Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Akatarawa Attack, but not as we know it!

If there's any event that has consistently got my attention over the last few years, it is the Akatarawa Attack.  Organised jointly by the Hutt Valley Mountain Bike Club and Orienteering Hutt Valley since 2006, I've ridden with Simon at every one.  In 2006 we won the four hour section in a threesome with Simon's brother Paul, and in 2007 Simon and I took out the 8 hour section with probably my best one day ride ever.  2008 was bloody hard but we managed to retain our title.  2009
was even harder, we were less fit and we placed second by a very slim margin. 

2nd in 2009 - we didn't know it yet...
In 2010, we were back in form and regained our title pretty convincingly.  We promised ourselves a sleep in for 2011, but 10 months later, when push came to shove, we were entering the Makara Peak Mudslingers in the 8 hour event for a fifth time.

The event is a fascinating one, and what economists might describe as a constrained optimisation problem. One hour from the start, teams receive the course map, upon which are marked controls.  Each control has a points value allocated to it.  Controls up big hills, or on rough track, or requiring difficult navigation tend to have larger points, while those which are easier to reach tend to be worth fewer points.  The most valuable controls are typically worth 100 points, while the least valuable might only be worth 10 or 20 points.  The aim is simple:  collect as many points as possible within a given time.  The event is called a rogaine; the name derived from the names of the three Australian founders: Rod, Gail and Neil.  The constraints obviously include the time limit, but also the riding ability of the team, its fitness, navigation skills, and to some extent preference - often the "best" route includes track done just because it'll be a highlight of the day (points be damned).  The various elements of the event really excite me, especially the way it introduces problem solving aspects to an already physically demanding sport.   Invariably when the legs go, the brain has already gone, and things can and do go to custard very very quickly, as tired riders find themselves lost and a long way from home!  Riding hard while doing fairly high-level cognitive tasks is a nasty challenge!

It's not all fun though.  I'm riding these things with a living NZ mountain biking legend.  As the event draws near, I feel immense pressure to be in good form, and to not be the link that causes the chain to snap.  My junior status in the team is often a feature in well-meaning promotion of the event - legend and his wee mate, etc.  I don't have much of a competitive streak, though I'm quite happy to thrash myself, I generally pay others little heed.  Teamed with a sublime competitor like Simon, I'm conscious that while it might be a hard day's ride with a mate for me, it's an event to be won for him.  And, he's my best mate, so that win becomes important to me too.  Stressful stuff...

On the bike though, in the heat of the day, the team has always been the defining factor in our success, and it has always been much more certain and reliable than our physical "prowess".  Simon and Paul rode either side of me with one hand each gently adding crucial watts as we ground up the last hill of the day.  30 minutes later they were tucked in my draft as we hauled along a gravel road with the deadline looming.  Countless times since, Simon and I have made decisions on the fly, corrected or confirmed navigational choices, reminded each other to eat, assisted with trail-side repairs, and carried gear for each other to ensure best progress as our legs tired.  Our ability to function well as a team (or not as was the case in 2009, to our cost) has been at least as important as our individual abilities as cyclists and orienteers.  We could no doubt pair with others and still do well, but I doubt there's anyone else in the world who could have got me out of bed at 5-something to be on the start line at 7:30 for five years in a row.

Our preparation for 2011's event was in stark contrast to 2010.  Last year we'd done plenty of riding together, and even gone out running - crucial conditioning work for the inevitable couple of hours off the bike that the Akatarawas demand.  In the couple of months leading up to this event on 30 January we managed few rides together.  Tree Trunk Gorge  was a fantastic ride, but hardly training.  Once up the mountain road certainly was training, and we worked hard around the Dress Circle at Belmont early in the week before the event.  But, no tip tracks; no 6 peaks time trial; no 5-6 hour missions in the Akas honing our technical skills.  I'd managed an Akas loop on my road bike mind you, and a couple of cool "Wellington singletrack smorgasbord" rides, taking in Wright's Hill and Polhill, Mt Vic and the fantastic trails in Miramar as I clocked up special time with my beautiful new Turner Flux.  Simon had had a hard ride from Ohakune to Marton, but was short even more bike time than I was.

The event HQ was at Dry Creek this year, and the event renamed the Alternative Akatarawa Attack on account of it not actually being in the Akatarawas.  That was all good though, and ensured an extra 30 minutes' sleep.  I picked Simon up at about half past 6, and both helmets safely in the car, we were off.  As we made our way into Belmont Regional Park there were about a dozen Transfield vehicles and at least twice as many men gathered there - strange for a Sunday, but they were looking to string a wire from Boulder Hill across to a hill top on the Haywards using a helicopter.  Exciting stuff for a closet bogan like me...

We were in good time, and were able to get our bikes and gear organised at a fairly leisurely pace, while still having time to say gidday to some familiar faces.  At 7:30, we got our maps, which instantly had us scratching our heads.  The course extended almost to Moonshine Road in the north, and Stratton St in the south.  Key areas looked to be St Pats forest, the Eastern Hutt hills, and Belmont Regional Park, with a cluster of points south of HQ, and another north.  In the past we'd been able to get almost all the controls, so eliminating a few had been relatively easy - an out-and-back to the top of Dopers last year springs to mind...  Bugger that!  On this map were many more controls than in the past, so we needed to cull out quite a few to design a manageable route.  "Which though?", is the million dollar question.

Eventually we settled on a clockwise route, through farm land to the Haywards stock underpass (no crossing of SH58 otherwise), St Pats Forest, then across the river and south along the Eastern Hutt Hills before climbing up via Stratton St and north along the tops to Boulder Hill.  Time to smash back a tin of creamed rice before briefing, and then last minute prep before we begin our chase.

The start's always a bit of a hoot as teams scatter in all directions.  We headed through a gate after about 30 metres' ride.  As I leapt back onto my Flux I noticed Simon starting to run, and 10 metres later, as I rounded a bend, I realised why - the climb before us was too steep to ride.  Before too long the gradient mellowed out a little, and it was back on the bike.  Simon and I rode away from those behind us, including 2009 winner Ian Paintin, this year paired with Ant Bradshaw.  I allowed myself a smile - a sign of things to come I hoped. 

A minute or two later that smile was well and truly tucked away in my back pocket as Simon's chain started skipping on just about every pedal stroke.  He jumped off, and diagnosed a joining link which was about to shit itself.  I grabbed a powerlink and my chain breaker out of my pack.  Simon did a great job of repairing the chain - not using the powerlink in the end - and it gave us no more trouble after that.  No surprise that Ian and Ant had passed us by this stage, Ian kindly checking that we had everything we needed. 

We soon had points in the bag (control 31), and were on the way to the next control when we saw Ian and Ant disappearing off up a gully. Goodness knows where they were going!  I urged Simon on, trying not to draw too much attention to the fact that we weren't following them.  We found control #2 (63) shortly after, and wondered how Ant and Ian were faring. 

Simon made an uncharacteristic cock up and disappeared down the bank on one side of the track.  After hauling himself up and dusting himself off, he wondered aloud what ill fate was going to befall him next...  We didn't have to wait too long to find out...

We started off on a fast descent through open paddocks.  After a few scorching minutes, I pulled up next to Simon, who'd stopped and had a perplexed look on his face.  "They're gone" he said, "Everything's gone..."  I looked at his empty mapholder in astonishment.  Only one of the four sides had been unfastened, yet somehow Simon's maps and clue sheet had been sucked out has we hurtled down the hill... I guess.  At that point I would have found it more plausible if he'd said an Alien had vapourised them with a ray gun...  What?!  The?!  Hell...?!   We decided against riding back up the hill - we still had my maps and clue sheet, and we thought the chances of finding Simon's maps in the wind were pretty slim.  We had no choice but to press on.

We picked up our third control (71) at a high point, moments after Liam and Rachel had grabbed it.  How the hell did they get there so quick?!  In fact they'd taken the long way round, would double back for our 2nd control (passing Simon's maps en route), and then head for our 4th.  They'd be only a few minutes behind us there, but 50 points up, and with a full complement of maps!  Nice work!

Three controls and 160 points in the bag, we began our descent towards SH58. I was in front, and yelling at the top of my voice at the dozens of sheep that were sprinting down the hill ahead of us.  We were undoing all the good work Liam and Rachel had done bringing them up the hill!  The missing maps were missed almost instantly as we moved from a formed track to an allowable route through open paddock.  We deliberated over our single map and picked up the correct track back to our right. 

We scoped out the SH58 underpath on our way to our 4th control (61), Simon having to take my word for most of it.  We were soon under the highway, and climbing up towards before dropping down a spur.  I put us temporarily wrong as we followed a path that wasn't on the map.  Again, we consulted over our single map, before backtracking 25m or so and picking up the correct route. 

The descent down the spur had a few surprises, and I was damn pleased to be on the Flux.  A couple of times a rut or drop appeared out of nowhere, and by the bottom I felt pretty lucky to have held it all together. 

We had a series of intersections to deal with next, and the magnitude of having only one set of maps was starting to sink in.  No doubt Simon was stressed out not having his own map in front of him, and having to rely on my navigation.  I was stressed out at having the only map, and what felt like sole responsibility for the navigation.  Fuck! 

We started a long bike push up a very steep 4WD road.  We grabbed another control (90), and eventually the road leveled out and we were able to start riding again.  The navigation got a little awkward - what I could see on the ground didn't seem to match what was on the map very well.  In hindsight, perhaps I was just jaded from the climb, and in a bit of a tizz on account of the maps.  I almost came a cropper on a bit of slick clay, and then lost my nut a bit - I wasn't coping very well... Simon took over and steered us well to our next control (51).  At least now I knew precisely where we were on the map...

A few minutes later, we were standing at a fence, and were deliberating again.  Neither of us had seen an intersection we were expecting to see, but I was convinced I knew where we were. Simon wanted to go back, but I insisted we pop over the fence to grab our next points (50) first.  Luckily for me, I was right about where we were.  No harm, no foul.  But, already the cracks were showing.  In the past, we'd always breezed through these sorts of issues, as we'd always both had maps in front of us, and always the instinct to quickly come up with the correct decision.  Here, we were constantly having to stop to consult, and it was frustrating both of us.  Horrible to have the map, horrible to not, and we were little over one hour into eight...

The next few controls were pretty straightforward (60, then 91, then 100) before an out and back loop through another couple of controls (52 and 62) on the hills above Silverstream Bridge.  More tension as we decide which way to back-track, before we started descending.  I could see it didn't matter which way we went, but of course Simon couldn't.  Fuck this sucks!

Back up the ridge, we lined up for our descent to the river.  We'd orienteered in this area a couple of times before, and while I was stopped and looking at the map, Simon disappeared from my view.  At least I had the map, and I had little choice but to cross my fingers and "follow" him down the correct route.  Sure enough, he knew where he was going, and was waiting for me 30 seconds down the track. 

We picked up our final control in St Pats forest (70) and were out at SH2 after about 3.5 hours elapsed.  At this stage we had 840 points, 20 ahead of the winning 4-hour team, and with time enough to grab at least 40 points on the way home.    We had more riding to do though...

It was Simon's turn to have the maps for a bit - it hadn't been much fun for either of us, and it was about time things were reversed.  We decided against our initial plan to cross the river - we both had dry feet, and the 30 points didn't seem worth the effort.  Instead, after negotiating the culvert under SH2 (and getting thoroughly wet feet), we rode south, and were soon crossing Silverstream Bridge.  We peeled off to the left and swung around under the bridge, and were soon counting concrete slabs at yet another control (20).

Access to the Eastern Hutt hills was via what was surely a Christian enclave.  It looked to be old nurses' barracks or similar, but there were people strolling around with idyllic looks on their faces, and I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there. 
Freaky stuff!  Had it not been for the people it would have been quite fun hooning around the narrow alleyways, complete with a covered walkway we had to pass through.

Simon was on point now, as we picked up 3 more controls (72, 32, and 92) as we slowly but surely gained elevation.  I'd never ridden this far north before, so it was all a bit of a mystery to me.  We had a long run south, with what felt like a good tail wind.  We picked up one control (84, east of Fraser Park) en route to 93 in the south (east of Hutt Hospital).  From there it was a long 3 kilometres back north to a turn off into some singletrack.  Strangely the wind didn't feature much on the return journey, which was a relief to both of us.  We'd initially thought to do an out and back through this next bit of singletrack and exit the hills in the south, but changed our minds on account of the track quality and height we'd lose on this next bit.

The points were good (57 and 102) but the track was slow going.  The surface was pretty mint - steep in places, but not rutted at all - but the track was so narrow, and the vegetation was obscuring the trail itself.   Simon made much better progress than I did down here with his slightly narrower handlebars (and body), better technical skills, and probably better frame of mind now he had the map.  As our through trip continued, we started to regret our decision - the track went on and on, and was so slow.  At one point some toitoi had been cut, but had been left on the track to harden, and was like walking on marbles.  After what seemed like an eternity, we made an intersection which marked an improvement on the map, and we were soon riding again.  We stopped at control 73 to have a bite to eat, and to reassess our plan having lost a whole heap of time getting there.

We agreed that Stratton Street was now out of the question.  We looked at heading up Hill Road to cut down the distance, but we were worried about the wind on the tops.  We settled on a climb through Kelson - luckily there was one control to get on the way through.  First, some work to do in the valley.

We were soon looking for a subway under the railway line.  I pulled into a likely spot, but missed the entrance to it.  Simon called me back, and my temper flared slightly.  Damn the map situation!  There was a shop at the far end of the subway, and we quickly grabbed a drink each before heading north towards a suburban control.  Simon drafted me, and called directions from behind, and we were soon another 50 points up (55).  Then, we turned south.  My legs felt good as I hunched over my handlebars and tapped out a steady pace.  We soon bagged another control (34) and then turned back into the wind to cross over the river for the second time.  We screwed the exit off the bridge, circling under it before crossing over the road again to complete our circuit and resume our hunt for the underpass of SH2.  We found it without too much extra drama, and were soon starting to grovel our way up the climb into Kelson.

We had one control to bag about halfway up (42), and apart from that, there was little to focus on apart from the headwind, and fatigue!  After the climb leveled out a bit, Simon tucked behind me, hopefully enjoying a slightly more sheltered ride than he'd otherwise have had.  We made a left turn, and a kilometre or so later pulled off the road onto gravel once more. 

Simon had ridden this singletrack a few years earlier, and had reported some pretty lousy conditions.  Low expectations set, the track was actually very pleasant - obviously a lot of good work had been done by Greater Wellington in the intervening years.  I had the clue which told me we were looking for a tall gate.   Simon had the map, and when he rode past a likely looking gate, I asked if we might be at the control (54).  We were, and he promptly handed the map over!  His legs were objecting, and as always, this meant his brain was already not at 100%... 

Up in the open, we were glad we'd not gunned for a run north on the ridge.  We'd surely have run out of time, and been blown off our bikes in the process.  We grabbed our third 100-pointer (101) at Boulder Hill, and then raced back the way we'd come - pretty much all downhill from here!

We had a short out-and-back to 40, before dropping down to the Dry Creek entrance.  A nifty zigzag put us in the carpark, and then it was up the driveway to HQ.  We had about 15 minutes to spare, so plenty of time to grab a final control just upstream of the cars (21). 

I look like I'm concentrating...
...and Simon looks excited!
A few minutes later, we got to stop, and to be honest, it was a pleasure to have it over and done with!  I felt like we'd been cheated of a bloody good day out by that Alien and his ray-gun.  The missing map had taken with it very many of the opportunities Simon and I had to function harmoniously as a team.  I guess we'd coped well given the circumstances, but the freak mishap had certainly introduced strain on our teamwork that no map had previously been able to.  In the sum total of events we'd done of this sort, we'd been in this sort of flap for minutes, but certainly not hours.  (We still joke about my hollering on the hill in Vegas.)  Yet here, we'd had tension for most of the event, presumable because one of us had no clue where we were, and because the other felt overly responsible for our fortunes. 

Still, our plan had been good, and our execution of it, if not stress-free, had been effective.  As it turned out, we were first on the day, with a score of 1770 points (almost an identical score to 2010, of 1740).  Rachel and Liam had out-ridden us at the start with some very efficient route choice, and had finished the best of the rest, 150 points behind.

The after-match BBQ was a definite highlight of the day for me.  It was particularly nice to see a brick of gingerbeer go to Simon for the win!  In the past, I'd always scored his bottle of wine as well as my own, and it was great of someone to notice and to come prepared!  

HVMBC and OHV put a huge amount of work into putting the event on.  And no doubt that work was shouldered by a select few.  Michael Wood's map was as impeccable as ever, and all the controls we visited were exactly where shown!  Cheers too to Steve Meeres for the photos! 

The day seemed like an absolute shitter at the time.  Luckily though, something in the human condition is much better at remembering the good bits than the bad.  So, while I have a strong memory of it sucking, I can't actually remember the negative emotions that well - just that I'd had them.  On the other hand, I do remember the good bits as if they were yesterday, and can't wait to get out orienteering with Simon again.  I could say that next year we're looking forward to a sleep in and will be signing up for the 4-hour.  But, I suspect I know better...

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Te Tāwhio O Whanganui

I was nervous as the week of the inaugural "Tāwhio O Whanganui", a tour of the Whanganui catchment loomed.  I'd failed on a couple of attempts to negotiate access through private land, and was bummed that poor Simon had had to intervene on one section.  Turned out my answerphone message had been truncated before I'd said my phone number...

My physical preparation for this odd-year alternative to the Kiwi Brevet had been far from hard core, but it seemed to suit this event, which by design has some similarities to the Brevet - unsupported riding through some neat back country - but many differences - here, riders would be all in the same towns each night, but could choose their own routes in between.  By the time I loaded my 69er on the back of the car on Saturday morning, I'd not yet decided where I'd be riding, but, finally I was looking forward to it.

I'd packed more gear than for the Kiwi Brevet.  I had a sleeping bag and liner, slightly more casual clothes, and a pair of jandals.  Just about all my gear was in a dry bag bungied onto a freeload rack, installed on the rear seat stays of my hardtail.  I had an Ortlieb handlebar bag for bits and pieces which I wanted better access to, including a nicer camera than the one on my cell phone.  My GPS charger was on board this time too.

Day 1:  Whanganui to Raetihi

I was accompanied for the drive up by Dave Sharpe, Pat Morgan and Simon.  The noon start time allowed a reasonably relaxed morning's drive, and the atmosphere and conversation helped pass the time nicely.  Shortly after Bulls, we spotted Tim on his road bike, heading to the start from Palmerston North.  We'd see him in virtually the same spot, heading in the other direction, a little over four days later.

I had 19 confirmed starters for the event, and added another three to the list as we assembled at Moutua Gardens.  Barryn, Bill, Brett, Jakub, Nathan, Peter, Simon, Trevor and myself had all been part of the Kiwi Brevet the previous year.  As had happened at that event, it was a lot of fun to check out people's setups.  There was yet again a Surly Pugsley in the field, though under John, not Jakub.  29ers were very common, and there was Tim's road bike, and Dan's 5" travel Mojo ensuring plenty of diversity.

I was mildly astounded to see how much gear some folk had.  Peter told me in Patea that he'd reduced his Kiwi Brevet load from 11kg to 4.5kg, and he was still camping on this trip. I hadn't weighed my gear, but was happy I'd got the tradeoff between comfort and weight about right.  Besides, at 90kg, I can cope with a bit more weight if I need to.    I didn't envy Megan her load - she's probably literally half my size, and had about 4 times as much gear!

At about quarter to noon, we gathered in front of the fountain for a quick introduction and some photos, and at about a minute to noon, we headed off, unable to wait any longer.  No clock tower chiming for this event, alas...

I rode alongside Brett for the first 500m or so, during which he admitted surprise upon discovering I was "sifter".  He'd expected a "scrawny cycle geek", and I guess only found a "cycle geek"!  Jakub shot ahead and photographed us crossing the Whanganui River for the first time, and then I raced ahead and took some more photos as we cruised out of town.  It was all very civilised to start with, and it was a blast watching people strike up conversations, knowing that from some at least, new friendships would form.

At Upokongaro, I stopped, and parked my bike outside the St Mary's Anglican Church, built in 1877 by my ancestor John Randal (I think the grandfather of my grandfather, also John Randal).  The steeple has a rather curious design, but it's obviously stood the test of time!  Unfortunately the church itself was all locked up, and so I jumped back over the fence, back on my bike, and took off after the bunch.

I soon turned off SH4, and soon after the road tipped briefly up.  It was a bad time to try to chat with people, and as the bunch fractured, I made my way past one after another.  The top of the hill had a great outlook up the river valley, and it was nice to see people enjoying it.  

As we moved slowly up valley, the temperature got hotter and hotter.  After about half an hour I caught up to Simon and Geoff, and we were soon joined by Trevor who'd stopped at a dunnie by the side of the road and had almost passed out at the smell of the ammonia!  Relief from the heat came soon after at an unexpected cafe stop.  A sign on the road advertised Jarrah coffee was for sale, a far cry from Havana, or People's Coffee, or any of the multitude of locally roasted beans here in Wellington.  Sitting outside was the River Queen - although it looked from a bygone age, it was only about 10 years old - a prop from the movie of the same name.

Inside, I bought a couple of drinks and a muffin. It was great to escape the heat.  Simon was really red in the face - not something I see very often.  And, it was a nice opportunity to acknowledge another family connection to the river - this time on my Mum's side - my great aunt and uncle had both taught at Parikino, and were both known to the woman selling us drinks!

Simon and I headed off together, and after a brief stop for Simon to coat his sweaty arms with sunscreen, we were back under way.  I wonder if the Whanganui River Road is unique in its bilingual nature.  Towns Athens, Corinth, London, Jerusalem had all had second signs:  Atene, Koriniti, Ranana, and Hiruharama, sometimes the English first, other times the maori.  It was a neat highlight of the day. 

It was nice to be riding with Simon for what felt like the first time of the day, and it reminded me how much I actually love riding with him!  Our sixth Akatarawa Attack the weekend before (words yet to come) had been stressful, but riding side by side up this road in stunning scenery felt pretty damn perfect.  We've clocked up very many hours together in the last four and a half years, and its as nice now as ever.  Neither of us has to worry about pace, knowing the other will be up for whatever, and nor are simple things like stopping to organise a photo or two ever a problem.  Enough of this damn heat though.  We rolled into Pipiriki to read 36 degrees on a thermometer sitting on the side of a sun-bathed building...

We left the river behind at Pipiriki, but not before devouring an icecream or two, and some more cold drink at a tiny store.  We were joined by Geoff and Barryn, with only Trevor and Dave up the road.  Simon and I caught Trevor after a long gravel climb.  I had been incredibly hot work, with only a tiny amount of shade, but the legs and company were conducive to a relatively quick climb.  Trevor looked like he needed a lie-down when we saw him at the top, but Simon and I moved on, knocking out the last of the day's 103km in short order.

We stopped outside the 4-Square, and each made a couple of trips in.  After about 45 minutes' sifting, we moved down the main street checking out the dining options, before leaving for our accommodation.  As we did, a ute pulled up and out jumped Pat.  He looked in a bad way - his body had objected badly to the sun, but luckily, he'd been able to get a lift into town, no doubt avoiding what would have become quite a serious problem.

Before long we were checked into the Snowy Waters Lodge, on a small hill overlooking the town.  We'd seen Dave walking back into town, and he'd told us to expect a warm welcome.  It was indeed, and soon enough the drying room was brimming with bikes, tents were appearing on the lawn, and weary but happy riders were swapping notes about the day's ride.

Day 2 had plenty of options and there was much discussion about route choice.  Taking the highway all the way through would add up to about 160km, but Dave seemed keen on the 42nd Traverse.  Simon wasn't keen, but I was interested, and with Dave's company decided to commit to riding it with him. 

There had been some mention of dinner, but the invitation had been a little vague, and the only definite item on the list had been "salad".  Finally, my patience wore off, and I wandered into town with Dave and Geoff.  While we missed out on a rip-snorter roast (with salad on the side), it was good to catch up with those who weren't staying at the lodge at a pub in town.  Steak, eggs and chips, and a beer, slid down very nicely, and after the Sevens final finished, we wandered back up to the lodge, and hit the sack. 

Day 2:  Raetihi to Whangamomona

An advantage of traveling light is making a quick departure, and after chugging a can of creamed rice and a tin of peaches, I hit the road with Dave at about 7:15am.  The first stretch to National Park felt horrible - as we moved away from Raetihi at about 22km/h, our legs both felt like shit, and we were getting rather despondent about our slow progress.  Technology let us off the hook though, and both our GPS units confirmed what our eyes couldn't see but our legs surely knew about - we were climbing.  

Once we'd got our heads around what was going on with our legs, things were much better, and we enjoyed the quiet roads, and each other's company.  Dave was on a singlespeed, and I had to laugh at the Tui sign as he drew away from me on the final climb into National Park...  The gap opened up a tad as I fumbled around for my camera, but still!

Hang on mate, I'll pull over so we can talk.  Classic!

It wasn't cold, but it was drizzling, and we were both a bit on the damp side when we pulled into National Park.  I had a nice hot pie, and a couple of coffees, and was soon feeling ready to attack our first bit of proper mountainbiking on this trip. Dave's incredibly strong, but I was comfortable we'd have a good ride through the 42nd.  After about half an hour on the road, we arrived at the Kapoors Road turnoff, and after a quick rationalisation of clothing, we were underway. 

We soon came to an intersection which confused us somewhat.  We both wanted to keep left, but the road had recently been metalled to the right, making it look like that was the main route.  We consulted my Tongariro Forest Map, which didn't really give us much insight, and eventually we went with our instinct and took the left fork.  After a minute or two, as an afterthought, I flicked my Garmin to the map screen, which immediately confirmed we were still on Kapoors Rd.  I wonder why I didn't think to consult my $600 unit sooner?!

A few kilometres down the road, we came to another large intersection, this one adequately sign posted.  My GPS also knew of the 42nd Traverse, and we were able to follow the whole route on it.  Nice one!

The scenery was much much nicer than I remembered it from my trip through here with Mike Lowrie back in 1998 (one of my first MTB rides!)  The riding was reasonably straightforward, though Dave gallantly alerted me to one incredibly uneven and slippery patch of clay by flinging himself and his bike down across the track.  Apart from a broken rib, and a bit of mud around the place Dave was all good, and we were soon underway again.

Before too long we were at the Waione Stream.  After a clean, and a blast down through some incredibly shaped berms, we were soon across the knee-deep water. 

The second half of the ride had a bit of climbing in it, and it was impressive to watch Dave wrestle his machine up all but the steepest pinches.  We met a guy coming in the opposite direction and I stopped for a bit of a chat.  The kilometres ticked by as the day heated up, and apart from my drive getting increasingly filthy we had no problems.  The scenery was again glorious, and we were often treated to more beautifully shaped corners.  I'm looking forward to doing that ride again!

The climb up to Owhango was a bit of a grovel, but we stopped outside a local hall about 3.5 hours after leaving National Park.  We had a short stop for a couple of snarlers from the BBQ, and I gave my chain a bit of a clean and lube.  We backtracked ever so slightly before taking some sweet back roads through Hikumutu to Taumarunui.  There were a couple of ostriches en route, and a couple of short sharp climbs, which Sharpie handled with aplomb, despite his silly gear system!

Taumarunui couldn't come soon enough for me by this stage - at about 120km we still had a way to go, but I was ready for a bit of a recharge.  First we had a bakery stop, and then a bit of a picnic across the road.  We were joined by Geoff, who'd done the Ohakune Rail Trail and then Fisher's Track to clock up almost exactly the same distance Dave and I had.  Remarkable.

While Dave and I grabbed drinks and then some cash, I saw Geoff set off along the Forgotten Highway, SH43, and soon we were hot on his heels.  I'd come this way only once before, in the opposite direction, with Simon on our NP2NP tour (New Plymouth to National Park).  The last big hill on that ride had pretty much broken me, and it wasn't much better today. Dave had softened me up on the rollers leading up to it, and as he soldiered up the big climb, the elastic finally snapped.   By the top I'd caught Geoff, but we'd lost Dave for good!

Geoff would disappear behind me on each of the climbs we faced.  As I crested each, I wondered if I'd see him again, but at each I would.  On one occasion I actually said "You again!" much to our mutual amusement.  Geoff proved an excellent companion, and we toiled away making good progress en route to Whangamomona.  Tangarakau Gorge was an absolute blast.  Down-river we had gravity on our side, and somehow the MTBs seemed to go better on the gravel surface.  Speeds in excess of 40km/h were pretty standard, and it was a blast. 

One stretch of road consisted of a bridge to cross the river, about 100m of road and then a bridge back to the other side.  We laughed at the expense of this, and concluded that there really had been no way for them to build the road without the bridges.  I bet they tried though!

The highlight of the last few dozen kilometres was the tunnel atop Tahora saddle.  Apart from being very cool, it reduces the amount of climbing somewhat.

Geoff and I never really got our pace line sorted, but we quickly approached Whangamomona.  We passed Pat, Dan, John, and Nathan about 15 minutes out, and arrived just as Simon was wandering down the main street checking out the historical notes on the buildings that lined the streets.  I clicked my GPS off reading 212km with an elapsed time of 11h40.  Not a bad day out, all in all.  It didn't kill me so it must have made me stronger.

The evening was a great occasion, involving great conversation about this trip and that, and of course accounts of the day's riding.  There had been a variety of routes taken, some taking a greater toll, and time, than others.  When I headed off upstairs, full of not one, but two pub dinners (an omelette, and a burger and chips!!!!), Paul had only just arrived (he'd had a crash and some derailleur problems down Fishers), and Megan and Jakub - who'd taken a not quite ready track through to Whakahoro from Mangaparua trig were still awol.  Before finally turning in, news came that 4 of the 6 who'd set off through the Bridge to Nowhere, followed by a jetboat down the Whanganui, the Matemateonga tramping track, and the Bridge to Somewhere ride along the Whangamomona River had arrived after an 18 hour day.  Bill and Keith were kipping in a hut along the Matemateonga and would see us in Patea the following night.  And, Megan arrived after a tough day out - she'd had to unload the panniers from her bike for multiple stream crossings - the costs of not packing light!

Day 3: Whangamomona to Patea

The next morning we were treated to a communal continental breakfast at the decidedly civilised hour of 8am.  It was again nice to have most of the group together, scoffing down cereal and toast. 

After a bit of a communication mix up, I walked down to the campsite only to have Simon appear 10 minutes later ready to ride.  I scurried back to the hotel and got suited up, then rode down to the campsite with Dave.  The plan was for Dave, Simon, Geoff and I to head through the way Trevor, Barryn and Mark had come the night before - down the Whangamomona River to the Bridge to Somewhere, and then gravel roads towards Eltham.  

The Bridge to Somewhere ride was a real gem - a Classic New Zealand Mountainbike Ride if ever I did one, and it was sweeter still on account of how bloody far off the beaten track you have to go to do it!  Our foursome had become five - and we were in illustrious company, having been joined by ex World Adventure Racing Champion, and current World Rogaine Champion, Marcel Hagener.  He was in fine form, and was not content with his ride in the opposite direction the night before.  He kept us all well entertained, and kept the pace high.

The majority of the ride was dry, the exceptions being the far end of a couple of funky tunnels cut out of the clay.

Of the five bikes on this leg of the journey, four were 29ers, and so my 26" rear wheel was the only little one in the fleet, and boy, it was finding the bumps.  This was the only stretch I regretted loading my gear on the back for, but I had little choice but to suck it up, and nurse my bike as best I could through the rough.  We made frequent stops to regroup after photo stops, or to get through gates. 

 Most of the time we were heading downstream, but ever so occasionally, Simon would have me going back the way we'd come, all in the name of a decent photo...

Before too long, the valley widened, and we had a quick blast through some open farm land. 

Dave, Marcel and Geoff, all travelling suitably light

Just before we reached the bridge, across which was Somewhere, we had to pass a rather large bull, who was showing off his not insubstantial  manhood.  We all had a jolly good giggle at Marcel's German-accented description of it, and then it was off to Somewhere. 

After at least five minutes with cameras firing left, right and centre, we were back on the bikes.  The day had begun to warm up, and we were "treated" to some pretty arduous climbing on gravel roads.

While most of us spun away, Dave was often up off the saddle...

After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the Soldiers Road turnoff.   Dave had no sooner started thinking about conserving the little water he had left, when his bottle had jumped out of his cage and lost its contents.  While we had a bit of a spell, and gave our chains a bit of love, Dave, exhorted by Marcel popped into a farm house but to no avail.  Marcel's excitement would have been hilarious had it not been for Dave's concern, and our respect for him, but eventually Dave decided he'd continue on with us rather than taking a shorter route to Stratford.

A few kilometres later we filled bottles at a tap and Marcel nuked each with his UV steriliser.  We had a sweet ride that Simon had negotiated through a pine forest, before a steep climb up a ridge to take us into the next valley. For a while I felt like I was watching an Italian road race with Marcel calling after Simon/Coppi while I played Bartali.  Coppi took line honours on the day, and I pulled the pin on the climb at an opportune spot.  I probably should have kept going until I fell off, but my self preservation instinct was too strong.  Simon rode away from us all pushing our bikes, the only one with a decent excuse being Dave with his singlespeed.

The traverse of Brad and Jo's farm was not without incident.  After a rip snorting descent, we ended up at a bottleneck with about 8 or 9 nervous looking cattle.  They got increasingly agitated as we slowly approached, then started circling around, before one decided to jump a nearby gate. The first one did very well, but the half dozen that followed it weren't quite as adept at hurdling.  We straightened a couple of battens, and stared gloomily at the bent top rail of the gate before continuing on.

We met Brad and Jo five minutes later, and Simon let them know about the gate, and the relocation of the cattle.  We thanked them very much for their kind permission, then headed off towards Eltham, 27km away.  Only 2 hills en route, apparently. 

Despite having seen this warning before, I absolutely had to stop to photograph it again.  Luckily the deck was not overtopped with water and I was able to follow Geoff and Simon in the distance...

The last hill was laid out in all its glory as we approached it.  Luckily the gradient was pretty mellow, and a very late lunch was just over the other side, so it passed quickly. 

Mt Taranaki was visible to us for the first time at the top, and after a quick photo I leapt back on my bike and powered off towards Eltham.  

Arriving for lunch just before 4pm, we could at least take solace in the massive tailwind, and 200m descent we were going to have through to Patea.  We snuck into a local cafe just in the nick of time, and made good use of their counter food.  I ate far too much - a stuffed potato and a bit of lolly cake and a chocolate croissant, preceded by some chocolate and washed down by a pot of tea.  I rolled out feeling bloody uncomfortable, but soon the legs were firing nicely, bouyed by the strong wind behind us.

The five of us were like pigs in muck, as we blasted along the back roads northeast of Hawera.  Marcel almost got taken out by a young punk probably trying to make a point, but apart from that the ride was incident free.  Marcel and Dave put a bit of a gap on Simon, Geoff and myself, but within an hour and a half of leaving Eltham, we were all starting to wind down and get washed for dinner.  Had the wind been turned 180 degrees, we probably would have taken twice as long, and probably would have shed a tear or two!  Fortune smiled on us!

Geoff was booked in at a motel, but the rest of us were down at Carlyle Beach Campground, down by the mouth of the Patea River.  Once again, this was a great opportunity to catch up with some of the others.  Most were in good spirits, and it was fun to hear about others' rides.  The 156km of the day, over 10 hours had taken its toll though, and it was nice to finally lie down and get some rest!

Day 4: Patea to Whanganui

Simon's alarm went off at 7:30, but I didn't hear it, so got an extra 45 minutes' sleep.  When I finally did wake, Simon and Dave were pretty much ready to go, so I quickly packed and got ready to ride up to the township for breakfast.  My riding gear was wet and the day looked to be cool, so rather than suit up, I threw on my jacket and Ground Effect overtrou, and rode up in my civvies.  

I passed an impressively devastated pine plantation - what looked to have been started by fire was being finished off by the wind. 

A few minutes later I was ordering a cooked breakfast at the cafe.  By the time I was done, only Dave was still there, and he patiently waited for me to get changed.  We were soon on the road, and heading towards Whanganui.

We again had a good wind and made good progress along the highway.  We bypassed Waverley by taking backroads south of the highway.  When we were forced back out onto SH3, we found we'd made good headway into the others who'd left before us.  Six cycle tourists spread out in front of me was too good a photo opportunity to give up, despite the fiddle-faddle of getting my camera out.

Just before Maxwell, and our next turnoff, we caught John on his Pugsley.  It had been perfect for a bit of riding over railway sleepers the day before, but it looked like hard work on the tarmac.

I stopped by a cemetery to take my jacket off, but apparently missed the rather grand grave of Dalvanius Prime. We then hung a right, and were soon blasting along some more quiet back road.  We chatted to Dan on his Ibis for a bit, and I enjoyed watching him blast through a pothole that would have caused just about every other bike in our group a bit of mischief.

A hill near Kai Iwi Beach saw Dan fade back, and Geoff back to us from ahead, and once again we were three.  We were soon passed by a woman on a road bike, who Dave identified as Cath Cheatley.  No sooner had she put 20m on us, but all three of us got a bit twitchy, and within a few seconds we decided to mount a chase.  

Camera safely stowed, we accelerated in earnest, just as Cath ahead leaped out of the saddle and started to sprint.  We concluded she'd heard us coming, and kept accelerating ourselves.  She sooned eased off though and before long we were alongside.  Dave stayed to chat, but I hammered on.  I felt a little embarrassed about it, but it was lovely to have a bit of fun, especially after so many hours of hard riding with little stimulation beyond the glorious scenery and the thought of one's next meal.  I had a 30 second wait for them at an intersection in Westmere.  Cath cheerily called out "Wanganui's that way" pointing us left, as she blasted around to the right.  We were after the right ourselves, but she was long gone, and so there was no more mischief.

We had a bit of rain on the final few kilometres into town, but it was nicely cleansing.  The day's ride had been short and sweet - about 70km in 2h40 - and was a nice way to top off a good hard three days before it.  Not at all like the last day of the Kiwi Brevet, a 17 hour slog from Culverden through the Molesworth to Blenheim.  At about half the total distance, these four days were not going to need months to recover from.

Dave and I didn't have long to wait for Geoff, and then a bunch of others arrived.  We'd passed Simon and Marcel without realising it. Marcel had an elaborate story involving a wrong-turn to Waverley Beach, Simon had suffering a puncture, and a dental nurse - it was hard to tell what was real and what was not!  Classic stuff!

We got changed, and then rode off to a cafe for a debrief, and some coffee and cake!  We caught up with about a dozen others, before I rode off to get the car.  Soon after, we had four bikes on board, and were heading south.  Our heads were filled with fantastic images and memories, and our legs with that dull ache that only 500-odd kilometres of riding has a knack of bringing on!  After 30 hours in the saddle, a 2 hour drive flies by, and soon I was flicking through photos with Kaitlyn.

While nice to be home, as always, it was bloody good to get out!