Monday, April 29, 2013

There is no back road from Greytown to Featherston

Despite having a PhD and working as a university lecturer, I sometimes wonder if I'm actually a bit stupid.  Case in point, I quickly forget how much I enjoy cycling.  Within days of one great ride or another (whether it be a ride I've done dozens of times before, or something novel), I'll lapse back into stressing about riding, rather than celebrating it.

The thing is, while I am still apparently not able to control my inner voice, with all its "you haven't ridden your bike lately, you're getting fat, and slow, and you'll never be able to do that next ride", nor the one with its "damn this week is carnage, sorry, you've got zero spare time", I am getting better at developing strategies to combat those pricks inside my head.

France.  That's one hell of a carrot, and is now less than six weeks away.  I'm slowly but surely nailing down the details, and I look forward to writing a preview that befits a trip-of-a-lifetime in due course.

My prep through summer perhaps went a little too well, and I feel like the pressure's come off a little bit.  To boot, my last big training ride was foiled by the weather.  Day 1 of a weekend down south was meant to consist of a Southern Alps crossing (and back), but the forecast of snow on Porter's Pass (which did eventuate) put us off, and Tim and I settled for a wet three-hour ride up to Godley's Head and around.  While it hadn't entirely gone to plan, it was still great to catch up with Tim and his family, to talk about book writing, and to notch up a bit of air travel with my Colnago.

The weather forecast for this weekend was much better, and a couple of days out, I made the decision to sneak away for a night in the Wairarapa, and when I commuted into work on Friday morning, my bike was loaded almost like it will be in France.  All that was missing was my Ortleib handle-bar bag, and I didn't bother taking my passport with me (which I must renew - a job for this week perhaps!!!)  Even before I'd left town, I felt I'd gained valuable experience, and I knew that more was yet to come.

I was on the road by 5pm, after a quick visit to Oli, and an even quicker long black at Fidel's.  Nor-westers were forecast, but I fair trucked along SH2, and wondered if the wind was actually from the south.

In any case, I turned off at Silverstream, and notched up my first hour somewhere on Blue Mountains Road.  This climb averages 9% - which is more than the big climbs I'll be tackling in France.  On the other hand, at only 2km long, it is a fraction of the length of 20km monsters I'll face over there...

The evening was surprisingly mild, but I stopped at the top of Blue Mountains to put my wind vest on, and pull up my armwarmers. 

Looking north over Upper Hutt

Travelling light

It was pretty dark by this stage too, and I was interested to see how my helmet light (USB charged, Exposure Joystick) would fare.  According to the specs, it'll serve 2 hours at full power, 6 at medium, and 12 at low.  Though I was happy enough riding at 40km/h at medium power in the dark countryside, I'm hoping not to need the light at all in France, but it seems like an essential precaution...

The Whiteman's Valley section is one hell of a dog leg when seen on the map, and added about 15km to my trip, but it was good to get the extra climb in, and also very nice to be on virtually car-less roads. 

I'd half expected rain - showers had been forecast - but apart from a bit of spitting occasionally I had no need for my coat.

The climb to Kaitoke passed quickly, as did the ride up the Rimutakas.  I didn't stop at the summit, lest I cool down too much, and was quickly barrelling down the Wairarapa side.  I put my light on full beam, but wasn't super comfortable with its position and about half way down I stopped to tip it back a bit - that was a good move, and I appreciated the extra road I was now illuminating.  The wind was helluva gusty, and was shunting me around a bit which was not pleasant.

When trying to work out distances etc, Google had served up a back road route from Featherston to Greytown, but I didn't fancy trying an unfamiliar route in the dark, and stuck with SH2.  I arrived in Greytown almost exactly 3 hours after leaving Fidel's, and with 90km under my belt.

The Greytown Hotel was as welcoming as it had been a few months earlier when Dave and I had arrived, wet and bedraggled, and I was soon showered (and wearing just about every other garment I had with me).  Skin leggings, shorts, t-shirt, Baked Alaska, Mont Bell jacket, beanie and I put my cycling shoes back on over some clean socks and then rolled back down the main drag to find some dinner.  I'd already sculled some chocolate milk and eaten a date scone, and I probably went a bit easy on it, eating only a $4 eggburger, a piece of fish and a corn fritter.  One "goreng" or another probably would have been a better choice in hindsight.

With some hot food in my belly, and back indoors, I quickly had to strip off.   The evening was cool, but probably not a stern test for my gear - I'd be surprised if I didn't strike colder weather in France in June - but nonetheless, it was good to know I was too hot as soon as I had some hot food in me.  (Check!)

By the time I got back into my room, my light was fully charged, so I swapped that out for the GPS unit, which in turn made way for the cell phone when I called it quits for the night.

The next morning I made a relatively leisurely start, but not leisurely enough to catch the cafe at the south end of town.  Luckily I'd already eaten a tin of fruit salad and a date scone, and washed those down with an instant coffee.   A little flustered, I decided to head straight for Featherston rather than scour around for an alternative breakfast venue (and one that opened before 10am on a Saturday).  It took me a little while to hook into the road out to Woodside Station. 

Beautiful, apart from the wind...

Getting out there was an absolute battle into a head wind, and I struggled to hold 20km/h.  At this rate it was going to be a long day.  Immediately after crossing the railway line the road turned to gravel, and I was soon at a T-intersection marked with "No Exit" signs in both directions.  I returned to the station, and got busy with my various technologies.  My GPS unit showed Underhill Road coming to an abrupt end, but I knew I'd seen a through-route on google maps.  I fired that up on my phone, and while the driving option would only go back through Greytown (only 5km away, despite feeling like I'd just ridden 15km), a walking route went straight along Underhill Road into Featherston.  Sweet...!

My selfies need work, eh Oli and Dave?!  Kashi, on the other hand, might think this is perfect!

Even after a 90-degree turn, the wind wasn't a lot better, and although it was now coming from the side, my low speed on the gravel was such that occasionally I got pushed into the loose stuff, and once I was glad not to go down.  After battling along, the road all of a sudden looked much less like a typical kiwi back-country gravel road, and much more like a 4WD track.

Where'd the road go?!

I continued tentatively, and soon was at a heavy steel gate.

A heavy steel gate (well, two gates, side by side)

It had a stile next to it, so I figured it was there to be clambered over.  30 seconds later, I was standing at the Tauherenikau River, looking at my cell phone in bemusement - it displayed Underhill Road cutting across the river and continuing on its merry way to Featherston.

The Tauherenikau River

I was now about 10km from Greytown, which in turn was another 10-or-so kilometres from Featherston.  Alternatively, just across the river, I'd have a mere 6km to ride... 

I had a careful look at the river level, and contemplated the merits of wet shoes.  I also thought a lot about the wind, and adventures, and finally decided to try crossing it.  The water was at knee level by the time I thought about my not-so-smart-phone sitting unshielded in my pocket, and while the thought of drowning it had some appeal, I was keen not to fall over for a myriad of reasons, including the financial repercussions.  I could see the water wasn't going to get much deeper though, and by the time I was across the main current, my cycling shorts were only damp at the very bottom. 

Back on dry ground, I glanced back at the river, and noticed for the first time the rail bridge about 100m down-stream of where I'd crossed.  I'm kind of glad I hadn't noticed it before, as no matter how inadvisable it is to carry a loaded road bike across a river, trespassing on a rail bridge is surely worse...

 An old guy walking his dog didn't seem overly surprised to see me (which surprised me!), and reassured me that I'd be on Underhill Road just beyond the concrete blocks around the corner.  From there it was a pretty easy ride into Featherston.

I had a highly naughty breakfast, after being told there was a 25-minute wait on orders from the kitchen - not often I let myself have a mince and cheese pie, nor an almond croissant, let alone the combination.  In any case, they slipped down very well.  The heat from those and the americano helped me forget my shoes and socks were wet.

After a nice sit-down, I could procrastinate no longer, and it was off to brush my teeth.  Then, time to tackle the Rimutakas again.  I was a bit nervous about the wind, but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting, and I made it to the top without being blown into the sometimes substantial gutter. 


I hadn't worked up too much of a lather on the climb, so descended without putting my vest on.  The wind seemed to be mostly in my face, and I was still looking forward to my legs perking up.  As the Te Marua Lakes lookout loomed, I remembered the nasty bridge soon after, and did a lovely job of bunny hopping both seams (if I do say so myself) - the first time I've been prepared!

At Brown Owl, I got stuck in to an OSM bar, hoping that perhaps it would engage my legs.  The climb up to the Akatarawas Saddle was nice, despite the headwind.  I was pleased that I hadn't succumbed to the not inconsiderable temptation to head straight down SH2 back to Wellington.  I'd been a little shocked at how few kilometres were on the clock, but I don't want shortcuts to be an option in France (on the contrary, there might be a few side trips) so good not to get in the habit so close to home. 

I never feel entirely comfortable on the Kapiti side of the Akas due to its narrowness, and the way cars tend to appear out of nowhere.  With luck and perhaps some good management, I managed to avoid the three oncoming cars, and was glad I wasn't in the car that had left the summit just behind me. 

I filled my water bottle at the tap opposite the dairy, then headed north on SH1 for lunch at New World.  A big scone slipped down well, chased by an apple and a long black.  Then, it was time to head home, with the benefit of a bit of a tail wind (finally)! 

The resealed section north of the Otaihanga turn off was sweet (at least compared to the former abomination of cheap and rough roading), the gravel descent on Waterfall Road passed without incident, and I particularly enjoyed the new, wide and smooth shoulder leading into Paekakariki.  My legs didn't feel great on the Paekak Hill climb, but they seemed to come to life on the descent, and I enjoyed watching my average speed since Waikanae creep up to the 30km/h mark by Battle Hill, which is where I clocked up the hour. 

Always a lovely view from the Paekak Hill lookout

I decided to plug on at Pauatahanui rather than stop for yet another coffee.  The Haywards climb passed quickly, and I felt quite at home on the fast descent.  The Colnago is beautiful to ride loaded up, and the wheels Oli built especially for the job, while obviously sluggish compared to my race wheels, roll beautifully. 

Legs, bike, wind, tarmac and gearing all seemed to come together along SH2, and I found a sweet spot at between 40.2 and 40.7km/h which I held for most of the ride back to Ngauranga.  I popped into work to grab some stuff I'd left in the office, and then successfully rebooted into commute mode for the final few kilometres to home.

I was surprised to make it home around about the same time I'd left Oli's the previous evening.  So, in 24 hours, I'd covered just over 240km, in a little under 9 hours riding (including a bit of clambering across a river).  I hadn't felt super for much of it, but had been effective enough!  I'm glad I've got a compact crankset under my bed, but strangely it's the 53 I'm most looking forward to getting rid of, rather than swapping the 39 for a 34.  While I'll surely appreciate the latter when I'm on the various two-plus-hour climbs I'll tackle in France, I'm glad right now I won't be able to blow my legs to bits going too hard on the flatter riding. 

A couple of other valuable lessons:  carbs (and lots of them) are good, and, there is no back road from Greytown to Featherston.


  1. Nice one, John! Love the "Roadworks", haha!

  2. fond memories of the ride out to woodside at dawn...

    1. If you are who I think you are, then as I rode out there, I was reminiscing about you doing it with your headlamp ablaze!