Monday, February 20, 2012

Going up downs: the Capital Hill Climb Series

Simon and I do a lot of riding together, sometimes involving long drives to get to and from the trail-head.  Consequently, we talk about a lot of shit.  One of the conversations that has come up more than once over the five and a half years we've been training buddies is the notion of a hill-climb series on some of Wellington's technical trail.

I think the topic first came up when we were in Makara Peak feeding some of Simon's possums.  He maintains a series of bait stations in Nikau Valley, and we'd ridden in together to fill them, in the reverse direction to usual.  While he was hauling a big sack of bait around, I was relatively unencumbered (though still heavier than him!), and when we hit the "helicopter drop" - which is what the old-timers know as the bottom of the descent into the valley - I thought I'd see how far up I could get.  I was surprised by how much I did successfully ride, though less surprised at one step which had me flipping off the back of the bike at all three attempts.  We wondered what other techy descents might make interesting climbs.

On the drive back from our Labour Weekend cycle tour last year, we mapped out a six race series.  We deliberated for well on a couple of hours between Hawke's Bay and home, finally agreeing on which tracks we would use, and in which order.  We didn't write them down though, and a couple of months later, we were back to reinventing the wheel.

As with all new ideas, there comes a point where you're teetering on the edge of a cliff, not knowing quite whether to step back to return another day, or plunge off, hoping the parachute will do its business.  This time around, my good buddy was there to give me a gentle nudge, irreversibly setting things in motion.

It came in the form of an email to Michael Jacques, owner of the Karapoti Classic, asking him whether he'd like to donate a few Karapoti entries for a four race hill-climb series taking in Te Ahumairangi, Wright's Hill, Makara Peak and Hawkins Hill.  Mike said he'd be more than happy to give us four entries, and promptly fired an announcement out in one of his pre-Karapoti emails.  No turning back now!

In fact, I'd seen the writing was on the wall, and already had an event application in with the Park Ranger team at Wellington City Council.  A few days after Michael's email I was somewhat relieved to receive an email from Ranger Steve letting me know we were good to go, and I quickly fired off a blurb to Marco for his PNP email list, and started a thread on vorb.  I also set up a Facebook event for the first race.  I wasn't sure how to do a series of events (or a single event over multiple days), so settled for a one-off, and invited all the Wellingtonians I noticed on a blast through my "Biking" list. 

Round 1

I was a bit nervous about round 1, since I don't know the tracks on Te Ahumairangi that well, and nor did I expect the field to.  Simon was happy to take charge though, and while I was holidaying in Auckland with Kaitlyn, he scoped out a route up the hill.

I had Kaitlyn with me on the Wednesday night of the race, as well as our cousins Holly and Theo.  While Simon had been marking the course with a series of flour arrows, a la the Hash-House Harriers, we four had been on chocolate fish duty at Moore-Wilsons.  

When we piled out of the car, there were already a few riders waiting, and as we waited for Simon to appear out of the trees, more arrived. 

The logistics of the event were pretty simple:  Simon and I synchronised our watches at the bottom, and he set off first up the hill to be the time-keeper at the top.  I allocated start times to the riders that showed up, at one minute intervals, and Simon recorded their finish time at the top.  We'd hook up afterwards, whereupon I'd head home with both time-sheets and calculate race times.  Simple!  What could possibly go wrong?!  About the only contingency we considered was Simon getting beaten to the top, and while he's a bit of hill-climbing demon, we built in a buffer of a few minutes to give him "time to gather his thoughts" at the top. 

While the riders queued up, I tried to describe the course as best I could.  Basically they'd be on double-track all the way up to the ridge, whereupon they'd turn south, finishing up at the radio aerial.  The basic directions and Simon's flour markings weren't quite enough, and unfortunately we had a couple of riders venture off course. 

While I started people off, the kids sat a hundred metres or so up the course, took a few blurry photos, and hopefully gave some encouragement to the riders!

Owen, on a totally inappropriate bike!  Respect!

We had 29 starters, and one of the very last to depart, Brendan Sharratt, smoked the course in under 12 minutes.  The chocolate fish supply would live to fight another week or two, and some had made donations in lieu of an entry fee. While this had been mentioned in dispatches, it certainly wasn't compulsory. 

With the kids to look after, I'd not ridden up to the top, so on the way home we dropped into Simon's to swap gear for his time-sheet.  I decided to draw one of the four entries at each round, and so once I'd processed the results, I used my favourite statistical software to draw one of the finish places out of its electronic hat.  It spat out 12, which corresponded to Gary's placing, and I was pleased to be able to email him with the process for cashing the entry in.

By night-fall, I'd posted the results and a short blurb, and set up a Facebook event for round 2.  It was nice to have ironed out what seemed to be a successful process at our first attempt. 

Round 2

The course for the second round had been incorrectly advertised as Salvation, but I had something a little more challenging in mind, namely the tight and steep Gold Mine, followed by the slightly mellower Scout Hall, with a flight of steps to finish up on the summit of Wright's Hill.

Simon and I met after work, and rode most of the course together, Simon making flour arrows with his funky bottle mounted-on-a-stick apparatus which still slotted nicely into his bottle cage.  By the time we got to the part of the course that most needed marking, it was raining quite steadily, and we struggled to get the flour in place.  We supplemented it with a few branches across wrong turns, and hoped that people that would be sufficiently familiar with these tracks to not stray.

Jo had offered to help out, and when I arrived at the Waiapu St entrance to Gold Mine, she was standing in the rain with a small number of riders.

She drove up to the bottom of Scout Hall, and Bron took a bit of gear to the top carpark in her car.  Simon and I had stashed the chocolate fish and some dry clothes for Simon at the summit before heading down, and so we were good to go.

Anticipating the weather, I'd packed an A3 plastic envelope so was able to write start times down without my pen and paper becoming saturated.  Not so for me though, and when the last of the other starters had got going, I was wet to the skin.  I checked my watch and wrote down a time for myself, before firing my notes into my bag.  I took off my rain gear, went for a quick slash, and got myself and my bike across the bridge down by the dam, and checked my watch.

I couldn't remember what time I'd written down.  Bugger!  I fished my notes out, checked my time and fired them into my bag.  Then, I checked my watch.  It said I had one second to start!

I ran the first few hundred metres, before jumping on board and getting underway.  It was an absolute mission to try to keep on top of my heart rate and breathing, forward momentum and traction, and all the while keeping my handlebars away from encroaching trees and the bike on the track.

Approaching a bridge, I recalled skidding my rear wheel on it months earlier and falling off the bridge on the down-side.  I dismounted, and then promptly skidded over as my hard plastic soles hit the slick surface.  Next time I go up there, I hope to have some netting and staples with me!

I passed a few riders on the way up but soon was at the top, feeling a little exhausted!  The weather had eased somewhat, but wasn't at all consistent with sifting.  With no views to admire, we quickly scattered to the winds.

I'd been the last of 16 hardy souls, seven of whom were backing up from Te Ahumairangi.  Jonty Ritchie was the quickest up with the only sub-16 minute climb, but Nick Kennedy wasn't far off the pace.  These two were pretty much even Stevens after two rounds, with Nick 5 seconds quicker in total!

Round 3

The Makara Peak round was by far the most challenging to put together, but even that wasn't too much of a mission.  I had a great response to a facebook request for marshalls, and so on race evening, I was pretty confident there would be no collisions with riders coming down what are usually one-way tracks.

Jono was stationed at the top of North Face, Russell at the top of JFK, Oli at the crossing into Smokin', Nessa at the intersection of Smokin' and Ridgeline Extension, Jo at the crossing into Big Tom's Wheelie, and Karen at the bottom of Lazy Fern holding people back off the bridge just before starts from the grassy knoll at the Karori end of the car-park.  I also put some tape across the short track into the top of SWIGG just adjacent to the Lazy Fern start.  Fingers crossed for no intruders!

The course basically ran backwards along that sequence, with Starfish offering up the only technical challenges.  I warned starters about the bridge up to the two pine stumps - I figured there was probably plenty of traction, but a fall off the downside of the bridge could've had ugly consequences.  I also suggested no-one try riding up the small step down (temporarily a step up) near the top of Starfish. 

This round had the biggest field, just, with 32 starters, and our only DNF (the two wayward souls on Te Ahumairangi aside).  I saw James making his way down on foot when I was a few minutes up Starfish - he didn't say what he'd busted, but obviously something!

The course was surprisingly rideable, and for the most part was quick.  Brendan was back, and smashed the course and the field, winning by over 90 seconds from Mr Consistency, Nick, picking up his third second place!  Brendan's time was 17:12, which, interestingly would have placed him just in the bottom half of the Makara Peak Super D a few days later.  They of course were going down hill, and used Zac's at the top (while Brendan shot up the 4WD track) and Magic Carpet and Livewires instead of SWIGG and Starfish.  Still though, a remarkable gravity-defying feat from Brendan. 

As with rounds 1 and 2, I was able to give away a Karapoti entry from Michael Jacques.  Mat Wright, owner of Floyd's Cafe in Island Bay (and a Yeti SB-66 which seems to go up hills pretty damn well for a six-inch fully), kindly donated a couple of vouchers, the first of which went to Brendan (and is still sitting on my desk - the jobs of an event organiser seem to never quite end)!
Cheers for the support Mat!  Photo: Oli Brooke-White
It was nice to finally get to the top, and enjoy hanging out in the sun for a bit while some of the marshalls followed me up at a more sedate pace.  I was super-impressed by the riders who were patiently waiting for the trails to re-open so they could resume their ride.  Hopefully the chocolate fish were a decent compensation! 

Round 4

While I'd encouraged all-comers for the previous rounds, I toned down the marketing a tad for the last round.  I predicted this one would be a real bastard - an ascent of the Red Rocks Track - the Tip Track's steeper cousin, climbing Hawkins Hill from the South Coast.  It would be nice to have a climb 5 minutes longer than Makara Peak to chuck in between these in future, because it was quite a step up (pun intended).

In contrast to the cloudy conditions Simon and I had faced leaving the chocolate fish at the top, the weather on the south coast was much nicer, and as a bunch formed at the road end, we chatted away catching up on happenings over the last week.

Shortly after six, a dozen or so headed off around the coast, meeting Dave Sharpe and a couple of others who'd ridden down Red Rocks to the start and wondered where the hell everyone was!

When we got to the bottom of the track, Simon got himself organised to start (which included re-synchronising our watches, something we seemed to need to do every single week).  He gave me a start time, but by the time this rolled around, he was still up above the stream, and so I got him going from there.  We all watched as he descended the few metres to the stream, blasted through it, and disappeared around the corner. 

Given the rest of us had a bit more time to get organised, I wondered out-loud if starting from the far side of the stream was a better idea, and got no dissent.  By the time everyone realised what was going on, we all had a bit of a chuckle, and Jonny got himself and his single-speed ready to rock on the far side of the stream.

By now, people were totally used to the system, and an orderly line formed.  A minute was plenty to get across to the far side, and the starts happened without fuss.  The first 15 seconds or so were a run, and would be followed by a grovel of 30 minutes or so.  No-one seemed super urgent off the start line, which was probably just as well!

Young Ben, who was one of only four who came to all four races (Callum, Nick and Simon being the others), had an absolute shocker with his start, but finally managed to find enough traction to get himself and his bike up the bank 10 metres into the race.  I felt like calling him back to have another start, but it seemed crazy to call him back from the top of the small cliff which he'd only just managed to ascend!

True to predictions, I at least suffered like a dog on this climb.  I wasn't riding particularly well, which didn't help, and I had a bunch of dabs which normally I'd hope to avoid.  As usual, I expended far too much energy on the bottom half to have any left for the steepest pitches near the top.  I laughed at myself for having the nerve to think that "Tactical Walks", a term I'd seen in Dave Sharpe's awesome Kiwi Brevet account, was appropriate in this context.  It wasn't, as I had no choice in the matter...

The top of the track was still clagged in, and once everyone had arrived, we made tracks pretty promptly.  The ride down Barking Emu was punctuated by a bit of quite heavy rain, and I was starting to lose enthusiasm by the end of it, so rolled home via the Sanctuary Fenceline and Salvation rather than continuing down through Carparts. 

17 hardy souls had ignored my warnings!  Dave Sharpe's time of 26:29 was almost two-and-a-half minutes clear of... you guessed it... Nick!  Simon was a minute back from Nick, and the only other rider to go under 30 minutes, though Jonny had gone very close. He might have been faster wearing a pair of running shoes - it was hard to imagine a singlespeed being ridden up much of that climb.

When I got home, I got the results and spot prize draws done, and then had a chance to reflect on what I thought had been a fun wee series.

* * * * *

The races had attracted 51 people, with 95 starts, so an average of just under two rounds each. Four keeners had done all four rounds, and another eight had ridden three out of four.

Remarkably, I'd insulated myself from disappointment at the numbers, and was always pleasantly surprised to find other smiling faces at the start line.  Perhaps with the exception of Makara Peak, it all would have been worthwhile even if it was just Simon and I.  But, I'm very glad it wasn't, and it was very rewarding to see people apparently enjoying themselves (despite some physical distress).

The process was fairly simple, with the largest hurdles actually being very minor.  The WCC permit application was very streamlined, and the Park Ranger was very willing to help make it as easy as possible.  Organising marshalls was a piece of cake, due partly to an extensive facebook network, but also a thriving volunteer culture in Wellington.

I think the novelty of the events was useful, and I think the low-key nature was a good rather than bad thing.

I found putting it together rewarding and fun, and was not traumatised by it in any way - something I can't say for every event I've organised.  It was good to learn that putting an event on doesn't need to be stressful or a burden!  Of course Simon's help was a huge part of this, but also the attitudes of the riders made it a pleasure to front up each week.  Expect to see a five or six round Capital Hill Climb Series go ahead in 2013!


  1. Great stuff! It was fun watching people motor up what we're all so used to motoring down...

  2. Cool stuff John. A shame I couldn't do them. Maybe next time. Kinda clashes with the crusties TT's which are about 5mins from my house. Has to be good Poti training tho eh.