Sunday, January 2, 2011

The anatomy of a hillclimb

The short version is, I rode up a hill with Tool's Schism rolling around in my head.  On the way home to Wellington, I wondered if I could choreograph the ride to the song.  I've tested it a few times, and hope that it works for you!  It might help to have a stopwatch handy.  The paragraphs generally coincide with a meter change in the song.  Click "Play" when you pass the embedded youtube window (unless you hate Tool!).  Good luck!

One of the perks of stopping to spend the night with Simon and Sarah instead of heading straight home to Wellington, was that I got to join Simon on a wee jaunt up the Turoa skifield access road. It ascends almost exactly 1000 vertical metres in the space of about 17km, and according to the newly published Classic New Zealand Road Rides, written by Simon's bro Jonathan, with BikeNZ CEO Keiran Turner, this is the only Hors Category (sealed) climb in the country.

Home at Rangataua's about 5km from the bottom of the hill, and for some strange reason I thought we'd be driving down.  I popped the car stereo on, and just happened to have Tool's Schism playing.  I never ride with an MP3 player - mainly because I don't want to root my ears - but I often end up with one track or another looping round and round in my head.  The worst example was a couple of lines of a Queen track on a 7 hour road ride.  I simply didn't know enough of the song, and got the first couple of lines stuck in an endless loop.  I could do worse than Schism though - the regular changes in the pace of the song nicely reflects the mountain road.  Most of the ascent is in the last half, though there's a nasty section lower down to contend with too.

I loaded a couple of bottles of water onto the bike - the sun was shining, and if the previous few days were anything to go by, it would hot out there.  A couple of blocks from home, I realised that there was also a cool southerly breeze blowing, and shot back to the house to grab my trusty Ground Effect Flash Gordon - in sleeveless mode.  I caught back up to Simon, and we enjoyed not only a tail-wind, but a gradual descent down towards the Ohakune railway station, and the start of the climb.

We pulled up in the carpark, and I took an obligatory photo, with Simon in the background limbering up.

I got ready to go, already with Schism bubbling around in the background.  Time for some Hors Category hauling...

Click play, then start your timer!

(0:00) After a couple of minutes Simon reports he's out of stalling tactics, and we're off.  I find my second pedal, and chuck the bike down a couple of gears.  Simon starts his watch.

(0:13) These climbs are all about finding the right tempo, and the sooner the better.  I'm glad I have warm legs, and hit the sweet spot quickly.  We're in beautiful native bush, it's cool, and we've got a sweet climb ahead of us.  My right hamstring feels a bit tight, but everything else feels good.

(0:27) Here we go.  My legs are like pistons, up down up down up down.  I feel at one with my bike, and sense my legs going around, but not what's controlling them.  What a great feeling.  It's a good sign... I drop it down another gear.  I hear Simon do the same behind me.

(0:41) Simon swings past and takes a turn at the front.  I change up, then down again.  Nope, that first gear will do.  After a spell I come round Simon, and take the pace again.  My hammy's eased a bit, which is just as well - it's got a bit of work to do.  I can feel my heart racing as it tries to keep up with the effort.  It will, and then will settle down a bit.  Easy easy...  I take a swig of drink.  The day's cool, the setting is lovely, and my good buddy's with me.  Life's good.  Legs up down up down...  Breathe...

(1:08) This is my fifth time up here, and first in a year.  Last time it was three reps on the 69er.  About time to set that up again.  The heavy suspension fork on the front today's doing me no favours. 

(1:21)  Damn my guts are churning...  That's not supposed to happen - we're hardly even started yet.  I grab a banana out of my pocket and bite off half.  I chew it slowly and then swallow. That ought to settle things down a bit. I wash it down with a bit of water.  Yes, that was a good choice.  Good.  My legs are like pistons...

(1:35) There are subtle changes in gradient.  Some of them don't matter, and get taken care of by changes in cadence, or a slightly bigger effort.  My hammy's eased completely.  Great.  We're through the 3km mark now, which means the road's going to kick up soon. The 5th kilometre is a beast, and I'm not looking forward to it.  Oh well, not much I can do about that now.  I'm feeling smooth, and the bike's humming.  Simon's sitting behind me, but he'll get his chance to shine before long.  We're curious team mates with such different strengths, but it makes perfect sense in training - he pushes me on the hills, and I him on the power stuff.  Not much of that left today, best enjoy it while it lasts...

(2:02) Ah, here we go.  I've been dreading this bit.  My pulse shoots up, and I gasp for breath.  That little bit stung, but it's eased again.  Shit, not for long.  I flip through a couple of gears, and stand out of the saddle for the first time.   Simon comes by, looking comfortable.  He loves this steep shit.  I swing across onto his wheel.  I'm not getting much of a draft at this speed, but psychologically it's good to be there.  I imagine I'm tied to him, and he's pulling me up the hill.  It doesn't help much.  I'm up and down off the saddle, trying to find a comfortable tempo.  Argh...  I can feel myself on the edge.  I can't go too close, or I'll be toast.  If I can just hold that wheel...  This will ease soon...  Come on John.

(2:32) My legs are like pistons, up down up down up down...  Sweat's dripping off my chin.  I take a swig of water, and pedal.  Come on come on come on...  Not much further.  I used to spout "I don't train, I just ride".  Well that's no longer true - this is training for sure, and it's hurting, and I'm loving it.  I'm an unlikely climber - 90kg this morning, but something about it just does it for me.  Pent up emotion?  Anger perhaps?  I'm taking it out on the bike, and drive the pedals down, hurting them more than I'm hurting myself.  Goddamn, when is this freaking hill going to ease?!  We're side by side.  No chatting today.  That banana seems to have done the trick, and my guts aren't churning the way they were.  Still, this steep stuff is not that easy on the stomach - if I go any harder, I'll bring that damn banana back up.  Another mouthful of water, and the gradient starts to lessen. 

(3:01) Right, this I can cope with a bit better.  First though, I need to get my pulse down a bit.  My cadence is good, and my legs feel fine.  I drop it down a cog, and speed up a little more.  I mustn't rush this - got to slowly bring the pace back up.  Plenty of time yet, don't overdo it.  I'm coming back to life, breathing a bit easier, and I can feel everything settling nicely.  Another cog, a bit more speed.  Easy does it, there's plenty of this hill yet to come.  A bit more water.  Damn it's hot.  Thank god for the bush cover at the moment - that won't last though.  Another cog...  Good.  Damn this bike's running sweet.  Considering the wet ride it had under my bro Dave a few days earlier, it's a bit of a miracle...  My legs are like pistons again...  We're in business.

(3:30)  OK, I'm back in control for the time being.  I unzip my jersey.  Ahhh, that feels better.  I've got a banana in one pocket, phone and wallet in the second, and a sleeveless vest in the third - I'll need that for the descent.  Even open my jersey's sitting nicely. Gotta love the lycra!  Legs up and down, up and down...  Good boy.  More water, while this gradient lasts.  If only the whole hill was like this.  I wonder why I like climbing so much?  When I first started mountainbiking, it was because it didn't scare me like the descending did.  I'd spent years commuting to varsity along a pretty hilly route, which I generally hammered.  I still suck at descending...  And, I still love the climbing.  Despite being 8kg over my 2007 Karapoti weight - too many pies...  It would be nice to get that down a bit, but the last thing I need now is to be stressing about my weight...

(4:02)  This is going well.  I wave to a chap hooning down the hill.  He left with his bike on the back of the car just as we set off.  That's one way to do it I suppose.  Simon's tucked in behind.  I can hear him shift gears when I do.  Now he's tied to me, and I'm pulling him up the hill.   Huh - there's a bunch of cars parked at a trail head.  "Fancy a walk to the waterfall?" I call back to Simon.  He reads out the walking time from the DOC signage.  I don't think he got my point.  I was suggesting we stop.  Shit, it's getting steeper again.  I concentrate on a steady cadence.  It's bloody hard up this end of the cassette.  There are big gaps in the gears, and I struggle to find my sweet spot. That cog's too small and the next is too big.  Three gear changes and I settle on the small one.

(4:33)  It's getting steeper and I change gears.  I tip some water down my back - it feels good.  And a mouthful for good measure.  Man that water tastes good.  I shouldn't have said anything.  I should have been breathing.  Dick.  I go to change gear again, but find I'm at the top of the cassette.  Middle chain ring is the order of the day, and I'm in "granny".  "I'm out of gears" I call back.  Shit.  Concentrate.  Enough of the talking.  Breathe...  My legs are like pistons.  The 11km marker passes slowly on my left.  It's going to really kick up soon...  Hang in there...  The road's wide and there's no shelter.  But I'm loving the water down my back.  Setting off with 1.5L seemed a little extreme at the bottom, but right about now it seems perfect.  The gradient eases, and I chuck it down a gear.  My legs are like pistons.  This hill really is a stunner - shame it's so far away from home, and a shame I'm not stopping to admire the view. It's all unfurling behind me, and here I am with my back to it.  I wonder what's going on back there.  I haven't heard Simon for a bit...

(5:12)  It's getting steeper, and I'm spending more time out of the saddle.  It hasn't caught up with me yet, but it will.  My arms are taking a lot of weight, and they're not used to it.  Sit.  Pedal.  My legs are like pistons.

(5:20)  Now I'm burning.  The switchback is steep, and pushes me into the red.  There will be no respite now until the top.  The second switchback is even worse, but I manage to keep the bike moving, and my legs ticking over and over.  Just.  Come on John.  This is not hard.   Pain is an illusion.  Focus.  Smoothly does it.  Up down go the legs.  Just like pistons... 

(5:40)  Fuck.  How much more of this?!  I tip more water down my back and more into my mouth.  Argh!  Grit all over the road is the last thing I need.  I cross to the other side to avoid the worst of it.  My legs are starting to scream for mercy, and I'm starting to weave, looking to keep the gradient down by riding further.  It's not working.  MY LEGS ARE LIKE PISTONS.  I look down, and see the sweat ricocheting off the top tube.  Come on John.  It isn't much further.  You can do this, there's fuck all left, and you're doing well.  Breath.  Sit and pedal.  Nice smooth circles, come on.

(6:00)  I'm in self-destruction mode.  I should be stopping.  I'm hurting myself.  I'm gasping for breath, my guts are churning, and my legs are faltering.  Left right, left right, left... right...  Concentrate.  Argh, not through the grit again, and watch out for that drainage grate.  Must... be... almost... there...  Come on John come on.  You are almost there, you've got to keep going.  I try to find another gear, but I'm out.  I know the pieces fit.   Come on...

(6:25) I now feel every muscle in every pedal stroke.  I focus, it's simple, come on - you've suffered worse than this.  You love this shit.  Come on John, fucking pedal.  Up down.  Pistons.  Pistons.  Come on.  It's not pain, it's an illusion.  You're not hurting.  You're imagining it. Pedal man, pedal.  You're getting close, not much more now, come on, come on, come on, come on come on... come... on...

(6:47) Ahhh.

Both feet are unclipped and I'm stopped, perversely next to a no-stopping sign.  This trip has been all about disregarding direct orders, and I'm not about to stop now.  I lay the bike down, and stagger away from it.  Systems which shut down many minutes ago slowly start coming back on line, I take a long swig of water, and take a photo.

Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me

Simon arrives a minute later, and heads past in search of some shade.

I pick up my bike, and waddle after him.  My legs will be the last things to return, and they've not yet.  I join Simon in the shade and demolish the second half of my banana.  I ask him how long we took.  He'd hoped to go under 90 minutes, and did 66 and a half.  That's about on a par with our session of three the previous year.  No way I could do another at that pace.  I move into the sun, and relish in its warmth.

A van pulls up, and a woman jumps out calling "Fancy seeing you up here".  The look of horror that flashes across her face indicates we're not who she thought we were.  We're friendly enough though, and I ask her to take a photo of us.

She's about to ride down the hill with her friend.  I don't know if she realises she's already missed the best bit...


  1. I want to ride up there myself.. I even took my bike down there (but didnt get a chance, as I was working). However, after reading this and being 120kg.. probably not then lol..

    1. You should definitely give it a go, Geoff! It's a long climb, and pretty intense at a race-like effort, but on a clear day, it's well worth cruising up!