Sunday, March 17, 2013

Raid Ruapehu

My typical approach to a big event, e.g. the Kiwi Brevet, or in this case, Le Cycle-Tour de France, is to try to chuck in a few training events that'll make the real deal seem like a piece of cake.

Simon and I spent an afternoon plotting and scheming just after Christmas, and one of the rides that seemed to fit the bill was soon dubbed "Raid Ruapehu".  The name was inspired by Raid Pyrénéen - a brevet which includes many of the famous Cols in the Pyrenees - rather than a scene from Revenge of the Nerds.  I reckon it sounds cool in any case!

The ride would consist of a lap around Ruapehu, but with three side-trips - rides up to the three skifields on the mountain:  Turoa, Tukino and Whakapapa.  The first and last are sealed climbs (and descents), but Tukino is unsealed, necessitating the use of a mountain bike.  Mapping the thing out soon confirmed a distance of just over 240km, and climbing of over 4000m vertical.  What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and all that...

Raid Ruapehu

We initially agreed that it should be done soon before leaving for France, but the magnitude of the ride and various other logistical concerns bumped the thing forward, training progression be damned.

Simon was keen to ease back after Karapoti, but Dave was locked and loaded.  As the weekend drew nearer, out excitement grew.  The final twist was added the night before we drove north, with Dave's email which started "I've just re-read your blog of your rather damp Tree Trunk Gorge ride..."!

We managed a quick sift with the lads at Revolution Bicycles on Friday evening before making a move.  The traffic conditions were great, and we arrived at our digs in Rangataua around 10pm and were sound asleep soon after. 

My alarm would have gone off about 10 minutes after I woke up, had I set it correctly.  Despite cranking out of bed at 5:45am, neither Dave nor I seemed to be in much of a rush to leave the warm house out into the dark morning.

I smashed back four slices of PB&J on toast, a plunger coffee and a banana.  Then, we jumped into the car and drove the short distance to the Ohakune Railway Station.

Almost ready to roll, 7am
The Turoa climb was a great one to start with - and on the flip side it would have been a very hard way to end the day!  We ditched a small amount of gear at the 1km marker, to lighten our loads ever so slightly.  A very sensible thing to do, but one we didn't emulate at either of the subsequent out-and-back climbs. 

NZ's only HC sealed climb
We reached the top about an hour and quarter after leaving the car.  I was surprised how pleasant it was at a "I'm about to ride all day" pace, which was only about 10 minutes slower than a "going pretty hard without full on racing" pace.  Dave poked his nose up an access road, while I reenacted a Yeti shot from a few months ago.
Yeti x2
It wasn't at all cold, but a 20-plus minute descent at speeds over 50km/h quickly cools you down.  Anticipating this, we suited up.  I couldn't quite bring myself to stow my sweaty cap, so simply donned my beanie over it.  Arm-warmers went on, and a jacket over my jersey and vest.

Getting ready for a 17km descent
The descent was fun, though as always, seemed to take forever.  We retrieved our gear from behind the big rimu at the 1km mark, and then pushed on.  We rode to within 50m of the car at Ohakune, but took the backroad through to Rangataua so didn't pass it directly.  Nor did we pass the house in Rangataua, but unlike the car, it was within sight as we rode through (barely, between the neighbours' houses)...

When we hit the highway, we'd both warmed up after the descent so stopped for a wardrobe adjustment.   Dave had all his gear in a Revelate Pika, while I was shoving most of my accessories in my Ortlieb handlebar bag, and jacket in my jersey pocket.  I also had a small saddle bag with tubes in it, and a Revelate Gas Tank with other bits and bobs...

Traffic conditions were light, which made for relaxing riding.  We also had the light wind behind us.  I'd just convinced myself than next time I passed the Tangiwai site I'd definitely stop when Dave suggested we take a look, bless him!  The information board would have taken us an hour to read, but it was otherwise a great place for a short spell.

Tangiwai Memorial
We reached Waiouru, the desert oasis, about 3 hours in, just after 10am.  I had a pretty whack long black, but a nice egg sandwich.  We topped our bottles up (all of a couple of hundred millilitres each) and bought a takeaway muffin each before saddling up again.

Waiouru - last coffee stop for a while...
I'd never ridden along the Desert Road before, and had been looking forward to doing so.  We had about a 1000-metre climb from Waiouru, with almost half of this on the road.  The shoulder was great, but we were pushing into a light head wind the whole way.

Desert Road
One of the beauties of riding a bike is that even the driver gets an awesome ability to admire the scenery.  It's also very easy to stop, and the small mountain of glass bottles - presumably which someone had picked up from alongside the highway - was a good reason to.

Soon after the Desert Road highpoint of 1074m, we turned off onto the unsealed Tukino Skifield access road.  This stretch was the only truly unpleasant section of the ride for me, and Dave hated it even more - his legs were yet to perk up, having woken to an off-day.

The "road" was soft and corrugated or otherwise rough.  What we couldn't also tell was that it was slightly uphill, and we struggled to ride even as fast as 15km/h.  I stopped to let a bit of pressure out of my tyres, but that didn't seem to help at all.  (What did help, was riding back in the other direction, where it was no problem to can along at 30km/h!)

6km from the highway we reached the 2WD "car park" from which Simon and I had set off at the end of last year on my only other ride up this road.  From here at least we could tell the road was climbing, and so psychologically the slow progress was much easier to deal with.  Conditions were great, and the mountain was looking majestic.

About to get steeper on the Tukino climb
Dave hadn't been feeling super throughout the morning, but riding alongside him I hoped at least that conversation would make the time pass a little more easily.  The absence of a strong and very cold wind, and another couple of months of good training made the climb relatively pleasant for me, and it didn't seem overly long.  

Ngauruhoe in the distance
Once at the top of the road, we simply stopped, suited up for the descent, and rolled back down the hill! 

Team photo at Tukino!

My tyres were a bit too soft (and my non-suspension a bit too hard) and there were a couple of unnerving clunks as my tyre bottomed out on the rim.  Luckily I was running tubeless, so I didn't have any snakebite punctures.

Dave was ahead of me, but I decided I simply had to stop to put some more air in my tyres.  He was waiting for me not far down the road, and we leap-frogged a bit, scoring some action photos as we made our way down.

Dave kicking up ash on the Tukino descent
Once off the steepest section, we passed three van-loads of students from Karamu High School (from Hastings, as it turns out...).  One gave us a nice wave when they passed us on SH1 15 minutes later.  Another had asked us if we'd just ridden up, and commented that we were crazy.  Dave and I agreed that the sardines in a van were the crazy ones...

As we pushed into the northerly, Dave was able to monitor my rear tyre slowly getting softer.  We pulled into a layby and gave it some more air, and less than 10 minutes later were making the right turn across the highway into Tree Trunk Gorge Road.

A nice descent followed, and then it was time for a late lunch stop at the bridge. 

Tree Trunk Gorge
I smashed back the muffin I'd bought from Waiouru, and eventually got myself organised and sorted my tyre.  There was about 2mL of Stan's fluid left in the tyre, which was due for replacement anyway.  I couldn't find any glass in the tyre, and with Dave's help eventually got the 26" tube installed and inflated.  I was having a particularly inept phase, and I shudder to think how long it would have taken me had he just watched in bemusement!

After a lube session - chains and butts - it was time to roll out, hereby ending our 30 minute break.  After a short climb, we were hanging a left onto the Tree Trunk Gorge track.  While short, it was excellent to be off SH1, and better yet to be enjoying some sweet beech forest.   We refilled our bottles at the stream crossing that almost defeated my pals and I on my first ride through here...

We were both very surprised when we emerged from the bush onto a gravel road, as we hadn't been riding that long!  After checking with a camper, we hit the trail down to Pillars of Hercules, and just as well, because we had ear to ear grins after that wee gem.

Toi toi abound, we had a nature break each.  No sooner had I joked to Dave "don't cut yourself" than I'd opened up one knee with one of the razor sharp leaves...  Oh well, at least it was a knee.

I'd been looking forward to the next section for ages, though finding the route proved a little tricky.  We picked up Kaimanawa Road after climbing out of Pillars of Hercules, and hung a left towards the highway.  After another short climb, we turned right onto a chunky gravel road along the edge of a forestry block.  After poking our noses down a deadend, we took the next left, and looped back around to arrive successfully at Poutu Canal.

After admiring it for a minute, we set off in the direction of Ohakune, before immediately doubling back. Just out of sight around the corner was the start of the canal, and quite an optical illusion.  From our vantage point, it looked like the water was running up a ramp out of the tunnel.  But, I think it was actually a flat pool which just happened to be catching the light differently to the obviously flowing section of water.

The start of Poutu Canal

That sorted, we decided we were happy with the true right, and were soon on the move again.  It took us a couple of minutes to notice the large and plentiful trout in the canal, and a few minutes more to notice the occasional ladders and to start fantasizing about swimming.  

Passing under SH1 was a particular highlight for me.  Just about every time I've ever passed over that bridge, I've revelled in the glimpse of the canal.  I really should have been a civil engineer...

We rode unmolested by a satellite campus of Rangipo Prison, and soon after had arrived at the intersection with SH46.  There was no underpass here, so we had no choice but to go up to the road. We'd intended to continue through to the canal's terminus at Lake Rotoaira, but the lure of the slightly faster progress along a shorter route had us cave.

The next section was strangely gruelling, and I felt laboured on the first 200m climb up to SH47 in particular.  About a minute after I'd reported to Dave that I was feeling pretty damn great, my right quad started feeling a bit funky, and having noticed that, concentrating on it made it feel progressively worse.

On the other hand, we were getting great views of the ongoing thermal activity on the flanks of Mt Tongariro.

We got a nice surprise soon after making the next right turn, discovering an open cafe - the first we'd seen since leaving Waiouru a little under seven hours earlier.  I kind of fancied an ice cream, but made do with a muffin.  We also went halves on a 1.5L coke. 

Fuelling up
Usually when I take coke riding it's had a chance to flatten a bit.  Not so with this highly effervescent lot.  Eventually I realised I'd get less coke on my legs if I just left the drink bottle valve open!

My quad was still bothering me, but didn't seem to be getting any worse at least.  We now had the wind somewhat behind us, and the kilometres kept ticking over.

It was nice to make the turn off to Whakapapa Village, signalling the final assault on the mountain.  The climb up to the Chateau was pretty uninspiring, but at least it was sealed, unlike the start of the Tukino climb.  We had fun mocking the inconsistent distance measures along the route.  On the other hand, we hoped that 6km beyond the Chateau we would indeed reach the skifield. 

Chateau Tongariro
I really enjoyed this last climb.  We weren't pushing the pace at all, but it couldn't help but feel tough with almost 12 hours' riding in our legs.  I enjoyed climbing out of the saddle for a lot of it which nicely engaged muscles which weren't quite so tired as the seated-pedalling ones.

Aside from the pace, it was very cool to realise how very different the three climbs are - not only in the style of the road, but also in the geology.   Once it pops out of the bush, the Turoa road sits on a pretty smooth ridge.  The Tukino road was surrounded by a soft layer of ash, while the Whakapapa roadside was littered with small, jagged rocks.  The road ducked and dived, but eventually the 6km was nearly up, and we began to pass carparks and club buildings. 

Snow machines
The ticket office finally came into sight, and after a quick team photo, it was time to get some warm clothing on!

#3 down!
I was happy to put a dry merino layer on under my bibs, and arm and knee-warmers went back on too.  It was about 7:30 by now, and it was also a good opportunity to organise lights.  I was keen to put my new Exposure Joystick through its paces (a pass, with flying colours).

Top o' the Bruce
 Dave has a very sharpe eye, and after a quick photo, we were Oscar Mike.

Photo: John; composition: Dave
We didn't quite get the sunset behind Mt Taranaki we'd been hoping for, but it was still nice to see it in the distance, about 150km away as the crow flies.

National Park was closed for the night when we passed through around 8:15.  With the wind at our six, and a nice big sign telling us we only had 35km to ride, progress was good despite our heavy legs.

We swapped notes on where, and how good, the various patches of reflective material on our gear was, and made full and vigorous use of the zips on our jackets and jerseys.  Dave paused to take his beanie off, and I regretted donning my polypro gloves.  I realised my quad cramps had vanished, but couldn't remember where on the Whakapapa climb I'd last felt them.

Neither of us was at all keen to go mountain biking at Horopito, though the Ohakune Rail Trail would have been a great way to finish.  Not in the dark though, and we continued on the highway.  We continued hammering through to the Ohakune turn off, and only after a sign reported we were 9km away did the pace begin to ease a bit. 

We took the Old Station Road turnoff, and a few minutes later, we were stopping the clock at the car, just before 9:30pm. 

After changing and loading up the car, we headed south.  Late on a Saturday night, the driving conditions were perfect, and aside from a quick feed at the Taihape BP and a driver change in Levin, we made good progress.  By 2am we were home in Wainui and Karori respectively!

I woke this morning (far too early!) with a headache, and a slightly sore throat.  But, half way down the flight of steps from my front door, I realised my legs weren't actually in bad shape.  Superficially, at least.

Ride statistics?  Mr Garmin reports a moving time of 12:08 out of an elapsed time of 14:26; distances of 256.57km and 4921m in the x and y planes respectively. After leaving Rangataua, I ate three apricot and chocolate bumpa bars, three OSM bars and two muffins, and drank one long black, half a 1.5L bottle of coke, and a bunch of water.

Simon reckons this will be the hardest ride I'd do before France, and that it'll likely be tougher than any day in France.  If he's right, that's great!  If he's not, I'll be better for this monster day on the bike.

Dave's company was awesome, and the scenery was consistently off the hook.  I said to him somewhere out of Waiouru, "there's nowhere in the world I'd rather be, mate" and didn't falter from that as the prospect of a job well done drew ever nearer.  It was a nice contrast to MTBing at Karapoti only a couple of weeks ago. 

It was bloody good to get out.   And, it's very nice when a plan comes together. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

A personal best at Karapoti

I've grizzled and groaned about Karapoti over the years, describing it as "the event I love to hate, and hate to love" back in 2011.  It is a very old-school event, but despite its gruelling nature, it holds a very special place in the NZ MTB calendar.

Prior to 2007, I'd done the Karapoti a few times.  My first had been a puncture-ridden affair, and I'd finished just inside 5 hours.  A few laps later, I posted a 3:27 - a time which I was proud of.  At the time, I didn't quite make it into the Clydesdale class (100kg+), but would have been pretty close with sodden shoes and clothes at the end of the race.

In the summer of 2006/7, my body underwent a transformation.  Separation-induced weight loss, followed by a serious lifestyle change, and more weight loss, saw me take 40 minutes off my PB.  It was a fast year, but four months living and training with one of the most experienced (and successful) Karapoti veterans, Simon Kennett, had been good for me.  I'd punctured on the Rock Garden, but had had a great ride otherwise.

In 2008, another fast year, I smashed out a Karapoti Challenge tandem record with my beautiful daughter Kaitlyn.  2009 was a miserable affair, though I got to enjoy watching 9-year-old Eden Cruise ride up Dopers.  I was physically OK, but upstairs really hadn't come to the party, and I was relieved to finally puncture, and to have a merciful excuse to stop focussing on how slowly I was riding (or at least perceiving I was riding).  In 2010, I enjoyed the Karapoti Original, and in 2011, enjoyed the perverse pleasure of being the fastest rider not under 3 hours

Karapoti was an intricate piece in the 2012 Cape Epic puzzle.  That summer I'd managed to lower my 2007 Tip Track best by two seconds, giving me some hint that I was in good shape - or at least about as good as I'd been five years earlier.  But, the weather didn't play ball, and, like many others, I didn't get the chance to pit myself against the Karapoti time-piece.

This summer, I'd decided my goal was to get fit for my "winter" cycle tour in France, and I wasn't totally sure that Karapoti would make it onto the agenda.  But, back in January, on my first ride up the Tip Track in 8 or 9 months, I smashed 22 seconds off my 2012 best. I knew at that stage that I couldn't waste that sort of form.

I signed up in the Pro Elite category, seeking special dispensation to do so, since strictly speaking, I didn't qualify.  I was unable to join Simon and Jonathan on their recce ride in mid February, and contemplated switching to Expert class based on their report of a slow course.  I was after a time, and Pro Elite was the way to achieve that, but, I already felt like enough of an imposter as it was, and didn't want to look silly.  The path of least resistance was to sit tight though, and so I did.

A Karapoti practice lap didn't find its way into my prep, nor did a blast up Mt Climie.  But, I was making good use of the Tip Track.  A couple of weeks out I did three singletons, but couldn't improve on my first ride of the season.

A week before Karapoti, I had a lot on my plate.  On behalf of the Makara Peak Supporters, I was the organiser of the Creek to Peak Relay - to be held on the Sunday before Karapoti.  The winners would have a good 2-hour singletrack hit-out before beginning their taper.  I couldn't race, but did manage to sneak in a confidence inspiring ride the day before, in between collecting spot prizes and marking out the course.

As I'd done on earlier occasions, I had a 25 minute warm up from home to the bottom of the Tip Track via Highbury Fling.  Conditions were good (southerly, plus a reasonably good line), and I posted another PB - seven seconds off, taking the season's tally to 29.  The bike was freshly serviced by the legendary Oli Brooke-White, and aside from the mechanical perfection, I was enjoying some new rubber, and a slightly longer stem.  I was too rooted to bother with Barking Emu, but did head towards Wrights Hill and Deliverance - a super sweet bit of singletrack that intimidates the living bejesus out of me and that I rarely attempt.

Just before the top of the track I bumped into three of my good friends: Alex, Tom and Thomas, so didn't have to enact an emergency "come find me if you don't get a txt in 15 minutes or so" plan.  The boys were all on rigid bikes, and I think my fully plus dropper post (not to mention the ASR-5C's mint geometry) flattered me somewhat.  Nonetheless, I was chuffed to get down the whole lot upright and in  one piece.  It was a great confidence-boosting descent on top of the confidence-boosting climb that had preceded it.

I barely touched a bike after collecting up Creek to Peak course markings on Sunday evening.  I felt sluggish on my commutes, and struggled through a poorly scheduled symposium on Thursday morning followed by a Makara Peak work party on the Thursday evening.  At least the dirt was so dry I could pretty much just threaten it with a grubber and it would succumb.

After picking up my race pack on Friday, I met up with Dave Sharpe for a cruisy road ride.  It was really nice to have his company, and the southerly pushed us nicely up Happy Valley en route to Jonty's shop for burgers and chit chat.  The shop was abuzz, with many in attendance lining up at Karapoti the next morning.  I felt myself starting to wilt, and snuck off earlier than usual.  I got an especially big hug from Oli, who wished me well for the race the next day.

Once home, I got organised for the morning.  I'd decided to go with a bottle of diluted sports drink on the bike, and a 600mL pump bottle of coke in a back pocket.  I had a couple of tubes, a multitool, and some super-patches in a seat bag, and I'd carry a pump in my pocket.  It was after 8pm when I finally sat down with a bowl of pasta and pesto, and watched an episode of Breaking Bad.  I set my alarm for 6:50am, and headed off to bed.

I hadn't been up long when I got a txt from Ash wishing me good luck for the race.   Not long after, I heard a knock on the door, and it was none other than Steven - he'd just dropped Ash off at the ferry terminal and had brought up a pair of Yeti shorts they both knew I'd be glad to have for the post-race sift.  His visit pushed my arrival at Simon's back a few minutes, but did my mood no end of good.

I rode from home to Simon's and didn't really consider how I was feeling.  I was late, and diagnostic checks could wait!  It was a little tricky getting my fully onto the rack alongside the Kennett Bros' tandem, but we got there in the end, and were soon collecting Jonathan. It's hard to find two guys more chilled out, and I was feeling very relaxed by the time we parked up in a paddock on Akatarawa Road.

I figured they'd take a while to get the tandem organised so left them to it.  I did a quick recce at Karapoti Park and then found a quiet spot and got organised to race.  I cut two bananas in half, and pre-cut the skins a little to make them easier to get into.  I scoffed one half and put the other three in my back pocket.  Coke and pump were in the middle pocket, and I had a small bottle of lube in the third.

I left my bag in the Mud Cycles van (cheers fellas!) and then headed out onto the road for a quick spin.  I went almost as far as the Jock Atkins Waterfall before turning around.  On my way back, I noticed a Roadworks jersey coming towards me, and was delighted to see it was Dave.  He gave me a great big grin, and we rolled down into Karapoti Park together.

He insisted on holding my bike upright while I disappeared into the trees for a quick slash.  I wanted to lie it down on its side, but he knew there was less risk of damaging something if he held it upright.

I felt remarkably calm as we listened to the race briefing.  Simon went by with Jonathan, and we gave each other a "go well brother" thumbs-up.  Briefing done, Dave wished me well, and I went back up onto the road for a few minutes of hard pedalling before heading down to the beach.

Easier said than done, but I managed to weave my way through the queued Expert riders.  I quickly wished Megan good luck for her race, before grabbing a spot on the fringe of the pro-elite bunch.

Photo: Bernie Cruise
I introduced myself to Sam Shaw, who's been getting some great results on his carbon Yeti ASR.  I didn't really like the look of the straight-line crossing, but that was all I really had access to from my late-comer's spot.  Apart from the immediate problem of getting across the river, I didn't feel particularly nervous.  But, I was keen to get underway!

Before the gun (or horn, or countdown) went off, I managed to catch a couple of "Go Sifter!" cheers from the bridge (Cheers Yen!).  And then, we were off.

The first 15 seconds of the race went well, and I didn't fall over.  As soon as my feet were on dry land, I started running, and didn't organise myself onto the bike as quickly as I would've liked.  Eventually the gap in front of me started getting bigger, and I leapt on board, and was properly riding by the time I crossed the timing mat.

Photo: Lisa Morgan
I'd told myself I needed to ride hard on the road - I was determined to ride to my strengths.  I wasn't quite ready for the pace though, and I found myself with a gap to the bunch of what seemed to be almost all of the pro-elite starters.  Except me...

The gradient eased off a little, my legs were quickly warming up, and my desperation was growing.  Combined, these things enabled me to finally close the gap.  A guy next to me was content to slot in at the back of the bunch, but I'd finally got a head of steam up, and wasn't about to let it go to waste.  Feeling almost comfortable for the first time in the race, I rode past most of the bunch - getting a holler of encouragement from Jase McCarty - and was near the front as we crossed the bridge into the top carpark.

While I'd been struggling to catch up, the rest of the bunch were composing themselves for a surge through the carpark.  And, as quickly as I'd passed the group, they swarmed past for position into the Gorge singletrack.  I didn't panic, and was pleased just to be in touch!

The next few minutes was a bit of a battle.  I wasn't quite expending enough energy as I wanted to, but knew that attempting a passing manoeuvre at this pace off the racing line was bound to put me into the red.  I managed to be patient, but did manage to sneak a couple of places when the opportunity presented itself.

Chasing Jonty up the Gorge
At McGhies Bridge, we were onto faster travel, and I wound things up a bit.  I gave Big Gav a holler as  I passed him, and he slotted into my slipstream.  There were a couple of others with us too, and we charged along.  

I was still feeling good up some of the short steep sections, and really was just enjoying the simplicity of life.  Its strange how uncomplicated bike racing can be - with very few things being really important.  Moving forward?  [Check]  Upright? [Check]

I narrowly avoided getting hoicked on by Gav.  It was lucky we were moving so fast, as I swear the pressure wave coming off my right shin pushed the glob off its original trajectory!  I didn't pay it any mind, but learned later that poor Gav had felt guilty about it all race!

Eventually, we hit the warm up climb.  I was still with Gav at this point, as well as Simon Lawson, and gun orienteer Thomas Reynolds.  We shelled Fraser Hewett early in the climb.  Tom asked if this was Deadwood, and I told him it was the warm up climb.  He said he looked forward to updates as the race progressed!  (Apparently I gave them, regularly - check out Tom's excellent blog of the race.)

I got a good holler from Mike Searle as I crested the top of this climb.  He seemed delighted that I was on 26" wheels!  

I followed Tom down the steep descent into the stream, and was glad to have the dropper post on the bike.  It also helped that the track was in reasonable knick.  The stream itself was low, and was no problem to ride up.  Last year, it probably would have been impassable.

Me, in a stream.  Probably not the right one, but oh well...
While I'd managed to ride the warm-up climb, the steeper, looser, Deadwood had me off and walking quite a bit.  This is always a trade off for me - while I can manage some of these steep sections, I'm pretty sure it's not worth trying to ride them.  My legs can cope, but my upper body and core have to work so hard to shift my weight around, I'm soon burning matches.

I was determined to ride strongly along the top of Deadwood, and had chugged some coke down by the stream in anticipation.  My legs seemed up to the task, and I attacked the climbs with some vigour.  Gav was gone, but I seemed to be holding Tom and Simon in check.  Until, I got stuck on the wrong side of a big rut, and stalled in the bottom of it trying to cross over.  Boom, 50m down.

While I was whittling away at that, I heard some company from behind, and was pleased to see Jonty, and Jonny Waghorn:  two of Wellington's evergreens.  They are both slightly older than me, but we're all with coo-ee of 40 and I feel like I'm their peer, on the age dimension, at least.  I let them through, but tried to keep the pressure on.  Somewhere along here I shovelled half a banana into my mouth.

I caught and passed Tom (giving him a quick run down of the next section of the course as I did so), and was just behind Simon as we went into the Rock Garden.  I was expecting to get left behind by him, but rode well by my standards down to the first large drop.  Here, I always get off, and get to running.  Simon made a good fist of riding, but he wasn't fast, and I was in touch by the time I got back on my bike.

Like the gorge earlier, I was probably held back ever so slightly, but didn't want to risk a dodgy passing move.  It was probably just as well, because Simon's instincts were good and we only lost a few seconds looking for the relocated crossing point across to Devil's Staircase. 

I passed Simon at the huge step, and could see Jonty up ahead.  After a while Tom jogged past, making the most of his running skills!  (None of which I had.)  Often I'll carry my bike a little, but seemed to be making good progress pushing it, so stuck with that.

I never actually saw Rod Bardsley at the top of the staircase, but I knew it was him calling from his spot in the trees! "IS THAT JOHN RANDAL?!?!?! GO BOY!!!!"  It gave me a good chuckle, and a nice psychological boost.  I grabbed a cup of water at the aid station, and 3 soft lollies.  Then, it was back to the bike racing.

Big Ring Boulevard was another section which I felt compelled to ride hard.  It seemed in pretty good nick, and although soft in places, it was predictable.  My bike was moving really well under me too, and the pair of Maxxis Ikons were hooning along.

Eventually I caught a glimpse of Jonty.  This was a nice surprise, and told me I was going well.  He complained about how slow the surface was.  I agreed as I blasted past, though I might not have been that convincing!

Soon after that, I began to notice the odd dust cloud, and knew another rider wasn't far ahead.  Before I'd diverted enough brain power to think about who it might be, I saw Tom.

I struggled a bit on the Pram Track, and there weren't too many of the corners I was totally happy with.  I managed to sneak by Tom fairly early on, so at least had the track to myself.  The closest I came to coming a cropper was at an aid station.  There were about half a dozen attention-grabbing cones, and about half a dozen attention-grabbing people, and their combined gravitational fields almost sucked me into whatever hazard they were there to warn me of.  I was pleased to get past them in one piece.

I had a good laugh crossing the first stream when I thought of Callum and his filthy face a couple of years earlier.  This was a brief intrusion of levity into quite an emotional patch for me.  I think passing Jonty and then Tom, had prompted me to assess the race so far.  I'd concluded that no matter what came next, I'd done well.  I'd got myself safely down two of the worst descents, and based on the company I was keeping, I was riding strongly.

Company or none, I could feel it in my legs anyway.  I've had a few long years of hard riding now, barely interrupted by injury.  The last 12 months have seen quite a strength increase, perhaps initiated by a lot of towing at Cape Epic, and secured by plenty of good hard road racing since:  Wednesday Worlds abound, and a spot of tandem riding with Simon.

Lately, the strength has either been there, or I've barely been able to turn the pedals.  And, the key to that is my mood.  The last month has been particularly tough.  I've battled with my Tawhio blog (and not yet won), and generally felt very down.  My head has seemed to come right on "race day" but it always feels like a risky prospect.

I reflected on what had made today special, and thought about the way my dearest friends had looked after me that morning:  Dave, Ash, Steve and Simon.  I'd also had "good luck" txts from my beautiful daughter, and family.  Oli of course is with me every time I get on a bike.  As corny as it might sound, I could feel their collective strength coursing through my legs, and I choked up a little.

I choked up a little more when I came around a corner and stared up the wall that is the bottom of Dopers.  On the up side, the stream was low, and the first section was not too loose, and I managed to ride it for the first time ever.  Keep it up mate!

After a few minutes, Tom came by.  He'd snuck up on me pretty quickly, so I was pleased that I was able to shadow him for much of the remaining climb.  Eventually though, I succumbed to a steep and loose section, and the resulting dismount, walk and remount had him out of sight.

I hadn't looked at my watch at all, and made no exception for Dopers.  I knew it would end eventually, and kept spinning away as well as I could.  Eventually an aid station came into sight.  I didn't need anything from them, but gave them a  wave as I rode by.

Just over the crest of the hill, I was a shocked to be told I was in ninth place.  Up until this moment, I'd had no idea how many people were in front of me.  My goal was to make it one less in short order.

It wasn't long before I started seeing the dust clouds again.  I wasn't riding beautiful lines along the top here, but I felt like I had energy, and was using it effectively enough.

Just before the big, loose, right-hander on the main descent, I caught sight of Tom, and using my fully to full advantage, snuck past and bombed down to the river crossing.

Wellington's glorious summer enabled pretty easy riding across the river, and I was soon popping it into the big ring for a smash back down the gorge.  I didn't think about Tom, nor wonder who might be up the way, and instead just pedalled.  There was no point looking at my watch either.  I had no idea how long I'd been out, nor how long it would take to finish from here.  But, I knew that pedalling hard would get me there sooner than later.  So, I pedalled hard.

The concrete blocks at McGhies Bridge always give me the shits, but I managed to find my way safely between them.  There were a few Challenge riders nearing the end of their race, but all were riding on the left, and confidently so, and I was able to hoon past them on the right.  I think my legs have a different power source, and I had enough energy to thank them for the space and to wish them well. 

Heading for home...!

I was starting to fade, but the gorge was mostly dry, and I was able to jump out of the saddle for quick sprints when I felt my speed falling.  One of my hammies started to complain a bit, but ignoring it seemed to be an effective remedy.

I saw Jo on my way through the carpark, and gave her an exhausted groan in lieu of a proper greeting.  She was one of the many marshalls who'd ensured the event was safe and ran smoothly.  (Chur)

The road never seems to feel as downhill as it does feel uphill in the opposite direction.  My "get up and sprint" legs were back in the Gorge, so I made do with my "sit down and mash" ones.  I remembered to shift gears before I hit the water. Somehow I managed to get off the bike without falling in the water.

I did think I was going to go down for a second when my foot skidded off a big boulder, and I had to pause for a brief second and reset. 

No sooner had I got my balance back, than it looked like the camera man lost his...

The last 100m was luckily devoid of cramp or any other nasties.  As I came through the finish line, I looked at my watch for the first time.  It read 12:43, but I wasn't sure at what time we'd started.  Nonetheless, I was sure I'd beaten my 2007 time. 

I joined a small group of finishers, and was astonished to see the company I was in.  I learned Dirk Peters had taken the win, followed closely by Yeti's Sam Shaw.  Brendon Sharratt, in third place, had come in five minutes ahead of me, followed by Ed Crossling, Gav, Eden Cruise, and then Jonny.  I was next!!!!  HOLY CRAP!

Tom soon arrived, followed by Simon.  Jonty was next, but he didn't stop to say gidday.  Clive Bennett soon arrived as winner of the Expert Class.

Sifting after the race is always a bit more relaxed than before it, and on such a beautiful day, it was nice for things to happen slowly.  My good buddy Alex arrived back, with his cyclocross bike still intact!  Simon and Jonathan were just behind him too, and I was so glad to see them in one piece that I didn't think to ask whether they'd managed to grab the record they wanted (they hadn't but by only 8 seconds.  Hairy legs cost them the record, they would later lament...!)

"Two happy customers"  Photo: Andy King.  Caption: Simon Kennett
I was on cloud nine, and I was fascinated to gauge the shock of my friends as we swapped notes on our respective races.  There seemed to be two groups:  those more shocked than I was, and those who looked at me knowingly.... ("About time.")

After dilly-dallying a bit, I'd dried off to the extent that I foolishly got changed.  Of course I then went down to the river, and had serious swimming tog envy.  But, by then, the thought of walking back up, putting my shorts back on and going swimming seemed too much like hard work.

By this stage, results were up, and I was amazed to see that not only had I finished 8th in my race, but I'd posted a faster time than Clive so was 8th overall.  WTF?!?!

I had a bloody good catch up with Megan - our first real opportunity since the Cape Epic.  It was nice to pass on some of the good feedback I'd had about our brave Spoke article, and to natter about the respective states of our lives.

It was a lovely surprise to see Dave back at the park.  He'd ridden over to Featherston, and was on his way back from the Martinborough fair with his lovely wife Keryn.  Karapoti Park is in a Vodafone blackhole, so this was the first opportunity I'd had to tell any of my non-competing friends about the ride.  They seemed absolutely thrilled for me, which helped me enjoy it all the more.

A Lions lunch, a couple of sausages and an iced-coffee later, it was time for prizegiving.  The last call was for Pro-Elite men.  I'd managed to convince myself Michael would only call the top five up, so I got a jolt when the first name he called was Simon Lawson's for 10th.  Then Tom, then "John Sifter Randal".  I don't remember gasps of astonishment ("WAIT WHUT?!") but do remember a nice cheer from many who've seen me at these things over the years.

But, never doing this...

I felt immense pride as I stood on the stage.  However misguided this might be, I felt like I was finally justifying the Yeti shorts I was wearing.  Oli's told me off enough times over the years for me to dare sneak Roadworks into that sentence. I know there's much more to being a brand-ambassador than race results, but by god this felt good.  In any case, I've always felt privileged to have support as a rider, and I'm always grateful for opportunities to give something back.  Special thanks to Oli Brooke-White at Roadworks and Kashi Leuchs at Yeti NZ for support. 

2013 3rd-10th (l-r):  Brendon Sharratt, Edwin Crossling, Gavin McCarthy, Eden Cruise, Jonny Waghorn, John Randal, Thomas Reynolds, Simon Lawson.  Michael Jacques (teacher).  Absent:  Dirk Peters (1st place), Sam Shaw (2nd place).  Photo: Bernie Cruise
Simon once told me that he thought I was capable of a top ten at Karapoti (it was on day 3 of our Triangle Trip, to be precise - that was back in 2009, but I reckon I could pick the spot to within 5km).  I don't recall whether or not I told him I thought he was dreaming, but I did. He was right after all...

I was pleased to add to the diversity on stage.  It looks like I was the tallest (and probably heaviest).  But, not the oldest - an honour going to Jonny Waghorn, whose 2:38 PB was set at the prime age of 42. Next to him is 13-year-old Eden Cruise, literally a third of my age, and a little less of Jonny's.  There were a few others on the stage whose fathers might not be much older than Jonny or I.  Over the last few days I've tried to be impressed at Jonny's result, but not my own.  But, it's been hard.

Karapoti is an unforgiving course.  There are very many things that have to go right for a good day out there.  This year, those things all went right for me.  My bike - a stunning Yeti ASR-5C - was a perfect match to the course, and I felt right at home on it.  It was fresh from Oli's work shop, and it didn't skip a beat. 

I ate well around the course, and while I didn't exactly rest up in the days before the event, my legs were good. 

I know well the parallel universe in which my good legs go like shit.  I'm glad I didn't set off in that one, and for that, I tip my hat to my family and dear friends.  I lined up ready to rock and roll, and this, I put down to them.  I set off that morning knowing that Dave, Ash, Steven, Simon and Oli really cared.  I haven't calculated how many watts all that love that adds up to, but it's a few.

The "personal best" in this blog title refers not only to the time, and place, but also to the race itself.  I don't think I've ever had the various ingredients come together so well as for this race, and I'll happily concede they might never come again.  Once was worth it.

In some ways I'm slightly bemused at how I've reacted to this.  Conduct is to me much more important than a result, and people who impress me, and have my respect, do so not because they win (if they do), but how they do it.  I feel like I'm valuing something in myself that I wouldn't consciously value in someone else.

I love riding my bike.  I love the sensations and empowerment of being fit.  I love digging deep, just to see what it's like.  Our bodies are so grossly underutilised in modern day life, and I love trying to rectify that a little, even through recreation.

I don't do it to be fast.  I do it because I want to have the flexibility to do anything that tickles my fancy.  Whether it be a 50 minute lunchtime road race, an MTB ride in the back country, a 400km tandem ride, or a 3500km cycle tour.  Or, anything in between.  Or, anything else. 

I rode Karapoti to see where I was at.  I'm glad I did, and I'm shocked and thrilled with the outcome. 

I don't generally care about my race results.  But, I'm going to let myself care a little about this one. 8th place and 2-fucking-40 at Karapoti, yo!  Whoop whoop!