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. 


  1. It was lovely sharing the day (and most of the night) with you mate. This one's definitely on my hit list as a w.o.f for KB14

  2. Wish I'd been there (with a tow rope). Looks like you scored a great day out.
    BTW, the glass bottles may have been for the next resealing of the road. They chuck smashed glass into the mix sometimes (to increase the road's traction or durability or something).


    1. Wow, really? Sounds like a conspiracy by NZTA against cyclists, building glass into the road!

  3. You guys are awesome. Chapeau to you both. Lovely writing too, John, as always.

  4. Fantastic reading! Inspirational as well. I lived in waiuru as a kid and remember the walking up the Tukino road after the army transport got stuck. You guys did better.