Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Taupo Tribulations of Captain Kennett and his Rear Admiral

I've pulled off some good races in my time, but I don't think a happy ending has ever been more unexpected than the one which Simon and I experienced at the 2012 Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge.

Way back in March, we first put the feelers out about acquiring a road tandem.  There looked to be very few options for getting a bike large enough to take the both of us comfortably, but, as luck would have it, Co-Motion, tandem makers out of Oregon USA, exported their bikes to New Zealand.  The local agents are Cycletech, a great company who had supported both Simon and I on previous ventures.

A tandem seemed a nice way to set ourselves a new challenge.  We already knew we enjoyed riding together, but as the years pass, and our daughters grow up, finding motivation for a season just like the last is increasingly difficult.

The project was on the back burner for several months, but in the depths of winter, without anything else to do, we locked and loaded on a Robusta - a tandem in Co-Motion's "Race" range.  We filled in a comprehensive form with various measurements from our road bikes and bodies, and got advice back that a custom frame design would suit us best.

I'd heard lousy things about the shifting on tandems - due to the very long cables to the derailleurs - so on a whim, asked about whether or not the bike could be specced with Shimano's Ultegra Di2 groupset.  The response from Co-Motion:  "sure thing" though they warned us we'd lose the triple crankset as a result.  Oh, and a few extra dollars!  You only live once, right?!

It seemed to take a while, but there were plenty of distractions to stop us pining for our Ferrari Red Robusta, and in mid-October, we got an email from Cycletech:  "Great news.  Your blinging tandem has arrived."  The next morning, I was firing up the jug and enjoying a personalised delivery from Craig Madsen himself.  I wasted no time in getting the frame and bits across to Oli Brooke-White for a premium build which would end up testing all our patience, and then some!

The short version is that the Di2 spec had really put the cat amongst the pigeons, but Oli slowly but surely overcame the various issues as they presented themselves.  Cycletech too were awesome when called upon, but at times we all felt a very long way away from Oregon!  I was nervous about the burden Oli was bearing on our behalf, but was relieved it was in his hands, and not anyone else's. 

A couple of weeks ago the call finally came, and Simon and I hopped into a cab to Berhampore to collect the bike for its shake-down ride.  I left with a smile on my face, but that didn't last long!

Ready to roll!
Simon has had a lot of tandem experience, racing back in the day with Tim Galloway, the first Karapoti winner, amongst others.  He knew we were short a whole lot of practice rides, but instead of starting at the beginning and seeing how far we could get in the week or so we had, his plan was to leap into the training schedule at -1.5 weeks, as if we'd had the tandem for a month or more...

It all felt OK as we rode up Constable Street, bound for Alexandra Road along the spine of Mt Vic.  Then we turned off, and I heard "standing, one, two" from up front, and all of a sudden I was in a strange world being subjected to all manner of unfamiliar, and frankly, frightening sensations, the worst of which was a horrible lurching-to-the-left feeling.  Such was my panic, we were soon stopping to level and centre my handlebar after I'd almost torn it from the captain's seatpost...

Things didn't get any better, and by the end of our three intervals from the saddle to the summit, I was nearing the end of about the worst ride I've ever had.  Simon's email later that evening made things worse rather than better, and I awoke the next day feeling like a bit of a freak.

Our next outing was with the Wednesday Worlds bunch, and it seemed Antosh had finally been heard, and we'd go anti-clockwise for the first time ever...! As we rode up Taranaki St, any significant power through the pedals brought back that same lurching sensation, and when Simon peeled left onto the cyclepath at Karo and Cuba, I nearly lost it.  Feeling like the bike was lurching to the left and then having it actually do so was about the worst disequilibrium I've ever had on the bike.

I was feeling out of sorts all the way up Brooklyn Hill, but was pleased not to be shelled by the bunch.  I actually quite enjoyed the run down Happy Valley, but as soon as we put the power down by the bottom of the Tip Track, the lurching came back, and I whined sufficiently that Simon felt compelled to stop.  I don't remember exactly what I said, but probably something along the lines of "STOP THIS FUCKING BIKE. STOP STOP STOP...  FUCKING STOP"  Simon suggested we swap seats - would you believe we run exactly the same seat height.  We cruised a kilometre or so, and both felt totally fine.  Yes, I'm a freak...

This was achieving nothing, so we stopped.  I was desperate to find something wrong with the bike, and was rather relieved when we noticed the rear cranks were off-centre.  We mounted up, and ten minutes later were knocking on Oli's workshop door.  He explained that the off-centre cranks were an unfortunate side-effect of the Di2's front derailleur limits, and while he could do nothing about the position of the cranks, did space out one pedal and move the opposite cleat, reducing the offset by about half.

Simon needed to be in Karori, so we left Oli's fairly deliberately, and I was pleased to note that the left-lurch had diminished, and that I could finally deliver some power to the pedals without feeling like I was tearing myself in half.

The next day I was still emotionally in a bad way, and I forced myself to drag my beloved Colnago out for a blast around the bays.  I rolled past Freyberg hard, starting my stopwatch as I did so.  It was a fairly strong northerly, and I took full advantage of it, probably averaging close to 50km/h through to Evans Bay.  I was so damn upset, and I took it out on my pedals.  I eased up enough to chug a mouthful of water at Breaker Bay, and allowed myself to glance at my watch at Owhiro Bay: 42 minutes something.  I felt the end was near, and figured I'd better know how well I was doing before the wheels fell off up Happy Valley somewhere.  They almost did, but not quite, and I stopped my watch up by the lights at 52:42.  I figured that wasn't bad, but it wasn't until I got home that I realised I'd been confusing my bays time with my Tip Track PB.  I'd just gone 1:45 faster than my previous best, and in less than favourable conditions...

Knowing my legs were good was a small consolation, but I feared the next tandem outing.  I delivered it back to Oli the next day, and he converted it to 1x10, with the 52t chainring mounted in the middle ring position, and the cranks at dead centre.

That evening, Simon and I rode a wee way around the bays.  I was dismayed to feel some of those same horrible sensations.  Simon's insistence that it was ALL in my head was starting to gain some traction.  He stopped and offered to switch seats.  I snapped "what the fuck is that going to achieve" or at least thought it, and we were soon rolling off again.

With the realisation that some, if not all, of this was in my head, I decided I'd better do something about it.  The solution seemed to be closing my eyes.  Rather than look for a centre line through Simon's back, or down towards my feet, I shut my eyes, and tried to let my body feel where it needed to be.  It helped, and when we retraced our steps, we made the thing go very fast, and it was exhilarating.  What an emotional roller coaster!

The next morning I picked up Simon with the Robusta in the back of my 'Rolla.  The rear triangle was resting up on the front seats, but Simon coped nicely with the rear mech in his face, and the chainrings just behind his head.  We were pretty convinced they couldn't go anywhere nasty in the event of a crash...

It was dry until we got to within five minutes of Otaki - the scene of the Kevin Smith Memorial handicap race.  We holed up in a cafe for a little bit, and I picked up a new pair of woollen undies from Icebreaker, would you believe before I'd realised that I'd forgotten to pack a pair to put on after the race.

We couldn't hide indoors forever though, and soon we were registered and doing a cruisy lap of the course.  We discovered the short climb and rollers after it would be manageable with our 1x10 gearing, though we were keen to avoid our 52x28 gear as much as possible, not wanting to stress the nasty chainline any more than necessary.  We were pretty excited to be in the mid 40s on the way along the back straight with no apparent effort.  On the downside, the wet course had no less than seven shitty corners, so Simon would be earning his keep up front.  I'd spent a good few minutes with my eyes closed again, and seemed to be finding my equilibrium.

We started in a Break bunch of about a dozen, with Scratch setting off 4 minutes behind us.  We didn't crash on the first lap, and were able to hang with our compatriots on the climb.  On the second lap we were hurtling down the back straight when someone missed a wheel, and we were down to five (six if you counted me).  Among the group was Steve Chapman, a shrewd and strong racer whose company I've enjoyed in many a bunch.  He told the others to keep us around for the massive speed advantage we'd give them on the back straight.  They waited for us a bit on the rolling section, and it took scratch four full laps before they started eating into our lead.

L-R Ollie Jones, Vaughn Pretorius, Tighe Nutsford, JR, SK, Steve Chapman

A few extremely dodgy corners aside, Simon did an awesome job keeping us upright.  With half a lap to go, we drifted back behind a somewhat larger bunch.  We attacked hard from behind, but alas, we hadn't quite hit full speed by the time we passed the front of the bunch and they were able to jump onto our wheel as we accelerated through to about 63km/h.  On my own bike I've been told I'm like drafting an "apartment block" so I can't even imagine what it must be like behind the tandem.  We had no chance of dropping them.

We hit the final corner in about 7th or 8th spot.  By the finish line, 100m or so later, we'd mowed down all but two riders, and in the interim, I'd driven the pedals as hard as I've ever pedalled a bike.  Later, Kevin Smith's daughter Rachel, told us that she'd decided to award the trophy for the first vet racer across the line to Steve despite the fact that we'd been just ahead of him.  We totally agreed with the decision - it was nice just to be in one piece!  We'd generated a lot of interest, and in his victory speech, Steve was very complimentary about our pacing down the back straight!

While we'd coped with the Otaki course with the 1x10 gearing, it wouldn't do for Taupo.  We had nutted out a couple of solutions.  The best one, we thought, was the 36t TA chainring that could mount on the 74mm bolt circle inboard of the 52t in the middle ring position.  But, the chainring was coming from Australia, and Oli wasn't certain it would work with the front derailleur which in theory would only cope with a 14-tooth spread in the chainrings...

Solution numbers two and three were winging their way to us from Oregon - a tandem specific mount for the Di2 derailleur, and a specially machine part which would offer slightly more range.  By Wednesday evening, neither had arrived, and things had become somewhat stressful.  When I checked to see if Co-Motion had sent a tracking number (they had) upon inspection it seemed the parts had been delivered the day before!  With no sign of the chainring, Simon agreed to get the bike to Oli's to be refitted with the 39t chainring we'd taken off prior to the Otaki race.

I was somewhat crestfallen to learn that in the interests of a decent chainline (as opposed to a totally indecent chainline) the cranks were again off-centre, but Simon stressed that moving my left cleat inboard again would offset this.  Okay...

The logistical hurdles didn't end with getting an operational bike.  We also had to get the damn thing to Taupo and back!  While my Corolla would've coped with Simon and I, we had another two Kennett Bros, and a few boxes of their many fantastic publications, along for the ride.  And, it was either have the tandem inside, or not at all...

Wide load!

The solution to this particular conundrum came in the form of the lovely Ashley Burgess, who agreed to swap cars for the weekend.  Her Bike Wellington people-mover would accommodate us and our gear.  By 11am on Friday, we were loaded up, and were soon Oscar Mike.

Bros, books and bikes...

The drive seemed to start very slowly, despite the traffic conditions being excellent.  We had a couple of short stops en route, but all in all, we made good time and reached Taupo around 4:30 whereupon the Simon, Jonathan and Paul set up a book stall for a couple of hours pimping their wares.

We were staying with friends of Jonathan's and they treated us to a whopping feed - the perfect thing for the next morning's races.  Jonathan would be doing the Huka Challenge while Simon and I were out on the tandem.  We spent the even chilling, and ensuring we had everything ready for the morning.  I was particularly pleased that my shoes were equidistant from the bike, even if my pedals weren't.

Alarms went off at 6am.  I had an uncharacteristically small breakfast - only a couple of pieces of toast and a "double-shot" instant coffee.  Simon had some clothes on to ditch at the start line, but I left the house with only my racing kit on.  Simon was worried about me overheating, but I'd opted not to ride in my sleeveless jersey.  I'd be going Black-Ops, over my Yeti shorts, a tip of my hat to the kind support I've had from Kashi and Yeti NZ.

I had a bottle each of water and powerade mix on the bike, and a 3/4 full bottle of coke in a jersey pocket, along with a couple of one-square-meal bars.  In the end, I'd have one of those bars, and almost the entire bottle of water left over.

The front tubing of the Robusta makes for awkward access to the front bottle cages, so Simon was rocking a small camelbak, in which he also had a pump.  Somewhere or other we had a couple of tubes, allen keys, a tyre lever, and a banana...

It was time to rock and roll.

There were about 20 tandems entered, and we slotted in towards the back of the pack.  Our bunch would set off soon after 1F (the slowest of the predicted sub-4:30 groups), and just before group 2.  I had time for a quick yarn to Jack Sowry who'd I'd ridden with ever so briefly in the Enduro in 2011.  He was resplendent in his GMC kit, and alongside him was none other than the People's Champion himself.  Gordy asked after Oli, and told me to tell him it was time for another AGM...

I knew a couple of the other tandem riders:  Wayne McDermott, whose son Luke is a regular terror at Wednesday Worlds, riding the tandem with Luke's younger brother, Cade; also, Ken Bailey, whose brother Stu was one of the first WCC Park Rangers at Makara Peak.  There was another tandem with a young fella on the back with a third BB half way up the bike to accommodate his short legs!

After a few minutes waiting under the start line, we were off...


Simon and I had talked a little bit about tactics, but never really settled on any particular strategy.  We both wanted to win though, and with that in mind, we figured gauging the strength of our competitors early on would be a good start.

As we crossed the Mighty Waikato and the road tipped up, we watched one tandem ease off the front of the bunch.  By the Poihipi Road turnoff, they had a hundred metres or so on us.  I said to Simon:  "I think we'd better shut that down, mate."  He agreed, emphatically, and we started chasing the bike up the road in earnest.

Underway

There were crowds on the side of the road who clearly enjoyed the novelty of the tandems.  I was surprised by the number of single riders we were passing already, before remembering that some of the very slowest riders start early in order to get back into town at a respectable hour.

Shutting the gap down was much easier to say than do, and it took us the best part of half an hour before we were on the wheel of Captain Paul Miller, and his stoker, Glen Carabine, riding as Cycle Obsession from Mount Maunganui. 

We had a brief natter - I guess we figured we be smashing the living bejesus out of each other for the next few hours. I don't think we introduced ourselves per se, but we certainly talked about our bikes.  Paul and Glen were definitely very strong - they'd been hard to catch, and Simon and I had needed to work a little too much to do so.

The back half of the lake was a bit of a blur for me.  I do however vividly remember losing the plot with Simon, much to the amusement of the other tandem.  It turns out:
  • I'm very sensitive to pedalling cadence
  • when I'm pedalling hard but too slowly, I get tired
  • when I get tired, I start to feel desperate
  • when I feel desperate, I tend to snap.
  • Oh, and I'm a bit of a control freak to boot...
Poor Simon can see neither the crankset nor the rear cassette, so was relying on me to tell him what gear we're pushing.  In our practice race, we only had one chainring, so reporting the gear was as simple as reporting where in the cassette the chain was.  Here, Simon had two chainrings, and expected to know where we were sitting in both.

However inexperienced I am as a stoker - I think I've clocked up about 7 hours by now - I've about 2 minutes captaining under my belt, and I wasn't particularly empathetic to Simon's plight.  Pathetic would be closer to the truth.

Our squabble went something like:
Captain Kennett:  gear?
Rear Admiral:  3
CK:  what chainring?
RA:  what chainring do you think?!  My legs are blowing to bits in this bullshit gear.  When was the last time you changed down?  How can you not tell?!?!?
CK:  I can't see
RA:  Yeah, but your legs?!?!
CK:  what gear?
RA:  3, and the LARGE CHAINRING
Paul and Glen:  Hahahaha!

How embarrassing.  For the next while, I dutifully reported both chain positions, often with a bit of sarcasm in my voice.  "4 AND YOU'RE STILL IN THE BIG CHAINRING".  Oh, how embarrassing.  I guess I've never experienced the stress of responsibility of captaining a tandem, and my fatigue was not affording me the calm I needed to think about it as we rode.

The two tandems continued to lap it out.  Simon and I were slightly quicker on the descents, and Paul and Glen simply looked quicker everywhere else.  The cracks were starting to show, with major differences in Simon's and my pedalling styles, and inexperience contributing to a challenging time.

Watching Paul and Glen up ahead
By the time we'd reached Kuratau, we'd swept up some riders capable of hanging with us.  Simon had warned me all year that we'd likely get shelled on the climbs, but the opposite seemed to be happening, and on the longer climbs, we actually seemed stronger than our opponents, tandem and solo alike.

Putting the hurt on up Kuratau
We caught a massive bunch on the descent into Tokaanu.  Unfortunately, there was a van between us and the bunch, and while some riders managed to sneak down the left while the van was straddling the centre-line, we passed just before a line of cones in the middle of the road, presumably there to prevent riders from cutting the corner that followed.  I was glad not to hear any carnage behind me...

I was really looking forward to passing through Turangi, though the bunch dynamic for the few kilometres into town made the wait verge on excruciating.  Mum and Dad had left Wellington on Friday afternoon, stopping at Simon and Sarah's well appointed bach in Rangataua, just short of Ohakune.  Even better, they had Kaitlyn with them, and the plan was for them to be in Turangi by the time Simon and I passed through.

Waiting patiently, shaker in hand, and tunes by the Mapei-kit-clad one-man-band
Waving, in case they didn't notice us!
The ride out of Turangi was incredibly frustrating - as usual in a big bunch, there are those keen to work, and those who are happy to sit in.  There are also those who roll through smoothly - the minority, unfortunately.  There were a couple of guys in the bunch who had been with us before Kuratau, Paul Struthers and Josh Harding, who seemed to share our pain, but apart from friendly interactions with them from my back seat, this stretch had few other highlights.

Poor Simon was in a bit of a jam - the surging in the bunch was continuously opening up gaps, and he was the only one who could see this happening.  He'd have to try to shut the gap down himself by pedalling harder.  I'd eventually sense this through the pedals and ramp it up myself, but then we'd end up with too much momentum, and Simon would have to haul on the brakes...  His preferred coping mechanism was to roll back a bit, and with a bit of clear road, aim for a more constant speed.  Problem was, back seat driver didn't like the extra effort riding without a draught off the wheels in front - extra effort which resulted in extra fatigue, and, you guessed it, more grizzles.

Finally, Simon had had enough, and we went to the front on the rollers along the cliffs.  We took a good long pull, and we both enjoyed setting the pace for a while.

We were near the front of the bunch at the bottom of Hatepe, both with an expectation of losing ground on the solos around us.  Like Kuratau though, we shined on the climb, and not only rode away from our bunch, but caught and passed another.

Peter James:  "wait, what?!  Tandems can't climb..."
By the middle of the climb, we had a good lead on the other tandem, and Simon was keen to make a race-winning move.  I asked for a gear change, and he went the other way.  I complained - a groan was about all I could muster - but appreciated what he was trying to do, and dug a bit deeper, hoping I could get the cadence back into my sweet spot.

Nearing the top of Hatepe, Paul and Glen right on our wheel
By the top, a small group had clawed their way back to us, including the tandem of Paul and Glen, my new buddies, Paul and Josh, and Peter James.  We were together after the fast descent into Waitahanui, and managed to sneak past a stray dog without incident.

This select bunch worked better together, and Paul and Glen, perhaps chasing a target time, did more than their fair share of work at the front.  I was well and truly over making suggestions to Simon, and I'm sure that he was well and truly over listening to them, so for a change, I kept my mouth shut in the back, and let him control our position in the bunch.

Getting close to home
Simon had told me on Hatepe that it was all or nothing there, and that he didn't think we could beat Paul and Glen in a sprint.  I was less sure, and had been hogging the bottle of coke Simon and I had been sharing.  He asked for it just out of Taupo, and I felt a little guilty about how little was left.  I was keen to earn my keep though.

Peter James, who told me I should never get a road bike after a few outings with his Freyberg bunch on my flat-bar commuter bike, asked me along the waterfront, "are you guys going to sprint?"  I replied, "fuck yeah we're going to sprint", to which he said "I'll keep out of your way then".

Simon could feel me twitching in the back, and he put in a couple of small back-pedals to make sure I toned it down a bit.  We'd both noticed we were a little faster out of the corners than the other tandem, and we stuck to their wheel into the final turn onto the main drag of Taupo.

As soon as we hit the apex of the turn, I unleashed in the back seat, applying as much power as I could muster to the pedals.  Simon was doing the same in the front seat, holding only enough in reserve to manage the gear shifts and steer.

For almost the first time in the race, I was totally thrilled with Simon's shifts, neither too early, like we'd had in Otaki, nor too late.  As we accelerated past Paul and Glen, I heard them both groan - they knew they could not match our sprint.  As we powered away from them, they might have heard me calling Simon down through the gears.  The Di2 earnt its keep as well, and every shift was perfect, and under full power.

Heading for home, almost bent in half
The finish was exhilarating.  Actually, making a road bike go fast is something I always find exhilarating, but this was something else.  We had clear road in front of us, and even the solos had left us to it...

Well done mate!
As soon as we crossed the line, I sat up, and put my hand on Simon's back.  He knew it wasn't just a celebration, but also an apology.  In fact, the whole finish straight had been an apology, and it was such a relief it had paid off.  Without it, I'm not sure either of us would have ever wanted to go near the tandem again.

We were getting stuck into the pineapple when the other tandem pulled alongside and we congratulated each other on a brilliant race.  Mum, Dad and Katy were there too, and it was mighty fine to see them, and to be off our instrument of torture.

So good to celebrate with my baby!
As we made our way back to the Kennett Bros' book stall, we bumped into various friends from Wellington and beyond, and we swapped notes about our respective rides, before hitting up the massage tent together.

By the time the prizegiving was on, we'd seen a provisional result which had our time as 4:09:41.  Not only had we won the race, but it appeared we'd done so in a record time; the fastest tandem previously had been 4:12 in 2009.  Kaitlyn pointed out I was now the joint holder of two tandem records!  She and I still hold the Karapoti Challenge best, after our storming ride back in 2008. I love it that she'd remembered, and reminded me.  She's impressively sharp, and is turning into quite an astute cycling fan. 

I was glad we didn't get called up on stage at the prizegiving - Simon had opted to stay at the book stall, since they were doing a roaring trade, and his signature was often needed and appreciated - it would not have felt appropriate to be up there without him.  It was damn cool to see our names in lights though, correctly spelt and all...


We all retired back to Rangataua for the night, and it was great to be all together.  The Kennett Bros make fascinating and fantastic company, and I absolutely loved having Mum, Dad, and Kaitlyn along once again.  Breakfast in Taihape was followed by lunch in Otaki, and we were all home by mid-afternoon, chuffed with the success of the weekend.

Simon and I have got a tandem mission planned for the Longest Day Ride, a fundraiser organised by Vorb founder, Tama Easton.  I think many of the frustrations of the race situation will be mitigated somewhat without the same sense of urgency.  We've definitely got some work to do on the race front though - I'm not sure either of us will be prepared to jeopardise our amazing friendship with too much more of Saturday's carry on!

Thanks a million Simon, for putting up with my shit through one hell of a race...









10 comments:

  1. Triumph over adversity is what bike racing and life are all about. Great stuff, John and Simon, great stuff.

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  2. Bro...just spent a fair bit of my working day reading this epic! Inspired!!

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  3. mate that was an enthralling, insightful read - appreciate it takes a bit of effort to write a blog post this long, so want to let you know it was appreciated.

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  4. That's a great read about a super race. Very exciting.

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  5. I was supposed to be riding that race too (solo) and it would have been awesome to watch you guys..

    You know man, its ok to be who you are, especially when you realise your own shortcomings (as you did also in SA). It's what makes you, you.

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  6. Another good read from Sifter. Tandem riding can be fun and not so fun. Did 80k on a tandem mtb as captain a few weeks back with my brother as stoker. No meltdowns, but it was good to finish.

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  7. excellent account of the "head" issues of stoking - my policy is to keep my eyes closed till the tandem has hit cruising speed!

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  8. Welcome to the club John! Only a select few have had the honour of close inspection of a Kennett backside all the way around the lake. As I'm finding out over here some of the best experiences seemed like the worst at the time. I miss your hugs, but as long as you keep up your stories I'll be able to hold on!

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  9. Great post! Good to hear the unadulterated version too, and having done a bit of team-racing I can assure you that you do get better at it with practice. Congrats also to both you guys on a superb ride, and wonderful to get the inside perspective. Nice-one JR :-D

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  10. Great read. I was one of the tandems (cannondale)that you sailed passed up the first hill. Got us rattled and had to calm the pace down a bit. Also from Wellington (Brooklyn). Was our first Taupo tandem and so enjoyed it!
    Have done it again since, then single and now in 2016, back to the Tandem. considering Ultegra Di2 but worried about the conversion being good.
    Again was a great ride and good to see you guys out there. Alan "Has Bean" and Lisa "Flat Bean"
    BROOKLYN BEANZ

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