There's nothing like a good bit of map-sport to get me enthusiastic about riding, and the Great Forest Rogaine, a six-hour teams event in the self-proclaimed mountainbiking mecca that is Whakarewarewa Forest, was tantalisingly close once the dust settled from the ill-fated Whaka100.
Arriving home from that trip with a sore knee, and bike setup all a-kilter, the two weeks home in Wellington were pretty devoid of riding. I commuted most days, and snuck in the odd dash across town to Mount Victoria for a bit of track work. The Hataitai Zig-Zag project had kept Simon and I well entertained through winter, and it was pretty exciting being at the final stages. A couple of sessions after work would be the extent of my "training", but I figured it made a hell of a lot more sense than a gym membership!
I'd had a thoroughly unpleasant experience riding the Epic in Rotorua, and the rogaine gave me a good opportunity to try something different. Figuring an "optimal" route was likely to figure plenty of hills, gravel roads and little singletrack, I decided to ride my XTC, but rather than leave it in 69er mode, I decided to swap the suspension fork from the Epic onto it. A crazy schedule at work, and my beloved wrench Oli Brooke-White at Roadworks being a bit under the weather, necessitated yours truly doing the work. Luckily, Oli's thoughtful speccing of my steeds over the years made the change fairly simple - the same head-set on both bikes meant it was a simple matter of dropping the suspension fork off the Epic, the carbon fork out of the XTC, putting the suspension fork on the XTC, remounting the brake caliper, and swapping the disc rotor from my 29er wheel onto a 26er. It took me bloody ages, but all was well in the end! While I was at it, I mounted my new mapholder, popped the cranks into the obligatory 3pm-position, and voila!
I reckon the bike looks grouse, and a couple of small corrections later, it was good to go. I was also revelling in my new-found love for maintenance, and was basking in the satisfaction of having a bike almost clean enough to eat off. I fired the bike in the car on Friday afternoon, and was off.
The drive north was pretty uneventful, despite an odd highlight - actually seeing a car driving to Marton. The drive was short too - only as far as Ohakune, where Simon and Sarah had been since Thursday. It was good to see them, and after a good sleep, we all piled into the car to complete the drive to Rotorua.
We arrived just after lunch, and registered for the event at a rugby clubroom just behind the Outdoorsman on Tarawera Road. Once we'd done that, we headed off to our digs for a bit more lunch and preparation for the event. We were going to get the maps at 3pm, and after an hour of planning time, would be out on course for six hours (not a minute more, with luck).
Lights and fuel on board, we set off at about 2:30, wishing Sarah a good afternoon. We cruised out to the Outdoorsman where we grabbed a forest map, and then got ready to get planning. As always, the map was pretty daunting at first glance. Having spent a week riding around in the forest using the park-map, seeing an orienteering-quality map was a bit of a shock, and I didn't recognise much at all. The map was two A3 sheets, with the city in the West, Tarawera Road in the north, Blue and Green Lakes in the East, and SH5 in the south. We had a lot of ground to play with!
Planning a route is always a lot of fun, but can be stressful. Ideally you want to grab controls worth the big points, and in an event like this, where the last 2 hours or so would be in dark or near-dark, you need to leave yourself options at the end. In hindsight, we didn't think carefully enough about how fast we could get to the finish in an emergency. An emergency is almost certain to occur - you lose points fast when you're late home. By the time the hour was up, we had a pretty detailed plan through to about the 5 hour mark, and we'd have to wing it from there. We were basically doing a big clockwise loop of the course, gaining height using Tarawera Road, blasting out to the lakes, and then returning via Long Mile Road.
We made our way out to the corner of Long Mile Road for the start, and soon found ourselves following another team of two up Tarawera Road. The pace was comfortable, and after a couple of minutes, I glanced back at Simon - he gave me a nod, and we swung out, and soon had clear road ahead of us. By the time we swung off the road onto a steep 4WD climb, my knee was starting to flare up. I tried to put it out of my mind, but had no qualms jumping off and walking the steepest sections.
Unlike the Akatarawa Attack, a similar event in Wellington, bikes were not a compulsory accessory when clipping controls, so for the first 80 points we were on foot for the final approach. After a short blast along Tokorangi Pa road, we were off bike again and hunting around in the bushes for the next control.
Navigating in these events is great fun, and is definitely something that improves with practice. A couple of intersections and cheery hellos from some walkers later, we had our third control and were en route to our fourth via The Corridor. I was really impressed with how my XTC felt under me, and quietly relieved! We grabbed an impromptu 50-pointer at the SE corner of the fence around the "ponds" and were then off in search of more!
The next control was at a "clearing" at the end of what looked like an old 4WD road, about 100m off the main road. As we were ditching our bikes, we saw Kiwi Brevet vet Charlotte and her partner Tim on their way out. The "path" soon vanished, and we were bashing our way through a seemingly impenetrable bit of scrub. Our first major foray away from the bikes, and a simple-looking approach, meant that both of us had left our maps on the bike - novices! We soon found the control, but not without a bit of imaginative guess-work. Lesson learned, that was the last time the maps got left!
Next control was on Katore Link, and the one after that was on Be Rude Not To, though that one we came at from the adjacent 4WD road. The Red Tank was next, then an in and out to the clearing half way along Dragons Tail. More points awaited us at the bottom of Hot X Buns! We were hauling, and picking up points every few minutes.
Next up was the climb up Direct Road. We overshot a little connector track by a few metres, but soon corrected for another 70-pointer. The next was a few minutes up the hill, and had been placed to be more accessible than what was shown on the map. Great! Our next points were just beyond the start of Hot X Buns, and we were onto the right-hand map. What an exciting sport!
I was recognising bits and pieces after the Whaka100 and my subsequent rides, and so I knew the next control was on Frontal Lobotomy. I screwed up at the top of the track though, and we cut into the bush a little too soon. We didn't lose any time, but expended too much energy for it not be counted as a mistake! No time to dwell on it though, and we're off down Tawa Road, looking for a 4WD stub on our right. It wasn't there, and hurtling down a 4WD road looking for a track over your right shoulder is next to impossible anyway. I hesitated, and by the time I realised we'd gone too far, Simon was out of earshot. There was nothing for it, alas, but to chase after him down the hill. By the time I got his attention, all that was left to do was to say "we've gone too far" and start riding back up the hill. Eventually we'd retraced the 500m or so, and even travelling slowly, looking uphill for the intersection, it was bloody hard to find. We got it at first foray into the bush, and so it was that we headed up towards Tuhoto Ariki.
Last month I wrote "I'm reminded of the Akatarawas as I slip and slide through the native bush. I start to regret coming this way today. It's too wet, and I struggle. It's nice to walk from time to time." It had been slow, and was still very prominent in my memory. Simon was keen to ride it though, so when we saw there were two high-valued controls on it, and that it fitted perfectly into a good loop, there was nothing for it but to include it. I was very pleasantly surprised. Not only had the track dried out immensely, but my XTC lapped it up, and apart from a couple of dismounts to scamble over some logs, I damn near rode the whole thing. We emerged at the eastern end of it fair bulging with the extra 170 points we'd just got.
Our next treat awaited us on Split Enz, at the end of Chinaman's Road. Shown as a minor road on the forest map, and "Push/Carry Overgrown" on the O-map, we still anticipated it would be not only visible on the ground, but passable. We were wrong! We spent a few minutes looking for it, and soon realised that there was no way we'd make it through on foot let alone with bikes! We were stuck! The MTB track was designated bikes only, which meant we couldn't run back up it. And, it was one-way down. There was clearly no way we could run parallel with the track, so the only option was down.
Exiting at the bottom of the track was going to cost us a huge amount of time and energy, so we leaped off the track at the major switchback. We figured we would have to sidle for about 200m before popping out onto Moerangi Road. Simon took point, and excelled! We found an old vehicle-width bench, and damn-near could have ridden the last half of the distance if we'd bothered trying. A major disaster averted, we headed back up the hill feeling rather chuffed. As we rode past the likely junction with Chinamans Road, Simon noted he'd probably still be bush bashing had he been on its own. As usual, we were firing well as a team. We'd both made plenty of errors, but never really at the same time, and had avoided a good few catastrophes already...
Simon asked me about my knee. I asked him not to ask, and kept riding.
We'd just clipped our next 50-pointer when we met a couple on foot. They were looking for where we'd just been, and I heard the fella comment that some of the controls were bike-only. True, but not that one! It was too late for me to say anything as we hurtled off towards our next 90 points, on Bush Road up above Blue Lake. That bagged, we had a nifty ride down some sweet singletrack not on the forest map, and onto the next! This one was not where it should have been, but it suited us well, and cut our ride short by a minute or two.
We screwed up the next control. In hindsight, it was clearly below the road, but we'd shot off the road too early and had climbed. When a group of three women who we'd been seeing regularly in the last while (not rude, just not able to speak English!) ran past below us, we figured out where we were. Within a couple of minutes we were scrambling down a steep bank, pausing only to dislodge bush lawyer from our clothing and skin. 69 was locked and loaded, and we were back into search mode.
The approach to the next control was fast, and we both rode through a particularly loose intersection with our left feet unclipped, and legs held out like outriggers! Both upright, we were soon at the control, and then heading down Jeff's Link. We had about a 1.5km out-and-back along Green Lake for a 90-pointer before ducking off down a little-used bit of track for yet another control. This was followed by a fast section along the lake in the reverse direction to the Whaka100. Not everyone was doing it in reverse though, and I was about 10m back from Simon when his rear wheel locked up in the gravel. We both managed to keep out of the way of the oncoming riders, and each other, and soon had another 80 points for our troubles.
I had a rare bit of good intel from the Whaka100, and with that in mind we continued around and rode up Mossy Track. It was shown as a pretty marginal route on the O-map, but my recollections from the race were good. We were soon on the descent to SH5, and it was time to start thinking about lights.
We turned away from the highway at Waipa South Road, and had our first night-time navigation challenge to pick up a control up a bank to the right of the road. Simon lead us straight to it, and before long we were back on the bikes. We took the next left turn, which consisted of a transfer from tarmac, to tarmac covered with loose gravel, to gravel road - always a bit nervewracking, especially at high speed, 4+ hours into an event, with failing light. Neither of us came a cropper, and we were soon turning off Sandstone Road into an old quarry site for our next control.
I almost bought the farm soon after. I was in front and blasting along a slight downhill, when a hole came into view. By the time my brain processed what I was seeing and started issuing orders I was almost on it, and was feeling pretty anxious. The hole was huge - almost taking up the whole road, and was at least 26" deep in parts. The outer reaches of it were about half that, and so it was, that at fairly low speed I dropped my front wheel into one of the shallows and, while shouting "STOP" at the top of my lungs shot over the bars. I was relatively unscathed, but had given my sore knee a bloody good clip on the bars as I went over. And, next time I went to look at my map, it wasn't there! Well it was, but the holder had been rotated forward 90 degrees so from above it was almost invisible.
No time to dwell on such things, we were soon taking a right turn up Heath Road where we grabbed some more points on a short out-and-back. The next control was steep 60m climb on the top of a small hill. We ditched the bikes and Simon lead the way. As we climbed, I had the sense that we were moving left across the face rather than climbing straight up at the control. Consequently, when we clipped the control and set out for the bikes again, I argued for a correction to the left (the old right). Simon had asked me to assume control of the clip cards so by default I had the compass which was zip-tied to them. When my intuition disagreed with the compass, I started to lose the plot a bit. Simon was well on his way too, having received, in the dark, one too many instructions to "go that way". Rather than call "time out", I spat the dummy and thrust the compass at him, and he set off in a SE direction. I refused to follow, having lost all faith in the compass (WTF?!?!) and stormed off in the direction I thought was right (actually more like N). Simon, rightfully, was getting bloody pissed off at me for dragging him away from perfectly good sign from the route we and others had taken UP the hill. How embarrassing! We bitched at each other all the way down the hill, and eventually popped out on the road. At least we knew which way to run. If we'd turned left, I never would have forgiven myself. As it was, we ran for a couple of minutes before the flashing red light on Simon's bike came into view... How damn embarrassing. I don't remember if I apologised profusely at the time. I vaguely remember making a comment which was intended to portray my regret... But, no time to dwell on such things...
Right, right, right, and we were on a short bit of 4WD for another control. Right, left, left, right, and another. Left and along spat us out onto 8 Mile Gate Road, and short respite from the challenges of trying to MTB in the dark AND read a map.
We managed to avoid piling into a large gate across the road, and with the weighbridge in sight, we made a right turn before stopping at what seemed to be an 8-way intersection. Eek!
Simon was a bit disoriented, and we were both still a little fractious from the earlier shenanigans. I knew where we were though. Simon rightfully was apprehensive about putting his faith in me, but did, and we were soon heading up Nice Road. The 70-pointer was shown just off to the left of the road, and the clue read "(Almost) Stream Junction". We stopped alongside a sump hole at the first likely low point in the road, but the bush was dense, and there was no sign of any waterway passing under the road, so we proceeded. The first absolute confirmation that we'd overshot was the start of Sweet & Sour - about 700m beyond our stream. I didn't rate our chances of finding the control even if we'd gone back, and so when I noticed an 80-pointer beyond the end of Sweet & Sour, suggested we press on to get that - a nice consolation prize for riding all the way to here. The singletrack seemed to take forever, and then followed an intricate series of intersections. Left, ignore the right turn, clearing, track veers right, ignore the left, take the next left, cross the stream, take the next right, and the right after that, and voila! Not quite...
We missed an essential right turn. The stream crossing was as evident as the last one we'd sought, i.e. not at all evident. Our turn was another one over your right shoulder. Perhaps we'd both been distracted by an obstacle on our left. Who knows. What is true though, is that we'd gone too far. And, we screwed up again. We were within 300m of the control, and had we retraced our path, we'd have been riding towards the intersection, not away from it - we would have been looking for a nice left fork. But, almost certainly rattled from our argument, and the miss on the 70, we focussed more on our looming deadline, than the simplicity of going back the way we'd come. Would've, should've, could've. We didn't, and headed on. The 4WD track we were on spat us out onto Larch Road. I got distracted by something on my right, and crashed into something on my left. It's funny how once things start to go bad, they keep going bad!
We actually managed to find our next control - a nice little 40-pointer on an out-and-back path off the main route. What a bloody relief...
We now had the slightly distressing experience of passing a control we already had - at the Red Tank. We'd set ourselves up for it though, by not properly sorting an entire route. It's not an easy thing to do though - 6 hours in unfamiliar terrain is a bloody thing to orchestrate perfectly. No matter - soon we were on Nursery Road, and after a short diversion to grab yet another control we were racing along towards home.
We had more disagreement to come though - an 80-pointer awaited us in the middle of Genesis. I favoured the straight run at it from the steep climb I'd ridden chasing Carl Jones and Alex a few weeks earlier. Simon was confident we'd get it from the top. He was right to be confident, we turned off the grassy area onto a 4WD stub, took the left onto singletrack, the next right, and the next left, and there was the control. I felt we'd turned left off the main route, and was keen to keep going. Simon was less sure we'd swung left. Just as I "knew" I was right as we marched off the hilltop, I was equally insistent here. It's no surprise he was apprehensive. But, I'm a lot of man to restrain, and he had no choice but to follow, trustingly or otherwise.
In stark contrast to the hilltop, in this instance I was right, then left, then right onto Radio Hut Road, and a quick blast down to the Info Centre. The next control we had to take on foot, and it took a little searching. We got it with enough time to duck up Tarawera Road for a 400m run with 40 points in the middle of it. We had 3 minutes when we remounted our bikes, and about 30 seconds when we clocked in at the finish line. Perfect!
I really like the photo that was taken of us on the line - it's nice to see us both looking so happy. Certainly there's a lot to digest in an event like this, so it's nice to have a permanent reminder of how I felt when not digesting anything - just reacting.
Adding up points at the end of a six-hour event is a bit of a challenge, but we got there in the end. Before too long we knew we'd come second - unbelievably we'd got exactly the same score as Marquita Gelderman and Rob Garden. But, by virtue of being back 3 minutes sooner than us, they were crowned the victor! The best scoring foot team had had an extra two hours and were 10 points back (out of a score of almost 2400 on a course with 3600 points). Close stuff!
Of course with a result like that, the "what ifs" were inevitable. By the next morning, we'd both settled down a bit, and we probably saved ourselves some anguish by agreeing that we were at about 60-70% of full strength - which, for me, was probably my Kiwi Brevet form less a few kilos. I'd had a bit more riding leading up to the event than Simon, but was nursing a sore knee for the last five hours fifty of the event. This wasn't intended as an excuse, but rather to help to put the whole thing into perspective. It helped, I think.
We enjoyed a soak in a bit of thermally heated water off the side of the highway, and then rode the W2K track. This wasn't without its notable events - Simon melted a hole in his front tyre on the drive south (hot exhaust) and then crashed while checking out the loop track about Kinloch. Sarah and I went ahead and ate ice cream! I enjoyed the ride back to Whakaipo more than I had the outbound journey. Simon and I stretched in the sun while we waited for Sarah to join us. My car wouldn't start at Ohakune - I must have flooded it somehow - but eventually I got going. I almost got hit by a house just south of Hunterville - it was on a trailer and pretty much forced me off the road. There was a second one behind it that was scarily close too, although for that one I was parked on the shoulder...
I got home just after midnight, and looked at bikes on the internet for a bit. It was good to be home, but it had been bloody fantastic to be enjoying riding for a change. I'd been anxious about my knee for a lot of it, but the thrill of riding with my best mate and trying our darndest not to get lost had cut through that periodically. Those short periods of utter joy are worth chasing, that's for sure...
I like the look on my face in that photo. It shows me how I was actually feeling.