Monday, April 29, 2013

There is no back road from Greytown to Featherston

Despite having a PhD and working as a university lecturer, I sometimes wonder if I'm actually a bit stupid.  Case in point, I quickly forget how much I enjoy cycling.  Within days of one great ride or another (whether it be a ride I've done dozens of times before, or something novel), I'll lapse back into stressing about riding, rather than celebrating it.

The thing is, while I am still apparently not able to control my inner voice, with all its "you haven't ridden your bike lately, you're getting fat, and slow, and you'll never be able to do that next ride", nor the one with its "damn this week is carnage, sorry, you've got zero spare time", I am getting better at developing strategies to combat those pricks inside my head.

France.  That's one hell of a carrot, and is now less than six weeks away.  I'm slowly but surely nailing down the details, and I look forward to writing a preview that befits a trip-of-a-lifetime in due course.

My prep through summer perhaps went a little too well, and I feel like the pressure's come off a little bit.  To boot, my last big training ride was foiled by the weather.  Day 1 of a weekend down south was meant to consist of a Southern Alps crossing (and back), but the forecast of snow on Porter's Pass (which did eventuate) put us off, and Tim and I settled for a wet three-hour ride up to Godley's Head and around.  While it hadn't entirely gone to plan, it was still great to catch up with Tim and his family, to talk about book writing, and to notch up a bit of air travel with my Colnago.

The weather forecast for this weekend was much better, and a couple of days out, I made the decision to sneak away for a night in the Wairarapa, and when I commuted into work on Friday morning, my bike was loaded almost like it will be in France.  All that was missing was my Ortleib handle-bar bag, and I didn't bother taking my passport with me (which I must renew - a job for this week perhaps!!!)  Even before I'd left town, I felt I'd gained valuable experience, and I knew that more was yet to come.

I was on the road by 5pm, after a quick visit to Oli, and an even quicker long black at Fidel's.  Nor-westers were forecast, but I fair trucked along SH2, and wondered if the wind was actually from the south.

In any case, I turned off at Silverstream, and notched up my first hour somewhere on Blue Mountains Road.  This climb averages 9% - which is more than the big climbs I'll be tackling in France.  On the other hand, at only 2km long, it is a fraction of the length of 20km monsters I'll face over there...

The evening was surprisingly mild, but I stopped at the top of Blue Mountains to put my wind vest on, and pull up my armwarmers. 

Looking north over Upper Hutt

Travelling light

It was pretty dark by this stage too, and I was interested to see how my helmet light (USB charged, Exposure Joystick) would fare.  According to the specs, it'll serve 2 hours at full power, 6 at medium, and 12 at low.  Though I was happy enough riding at 40km/h at medium power in the dark countryside, I'm hoping not to need the light at all in France, but it seems like an essential precaution...

The Whiteman's Valley section is one hell of a dog leg when seen on the map, and added about 15km to my trip, but it was good to get the extra climb in, and also very nice to be on virtually car-less roads. 

I'd half expected rain - showers had been forecast - but apart from a bit of spitting occasionally I had no need for my coat.

The climb to Kaitoke passed quickly, as did the ride up the Rimutakas.  I didn't stop at the summit, lest I cool down too much, and was quickly barrelling down the Wairarapa side.  I put my light on full beam, but wasn't super comfortable with its position and about half way down I stopped to tip it back a bit - that was a good move, and I appreciated the extra road I was now illuminating.  The wind was helluva gusty, and was shunting me around a bit which was not pleasant.

When trying to work out distances etc, Google had served up a back road route from Featherston to Greytown, but I didn't fancy trying an unfamiliar route in the dark, and stuck with SH2.  I arrived in Greytown almost exactly 3 hours after leaving Fidel's, and with 90km under my belt.

The Greytown Hotel was as welcoming as it had been a few months earlier when Dave and I had arrived, wet and bedraggled, and I was soon showered (and wearing just about every other garment I had with me).  Skin leggings, shorts, t-shirt, Baked Alaska, Mont Bell jacket, beanie and I put my cycling shoes back on over some clean socks and then rolled back down the main drag to find some dinner.  I'd already sculled some chocolate milk and eaten a date scone, and I probably went a bit easy on it, eating only a $4 eggburger, a piece of fish and a corn fritter.  One "goreng" or another probably would have been a better choice in hindsight.

With some hot food in my belly, and back indoors, I quickly had to strip off.   The evening was cool, but probably not a stern test for my gear - I'd be surprised if I didn't strike colder weather in France in June - but nonetheless, it was good to know I was too hot as soon as I had some hot food in me.  (Check!)

By the time I got back into my room, my light was fully charged, so I swapped that out for the GPS unit, which in turn made way for the cell phone when I called it quits for the night.

The next morning I made a relatively leisurely start, but not leisurely enough to catch the cafe at the south end of town.  Luckily I'd already eaten a tin of fruit salad and a date scone, and washed those down with an instant coffee.   A little flustered, I decided to head straight for Featherston rather than scour around for an alternative breakfast venue (and one that opened before 10am on a Saturday).  It took me a little while to hook into the road out to Woodside Station. 

Beautiful, apart from the wind...

Getting out there was an absolute battle into a head wind, and I struggled to hold 20km/h.  At this rate it was going to be a long day.  Immediately after crossing the railway line the road turned to gravel, and I was soon at a T-intersection marked with "No Exit" signs in both directions.  I returned to the station, and got busy with my various technologies.  My GPS unit showed Underhill Road coming to an abrupt end, but I knew I'd seen a through-route on google maps.  I fired that up on my phone, and while the driving option would only go back through Greytown (only 5km away, despite feeling like I'd just ridden 15km), a walking route went straight along Underhill Road into Featherston.  Sweet...!

My selfies need work, eh Oli and Dave?!  Kashi, on the other hand, might think this is perfect!

Even after a 90-degree turn, the wind wasn't a lot better, and although it was now coming from the side, my low speed on the gravel was such that occasionally I got pushed into the loose stuff, and once I was glad not to go down.  After battling along, the road all of a sudden looked much less like a typical kiwi back-country gravel road, and much more like a 4WD track.

Where'd the road go?!

I continued tentatively, and soon was at a heavy steel gate.

A heavy steel gate (well, two gates, side by side)

It had a stile next to it, so I figured it was there to be clambered over.  30 seconds later, I was standing at the Tauherenikau River, looking at my cell phone in bemusement - it displayed Underhill Road cutting across the river and continuing on its merry way to Featherston.

The Tauherenikau River

I was now about 10km from Greytown, which in turn was another 10-or-so kilometres from Featherston.  Alternatively, just across the river, I'd have a mere 6km to ride... 

I had a careful look at the river level, and contemplated the merits of wet shoes.  I also thought a lot about the wind, and adventures, and finally decided to try crossing it.  The water was at knee level by the time I thought about my not-so-smart-phone sitting unshielded in my pocket, and while the thought of drowning it had some appeal, I was keen not to fall over for a myriad of reasons, including the financial repercussions.  I could see the water wasn't going to get much deeper though, and by the time I was across the main current, my cycling shorts were only damp at the very bottom. 

Back on dry ground, I glanced back at the river, and noticed for the first time the rail bridge about 100m down-stream of where I'd crossed.  I'm kind of glad I hadn't noticed it before, as no matter how inadvisable it is to carry a loaded road bike across a river, trespassing on a rail bridge is surely worse...

 An old guy walking his dog didn't seem overly surprised to see me (which surprised me!), and reassured me that I'd be on Underhill Road just beyond the concrete blocks around the corner.  From there it was a pretty easy ride into Featherston.

I had a highly naughty breakfast, after being told there was a 25-minute wait on orders from the kitchen - not often I let myself have a mince and cheese pie, nor an almond croissant, let alone the combination.  In any case, they slipped down very well.  The heat from those and the americano helped me forget my shoes and socks were wet.

After a nice sit-down, I could procrastinate no longer, and it was off to brush my teeth.  Then, time to tackle the Rimutakas again.  I was a bit nervous about the wind, but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting, and I made it to the top without being blown into the sometimes substantial gutter. 


I hadn't worked up too much of a lather on the climb, so descended without putting my vest on.  The wind seemed to be mostly in my face, and I was still looking forward to my legs perking up.  As the Te Marua Lakes lookout loomed, I remembered the nasty bridge soon after, and did a lovely job of bunny hopping both seams (if I do say so myself) - the first time I've been prepared!

At Brown Owl, I got stuck in to an OSM bar, hoping that perhaps it would engage my legs.  The climb up to the Akatarawas Saddle was nice, despite the headwind.  I was pleased that I hadn't succumbed to the not inconsiderable temptation to head straight down SH2 back to Wellington.  I'd been a little shocked at how few kilometres were on the clock, but I don't want shortcuts to be an option in France (on the contrary, there might be a few side trips) so good not to get in the habit so close to home. 

I never feel entirely comfortable on the Kapiti side of the Akas due to its narrowness, and the way cars tend to appear out of nowhere.  With luck and perhaps some good management, I managed to avoid the three oncoming cars, and was glad I wasn't in the car that had left the summit just behind me. 

I filled my water bottle at the tap opposite the dairy, then headed north on SH1 for lunch at New World.  A big scone slipped down well, chased by an apple and a long black.  Then, it was time to head home, with the benefit of a bit of a tail wind (finally)! 

The resealed section north of the Otaihanga turn off was sweet (at least compared to the former abomination of cheap and rough roading), the gravel descent on Waterfall Road passed without incident, and I particularly enjoyed the new, wide and smooth shoulder leading into Paekakariki.  My legs didn't feel great on the Paekak Hill climb, but they seemed to come to life on the descent, and I enjoyed watching my average speed since Waikanae creep up to the 30km/h mark by Battle Hill, which is where I clocked up the hour. 

Always a lovely view from the Paekak Hill lookout

I decided to plug on at Pauatahanui rather than stop for yet another coffee.  The Haywards climb passed quickly, and I felt quite at home on the fast descent.  The Colnago is beautiful to ride loaded up, and the wheels Oli built especially for the job, while obviously sluggish compared to my race wheels, roll beautifully. 

Legs, bike, wind, tarmac and gearing all seemed to come together along SH2, and I found a sweet spot at between 40.2 and 40.7km/h which I held for most of the ride back to Ngauranga.  I popped into work to grab some stuff I'd left in the office, and then successfully rebooted into commute mode for the final few kilometres to home.

I was surprised to make it home around about the same time I'd left Oli's the previous evening.  So, in 24 hours, I'd covered just over 240km, in a little under 9 hours riding (including a bit of clambering across a river).  I hadn't felt super for much of it, but had been effective enough!  I'm glad I've got a compact crankset under my bed, but strangely it's the 53 I'm most looking forward to getting rid of, rather than swapping the 39 for a 34.  While I'll surely appreciate the latter when I'm on the various two-plus-hour climbs I'll tackle in France, I'm glad right now I won't be able to blow my legs to bits going too hard on the flatter riding. 

A couple of other valuable lessons:  carbs (and lots of them) are good, and, there is no back road from Greytown to Featherston.

Monday, April 8, 2013

No whining at the Graperide

Simon's got a real thing for Queen Charlotte Drive, and had suggested ages ago that he and I race the GrapeRide on our tandem.  My aversion to seasickness had me dodge the question when it was first raised, but as the time neared, it came back on the agenda.   When I heard Simon, Sarah and Miro would still be in the Top of the South, I figured it would be silly not to join them for a day at the tail end of their Easter holiday.  Off to the internet I went, and a few minutes later, Captain Kennett and his Rear Admiral were entered, and I'd booked ferry tickets there and back.

Training-wise, until a couple of weeks ago, we hadn't ridden the tandem since our Longest Day Ride.  But, it seemed that once you get used to riding a tandem, you stay used to riding a tandem, and a 400km ride is one hell of a good way to get used to it (if you make it that far!).  We did one ride of a couple of ascents of Mt Vic, and joined the Wednesday Worlds crew for one outing, motorpacing Dave Rowlands to a Championship win after riding away from the bunch just after Worser Bay beach at 61km/h.

Given Simon was already down south, I was in charge of getting the tandem across the Cook Strait.  I was booked on a mid-afternoon ferry, and was treated to stunning weather.  And, I was clearly not the only one heading down for the GrapeRide. 

The sailing was smooth, and we docked a little ahead of schedule.  Simon arrived from Havelock a couple of minutes later, and soon after that, we were heading for registration in Renwick.

I'd noticed a red light on the Di2 control unit, but couldn't recall if it was flashing (flat battery imminent) or solid (at least 25% power remaining).  Upon discussing things with Shane Collett and finding a solid red light, we decided not to drive back to Blenheim to borrow a charger, and we were soon tucking into a plate of pasta back in Havelock, hopeful that all would be well in the morning!  We'd have to shift sparingly.

Alarms went off at 6am, though by this stage we were both awake.  I had a coffee, ate a few bits of toast, and put sunscreen on, and we were on the road at 7am.

We arrived to a chilly Forrest Wines just before 7:30, and sat in the car for a bit, reluctant to get out into the cold.  I thought the stoker handlebars were a little skew-whiff, so while we waited in the queue for the portaloos, we made an attempt to level them (the telescopic stem can rotate freely as well as move fore and aft, and it is bloody hard to level by eye - we overcooked it slightly, and now it leans the other way...).

When I went to return the bike to the car, it was in crap gear, but the derailleur didn't respond to my shift at all...  BUGGER!

It now wasn't clear what the morning had in store for us, so we quickly finished suiting up, and went to see if we could find Shane for further advice.  He was incredibly helpful, but in the end needed to go get ready to race himself.  One of the Merida mechanics tried to use the front derailleur limit screws to keep us in the big ring, but there wasn't enough adjustment.  As I was suggesting to Simon we go back to Havelock to spend the day with Sarah and Miro, he was busy with cardboard inner tube packaging he'd retrieved out of a nearby bin...

Not sure this Di2 accessory will catch on...

Shane had showed us that the Di2 system had two emergency gears.  It would stay in the largest cog - in our case a 28 - and also in the third - a 13.  So, it seemed we had two usable gears, but we'd need to change them by hand, with the bike stationary.

We'd not only totally foregone our 20-minute warm-up spin, but we'd also missed our tandem bunch start.  Instead, we joined the start queue as soon as we'd finished working on our bike, and a few minutes later, we were rolling (in 52-13).

Rolling out, and looking like a pretty aero package!
The first few hundred metres were slow, as we negotiated the Forrest driveway at the back end of a bunch of 50 or so.  It wasn't too long before we were on the highway though, and accelerating past the single-file "bunch" en route to Renwick.

It was mostly nice to be moving.  I placed on hand on Simon's back, hoping he understood the acknowledgement that without his persistence and ingenuity, I would have pulled the pin on the race.  On the other hand, it was freaking chilly!  Standing around in jersey and armwarmers hadn't been too bad, but at probably close to 50km/h, the windchill was making me wish for my vest.

We'd have a minute or two of empty road in between bunches, but for the meantime, our high gear was perfect. 


Huh, we were now in 52-12, and going a little bit faster...



WTF?!  This gear was a bit much, and while manageable riding on this very slight downhill with the wind behind us, it didn't seem sustainable.

The stoker usually doesn't have a role in gear shifting - a remarkable statement given our Taupo experience - but, I did ask Simon what he thought about me trying to shift the rear derailleur with my foot.  Shane had shown us we could man-handle the mech into its safety positions, and in theory it should stay there.  In practice we'd just seen this wasn't entirely true, but Simon agreed it was worth a shot.

We stopped pedalling and I unclipped, before reaching back and gently applying inwards pressure on the derailleur.  Too much pressure it turned out, and instead of dropping down into 3, the motor took over and marched the chain on up into 10...  We were rolling along at 40km/h, and we didn't even get close to pedalling fast enough to engage this gear.

We pulled the bike over and Simon got off and pulled the derailleur out while I pedalled.  We were back in high gear, and seconds later, moving again.

It didn't take us too long to repass the large bunch that a few minutes earlier we'd blasted past only to stop to shift gear.  We were on SH1 by this stage, and one of the riders had managed to latch onto our wheel - Rhys, from Westport. 

As we got nearer and nearer to Picton, the going got tougher as the road tipped up ever so slightly.  Aside from our "singlespeed", we also became conscious of the usual hazards of road riding, with one large boat trailer passing uncomfortably close.  Simon glared at the driver as we rode past a mere 30 seconds later.  He'd squeezed by us so that he could arrive at the tail end of a long queue just that little bit quicker...

Our TT was going well so far, but we were working hard on this false flat.  As luck would have it, things got harder just before the steep pinch before Picton "CLUNK-CLUNK", and Simon wasn't game to risk another stop.  We were going to give it a nudge in the big dog!

By the top, our cadence was down to about 15rpm, but miraculously, the bike was still moving!  We also now had two tandems in our sights, and as we hooned down the hill into Picton (in the now perfectly appropriate 52-11 gear), we looked forward to passing them.

We made a left just before the square, almost taking out a lone spectator standing on the edge of the curb on the inside of the corner...  I'm sure she would have got a good view of us, not to mention enjoying her various other senses which were surely capable of detecting us at such close quarters!

As we made the final turn into the base of the climb over to Shakespeare Bay, we figured it was worth another attempt at a shift.  We'd been reluctant to risk it up until now as a repeat of the last attempt would have had us off the bike again.  This time though, I was more gentle, and we were able to enjoy the climb in 52-13. As luck would have it, we even got the random down-shifts on the descent, and were able to pedal through a bit more of the course than would've otherwise been possible.

The next climb definitely called for our low gear, and as late as possible, I gave the rear mech a good nudge, and all of a sudden we were in granny-for-the-day, 52-28, in all its cross-chained glory.

Pedalling hard in big-big...

We had no choice but to pass people, and almost came a cropper a couple of time with the occasional rider inexplicably diving off their line.  Simon did a good job keeping us, and everyone else, upright!

We probably should have stopped immediately upon reaching the top of the hill, but were anticipating needing the emergency gear a bit on this stretch.  The tandem rolled very well, and with our efficient machine and extra mass, we were generally able to keep pace with the solos around us just by rolling along.  It was a bit messy in places though, and it would have been nice to be able to ride away from them.

After 5 minutes or so, it was apparent this gear was pretty useless, and we stopped to change it.  We had a sketchy moment under significant load out of Ngakuta Bay, but Simon was quick on the brakes, and we managed to keep the bike moving after the near-stop.

By the time we'd reached the Anakiwa turnoff, we'd cleared past another bunch, and had reconnected with Rhys, who we hadn't seen since the steep pinch immediately south of Picton. He seemed very pleased to see us, and we'd both warmed to him - it was nice to be reunited!

I shoved half a bumper bar into my mouth - the first food I'd had since toast at 6:15.  Our pre-race prep had been almost entirely dominated by trying to get the shifting working.  It was hard to eat and breath and pedal such a big gear all at the same time, but I eventually got it down, helped by a mouthful of coke.  

Just after Linkwater we added another to our short train.  By this time we were pushing into the wind, and this was making our gear just a little bit tough, despite the relatively benign terrain.  We were grateful to draft the boys for a minute or two, before reclaiming point and ramping up the speed once again.

We'd become quite proficient with the gear 11-13 shifts by now, and also knew to expect the random 13-12-11 shifts.  We also knew that a shift to 28 would need a stop, so tackled the climb just before Havelock in the 13.  It went OK, and we passed a large bunch near the top, including multisport legend, and Karapoti Hall-of-Famer, Steve Gurney.  He recognised Simon on the front, and gave us some nice encouragement.

The descent into Havelock was fast, and I found it very hard to hear what Simon was saying.  Though, I could hear enough to know he was priming me for a gear shift on account of the 100m up to the SH6 intersection, and the 100m beyond that being quite steep.

Just as the road tipped up, I popped it into 13, and we started the climb.

About 10m before the corner (and the slowest part of the manoeuvre), I heard the somewhat sickening "CLUNK CLUNK" and all of a sudden we were in the big dog.  Simon was alarmed up front, and confused.  He thought I'd gone for the 28 - and this is probably what he'd been instructing me to do, perhaps following that up with "and then we'll pull over and you can jump off and do the reverse shift". 

Simon asked me what gear we were in.  As I mustered every ounce of force I had into the pedals, I wondered what difference it made, and said so.  In any case, we got around the corner, and kept the bike moving, so the proof that we didn't need to get off and walk was in the pudding. 

We were faced with quite a long, but gradual climb out of Havelock, and still had the wind in our faces.  We now had a bunch of 30 or more behind us, and it was growing as we mowed down rider after rider.

I was starting to tire, and suggested to Simon we let someone else take the wind for a bit. Rhys, to his credit, unglued himself from our wheel and took a pull, followed by another tandem - All 4 Fun, from Petone.  A solo was on their wheel, but Simon wanted it, and sent him back using what he later admitted was a choice of words with somewhat unfortunate connotations!  After a couple of minutes drafting (doubling the sum total of the drafting we'd done since leaving Forrest), we were back into business.

I couldn't see the highpoint in the road and the start of the descent to the Wairau River, but I could feel it in my legs.  We were using whatever gear we could manage, and I made the odd tactical shift to undo the bike's "generosity".

Steve Gurney rolled alongside us at one point, apologising that he'd been unable to come by to take a turn, despite being willing!  We were passed by one guy wearing a "Bunch Police" jersey on the final rise of any note, but immediately reclaimed point.  I was pleased to note a building I remembered seeing just before we crossed the river, and knew our "ordeal" was almost over.

The organisers had made a big deal about "wheel-suckers" passing in the last few kilometres, and I was fascinated to see if anyone would come by us.  Both Simon and I felt a little bad pulling the now rather large bunch past a few riders who'd managed to stay clear to within a minute of the finish. 

As it turned out, no one tried to sprint past us, but half a dozen guys came alongside to thank us in the neutralised section along the driveway.  Including Rhys, who'd drafted us for about 80km of his 101km ride!

Rhys on our wheel, and Steve Gurney in black

When we stopped, a woman came up and told us we were the fourth tandem back, but, we didn't know what time we'd started so couldn't work out whether we'd been faster around the course than them.

We agreed we should take the bike back to the car, but it took us a while to extricate ourselves from the finish area.  After our non-warmup, Simon had ditched a layer near the Merida tent, so I went to retrieve that, thereby losing Simon in the crowd.  I did find him, but not before responding to "Randal", shouted by Tim Vincent who'd momentarily forgotten my first name. 

Reunited, Simon and I went back to the car, locked the tandem up on the rack, and got changed.  We then went back to the finish area, and enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere for a bit.  We were keen to see some results before heading back to Havelock, and the tentative plan was to do that before returning for the 3:30pm prizegiving en route to Picton where I'd connect with my 7pm Bluebridge sailing. 

We discovered where the results were being posted, but there were no sign of any tandem times.  A coffee seemed like a good way of whiling away the time until the next update, and the long queues helped.

We found a woman with a large pile of results, which she assured us included tandem ones.  We watched her painstakingly sellotape the individual pages to the windows.

I eventually joined Simon outside.  The penultimate sheet was the 42km tandem results. and the woman made a great show of starting to put the 101km results up back to front so we couldn't see them.  We got the last laugh though! 

We hugged, and then laughed about the irony of now having a second great tandem race result when the circumstances of both wins have been far from ideal.  We were very upbeat as we headed back to the car for the 28km drive back to Havelock.

There were still plenty of people still riding, and we saw at least one other tandem coming towards us.  At Havelock, we went in search of a cafe, and both ordered a banana and honey laden omelette!  Sounded strange, but it was very delicious (to both our tastes).

Miro decided to join her Dad and I for a car-lap of the course. First stop was the prizegiving, and we arrived just as the last of the spot prizes were announced.  We spotted Mike and Stephanie Revell, and sat with them, unfortunately just in front of a speaker.   One of the two announcers was being pumped at a rather high volume through this, and as such it was always quite disappointing when he piped up!

There were some impressively young-looking vets called up amongst the first three in each category, including Jack Bauer's dad, Hans, sporting a tell-tale Garmin-Sharp t-shirt.  I didn't recognise our mate Rhys go up for 3rd in his category!  Well played, friend!

Eventually, Simon "the legend" Kennett and I got to go up for our medals (Simon cringed when the announcer called him that!), Ground Effect vouchers, and a bottle of Forrest wine each.  The second fastest tandem, a mixed pair from Thames waited for us to come down off the stage and congratulated us.  We both felt a bit sorry for them, as they'd obviously known they'd claimed line honours.  Little did they know we'd been slowly gaining on them after starting some 10 minutes later. 

Captain Kennett, his daughter, and his Rear Admiral

Miro had been very patient while she waited for us to go up.  We relocated to a spot behind the speaker, but after another 10 minutes decided not to try her patience any further, and made for the car. Picton, and a box of fried seafood awaited me, while Miro had been promised some time at the playground.

The Bluebridge terminal was warm and welcoming, and it was nice to feel cosy for the first time in the day.  I had failed to include my bike when I booked online, but due to the massive GrapeRide discount, I only owed them $4.

The next wonderful surprise was that for another $40, I could have a private ensuite cabin.  I was out of the shower before we left port, and by the time we hit the swell in the Cook Strait, I was drifting in and out of light sleep. 

Cabin 210, on the starboard side

The cardboard chock was still in Picton, and so I hit up the bike's actual granny gear for the ride up to Karori.  For the most part I would have been happier pedalling a bit harder and consequently getting home quicker, but I didn't have that option, so spun away merrily enough!

It was nice to reflect on a good bit of teamwork earlier in the day.  I would not have started the race without Simon, and I hope that once I was on the bike and pedalling, I earnt my keep.  It all reminds me a bit of how we function as an orienteering team - once the decision is made, we both just get on with it, no matter how difficult the decision had been to make in the first place. 

Simon got home this afternoon, and in the interim, we've diagnosed the shifting problem: the plug in the rear shifter had been yanked out, which may or may not have caused the battery to discharge quickly rendering the front shifter (also) useless.  We also have a plan for smashing the tandem record (which we missed by one minute) next year.  This may include aero bars and pointy helmets.

Oh, and 10 gears...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Battling at the PNP Easter Tour

My first ever road event was a 2-day PNP tour - I raced B grade on my flat-bar road bike, and had a blast.  Subsequently, it's tended to clash with the Akatarawa Attack, or not been held at all, much to my disappointment. 

When I saw the announcement of the 2013 edition, it wasn't just sentimentality that compelled me to sign up.  Not only would three days of back-to-back racing be awesome prep for France, but I really love the idea of an annual tour of this type in the Wellington region, and I know there's nothing like a good turnout to encourage organisers to keep on organising.

My prep for this bit of prep was laden with good quality - a great ride at Karapoti and a great ride around Ruapehu were the biggies, but also numerous smaller rides, including the weekly Wellington Wednesday World Champs - a sub-hour blast around the bays.

The Wednesday Worlds have been a major part of upping my game in the last year and a half, since I was brave enough to turn up for the first time.  I tend to use them to learn about racing, and myself, and from time to time make useful discoveries about how to make a bike go very fast, and for how long its possible.

As the months progress, the decision of which grade to enter becomes less of a decision.  Although I was comfortable entering A-grade for the tour, it was not without apprehension, and I headed over to the Wairarapa worrying about whether I'd be able to keep up.

Stage 1

The first of five stages kicked off on Saturday morning at 9am.  This was not without its logistical challenges, with Wellington's supermarkets all closed on Good Friday.  I had the foresight to do some groceries on Thursday evening, and was tucking into a big bowl of porridge at 6am before making the drive over to Martinborough.

I had plenty of time to sign in, collecting my timing tag and race numbers (two of them!) from the Martinborough community hall, a quaint old building.  I managed a 15 minute warm up before joining the 25 other A-graders on the start line.  I recognised a few: Wednesday Worlds regulars, David Rowlands and Dave Weaver, and others that I've seen at races over the last while: Luke, Backy, Dan, Tristan, Kane, Andy, Ben, Craig and Jack.  Those that I didn't recognise by face were mostly young, and fast-looking!  Some had names which I did recognise, and which made be quite nervous!

The course headed out to the Martinborough-Masterton Road, before heading backwards over the Miller's climb and then south back to Martinborough.  We were doing two 50km laps, and I noted the first of those was knocked out in about 1:05.  I felt I'd coped OK with the race so far, but had made two distinct errors.  The first was starting the Miller's climb at the back of the bunch, getting gapped along with a few others, and having to chase back on.  The second was trying to follow David Rowlands when he went on a bridging attack.  I left the decision to go far too late, and was never on his wheel.  Luckily I pulled the pin early enough that I could latch back onto the cavalry as they swept me up.

A breakaway went and finally stuck just before the second Miller's climb.  I was philosophical about this - at the time there was no way to know that this was the race-winning move, and besides, it was the wrong time and place for me to do anything but try and hang on to the main field.

My position over Miller's was better the second time around, but I still had to work hard to get back on.  At least my mass - which had hurt me going up - was useful getting me down a bit faster than those just in front of me.

The second split was a bit more protracted than the first had been, and I regretted not trying to get in on it.  Would've, should've, could've though.  At least the move spelt the end of the up-to-now incessant attacks, and with the added twist of the stage race, all was not lost, and limiting time became the remnant bunch's focus.

I slipped back into my favoured domestique mode, and was happy to be one of the few diesels cranking out the final kilometres.  Often I was on Peter Murphy's wheel, and sensibly pulled the pin on a couple of attempts to come around him, lest I soon end up out the arse.  Most of the bunch were happy to be dragged to the end, but I did get outsprinted by one guy I'd forgotten was in the bunch!  Ha!

In all, I was relieved to get this first stage done.  It was nice not to have been dropped as such, more, left behind!  At least it was with about half the peloton.

Stage 2

I hoped my endurance would stand me in good stead for the second race of the day, a 34km, seven lap Kermesse, in the outskirts of Martinborough.

Each lap, we'd cut across one corner of the main square, and while I was more confident in my legs than I'd been in the morning, I was less confident in my ability to handle the five hard turns each lap.

There were a few hours to kill, and after a plate of eggs at a local cafe and a short visit to the supermarket, I hung out in the shade of the trees in the main square, enjoying the company and conversation of some of my fellow racers, and Tighe - not racing on account of a heavy crash at the Kapiti "fun" ride.

It was also a delight to see Oli and his son Bodhi who'd driven over to spectate for the afternoon.  It is always an honour to wear the Roadworks colours, but doing so in front of Oli himself brings that little bit more.

Despite keeping my bibs on over lunch, once I'd noticed Andy Hagan getting ready in his skinsuit, I figured I might as well do the same. 

Oli:  sponsor, mechanic, friend, and paparazzo!
I warmed up around the circuit with Dave Weaver, and was a little shocked to see the pace of B-grade as they hurtled around the circuit. 

My nerves about the cornering were unfounded...

Photo: Oli Brooke-White

... and neither had I expected the format to suit me so well.  I contested neither intermediate sprint, but did spend a lot of time on or near the front of the bunch through the middle of the race.  My friend David Rowlands was in yellow, I was feeling good, and there was a small breakaway up the road to keep in check.

Photo: Oli Brooke-White

There weren't nearly as many attacks during this short race, but by the time the final lap came and we were all together again, my legs were starting to feel a little worse for wear.  The penultimate straight was into the wind, and I drifted a bit too far to the back on account of my fatigue.  I got a great line through the final corner, but was a little boxed and only wound it up to the extent that I had space to use.

Dave was grateful for my help during this stage, and I was glad to have got through it upright.  It was also interesting to realise that I could have been much more competitive if I'd ridden wholly for myself.  The results had me right near the back, but Oli's photos have me just ahead of Luke - credited with 10th - more consistent with the position I remembered!  I look forward to unleashing in one of these another time soon!

In the absence of a pocket in my skinsuit, Oli had kindly looked after my car key during the race and a warm-down lap.  In his words, we had "time for a quick hug and some good luck wishes for the next couple of days" before he and Bodhi set off for Wellington, and I made for Masterton to rest up for Day 2.

Stage 3

Overnight maillot jaune, Dave, described Stage 3 as "one of the hardest stages for some years...".  While he was "resting" at the top of Limeworks hill...

Photo: Tijs Robinson
... I was in the grupetto, out the arse, and in the process of losing 36 minutes and change.

The 119km stage had started with an undulating loop out towards Castlepoint.  The pace was on and off, with numerous attacks and chases.  As we looped back towards Masterton, we hit a small climb which I simply could not cope with, and I was dropped by the main bunch.   For a moment, I thought that it was game over, but soon realised I wasn't alone. Peter Murphy, the big unit from the end of Stage 1 was there, as was Tristan Thomas, who gave me an encouraging shout:  "GO SIFTER".  So, the chase began, and after a few minutes over undulating terrain, it became apparent we were going to rejoin the main field.

It was momentary though.  No sooner had we connected than the attacks started going in.  A small group got away, and then another.  Dave looked at us all, and pointed out he had team mates up the road and would not chase.  For the most part, we looked anywhere but back at him. The gap to the group ahead got a little larger, and then from the back of the bunch launched Dave.  I had no hope of emulating him.  The race was leaving the station.  Moments after Dave had shot off, big Dan Waluszewski left with Jason Christie on his wheel.  I swear the road was curling up behind Dan as he laid down unsustainable power.  Dan was back a few minutes later having successfully delivered Jason up the road to where the race was.

In many ways it was a relief to have been dropped.  The riding had been very, very difficult to this point, and it showed no signs of easing up.  On the other hand, we still had over half the stage's distance to go.  Nonetheless, we switched into "let's do as little damage as possible" mode.

We well and truly cruised, with the exception of me sprinting for 50m or so towards a "SPRINT, 1KM" sign, throwing one arm in the air as I passed it.  Kane pointed out I still had a kilometre to go, but I was happy enough with my shorter effort! A while later we turned onto the Kourarau climb, past Adrian Rumney, adding to his wonderful portfolio of Wairarapa race photographs.  It was nice to have enough spare breath to say gidday, and to admire the man's attire!

Photo: Adrian Rumney,

Soon after passing Adrian, we too were passed, by the leading B-grade riders.  I gave my buddy Jase McCarty a good holler.  I'd hoped we'd link up with the back of the bunch, but it was in ones and twos, and so we left them to their own devices.  There were quite a few riders unaccounted for, including my friend Tijs.

I asked innocently whether there was a time cut, usually a feature of pro stage races.  I also hoped out loud that we'd be back in time for our Time Trial starts!

The descent was a ripsnorter, and we all successfully negotiated the left-hander at the bottom, in all its off camber and launchpad glory.  We were now pointing into the wind, and still had 20km or so to ride.  Jack and Matt were pretty rooted, and rather than leave them in the countryside on their own, we cruised allowing them to shelter in our lee.  I chatted quite a bit with Ben Knight from the Masterton club, and shared with him a bit of liquorice one the of the marshalls handed us!

The Limeworks hill wasn't bad at this pace, and we let Kerrin drift off the front lest he be seen to have fraternised with the "laughing bunch". I certainly wasn't laughing though - we were still out in the countryside, and had 10km or so to ride back to Masterton.  It was just as well I poked my nose into the Masterton Athletic clubrooms, as I was able to move my spare wheels inside, and to get the news that the time trial had been delayed by an hour.  That relief meant I definitely had time to go back to the hotel at the far end of town.  I resolved to drive back for the TT, having nearly reached my quota of riding for the day!
Stage 4 

For a dude without a time trial bike nor a pointy helmet, I was mighty excited about the fourth stage, a 16km individual time trial.  I did have one TT accessory though - a skinsuit - and a preference for steady power output as opposed to the punchy accelerations of the road races.  Perhaps my introversion also kicks in, and I enjoy riding on my own!

It's hard to know what the agendas are at this stage in a tour - there's not a lot of incentive for many riders to dig deep, with only a few still in contention for the coveted jersey of the leader on general classification.   On the other hand, put men on bikes and wave a stopwatch around, and boys will be boys...

Photo: Adrian Rumney
The out-bound leg had a good tail wind, and I tried not to go overboard with it, knowing that I'd pay with interest on the way home.  Andy Hagan started 30 seconds behind me, and big Dan 30 second later again.  Both had passed me before the turn, and I watched Dan slow for a car which interrupted his rhythm 100m before the cone.

Not only was the wind now coming towards us, but I wondered if we'd been going downhill too.  My speed had been in the high 40s, but was now hovering below 40km/h.  In the final straight I was able to focus on picking off my 90-second man, and had enough spare energy to give Adrian a wave, while maintaining my "aero" position...

"ROCK ON", thanks to Adrian Rumney
The results confirmed I'd had a good ride, and I knew most of the guys faster than me were riding jousting sticks with pointy helmets - the way it's meant to be done.  One of these days I'll get something like that organised...

After a short ride back to base, it was good to be able to throw the bike and spare wheels into my car before driving to the hotel.  Riding with the wheels in the morning had been a mighty pain in the arse...

Stage 5

The fifth and final stage of the tour was a three-lap affair on the Gladstone Loop, each of which included a climb of Miller's Road, and a 150m stretch of chunky gravel, courtesy of some roadworks.

While I've got plenty of experience riding gravel roads, not much of it is on a road bike!  When I pulled the bike out of the car, I was surprised my tyre pressures were in the low 80s, and bumped each back up to 100psi.  Hopefully that would ward off the snakebites.

My hotel room had come with an Easter bottle of wine, which I gave to Jorge for one of the marshalls.  He unceremoniously handed it to one young fellow who looked shocked, on top of the "I can't believe I'm out of bed so early on a public holiday" look his face was already wearing.

I had a good warm-up ride with Ben Knight, who knew the start was back out at the TT start/finish line.  It was just as well he knew, as I'd incorrectly assumed it would be back at the cars.  Luckily I had everything I needed already with me.

The bunch had gradually been getting smaller, but Luke's dad, Wayne, lined up with us.  This meant he got a great view of what was probably my worst race start ever.

Over the years, I've had plenty of practice clipping in - all those traffic lights, race starts, and departures from home, work, and all manner of other stops.  But, I temporarilty lost the ability to do it.

Generally, after one power stroke on the right, I give my left pedal a quick flick, engage the cleat, and go for gold.  As soon as that didn't work the first time, I pedalled again, and thereafter totally lost the plot.  I was trying to clip in as my pedal turned, and to make matters worse, my right cleat disengaged too.  When I was finally ready to go, I had a gap of 50m to close down.

The thought of not bothering did cross my mind, but by that stage, I was already chasing hard - on the TT course, superseding my TT effort of the evening before. After a nervous minute or so, I finally latched on to the back of the bunch, and stayed there for quite a while!

The first time through the chunky gravel section just near the Miller's turnoff claimed the yellow jersey.  I was slow through there, and was surprised to see he'd stopped for a whizz.  Of course, he'd stopped on account of the puncture and was making best use of the time it would take for the wheel wagon to arrive.

Dave's misfortune was great for me (and at least some of the others, no doubt) as bunch etiquette dictated a cruisy pace until the race leader rejoined us.  He did so not far from the top of the hill, and as he rode past the bunch made a point of saying thanks enough times to ensure everyone would hear it.  Nice work.

The more I race, the more I learn, and I've taken note of how temporary a hill-top fade can be.  Kind of like getting an annoying splinter out - as soon as it's gone, it's gone - and in this case the splinter is the uphill bit.  Consequently, I'd been forcing myself to go as hard as I absolutely could to keep in touch with the bunch, even when I enter the zone where the alarm bells start going off and almost my entire being is telling me "dude, you need to stop - you're killing me".  Gravity is such a bitch, but as soon as it was back on my side, or at least out of the game, I ceased from being one of the very weakest in the bunch. 

Over the next couple of laps, I tried to spend a bit more time further up the bunch.  When Ben Knight rode off the front, soon after leading us past his clubmates out for their Easter Monday ride, I was in second wheel, behind Luke McDermott.  He looked like he knew it was his job to chase Ben down.  I opted not to come through.  After spending a considerable amount of Stage 3 with Ben, I knew he was no threat to Luke's team mate's yellow jersey, a while I would have loved to bridge across and see if we could sustain a breakaway, I didn't think I had the acceleration to get away from the bunch in the tailwind conditions.  So, I sat tight.

The second time through the gravel went a bit better, and also riding further up the bunch seemed better too.  While I was copping a bit more wind, I could accelerate with the attacks much more freely, and consequently their duration and intensity both seemed more manageable.  I was still doing dumb stuff though - at one point I hauled on my brakes rather than go past the leading riders, and moments later found myself trying to regain the speed I'd just had to counter yet another attack...

As we turned north for the final time, I was glad still to be in the bunch, and still feeling OK.  I was riding up the bunch still, and following attacks as early as possible.  Without really thinking about it, I was the first to take off after Dave and Jason Christie, and soon after that I found myself off the front of the bunch.

Brad Tilby joined me for 30 seconds, but then I was on my own again.  The head wind wasn't too bad, and rather than ease off and be at the mercy of the others again, I put my head down, and tried to ride a steady but sustainable pace.  I was never more than 100m ahead, but it was nice to not have to worry so much about who was where and what they were about to do.  After perhaps 5 minutes, I was swept up.

The final 10km were fun, and again, I tried to ride as close to the front as I could, sometimes in first or second wheel.  There weren't many attacks which was nice, so the pace was pretty steady.

Andy Hagan, from whom I'd had a couple of good pointers during the stage - including how to use a race number as a pocket for the skinsuit! - did attack a couple of kilometres from the end, and while it was not particularly satisfying to drag the peloton back to him, I was kind of embracing my position at the front of the peloton, and that was satisfying.  While I was ruining any chance I had of sprinting for the line, I did feel like I was able to ride a small part of this stage race on my own terms - albeit in the service of others.  I think I've finally discovered what I want to be when I grow up - a lead-out man! 

When I joined Dave and his teammates, Luke, Backy and Lawny, at the end of the stage to congratulate them on an excellent race, one or other of them might have heard me mutter "I really have no idea what I'm doing out there..."

But, I'm trying to get to the bottom of it!

* * *

A few days on, my legs are still feeling pretty wrecked, but I know I'll be better for it when I eventually do recover (hopefully just in time for the Graperide with Simon on the tandem on Saturday)!

The tour was an excellent training experience, in both the riding and racing senses.  I can't wait to get stuck into some more road racing in a few months' time.  And, I look forward to having another crack at this Easter Tour next year!