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 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 too 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 regular 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 together "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, by 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 was 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. 


  1. You are, as always, an inspiration.

  2. Awesome ride Simon and John! Those wheelsuckers must have been quivering in your wake...

  3. Superb job, lads. You're a credit to the Fleet.