Monday, February 10, 2014

Taking a hit for the team

One of the most difficult experiences I've had as a cyclist, perhaps even as an adult, was adjusting to the back seat of a tandem.  Simon and I had decided to purchase a Co-Motion racing tandem from the good blokes at Cycletech early in 2012, but when it was finally ready to roll, it was far from plain sailing.  To this day, I've unanswered questions about what was actually going on, but whatever it was causing problems, I'm really glad we got it sorted.  There's been some good, hard fun had on that thing since.

After our Longest Day ride, during which things finally clicked, the tandem didn't get much use - the Graperide being a notable exception.

While I was off scaling French cols, Simon had been hunting around for events which were suitable for a tandem.  And, when I got home, aside from family MTB rides, it was one of the few things I felt motivated to do, bikewise.  First cab off the rank was the Martinborough Charity Fun Ride in early November.

We borrowed Bike Wellington's capacious van (named Bruce, I think) and drove over to Martinborough with Sarah, Simon's wife, who was winding up her training for the Kiwi Brevette.  Neither Simon nor I were in great shape, but the weather was fine, and we didn't have too much climbing to contend with. 

Getting ready to ride at the Martinborough Charity Event
The race consisted of one short loop over Miller's Road, followed by a longer loop out to Gladstone.  We nursed ourselves over the rolling terrain in the first part of the race, and got popped off the back of the leading bunch on the Miller's climb.  Our combined mass helped us catch up to the bunch quickly, and rather than linger with them, we ripped past.

David Meo and Matt Webb-Smith were up the road, and in took us a hard 10 minutes to catch them.  We worked with them for most of the south-bound leg, before getting gapped on a short rise, and sitting up.

Riding at pace with these guys had been hard, and it dawned on me later, a tad frightening.  Grovelling away on the short climbs, I could feel my legs starting to go - I'd experience momentary panic wondering how much longer the climb would go on.  It's very strange not being able to see what's happening.  And, I realised we take for granted being able to predict how much longer our effort must last - mind over matter, and all that.

In any case, the break gave us a good chance to talk about strategy for the finish - using the same stretch of road that we'd just been dropped on - as well as to recover a little bit before being swept up by the bunch.

The chat paid off, and we knew exactly where to attack 60-odd kilometres later.  About 5 kilometres from the finish, we dropped the hammer over the top of a rise, and got an immediate gap.  I monitored it for a while, giving Simon encouraging feedback, and when we made the left turn a short distance from the finish, we knew we had line honours in the bag and we cruised over the line, five seconds clear of the bunch.  It was a nice result.

Three weeks later, we headed optimistically out to Otaki, for the Kevin Smith Memorial handicap race.  It had been our first event on the tandem leading up to Taupo in 2012.  Then, we'd started in Break in wet conditions, and had ridden well.

This time, we warmed up with a lap of the circuit under blue skies.  Simon tested his lines through some of the 90-degree turns.  With dry roads, and bit more experience, we were both much more relaxed about this course than we'd been a year earlier.

At the startline of the Kevin Smith Memorial.  Thanks to Rachel Anderson-Smith for the photo.  Her Dad would have been proud of the way she organises this fine event
We started with the large Scratch bunch and were immediately dropped on the first and only climb of the circuit.  We chased hard for the remainder of the 8km lap, and managed to get back on just as we passed the start/finish line.  That gave no time to recover before the climb, and we were out the arse again probably before anyone had realised we'd returned.

Getting dropped from Scratch in a handicap race is never fun - there are no riders behind to sweep you up.  We were one-and-a-half laps in to a seven-lap race though, and with a large and obviously capable bunch just up ahead, we started to consider the odds of getting lapped.

That was a useful, if not unrealistic, fear.  It gave us plenty of incentive to ride hard, and meant we got a much better workout as a result.  We had company for short periods, as we swept up those who'd been themselves dropped from their bunches, but we never saw Scratch again, thankfully.  That would've been a down-trou moment if ever there was one.

Thanks to Rachel Anderson-Smith
In the space of three weeks, we'd gone from hero to zero, and we acknowledged that the Kevin Smith Memorial race had not been the outlier.  We still had a lot of work to do to get back to some decent form.

Next event on the agenda, a couple of weeks later, was the Woodbourne Tavern Rotoiti to Renwick Serious Fun Ride.  The race itself was a 90km race from Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park, down to Renwick - just short of Blenheim - in the Wairau Valley.  While a point-to-point ride presents some logistical hassles, a selling point of this particular event was that you lose a few-hundred metres elevation from start to finish, to the extent that the race record was in an average speed of 48km/h.

Rather than get a shuttle up to St Arnaud, we decided to ride to the start.  Our original plan was to catch a Friday afternoon ferry to Picton, ride to Nelson that evening, and then up to St Arnaud on Saturday, in time for the Sunday morning start.  But, as seems to often be the case when I visit the top of the South, the weather forecast was pretty dire, so we opted to go straight up the Wairau on Friday night.

As luck would have it, our ferry was delayed, and we arrived in Picton 90 minutes later than expected.  We were suited up, and ready to roll out though, so got underway within minutes of berthing.

Arriving in Picton.  Better late than never.
The delays had kind of screwed up our dinner plans too, and we made just a short stop in Renwick for some shitty snacks.  The Wairau Valley road climbs imperceptibly to the eye, but our legs could feel it.  The road is straight for long sections, and it - and the wind - really were sapping our wills to live.  We swapped seats a few times, but both were getting bogged down in the monotony of the ride.

Just after dark, we sat on the side of the road for 10 minutes or so, had a bite to eat.  We also momentarily stopped focusing on our progress, or lack thereof, and just enjoyed the peace and quiet.  The break did us both the world of good, and even as the road tipped up soon after, we both felt better than previously.  We arrived at our accommodation at 11:30pm, tired, but very pleased to be done for the day.

We had absolutely nothing we needed to do on Saturday, and that suited us both down to the ground.  We enjoyed a leisurely day, which included a sleep in of sorts, a short walk down to the shore of Lake Rotoiti, and a gentle 30-minute spin on the bike.

The ubiquitous Lake Rotoiti shot.
By virtue of staying the night in St Arnaud, the next morning wasn't too urgent either.  The event info had hinted that aero bars would be OK - "if you can pedal it, bring it", but they weren't welcome and we took them off for the race.  They got stowed in the organiser's vehicle, along with our minimal overnight gear. 

There was a short downpour while we were waiting at the start line, and it was standing room only in an ezy-up the organisers hadn't yet taken down.  That, and the early-morning chill, made it hard to know quite what to wear, but when the "gun" went, we were both dressed as if we expected to get hot.

The race was neutralised to the outskirts of town, so we got at least half way up the climb to the Tophouse Road intersection without any pressure.  There was one other tandem in the field, and they were behind us when the A-grade field accelerated away from us both.  Simon and I were expecting to be left behind, and we simply focused on minimising the damage.

We also expected to be alone off the front by the bottom of the steep descent, but we hadn't thought the margin would be so slim.  A combination of wet roads, and a sizable gap saw us pass the lead riders just as the gradient started to ease off.  Nonetheless, once we got out of our aerodynamic tuck and started into pedalling again, we had a gap of a hundred metres or so.

We managed to hold that until about an hour into the race.  They bunch finally went by on the short climb near the Argyle Dam, again, just as Simon had predicted.  A chasing bunch of about a dozen riders had never given us more than a few hundred metres, and they gobbled us up on the short rise as our pace plummeted, and theirs barely moved. 

Despite catching us, the bunch didn't really ease off, and we simply slotted in with them, occasionally taking a long pull, but for the most part, riding as if we were just one of them.  Among the bunch was Rhys, who'd enjoyed our wheel for much of the Grape Ride.  It was good to see him again.

Riding in this bunch was significantly easier than the torrid first hour had been, and we had a good chance to recover for the finale.  The wind was almost coming head on, so Simon was sitting off to the right of the wheel ahead.  This gave me a chance to vary my effort to keep us on that wheel - something I can't do when we're directly behind - all I can see is Simon's back! Another useful revelation...

For whatever reason, there were no attacks as we neared the finish line.  On our way up the valley on Friday night, we'd scoped out the finish straight, and we got some intel from one of the guys in the bunch too.  As things wound up, Simon's positioning was perfect, and when we started our sprint, we had clear road.  And, we used it well, taking line honours once again.

Before we headed off to the prizegiving, one of the guys from the bunch described to us how hard they'd been working in pursuit of us.  He admitted he hadn't seen us go by, so thought he was chasing just me.  That was doing his head in, thinking a lone rider was holding off the bunch.  

After collecting what little touring gear we had, we made for Woodbourne, only to find that the Woodbourne Tavern is actually in Renwick - the 8km out and back trip felt symbolically much more and I got a bit snippy - after the fact it's embarrassing how a bit of fatigue affects the importance of things.

We enjoyed the prize giving, and associated bar-snacks, and we were happy to donate our bottles of wine back to the organisers rather than try to stow them on the bike.  Then, it was time to hit the road again...

Getting ready to leave the Woodbourne Tavern for Picton
We stopped for a break during the 40km ride back to Picton, and reminisced about the challenges we'd faced in the Graperide.  We were in no rush to get to Picton, and our legs were pretty toasted from the high-speed race.  When we reached Picton, I had a spot of roast pork for dinner, and soon after we boarded the Bluebridge bound for home.  We'd booked a twin cabin, and it was a real treat to shower before lying down in a clean bed, and dozing most of the way to Wellington.  The late night commute wasn't as much fun, though my legs felt a little better once Simon had jumped off in Northland.  I suspect some sneaky cross-subsidy had gone on, unbeknownst to me at the time...!

The rest of December and start of January saw tandem riding on the back-burner, but once we were both back in town after our respective holidays, we dusted our Ferrari-red long-bike off for a Wednesday Worlds hitout, in preparation for the Wellington Vets Cycling Club's Two Day Tour.

Worlds didn't go at all well, and I felt totally flogged well before we dropped our synch chain in Island Bay.  A few minutes' hard riding later, it fell off again, and we gave up on chasing the bunch, and nursed our bike, legs and egos the rest of the way up "Col de Happy Valley". 

The organisers of the tour had promoted the new tandem class quite heavily, but the response had been poor.  They attempted to cancel the grade late in the week, but objections were upheld, and at the first stage on Saturday morning, the three tandems were started with E grade.  Mkay...

Ray and Sue rolled off the front of the bunch soon after leaving Martinborough, and we took chase as the climb up to Bidwell's Cutting loomed.  The third tandem initially followed us, but the last time I looked back, they were wallowing in no-man's land, between us and the bunch.  We hit the front half way up the climb, and had a decent gap on Ray and Sue at the top.  Nonetheless, we eased off and let them take our wheel.

They held it for the next 30km or so, wisely, since the headwind we were battling was quite viscious.  The course took us down Te Maire Rd on to Kahutara Road.  Ray later said they made a couple of attempts to come by for a turn, but baled each time.

We attacked them hard as soon as we turned onto Lake Ferry Road, and kept the hammer down for a few kilometres, enjoying the boost the wind was now giving us.  About half way home, we eased off and cruised to the finish, better to save our energies for the afternoon's time trial stage.

Back in December, we'd had a bit of a play at the Hataitai Velodrome, swapping seats and riding 1km time trials with mixed results.  While the scientific jury was still out on which configuration was faster, we'd nonetheless decided that I would ride on the front for the short 8km time trial. 

We mounted Simon's aero bars, and set to getting me used to using them.  It was still a work-in-progress when we lined up, looking splendid in our skinsuits and pointy helmets. 

Warming up for the TT
The course was a short, sharp out-and-bag configuration, with a high-point at about 3km (and again at 5km).  I spent the whole outbound leg in the drops, fighting to regain my senses after a fast start, but enjoying being able to choose the gearing myself.  While I could feel my power was down a few minutes in, it was great to have Simon on the back and I could feel him helping my feet around.

About 3/4 through, still not brave enough to use the aero bars.  Photo thanks to Place Recruitment Cycling

We safely negotiated the turn, and after a short climb, I finally jumped onto the aero bars for the last kilometre or two to the finish.  We'd pushed hard to the line, and it wasn't obvious where we could have gone any faster.

We lingered around afterwards, hoping to learn whether or not we'd managed to ride the fastest time of the day.  We made ourselves scarce, suspecting, there'd been a timing glitch, and this was confirmed in the morning.  Unfortunately, neither we nor the organisers had any backup system, so our time remains a mystery.

The next day, we were offered the chance to start with C grade.  The other two tandems stuck with E, initially claiming solidarity.  It was weird to learn Ray and Sue had broken clear at the gun, and had ridden solo to the finish, despite not wanting to leave the third tandem in E on their own. 

By virtue of joining C, we had a nice figure-8 course to ride, climbing Miller's in the opposite direction to the fun ride in November, then doing a Gladstone Loop before Miller's again and back to home. A and B were doing the same course, so at least we'd be able to judge ourselves against them.

Warming up for Stage 3
We enjoyed the company of C grade for the north-bound leg, but rolled off the front as we neared the Miller's climb.  Simon was expecting us to be caught and potentially dropped on the climb itself, and wanted a buffer.  As it was, we crested the hill alone, and from then on, we pinned our ears back and went for it.

Breaking away on the Millers climb.  Photo thanks to Place Recruitment Cycling

It was funny to be riding solo for essentially the third stage of a tour, but also somewhat frustrating.  I'd had a great ride in A grade the year before, and had really enjoyed the challenging racing.  Three time trials in a row had less appeal, and I'll need some serious arm-twisting to make that sacrifice again.

We could see B grade up ahead on Miller's the second time over - pleasing, since they'd started five minutes ahead.  Unfortunately we dropped our synch-chain again on the descent, and had to stop to remount it.  We still hadn't quite closed them down when we turned up the Hinakura climb, and when we got to the turnaround point a few kilometres up the hill, we were between about half a dozen B-graders and their main bunch.

We tried a couple of times to break free of the guys behind us, but we were running out of power, and couldn't get away.  Instead of towing them back to their bunch, we eased right off, and rather than spoil their race, we spoiled our own.  Despite the disruption to our tempo in the final 10 minutes of the race, it was satisfying to record the fastest ride of the day on the same course as the A and B grades, even though the results still show us 40-odd minutes down in E grade.  My dear friend and sponsor, Oli, bless him, had seen that result and thought something must have gone horribly wrong.  On the contrary, we'd had a great ride, averaging almost 39 km/h over a somewhat hilly 83km.

One week later, we were on the road again, this time to New Plymouth, to do the Taranaki Cycle Challenge - a 148km lap of Mount Taranaki.  We enjoyed the drive together, stopping just out of Whanganui to eat dinner at William Birch Pool, a wee gem from a bygone age.

William Birch Pool on SH3, a few kilometres west of Kai Iwi. Simon, starting dinner.
The drive was eventually done, and we picked up our registration packs on the way to the Lindup's place, where we were kindly hosted.

The next morning, we expected to be on the road first, promised a two-minute buffer to the first solo riders.  There were at least four other tandems on the start line with us, but in the end we got no head start at all, which put paid to any hopes of going long.  We rode behind a pace vehicle until the outskirts of town, and then got stuck in to the undulating roads out to Opunake.

As with most of the races we'd done on the tandem recently, riding in a bunch with the solo riders was a headache - for Simon mostly.  Due to our mass, we're a lot faster down a hill, and in undulating terrain, we're faster up the first part of a rise.  Then, we're not.  At the front of a bunch this is fine, and we just drift to the back of the bunch as the climb progresses.  Worst case scenario, we have to chase back on for a few seconds.

Trying the same thing at the back of the bunch is terrible though.  We're on the brakes on the descent and the first part of the climb, and then we're out the arse.  Captain and stoker share the experience, but with different levels of control, and I find it psychologically tough as we're both burying ourselves to get back to the bunch.  The physical costs are not insignificant, and they conjure up frustrations at my lack of control.  Simon momentarily becomes my torturer, not the bunch and the course.  

Working hard to stay in the first bunch in the hilly opening stages

Soon enough the course flattened off, and it was a pleasure to go to the front and set a high tempo.  We probably rode there for much of the leg to Kaponga - the bunch was content to sit behind us, and we were just happy to be riding a steady pace.  The was little wind to worry about, and the mountain was looking stunning.

After Kaponga, we started to climb again, and we struggled as we'd done in the first hour.  This time, our legs were tired too, mostly from our own doing.  Luckily, we held tight, and were still in touch at the highpoint near Pembroke School.

Dangling at the back on the climb up to SH3
When we turned onto SH3, we had a strenthening wind in our faces, but again, we were happy enough to go to the front and drive the bunch on.  The faster we got back to New Plymouth, the sooner we could stop. There were a couple of guys who would give us a few seconds off, perhaps out of duty, or pity, but for the most part we took the wind with a long line behind us.

After Egmont Village, we had only two hills to worry about, and together they caught us out.  We were on the ropes at the bottom of the second, and had I been on my own, I would have given up chasing.  Riding as a team is different though, and we both pushed as hard as we could up the climb to Coronation Avenue, for each other maybe, and we had about 100m to close to the bunch.  I thought we had no hope, but kept pedalling.

We made the final turn, a kilometre later, only a few metres behind, but with little left in our legs, and with no room on the road.

Finally, the last turn
Poking my head up, done.

The results have us 10 seconds down on the first solo rider, with about 40 people crossing the line between us.  The next big bunch came in about 25 minutes later.  It's hard to tell, but we think we posted the fastest tandem time by a similar margin, and the bunch time was possibly a solo record too.  I could not recall pedalling as hard for as long, and definitely felt like we'd earnt this one.

We headed back to the Lindup's place, showered, and then drove into town for a late lunch. We found a nice French cafe, and I ordered in French - for the first time in over 6 months - possibly too well, because I was offered some twist to my order which I did not understand, and answered lamely "non, merci".  Oh well!  My pain au chocolat (unheated, which I think was the topic of the question) was delicious, and the coffee chased it down nicely.

We walked up to the event HQ through Pukekura Park, and I got in line for a massage.  After that was done, and I'd inhaled a tasty curry, we found a spot in the shade, and had a bit of a rest.

Getting ready for prizegiving
Having put in such a hard effort, it was disappointing not to get called up at prizegiving, and nor did we win one of the sweet spot prizes on offer.  But, the evening was nice and warm, and chilling out on the grass while others collected their booty was a nice enough way to pass the time. 

We both agreed that had been our best race together yet.  We went for a short mountainbike ride the next morning, before making the drive back to Wellington.  It was uneventful but for a car giving the bike rack a gentle shunt at the roundabout in Otaki.  We got her number, but it had totally slipped my mind until now.

The mental aspect of stoking a tandem is still something I'm yet to sort out, but with each race we do, I learn more about my part in it.  Simon has a hell of a lot more experience on a tandem than I do, and so his learning curve is less steep, but I think we're still fine tuning our team work, and race craft.

Of all the riding I've done, this tandem lark has been the biggest bloody roller-coaster, physically and mentally.  But, whatever the opportunity costs of racing that bike with Simon are, however god-damn hard it is, and however snippy I might get when I'm rooted, I'm pretty sure it was just meant to be...

(As seen in the registration pack at Taranaki.)