Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Taupo Tribulations of Captain Kennett and his Rear Admiral

I've pulled off some good races in my time, but I don't think a happy ending has ever been more unexpected than the one which Simon and I experienced at the 2012 Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge.

Way back in March, we first put the feelers out about acquiring a road tandem.  There looked to be very few options for getting a bike large enough to take the both of us comfortably, but, as luck would have it, Co-Motion, tandem makers out of Oregon USA, exported their bikes to New Zealand.  The local agents are Cycletech, a great company who had supported both Simon and I on previous ventures.

A tandem seemed a nice way to set ourselves a new challenge.  We already knew we enjoyed riding together, but as the years pass, and our daughters grow up, finding motivation for a season just like the last is increasingly difficult.

The project was on the back burner for several months, but in the depths of winter, without anything else to do, we locked and loaded on a Robusta - a tandem in Co-Motion's "Race" range.  We filled in a comprehensive form with various measurements from our road bikes and bodies, and got advice back that a custom frame design would suit us best.

I'd heard lousy things about the shifting on tandems - due to the very long cables to the derailleurs - so on a whim, asked about whether or not the bike could be specced with Shimano's Ultegra Di2 groupset.  The response from Co-Motion:  "sure thing" though they warned us we'd lose the triple crankset as a result.  Oh, and a few extra dollars!  You only live once, right?!

It seemed to take a while, but there were plenty of distractions to stop us pining for our Ferrari Red Robusta, and in mid-October, we got an email from Cycletech:  "Great news.  Your blinging tandem has arrived."  The next morning, I was firing up the jug and enjoying a personalised delivery from Craig Madsen himself.  I wasted no time in getting the frame and bits across to Oli Brooke-White for a premium build which would end up testing all our patience, and then some!

The short version is that the Di2 spec had really put the cat amongst the pigeons, but Oli slowly but surely overcame the various issues as they presented themselves.  Cycletech too were awesome when called upon, but at times we all felt a very long way away from Oregon!  I was nervous about the burden Oli was bearing on our behalf, but was relieved it was in his hands, and not anyone else's. 

A couple of weeks ago the call finally came, and Simon and I hopped into a cab to Berhampore to collect the bike for its shake-down ride.  I left with a smile on my face, but that didn't last long!

Ready to roll!
Simon has had a lot of tandem experience, racing back in the day with Tim Galloway, the first Karapoti winner, amongst others.  He knew we were short a whole lot of practice rides, but instead of starting at the beginning and seeing how far we could get in the week or so we had, his plan was to leap into the training schedule at -1.5 weeks, as if we'd had the tandem for a month or more...

It all felt OK as we rode up Constable Street, bound for Alexandra Road along the spine of Mt Vic.  Then we turned off, and I heard "standing, one, two" from up front, and all of a sudden I was in a strange world being subjected to all manner of unfamiliar, and frankly, frightening sensations, the worst of which was a horrible lurching-to-the-left feeling.  Such was my panic, we were soon stopping to level and centre my handlebar after I'd almost torn it from the captain's seatpost...

Things didn't get any better, and by the end of our three intervals from the saddle to the summit, I was nearing the end of about the worst ride I've ever had.  Simon's email later that evening made things worse rather than better, and I awoke the next day feeling like a bit of a freak.

Our next outing was with the Wednesday Worlds bunch, and it seemed Antosh had finally been heard, and we'd go anti-clockwise for the first time ever...! As we rode up Taranaki St, any significant power through the pedals brought back that same lurching sensation, and when Simon peeled left onto the cyclepath at Karo and Cuba, I nearly lost it.  Feeling like the bike was lurching to the left and then having it actually do so was about the worst disequilibrium I've ever had on the bike.

I was feeling out of sorts all the way up Brooklyn Hill, but was pleased not to be shelled by the bunch.  I actually quite enjoyed the run down Happy Valley, but as soon as we put the power down by the bottom of the Tip Track, the lurching came back, and I whined sufficiently that Simon felt compelled to stop.  I don't remember exactly what I said, but probably something along the lines of "STOP THIS FUCKING BIKE. STOP STOP STOP...  FUCKING STOP"  Simon suggested we swap seats - would you believe we run exactly the same seat height.  We cruised a kilometre or so, and both felt totally fine.  Yes, I'm a freak...

This was achieving nothing, so we stopped.  I was desperate to find something wrong with the bike, and was rather relieved when we noticed the rear cranks were off-centre.  We mounted up, and ten minutes later were knocking on Oli's workshop door.  He explained that the off-centre cranks were an unfortunate side-effect of the Di2's front derailleur limits, and while he could do nothing about the position of the cranks, did space out one pedal and move the opposite cleat, reducing the offset by about half.

Simon needed to be in Karori, so we left Oli's fairly deliberately, and I was pleased to note that the left-lurch had diminished, and that I could finally deliver some power to the pedals without feeling like I was tearing myself in half.

The next day I was still emotionally in a bad way, and I forced myself to drag my beloved Colnago out for a blast around the bays.  I rolled past Freyberg hard, starting my stopwatch as I did so.  It was a fairly strong northerly, and I took full advantage of it, probably averaging close to 50km/h through to Evans Bay.  I was so damn upset, and I took it out on my pedals.  I eased up enough to chug a mouthful of water at Breaker Bay, and allowed myself to glance at my watch at Owhiro Bay: 42 minutes something.  I felt the end was near, and figured I'd better know how well I was doing before the wheels fell off up Happy Valley somewhere.  They almost did, but not quite, and I stopped my watch up by the lights at 52:42.  I figured that wasn't bad, but it wasn't until I got home that I realised I'd been confusing my bays time with my Tip Track PB.  I'd just gone 1:45 faster than my previous best, and in less than favourable conditions...

Knowing my legs were good was a small consolation, but I feared the next tandem outing.  I delivered it back to Oli the next day, and he converted it to 1x10, with the 52t chainring mounted in the middle ring position, and the cranks at dead centre.

That evening, Simon and I rode a wee way around the bays.  I was dismayed to feel some of those same horrible sensations.  Simon's insistence that it was ALL in my head was starting to gain some traction.  He stopped and offered to switch seats.  I snapped "what the fuck is that going to achieve" or at least thought it, and we were soon rolling off again.

With the realisation that some, if not all, of this was in my head, I decided I'd better do something about it.  The solution seemed to be closing my eyes.  Rather than look for a centre line through Simon's back, or down towards my feet, I shut my eyes, and tried to let my body feel where it needed to be.  It helped, and when we retraced our steps, we made the thing go very fast, and it was exhilarating.  What an emotional roller coaster!

The next morning I picked up Simon with the Robusta in the back of my 'Rolla.  The rear triangle was resting up on the front seats, but Simon coped nicely with the rear mech in his face, and the chainrings just behind his head.  We were pretty convinced they couldn't go anywhere nasty in the event of a crash...

It was dry until we got to within five minutes of Otaki - the scene of the Kevin Smith Memorial handicap race.  We holed up in a cafe for a little bit, and I picked up a new pair of woollen undies from Icebreaker, would you believe before I'd realised that I'd forgotten to pack a pair to put on after the race.

We couldn't hide indoors forever though, and soon we were registered and doing a cruisy lap of the course.  We discovered the short climb and rollers after it would be manageable with our 1x10 gearing, though we were keen to avoid our 52x28 gear as much as possible, not wanting to stress the nasty chainline any more than necessary.  We were pretty excited to be in the mid 40s on the way along the back straight with no apparent effort.  On the downside, the wet course had no less than seven shitty corners, so Simon would be earning his keep up front.  I'd spent a good few minutes with my eyes closed again, and seemed to be finding my equilibrium.

We started in a Break bunch of about a dozen, with Scratch setting off 4 minutes behind us.  We didn't crash on the first lap, and were able to hang with our compatriots on the climb.  On the second lap we were hurtling down the back straight when someone missed a wheel, and we were down to five (six if you counted me).  Among the group was Steve Chapman, a shrewd and strong racer whose company I've enjoyed in many a bunch.  He told the others to keep us around for the massive speed advantage we'd give them on the back straight.  They waited for us a bit on the rolling section, and it took scratch four full laps before they started eating into our lead.

L-R Ollie Jones, Vaughn Pretorius, Tighe Nutsford, JR, SK, Steve Chapman

A few extremely dodgy corners aside, Simon did an awesome job keeping us upright.  With half a lap to go, we drifted back behind a somewhat larger bunch.  We attacked hard from behind, but alas, we hadn't quite hit full speed by the time we passed the front of the bunch and they were able to jump onto our wheel as we accelerated through to about 63km/h.  On my own bike I've been told I'm like drafting an "apartment block" so I can't even imagine what it must be like behind the tandem.  We had no chance of dropping them.

We hit the final corner in about 7th or 8th spot.  By the finish line, 100m or so later, we'd mowed down all but two riders, and in the interim, I'd driven the pedals as hard as I've ever pedalled a bike.  Later, Kevin Smith's daughter Rachel, told us that she'd decided to award the trophy for the first vet racer across the line to Steve despite the fact that we'd been just ahead of him.  We totally agreed with the decision - it was nice just to be in one piece!  We'd generated a lot of interest, and in his victory speech, Steve was very complimentary about our pacing down the back straight!

While we'd coped with the Otaki course with the 1x10 gearing, it wouldn't do for Taupo.  We had nutted out a couple of solutions.  The best one, we thought, was the 36t TA chainring that could mount on the 74mm bolt circle inboard of the 52t in the middle ring position.  But, the chainring was coming from Australia, and Oli wasn't certain it would work with the front derailleur which in theory would only cope with a 14-tooth spread in the chainrings...

Solution numbers two and three were winging their way to us from Oregon - a tandem specific mount for the Di2 derailleur, and a specially machine part which would offer slightly more range.  By Wednesday evening, neither had arrived, and things had become somewhat stressful.  When I checked to see if Co-Motion had sent a tracking number (they had) upon inspection it seemed the parts had been delivered the day before!  With no sign of the chainring, Simon agreed to get the bike to Oli's to be refitted with the 39t chainring we'd taken off prior to the Otaki race.

I was somewhat crestfallen to learn that in the interests of a decent chainline (as opposed to a totally indecent chainline) the cranks were again off-centre, but Simon stressed that moving my left cleat inboard again would offset this.  Okay...

The logistical hurdles didn't end with getting an operational bike.  We also had to get the damn thing to Taupo and back!  While my Corolla would've coped with Simon and I, we had another two Kennett Bros, and a few boxes of their many fantastic publications, along for the ride.  And, it was either have the tandem inside, or not at all...

Wide load!

The solution to this particular conundrum came in the form of the lovely Ashley Burgess, who agreed to swap cars for the weekend.  Her Bike Wellington people-mover would accommodate us and our gear.  By 11am on Friday, we were loaded up, and were soon Oscar Mike.

Bros, books and bikes...

The drive seemed to start very slowly, despite the traffic conditions being excellent.  We had a couple of short stops en route, but all in all, we made good time and reached Taupo around 4:30 whereupon the Simon, Jonathan and Paul set up a book stall for a couple of hours pimping their wares.

We were staying with friends of Jonathan's and they treated us to a whopping feed - the perfect thing for the next morning's races.  Jonathan would be doing the Huka Challenge while Simon and I were out on the tandem.  We spent the even chilling, and ensuring we had everything ready for the morning.  I was particularly pleased that my shoes were equidistant from the bike, even if my pedals weren't.

Alarms went off at 6am.  I had an uncharacteristically small breakfast - only a couple of pieces of toast and a "double-shot" instant coffee.  Simon had some clothes on to ditch at the start line, but I left the house with only my racing kit on.  Simon was worried about me overheating, but I'd opted not to ride in my sleeveless jersey.  I'd be going Black-Ops, over my Yeti shorts, a tip of my hat to the kind support I've had from Kashi and Yeti NZ.

I had a bottle each of water and powerade mix on the bike, and a 3/4 full bottle of coke in a jersey pocket, along with a couple of one-square-meal bars.  In the end, I'd have one of those bars, and almost the entire bottle of water left over.

The front tubing of the Robusta makes for awkward access to the front bottle cages, so Simon was rocking a small camelbak, in which he also had a pump.  Somewhere or other we had a couple of tubes, allen keys, a tyre lever, and a banana...

It was time to rock and roll.

There were about 20 tandems entered, and we slotted in towards the back of the pack.  Our bunch would set off soon after 1F (the slowest of the predicted sub-4:30 groups), and just before group 2.  I had time for a quick yarn to Jack Sowry who'd I'd ridden with ever so briefly in the Enduro in 2011.  He was resplendent in his GMC kit, and alongside him was none other than the People's Champion himself.  Gordy asked after Oli, and told me to tell him it was time for another AGM...

I knew a couple of the other tandem riders:  Wayne McDermott, whose son Luke is a regular terror at Wednesday Worlds, riding the tandem with Luke's younger brother, Cade; also, Ken Bailey, whose brother Stu was one of the first WCC Park Rangers at Makara Peak.  There was another tandem with a young fella on the back with a third BB half way up the bike to accommodate his short legs!

After a few minutes waiting under the start line, we were off...

Simon and I had talked a little bit about tactics, but never really settled on any particular strategy.  We both wanted to win though, and with that in mind, we figured gauging the strength of our competitors early on would be a good start.

As we crossed the Mighty Waikato and the road tipped up, we watched one tandem ease off the front of the bunch.  By the Poihipi Road turnoff, they had a hundred metres or so on us.  I said to Simon:  "I think we'd better shut that down, mate."  He agreed, emphatically, and we started chasing the bike up the road in earnest.


There were crowds on the side of the road who clearly enjoyed the novelty of the tandems.  I was surprised by the number of single riders we were passing already, before remembering that some of the very slowest riders start early in order to get back into town at a respectable hour.

Shutting the gap down was much easier to say than do, and it took us the best part of half an hour before we were on the wheel of Captain Paul Miller, and his stoker, Glen Carabine, riding as Cycle Obsession from Mount Maunganui. 

We had a brief natter - I guess we figured we be smashing the living bejesus out of each other for the next few hours. I don't think we introduced ourselves per se, but we certainly talked about our bikes.  Paul and Glen were definitely very strong - they'd been hard to catch, and Simon and I had needed to work a little too much to do so.

The back half of the lake was a bit of a blur for me.  I do however vividly remember losing the plot with Simon, much to the amusement of the other tandem.  It turns out:
  • I'm very sensitive to pedalling cadence
  • when I'm pedalling hard but too slowly, I get tired
  • when I get tired, I start to feel desperate
  • when I feel desperate, I tend to snap.
  • Oh, and I'm a bit of a control freak to boot...
Poor Simon can see neither the crankset nor the rear cassette, so was relying on me to tell him what gear we're pushing.  In our practice race, we only had one chainring, so reporting the gear was as simple as reporting where in the cassette the chain was.  Here, Simon had two chainrings, and expected to know where we were sitting in both.

However inexperienced I am as a stoker - I think I've clocked up about 7 hours by now - I've about 2 minutes captaining under my belt, and I wasn't particularly empathetic to Simon's plight.  Pathetic would be closer to the truth.

Our squabble went something like:
Captain Kennett:  gear?
Rear Admiral:  3
CK:  what chainring?
RA:  what chainring do you think?!  My legs are blowing to bits in this bullshit gear.  When was the last time you changed down?  How can you not tell?!?!?
CK:  I can't see
RA:  Yeah, but your legs?!?!
CK:  what gear?
Paul and Glen:  Hahahaha!

How embarrassing.  For the next while, I dutifully reported both chain positions, often with a bit of sarcasm in my voice.  "4 AND YOU'RE STILL IN THE BIG CHAINRING".  Oh, how embarrassing.  I guess I've never experienced the stress of responsibility of captaining a tandem, and my fatigue was not affording me the calm I needed to think about it as we rode.

The two tandems continued to lap it out.  Simon and I were slightly quicker on the descents, and Paul and Glen simply looked quicker everywhere else.  The cracks were starting to show, with major differences in Simon's and my pedalling styles, and inexperience contributing to a challenging time.

Watching Paul and Glen up ahead
By the time we'd reached Kuratau, we'd swept up some riders capable of hanging with us.  Simon had warned me all year that we'd likely get shelled on the climbs, but the opposite seemed to be happening, and on the longer climbs, we actually seemed stronger than our opponents, tandem and solo alike.

Putting the hurt on up Kuratau
We caught a massive bunch on the descent into Tokaanu.  Unfortunately, there was a van between us and the bunch, and while some riders managed to sneak down the left while the van was straddling the centre-line, we passed just before a line of cones in the middle of the road, presumably there to prevent riders from cutting the corner that followed.  I was glad not to hear any carnage behind me...

I was really looking forward to passing through Turangi, though the bunch dynamic for the few kilometres into town made the wait verge on excruciating.  Mum and Dad had left Wellington on Friday afternoon, stopping at Simon and Sarah's well appointed bach in Rangataua, just short of Ohakune.  Even better, they had Kaitlyn with them, and the plan was for them to be in Turangi by the time Simon and I passed through.

Waiting patiently, shaker in hand, and tunes by the Mapei-kit-clad one-man-band
Waving, in case they didn't notice us!
The ride out of Turangi was incredibly frustrating - as usual in a big bunch, there are those keen to work, and those who are happy to sit in.  There are also those who roll through smoothly - the minority, unfortunately.  There were a couple of guys in the bunch who had been with us before Kuratau, Paul Struthers and Josh Harding, who seemed to share our pain, but apart from friendly interactions with them from my back seat, this stretch had few other highlights.

Poor Simon was in a bit of a jam - the surging in the bunch was continuously opening up gaps, and he was the only one who could see this happening.  He'd have to try to shut the gap down himself by pedalling harder.  I'd eventually sense this through the pedals and ramp it up myself, but then we'd end up with too much momentum, and Simon would have to haul on the brakes...  His preferred coping mechanism was to roll back a bit, and with a bit of clear road, aim for a more constant speed.  Problem was, back seat driver didn't like the extra effort riding without a draught off the wheels in front - extra effort which resulted in extra fatigue, and, you guessed it, more grizzles.

Finally, Simon had had enough, and we went to the front on the rollers along the cliffs.  We took a good long pull, and we both enjoyed setting the pace for a while.

We were near the front of the bunch at the bottom of Hatepe, both with an expectation of losing ground on the solos around us.  Like Kuratau though, we shined on the climb, and not only rode away from our bunch, but caught and passed another.

Peter James:  "wait, what?!  Tandems can't climb..."
By the middle of the climb, we had a good lead on the other tandem, and Simon was keen to make a race-winning move.  I asked for a gear change, and he went the other way.  I complained - a groan was about all I could muster - but appreciated what he was trying to do, and dug a bit deeper, hoping I could get the cadence back into my sweet spot.

Nearing the top of Hatepe, Paul and Glen right on our wheel
By the top, a small group had clawed their way back to us, including the tandem of Paul and Glen, my new buddies, Paul and Josh, and Peter James.  We were together after the fast descent into Waitahanui, and managed to sneak past a stray dog without incident.

This select bunch worked better together, and Paul and Glen, perhaps chasing a target time, did more than their fair share of work at the front.  I was well and truly over making suggestions to Simon, and I'm sure that he was well and truly over listening to them, so for a change, I kept my mouth shut in the back, and let him control our position in the bunch.

Getting close to home
Simon had told me on Hatepe that it was all or nothing there, and that he didn't think we could beat Paul and Glen in a sprint.  I was less sure, and had been hogging the bottle of coke Simon and I had been sharing.  He asked for it just out of Taupo, and I felt a little guilty about how little was left.  I was keen to earn my keep though.

Peter James, who told me I should never get a road bike after a few outings with his Freyberg bunch on my flat-bar commuter bike, asked me along the waterfront, "are you guys going to sprint?"  I replied, "fuck yeah we're going to sprint", to which he said "I'll keep out of your way then".

Simon could feel me twitching in the back, and he put in a couple of small back-pedals to make sure I toned it down a bit.  We'd both noticed we were a little faster out of the corners than the other tandem, and we stuck to their wheel into the final turn onto the main drag of Taupo.

As soon as we hit the apex of the turn, I unleashed in the back seat, applying as much power as I could muster to the pedals.  Simon was doing the same in the front seat, holding only enough in reserve to manage the gear shifts and steer.

For almost the first time in the race, I was totally thrilled with Simon's shifts, neither too early, like we'd had in Otaki, nor too late.  As we accelerated past Paul and Glen, I heard them both groan - they knew they could not match our sprint.  As we powered away from them, they might have heard me calling Simon down through the gears.  The Di2 earnt its keep as well, and every shift was perfect, and under full power.

Heading for home, almost bent in half
The finish was exhilarating.  Actually, making a road bike go fast is something I always find exhilarating, but this was something else.  We had clear road in front of us, and even the solos had left us to it...

Well done mate!
As soon as we crossed the line, I sat up, and put my hand on Simon's back.  He knew it wasn't just a celebration, but also an apology.  In fact, the whole finish straight had been an apology, and it was such a relief it had paid off.  Without it, I'm not sure either of us would have ever wanted to go near the tandem again.

We were getting stuck into the pineapple when the other tandem pulled alongside and we congratulated each other on a brilliant race.  Mum, Dad and Katy were there too, and it was mighty fine to see them, and to be off our instrument of torture.

So good to celebrate with my baby!
As we made our way back to the Kennett Bros' book stall, we bumped into various friends from Wellington and beyond, and we swapped notes about our respective rides, before hitting up the massage tent together.

By the time the prizegiving was on, we'd seen a provisional result which had our time as 4:09:41.  Not only had we won the race, but it appeared we'd done so in a record time; the fastest tandem previously had been 4:12 in 2009.  Kaitlyn pointed out I was now the joint holder of two tandem records!  She and I still hold the Karapoti Challenge best, after our storming ride back in 2008. I love it that she'd remembered, and reminded me.  She's impressively sharp, and is turning into quite an astute cycling fan. 

I was glad we didn't get called up on stage at the prizegiving - Simon had opted to stay at the book stall, since they were doing a roaring trade, and his signature was often needed and appreciated - it would not have felt appropriate to be up there without him.  It was damn cool to see our names in lights though, correctly spelt and all...

We all retired back to Rangataua for the night, and it was great to be all together.  The Kennett Bros make fascinating and fantastic company, and I absolutely loved having Mum, Dad, and Kaitlyn along once again.  Breakfast in Taihape was followed by lunch in Otaki, and we were all home by mid-afternoon, chuffed with the success of the weekend.

Simon and I have got a tandem mission planned for the Longest Day Ride, a fundraiser organised by Vorb founder, Tama Easton.  I think many of the frustrations of the race situation will be mitigated somewhat without the same sense of urgency.  We've definitely got some work to do on the race front though - I'm not sure either of us will be prepared to jeopardise our amazing friendship with too much more of Saturday's carry on!

Thanks a million Simon, for putting up with my shit through one hell of a race...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fantastic Figure Eight

Each year since 2009, Simon and I have headed away for a 3-day Spring Cycle Tour.  New Plymouth to National Park was more a training ride than adventure, ditto the Triangle Trip of 2010.  Last year's was a humdinger though, from the gloopy mud down at the mouth of the Mohaka, to the apocalyptic scenes south of Minginui, and the finale - a mad-cap dash through some private land long after the point of no return. 

This spring, Simon was once again on point from a planning point of view.  A month or so ago, we got together to look carefully over the 1:250000 Auckland and Taumarunui maps.  And, a lofty and convoluted plan was hatched - 3 big days criss-crossing a massive rectangle (er, quadrilateral maybe...) with Te Kuiti, Awakino, Raglan and Pirongia in the corners (aka vertices).

Te Kuiti was chosen as the start-finish, since it was closest to Wellington, and over the next weeks, things slowly but surely fell into place.  Simon sorted accommodation with his friends Pete and Libby in Waitomo, and made a last-minute booking at a B&B just outside Pirongia. 

Oli and Kashi had helped transform my Big Top into the perfect platform for this sort of ride, the rigid carbon niner fork trimming almost 1kg off the weight.  Some of my touring gear is AWOL, but I managed to borrow a Revelate Viscacha from Jonty Ritchey to complement my own Ortlieb handle-bar bag.

Packing for these things has become a breeze.  Into the front bag went some tools, suncream, small cable lock, electrolyte tablets, ayup helmet lights and small battery, armwarmers, and a couple of innovations:  my new Steripen water purifier, and a 60mL V "Pocket Rocket" - a "fast energy blast" for emergencies (like the one I had about 10km short of Taihape a couple of years ago...).

Into the seat-bag went a woolen singlet, woolen long-sleeved top, a Ground Effect Baked Alaska, my Metallica boardies, a spare pair of socks, 3/4 overtrou and jacket, beanie and polypro gloves, chamois cream, cell phone and GPS USB cables + plug adapter, and a couple of tubes.  I also popped a fibre flare light on one of the Big Top's seat stays and my Garmin Edge 705 on the stem. 

I had one set of riding gear, and I'd carry a slimmed down wallet, some one-square-meals, and my cell phone in my jersey pockets. 

When I first started using my GPS unit for stuff like this, getting the route into the Edge was a doddle, with mapmyride.com exporting directly into Garmin's crs format.  Since then, the "upgraded" mapmyride site lost that functionality, and more recently, the classic interface has been turned off completely.  A bit of scouring on the 'net led me to http://www.gpsies.com/convert.do which seemed to do the trick (well the route at least, but not the elevation which had come across previously).  Simon would be bringing the maps, in case the hi-tech solution failed (or if I failed to bring the charger).

We left Wellington at 6pm on Thursday evening, having both taken annual leave for Friday.  As it got dark, I fired on the headlights in the car, and an intermittent fault with the dash light (conveniently illuminating the speedo) announced itself to be in full effect.  It wasn't until Waiouru that I noticed no red glow off the bikes on the rack, and Simon got out to investigate.  It was apparent that the whole back end of the car was dark, a tad ironic given the trailer light-board I'd recently purchased to ensure the lights were all visible.  Dead!  We completed the drive to Rangataua with a pair of rear bike lights flashing merrily away, and I'd flick the hazard lights on when someone appeared in my rear-vision mirror.

Day 1 - Friday

The next morning we awoke to a clear day, and Simon enjoyed a spot of cereal with a mountain view.  I filled my bottles from the rain-fed tank, and enjoyed nuking them with the steripen.

Chilly, but what a view!
We were Oscar Mike not long after, and apart from a quick coffee stop at National Park, we made good time to Te Kuiti.  We did the 5-minute-quiz in Friday's Dom Post, scoring a measly six out of 10.  But, we paid close attention to the questions, even doing the quiz a second time...
The i-site on the main drag of Te Kuiti gave us directions to the local auto-electrician, and we were lucky that they'd not only have a look at the car, but also open up on Sunday afternoon to let us retrieve it.  Bless you, Brodie and Jordan at BK Auto Electrical Ltd!

My fully loaded Big Top, waiting patiently...
The ride started with us retracing our steps back to the intersection of SH3 and SH4 just under 10km out of town. 

Settling in...

After the delay with the sparky, we decided against our first long-cut through a valley to the south of SH3, but, when we got to see the road we would have been on from our route, we realised we might have saved ourselves quite a bit of climbing. No use crying over spilt milk though!  Our first stop was Piopio, and the Fat Pigeon Cafe.  We chatted briefly to a pair of women who were very interested in our ride, and set-ups. 

After some good kai, we were off again.  The road wasn't too busy, which was nice, and without exception, drivers were giving us plenty of space.

One of the beauties of cycle touring was soon realised - it is incredibly easy to see interesting things, and to stop for them.  Nearing the top of a climb, we found ourselves alongside a stone wall with a flight of steps in it.  It would have been impossible to stop a car here, but our narrow bikes fitted nicely in the road shoulder, and we were soon admiring the view down into a river gorge.

I had a bit of a sketchy moment getting down off the rock, and wondered whether or not there was enough traction between my hard plastic sole and the rock I was just clambering off, but all that slipped was my pulse, and I was soon back on my bike.

We turned right off SH3 at the 49km mark, and were greeted with a perfect endorsement of our route choice...

The gravel road wound its way slowly into the hills, and we really started to soak in the scenery.  I'd transferred my cell phone from a plastic bag in my pocket into the handlebar bag, and it was great to be able to access it so easily.  And, accessing it easily I was, often.

Cliffs, with caves just around the corner

Eventually the long climb we were on came to an end, and, along the top of the ridge we'd just ascended, we got occasional glimpses of Awakino Gorge and the coast, and the valley we'd soon be riding north through. The end of the ridge was marked by a transmitter tower, some particularly wind-swept trees, and more glorious views.

Looking west
After a sweet descent, we turned right and made our way slowly but surely up-valley.  We were treated to fantastic trees, and I commenced my Kahikatea, Tawa, Totara and Rimu recognition classes. It was amazing to think that just a few days earlier I'd been releasing kahikatea seedlings at Makara Peak with my bro Ed.  Seeing these mature specimens helped me imagine what Makara Peak will look like for my great-grandchildren and their kids.

Kahikatea aside, the road was incredibly quiet, which helped offset the feeling that we'd been riding uphill for a very long time...

This one inspired by Dave Sharpe!
We crossed one saddle, and after a quick descent found ourselves battling into a headwind.  It seemed it was just coming in off the Tasman Sea, and once we'd passed the head of the valley, only a kilometre or so from the coast, and turned inland again, the funnelling effect of the valley gave us a sweet tailwind despite heading in pretty much the same direction as we'd been before.

Simon was starting to wane a bit, and said he'd meet me at Te Anga after I'd popped into Marakopa for a couple of bits of fish, and chips!   Soon after I'd left him, an oncoming truck almost slowed to a halt rather than risk peppering me with gravel at worst, or covering me with dust at best.  The courtesy shown to us by the few motorists we'd seen was well up there with the lovely scenery. 

After another turnoff to the coast was a short climb, before the plummet down to Marakopa.

Looking south a few kilometres from Marakopa

And, Marakopa itself
Being narrow was handy near the bottom of the descent as a large truck was almost entirely blocking the road.  Minutes later, I was disappointed to find that the shop at Marakopa had closed at 4pm (it was now 5), and I left without getting my feed, or filling my bottles.

I thought Simon was probably up the road by now, so rode fairly purposefully up the valley towards Te Anga.  It was dead flat, and I had a tailwind, and I soon realised that Simon almost certainly was behind me.  I eased off a bit, and by the time Simon pulled up, I'd already discovered the Te Anga Tavern was long since closed too...  For a lot longer than an hour, by the looks of it.  More likely a year, or even a decade...!

Simon, arriving in Te Anga
On of the other motivating factors for skipping a section bypassing SH3 had been a number of side-trips on this next stretch of road.  The first of these was Marakopa falls.  Simon decided he'd leave his bike at the top of the access track, while I was keen to keep any walking to a minimum and rode down, figuring I'd stop at the first flight of steps.  I didn't, overlooking temporarily that I'd ditched my suspension fork!

I was pretty damn thirsty by this stage, and the falls looked to be coming out of some nice native bush so I grovelled my way down to the river's edge.  The path showed signs of being permanently in a fine, wet mist, thrown up by the falls themselves, and it was difficult to keep out of the mud.  I filled one bottle at the river, and then made my way back up to the viewing platform.

Marakopa Falls

I gave the bottle two hits with the steripen, which was just as well, because only a few minutes up the road, the native bush stopped, and it was pretty clear the river had spent considerable time in amongst livestock.  No sign of any trouble five days on, touch wood...

As the sun lowered, our shadows got longer on the road, now heading East towards Waitomo, and our lodgings. 

We gave a visit to a cave attraction a miss, but did stop at the Mangapohue Natural Bridge, basically the remaining roof of a big old cave...

A minute or so after leaving the bridge, we had a bit of a monumental moment.  For the first time in 104km (since leaving SH3), we were passed by a car!  We'd seen perhaps two dozen vehicles, but they'd all been coming towards us.

The last 20km of the day were done with weary legs, and despite being very near Pete and Libby's place, we had to stop to rug up a bit.  We were soon warming up though, and had a delicious meal, hot showers, and great conversation before hitting the sack.  Sleep is always great after a 170km day on a mountain bike!

Day 2 - Saturday

Simon had posted a wee bit of food and a koha for Pete and Libby which hadn't arrived, so in the morning Pete drove us down to Waitomo to see if we could find it.  The postie wasn't there, so after a quick gander at Pete's next MTB track project, we headed back home for breakfast.

We were fed within an inch of our lives: peanut butter on toast, then baked beans and fried eggs on toast!  I managed to squeeze down a flat white when we made a return trip into town, where we did see the postie, who did have the parcel.

Simon gave Pete and Libby a copy of the Kennett Bros' new book - the seventh in their New Zealand Cycling Legends series, called The Muddy Olympians, about the six NZ MTBers who've raced at the Olympic Games.  We headed home, and we were soon suited up, and ready to roll, including a bit of suncream on my rump!  I'd discovered I'd got a little sunburnt through a tear in my shorts (from the Day 3 Cape Epic crash!), and I certainly didn't want it to get worse.  As it was, it was slightly swollen, and very pink!

Behind us, part of Pete and Libby's stunning view

We had a few kilometres to back-track, and all of it was uphill.  I'd eaten too much and was feeling nauseous.  Simon was similarly distressed, and the climb wasn't helping.

We were soon turning off the "main" road, and onto the unsealed Hauturu Road.  It was a great gradient for the most part, and much mellower than the climb from Pete and Libby's had been.  This probably helped us to not puke.

Hauturu Road

We stopped at a three-way intersection for a drink (but nothing to eat), and a few minutes later reeled the bikes in to check out plaque marking the Robert Houston Memorial Reserve. 

Soon, the stunning bush on both sides became stunning bush only on our left, and we were afforded expansive views to the north. 

The road then tipped down, and we were soon in the valley floor, this time heading in the same direction as the water.  

Around a corner we saw a man and woman on horseback, walking with about 8 or 9 dogs.  We'd now seen more people on horseback than cars on the 30-odd kilometres we'd ridden since turning off the Waitomo Road.

Traffic jam!
We stopped for a bit of a natter with the riders, who informed us that we'd get a good feed at the Oparau Roadhouse once we'd exited this valley.  We bade the farewell, and continued our cruise down-valley, glad we'd stumbled on a rather scenic part of the world.

Eventually the valley widened, and the road had a fine coating of silt hinting at flooding.  Not long after Simon and I started theorising about this, than we noticed the fence on our right and the vegetation neatly folded around the fence wire.  We were glad we hadn't stumbled upon this river in flood...!

Evidence of flooding in the fence.
Before too long we were climbing gently, and we soon found ourselves turning onto Kawhia Road, and a few minutes later we were pulling in to the Oparau Roadhouse. 

Oparau Roadhouse, one-stop-shop
It had been talked up by the equestrians, and I had high hopes for a stack of pancakes with bacon and banana and lashings of maple syrup.  My hopes were dashed, but I did have a mighty-fine mince and cheese pie, and a coffee, and a cookie, and some of Simon's honey-roasted peanuts.

We sat outside, and eventually realised that the strange noise was coming from a herd of turkeys grazing in the paddock across the road. 

Gobble, gobble, gobble
Simon was still feeling pretty crook, and didn't manage to eat much, despite my urging.  We still had plenty of riding to do!  Kawhia Road was sealed, and travel was fast - though not so fast that I didn't have time to pull over and indulge my latent spelling-nazism. 

It was nice to finally ride a stretch of road that wasn't lined with lush native bush on one side or both, and Kawhia Harbour provided some welcome relief.  We got occasional glimpses of the pebbly beach, and I liked the layers of shell left by the receding tide - but didn't quite get the camera organised at the right time.

Kawhia Harbour ahoy!
We turned off the very busy main road - with about one car every minute or two - a few kilometres short of Kawhia, despite Jo giving good intel on the fish'n'chip shop there.  The grand signposting of the turn off to Raglan set my expectations a tad high, so I was surprised that the intersection looked more like a layby.  We were back on the gravel, and heading up yet another valley.

There was a heap of traffic initially - about 5 cars in quick succession - but then it quietened down somewhat, to none.  About 15km later, we plonked ourselves down at our next turn off, digesting the "Road Closed" sign posted there.  Surely we'd get through on our bikes?!
How bad could it be?!
Simon had been suffering all day, due to a combination of a long day the day before and a HUGE breakfast, necessitating a bit of a team-talk.  There was pretty much no option to dramatically shorten the remaining riding for today, so instead we focussed on Sunday's plan. 

Pooped Simon
We had planned to cross back out to the coast from Pirongia, heading back through Marakopa, and then inland to Te Kuiti on a minor road north of our outbound route.  But, there looked to be other nice options parallel with the highway that would still give us a 90km ride but not be so arduous.  We weren't sure how easy it would be to retrieve the car if we arrived back late, so in the end it was a no brainer to commit to the shorter ride.

I sensed Simon's relief, and when I asked him about it a while later, he admitted that the stress he'd been feeling about Sunday's ride had been limiting his ability to enjoy Saturday's.  It was good to know we'd sorted that!  And, it was a nice reminder of the strength of our friendship that enables us to generally nip trouble in the bud.

Just before we set off, a young bloke emerged from a nearby property, and I asked him about the chances of us getting through the closed road.  He suggested we'd have no trouble, short of having to walk our bikes for a bit.  That too relieved a bit of stress, since the trouble spot was much nearer the far end of this road, and we'd get to it after a long ride.  Turning back would suck!

The guy had also told us to keep an eye out for a disappearing lake, that vanishes at the height of summer.

Disappearing Lake
The road closure ended up being a bit of a let-down, and we never had to dismount.  In fact, we could have driven through quite easily, though maybe there was something going on under the road that we were oblivious to.

We'd climbed a bit, and before long we were turning left onto a sealed road, and soon after that, we were turning into the DOC track to Bridal Veil Falls. 

There were various platforms, and from the first we were only a couple of metres away from the top of the fall - the river was relatively narrow - maybe between 2 and 3 metres wide, but it plummeted 55m into the pool below.

Bridal Veil Falls

We could see a couple of viewing platforms down in the chasm below us, but once we'd seen the view from the a second platform level with the one we'd just been on, we decided to save our legs!

Bridal Veil Falls - quite the stunner
We admired the beautiful scene for a bit, before saddling up, and hitting the road again. We weren't far from Raglan, but Simon was less keen for greasies than I was - I think I was still smarting from my rejections at Marakopa, Te Anga, and the Roadhouse.  We stopped at the turn-off we'd planned to make together, and he gave me a shopping list, and showed the point on the map at which we'd regroup after I'd had my feed.

No sooner had I got going than the road had turned to gravel again.  I enjoyed riding the climb without regard for pacing, and as the road turned north, got a great view of the coastline above Raglan. 

Looking north beyond Raglan
The descent into town was being sealed, and the workmen told me to look sharp as he let me through.  I managed not to get squashed, and was pleased that I didn't seem to be picking up any tarred stones on my tyres.

I stopped at the first shop I saw, but it didn't have the range I needed, so I limited myself to a powerade, and an incredible-looking piece of pineapple and date cake! A couple of clicks later, I locked my bike outside the supermarket on the main drag, and went in for our groceries.  I bought two packets of instant noodles, two small bottles of coke, two chocolate milks, a small can of tuna for Simon, and a cookie for myself.   I managed to get all these things into my jersey pockets, and was now in search of greasies.

Since there'd been a shop on the outskirts of town in one direction, I figured it would be the same on the outbound side, but I figured wrong.  A short climb later, I was turning around and blasting back into town, parking up outside a fish'n'chip shop directly across from the supermarket.  I felt like a bit of a moron, but didn't let that stop me ordering a bit of snapper and a scoop of chips!

Dinner, take one!
I didn't clean my plate up, but gave it a good nudge.  Raglan had solid cell phone reception, so I made a couple of calls, and flicked Simon a txt saying I'd soon be there.

He was waiting for me at Te Uku, just down the road from the awesomely-named "Roast Office".  I was a little sad I wasn't able to sample their wares...

The Te Uku Roast Office
I transferred all the food out of my pockets into Simon's bag, and then delighted him by putting the bag on my back!  He was sure he was going to be carrying it all!

It was nice to finally get off the main road linking Raglan and Hamilton.  I was pleased to pass by "Old Mountain Road" which sounded like hard work.

Oh deer
Eventually the road tipped up, and I watched Simon slip up the road away from me.  Eventually the gradient mellowed - imperceptible to the eye, but I could feel it in my legs.  The gap to Simon shrunk until I was alongside him, and we "enjoyed" hammering up the remaining climb side by side, as we've done many times over the years.  Neither of us puked at the top, which was also nice.

The descent was fast, but that didn't stop us from stopping to admire the beautifully lit scene off to our left.
More scenery
The final ten kilometres passed reasonably quickly, and we were soon, showered, fed, and I was duly thrashed at a couple of games of pool.  I was especially glad each time I sunk my first ball, since my light-weight approach to cycle-touring does not extend to underwear...!  A down-trou would have been unpleasant for both of us.

Our room had a poxy wee television, and its channel selection was even smaller than its screen, but turning in was a fine alternative.

Day 3 - Sunday

We didn't indulge ourselves with a sleep-in; even though we'd shortened our route, we weren't certain that my car's rear lights would be fixed, and early arrival in Te Kuiti might mean we'd get back to Wellington before dark.

Ironically, the evening before, I'd not been able to get to my camera in time to record Simon passing the "Alert riders..." sign, so I was pleased to have a second opportunity.

Pirongia had a Sunday market, which we stopped at, and Simon bought some gifts for Miro and Sarah.  I fired my cell phone up, and got a flurry of txts, reminding me it was my birthday.  Simon had mentioned it the afternoon before, but it seemed to have slipped his mind, and we were both spared the awkwardness of him singing to me! 

Where's all your gear, ow?!
Just under 10km north of Pirongia, we crossed the highway and rationalised our clothing a bit.   It was overcast, a little chilly, and rain was threatening in the hills - where we were headed - but, we were overdressed and working up a bit of a lather.

We made another right turn at Ngutunui Enviro School, and then started one of the most beautiful climbs we'd done.  The road was sealed, which made a pleasant change, but the bush was totally luscious.  Again, the bottom was steep, and Simon drew away from me.
Simon, way ahead!
I tried to settle into the climb, but he got a healthy lead before the gradient mellowed and I clawed my way back.  He'd eased completely off by the time I did catch him, so I kept the pace on, figuring he'd just had a sweet rest.  I could also see from my GPS unit that we'd made awesome headway into the climb, and that our next turnoff wasn't that far ahead. 
My turn to lead for a bit!  And, Simon's turn to carry the camera!
The road was windy (as in, it winded) and I eased off about 200m short of our intersection, hoping Simon would get a nice surprise!

We didn't get much of a view to the south, but it was a nice place to stop for a snack, and to bask in the quality of the forest we'd been skirting.  A fat kereru put on a nice show for us, which was a lovely bonus. 

In anticipation of a fast descent down to Kawhia Road.  Neither of us was expecting the view of the harbour that eventually opened up in front of us, but I guess we shouldn't have been surprised. 

Kawhia Harbour
Kawhia Road itself came as a surprise too, and I think we both got a bit of a start when a large truck passed in front of us about 100m away.

We turned left on Kawhia Road, and after a few minutes of traffic were making yet another turn, this time onto Kaimango Road.

We were both expecting a bit of a grovel, but we found ourselves on the top of a very flat ridge.  We saw a couple of young women on horseback, and the sort of native forest that had been a theme throughout this trip.

The next intersection had a strange shape to it, and may have been slightly mismapped on my GPS unit, which showed us about 100m short of the intersection when we made the left turn.  The descent that followed was "one of the best descents I've done", according to Simon.  We had Pirongia Forest Park on our left, and despite the riding being stunning, we stopped a couple of times, just because.

Whoop whoop!
At one stop, we spotted a rimu across the valley which was probably 30-40m tall.  Another stop was at a gnarly old pine tree which was full of epiphytes.

All good things must come to an end, and soon we'd left the bush, and were in a valley with pine forest in various states of harvest.  We stopped for a snack, and watched a digger lumbering its way along the road.

Little Yellow Digger?
The curve in the road was such that every few seconds, the driver would have to steer to the right ever so slightly, causing the claw to lurch, and one track to stop, tearing up the road a little bit in the process.  As we rode away from the stop, it was crazy to see how much damage had been done to the road, and over such a long distance!

More logging machinery
Our ride was coming to an end, so Simon and I smashed each other a bit more - nothing like a bit of racing to pass the time.

One hill top afforded us nice views over Otorohanga, but that was pretty much all we'd see of it, taking the turnoff onto Waitomo Valley Road a few kilometres short of the town.

Otorohanga in the distance
We passed a young girl riding her bike while her mum jogged, giving them a cheery hellloooooo!  Just short of SH3 at the end of Waitomo Caves Road, Simon got all excited about a couple of emu chicks - the funny things fatherhood does to you!

Emu chicks in with the cows, and mum
Despite being alongside the railway line, our final side trip was a little less flat than we'd expected.  As we rounded the final hill, I had my camera out, but must have been a little too excited to see Te Kuiti to get Simon and the town in a single shot.
Te Kuiti
With only a few minutes left of our 400km ride, we passed a sweet little old lady, who famously said to us "enjoy your cycling!"

We stopped at what appeared to be the only open cafe in town, and I txted Jordan, the auto-electrician, expecting him to announce a short wait for the car.  But, he said to come any time, so we scoffed some food at a leisurely pace.  Simon had asked for a raw egg in his shake, and by the reaction of the cashier, was the first ever request of that sort.

Outside, we collected our bikes, which had performed flawlessly, and cruised down to the supermarket, where I collected some beer for Jordan, to say thanks for opening up on Sunday, whether or not there was a hefty call out fee (there didn't appear to be).

Just before 3pm, we had the bikes loaded on the car, complete with fully functioning rear lights.  The icing on the cake of this glorious ride was the two hours of rain we had as we made our way south, dry!

Rain, rain, do whatcha like


Knowing what was to come when we did the 5-minute-quiz helped somewhat, and we usually remembered the 10 answers within a few minutes of the "game" starting up...  They were, in no particular order:  knot, Elvis Presley (apparently an anti-drug crusader back in the day), hashtag, (decline and fall of) the Roman Empire, Duchess of York, (Napoleon was exiled to an island in the) Atlantic Ocean, (economist, John Kenneth) Galbraith, Sultans of Swing, Lassiter's Reef, (metastasizing is) the movement of a disease from one part of the body to another. It's amazing the random shit you can remember with a bit of effort...

Here's a link to the mapmyride route of our final ride.  I'm looking forward to next year already...

Fantastic Figure Eight