to one extent or another, hard to overcome.  When we stopped the car overlooking Lake Tennyson, the temperature gauge read 6.5 degrees.  We got out, to watch a small group of hardy multisporters head into the lake for a swim leg. 

Lake Tennyson
The briefing was a little later than advertised, but it didn't really matter.  The course was described to us, and we would soon be underway.  On account of the near-freezing conditions, I dipped into my bag full of compulsory gear and grabbed a long-sleeved woolen top to put on under my bibs and Yeti jersey.  I kind of regretted having fingerless gloves and no knee-warmers, but there was little I could do about that.

In a mercifully short period of time, we were on the start line.  The bloke on my left introduced himself to me as Dayle, and I found Brent on my immediate right.  We were all shivering.

Befitting Yeti being the title sponsor of the race, I led the troops back along Tophouse Road, and through the right turn onto the St James Cycle Trail.  We popped over a footbridge (apparently avoiding Didymo control as we did so), and then began the climb up to Malings Pass.

As the track tipped up, my legs began to complain a little, and I had to let Brent and another tall unit open up a small gap.  I was breathing hard, and managed to suck in a UFO.  I could feel the critter clambering around at the top of my throat, and I started retching to try to get rid of it.  After a few seconds of making some pretty horrendous noises, it was gone, and I could once again concentrate on holding onto the leaders.

I was 20m or so down over the top, and promptly proceeded to let more go, blundering through a couple of loose off-camber corners and ending up in a ditch, luckily still astride my bike, but not feeling particularly proud of my skills.

Eventually the descent ended, and I set to making my way back to the front of the race.  I was really enjoying the fast conditions down the Waiau River valley, and while my shins were pretty damn cold, the rest of me had warmed up a bit.

I regretted not having a camera handy when a herd of a dozen wild horses cantered across the track, passing between me and my catch 100m ahead.  It was a special moment, in an environment which rarely showed any signs of animal life.

Before too long I was crossing the Waiau with Dayle and two others, with only Brent still ahead.  We came to a confusing intersection, deliberated, and then all took the right fork, though not before sending another rider back who'd not been meant to cross the river with us.

We passed Lake Guyon, and I was amazed to see waves lapping at the shore - not something I'd have expected on such a small Lake.  Had I thought carefully about it, I'd have recognised I was in for one hell of a head wind upon getting back across the Waiau.

At the head of the lake, the track tipped up and I pulled away from Dayle.  At the top of the short climb, a marshall tent was in sight.  I rode to it, had my number plate clipped and grabbed a banana. They pointed me up the valley, which I should have known was not intended.  I set off along the adjacent track, and the marshalls yelled out a correction, which soon had me slogging my way up the valley.  The track deteriorated and involved leaping a few waterways.

Soon after a short but rough descent, I heard a quad bike behind me, and the rider shouting at me.  I let him get a bit closer, and then pulled off the track to let him through.  He pulled alongside, and said "they sent you the wrong way".  I told him there was one other ahead, and then there was nothing for it but to turn my bike around and head back the way I'd come.

Dayle hadn't been far behind me, and I could see at least two others who'd made it past the marshall.   I grabbed another banana as I passed the tent, resisting the temptation to make any comment.  It wouldn't have made our pain any less.  Megan and a few others weren't far from the turnaround, and it was at least good to know they wouldn't be sent on a wild-goose-chase.  On the other hand, close to 10 minutes had been lost. 

When I caught back up to Dayle, we got to talking a bit more - the screw up had certainly put the race on the back-burner for the meantime.  Dayle was kind enough to get his camera out as we passed Lake Guyon for the second time, though he should have told me to put my tongue away!

Yeti, Yeti, Yeti!  Oi, Oi, Oi!

Dayle and I were soon back across the Waiau, and were hammering into a block headwind.  We were joined by Steve from Hanmer Springs, and another John (who I thanked for having such an easy to remember name).  I was possibly too generous letting the fellas draft the living bejesus out of me as we made our way down-valley, but as Simon said when I gave him the debrief, that's my MO!

After the screw-up on our first side trip, we were pretty nervous when we started crossing the valley-mouth of our second side trip.  We slowed by a DOC sign indicating a track up the valley as there was no specific mention of the race.  I had a map in my pocket...

... so we knew we'd be going up the Ada Valley for sure, just not when the track would dive off.  When a prominent track appeared on our right, we agreed to take it.  It turned out we'd shot off early, but weren't totally confident in the markings so soon after the earlier debacle.

After crossing a couple of gates, we soon converged onto the correct route, and settled in to our bash up the valley.  There were regular paint marks on the ground, and frequent poles with fluoro paint on them too.  The pace got a bit hot for the other John, or maybe he was hanging back a little to let Dayle, Steve and I scope out the clear route ahead.  We made a couple of stops when the paint-trail ran dry, but otherwise the ride was fairly direct.

The views up ahead were great too, so much so that when we stopped to clip our race numbers, Dayle had his camera out and was asking for Steve or I to do a handstand.  With two dislocated shoulders, I'm not ever going to do a handstand again, at least not on purpose.  But, I'm partial to a headstand or two, and quickly discarded my helmet.  After 4 or 5 failed attempts to get my balance, Dayle indicated he'd got his money shot, and it was helmet back on, and back onto the bike!

In the middle of a race, really?!
I enjoyed the ride back to the Waiau, not least because we had a bit of a tail wind.  My legs were still feeling good, and my bike was humming.  The plush 5" travel and lightweight carbon frame were eating up the rough trail. 

We could see two marshalls on the far side of the next river crossing, so naturally headed towards them.  By the time we were back on dry land, the guys had shot off, and we found ourselves looking around for the track.  It was nowhere to be seen, so we shot cross-country and soon picked up the track about 100m down-river.

According to my map, which I think all three of us were relieved I had, next up was the "Henry loop".  The turnoff was pretty clearly marked, but as soon as Dayle, Steve and I took it, we were hollered at by 4 marshalls about 200m past the turnoff on the main route.  We ignored them for a time, and kept riding, but eventually our growing doubt had us turning around.  We rode to their marshall point, and were debated whether or not we needed to go up the prominent valley to the West of us.  Finally, an old codger in a 4WD vehicle arrived and confirmed it was indeed the Henry River flowing out of the valley, and that was good enough for us.

We passed a few signs, but none of them put us out of our misery by mentioning the elusive Henry.  One indicated 5km to Ann Hut though, and we agreed that we wouldn't ride beyond it.  If there was no clipper there, we'd all head back.

The climb, such as it was, was hard, mostly because of our uncertainty I guess.  It got steep eventually, but only temporarily, and at the top of a 50m climb, we could see the hut.  I was 100m or so down on Steve and Dayle at this stage, struggling to push my 30x36 "granny gear" on the steepest stuff, but we all reached the hut at pretty much the same time.  It wasn't until we were right at the hut itself that we could make out the clipper, and when we did so, our moods improved dramatically.

On the return trip, it didn't take too long for us to see oncoming riders, who'd once again benefited from our trail-blazing.  I gave Megan a good holler as we passed - she had what looked like a good race on her hands, and looked to be only a minute or so down on the other female in the race, Erin Greene.

Probably just over half way back down the valley the track split, and inexplicably I took the right fork while Dayle and Steve took the left.  As the track converged again, the results were in - my route sucked big time.  So much so, that by the time I reached the marshall point, I had still not caught back up to Dayle and Steve.

The Henry River crossing came just after the marshalls, and I was relieved to be back in touch by the time I'd reached the far side of it.  My relief didn't last long.

The next section of track was some of the weirdest riding I've ever done.  We were basically riding on flattened grass, but the surface beneath it was so irregular, our bikes were wobbling all over the place, and maintaining momentum was at times insanely difficult.  We passed another group of marshalls sitting by a vehicle.  They watched us go by, without stressing that they were the second feed-zone, and had bananas and Em's cookies for us if we wanted them...  YFY, that would have been great!

Finally, we were off the grass, and onto a pretty sweet bit of singletrack.  It was steep in places, and I had to let Dayle and Steve ride on, while I walked my bike.  The descent was pretty sweet, and I thought how much Kashi and Anthony would have loved it on their play-bikes.

Back in the valley floor, I caught occasional glimpses of Steve's fluoro jacket, and tried to focus on choosing smooth lines, and moving fast.  I was pretty close to him when we crossed the impressive Waiau Swingbridge.  Though, I was so focussed on chasing Steve, I forgot to take in the view.

A steep climb followed, which again had me off the bike, pushing.  I was nonetheless really close to Steve at the top, but made the decision to stop.  My drive was starting to make some god-awful noises as I pedalled, and I knew, with 35km still to ride, taking a minute to apply a bit of chain lube was going to pay dividends.  I also took my woollen shirt off - the day had really warmed up, and with the chase I had on my hands, and the five or so hours elapsed, I knew dehydration was a real risk.  The stop was pretty short, and I hoped it was not a stupid thing to do.

The going was fast for a while once I got going again, before the track eventually made a hard left turn, to climb up to Charlie's saddle.  Again, I was on foot for some of it, but could see Steve a minute or so ahead from the highpoint. 

He'd been passing the third and final feed-zone when I saw him, and I was soon there myself, helping myself to a banana.  Just around the corner, I was shocked to see a couple of empty cokes cans, literally the first litter I'd seen.  When I mentioned this to someone at the finish, I was relieved to hear that the marshalls had suggested people drop them for collection as they made their way off-course. 

I tried to keep my pace up down the next valley, but regular stream crossings made it hard to get into a decent rhythm.  That, and the growing level of fatigue in my body.  I kept getting glimpses of riders ahead, but was now picking up the back markers from the shorter race, rather than Steve.  I was also now passing runners, none of whom seemed particularly jolly.  I made a point of saying gidday to each of them, but didn't get a single response.  I'm sure they were totally jealous of my bike.

As the kilometres ticked over, I finally saw Steve, only 100m or so ahead of me on what was surely the last climb of the day.  He looked back and saw me, and by the time I crested the top, he was goneburger.  The course split, and I took the left, and slightly longer route back towards the St James homestead and the finish line.

The descent to Tophouse Road was a scorcher.  I loved the first half of it, and hit a grade reversal in the road with a hell of a lot of pace.  Airborne for a moment, I landed with both wheels pointing in the right direction, and continued on my merry way.  For most of the rest of the descent, I imagined totally casing that jump and how much skin I would have lost crashing.  One of these days I should practise those things...

I was soon on Tophouse Road, and going through the gate I'd opened for our car 7 hours or so earlier.   I could see the homestead a few kilometres away, but no Steve.  Nonetheless, the sooner this was over, the better, and I wound the bike up as if I was riding for my life.

That was soon put on hold as the organiser had different ideas for his Epic riders, and painted arrows on the ground had me turning off the road and crossing the adjacent river.  It took me what felt like an eternity to cover those final kilometres.  There was plenty of paint on the ground at times, but I took far too many wrong turns.  I found myself back at the river but sensed it wasn't right.  I didn't backtrack, but headed for a pylon track I could see above the river.  There were no reassuring paint marks, but I stuck to it.  After a short descent, I was confronted with paint for the first time in a few minutes, and a sharp turn towards the river.

The homestead was now only 150m away, but instead of heading straight to it, I blundered around trying to find the correct place to cross the river.  I didn't see the marker on the far side until I was most of the way across, and then instead of getting to the other side and correcting on dry land, changed course across the river, costing another minute or so.

I reached the finish line soon after, and was able to congratulate Dayle and then Steve for their rides.  Dayle was 13 minutes ahead of me, with Steve taking second place 5 minutes later.  Kashi and Anthony were there too and had had a great time on their short course.  The BBQ was rocking, and I enjoyed tucking into a sausage or two.

After a while, Megan arrived, and soon after that, our car had been ferried back to us as well, completing our Yeti-posse.  No-one had seen any sign of Brent since Lake Guyon, but he too arrived back literally moments before Search and Rescue were dispatched.

The drive back to Hanmer Springs was spectacular, particularly the views down off Jacks Pass. After four showers, and a bit of bike cleaning, we headed off for a well deserved soak in the hot pools.

The event was a frustrating one for me, not least because I felt like I'd underperformed.  It looked to me like Brent was the strongest on course, but I couldn't help but think that I hadn't ridden to my potential.  No point having big fuel tanks if I'm not going to fill them before a race!  Another good lesson learned with Cape Epic now only a handful of weeks away.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed the event.  It was great to ride somewhere I'd not been before, and in particular somewhere so spectacularly different to my usual surroundings.  Megan, Kashi and Anthony were great company, and it was cool to meet and ride with Dayle (who admitted to enjoying these ramblings) and Steve in particular.  With luck, the organiser will take on board no doubt plentiful feedback which should make it pretty easy for him to improve the event for next year.  It's certainly an event I'd love to do again, and would happily recommend to anyone looking for an Epic ride.


  1. Holy crap, it sounds like the marshals needed to pay a bit more attention to their jobs! Sorry to hear that, and sorry to hear you don't feel you were at your usual rampaging best, but it still sounds like you did pretty well despite your travails, and you have a few more quality training k's in your legs to boot. Good work, brother.

  2. Nice blog and seems like an EPIC would be an understatement!!
    Have riden the 'normal St James' and that was long enough. Add those extra valleys and ..err course marking/marshall mess up's and you guys sound like you had a long day. Although after talking to Brent Miller you guys took the EASY Route.