Friday, December 19, 2014

Two out of three ain't bad

After a highly successful spring cycle tour in 2012, both Simon and I were disappointed not to get away together towards the end of 2013.  We'd simply not been able to find the time.

Simon was busy designing the first section of a track at Makara Peak MTB Park that would become "Three Brothers", named after him and brothers Paul and Jonathan - a fitting tribute to not only their collective efforts at Makara Peak, but throughout the MTB scene in NZ.  And, I was house hunting, successfully as it turned out, blending the Randals and Tumens into one family under one roof. 

It was starting to look like the 2014 version might also slip through our grasp - I was flat out racing every other weekend or so in the inaugural North Island Series and Simon was designing the first piece (and second to be built) of Three Brothers so that volunteers could crack into the actual building over the summer months.  But, this time we had our eye on the prize, and we locked in the second weekend of December.

I'm as race fit as I've ever been, and while I've not clocked up big miles on the bike this year, the intensity's been there, and my legs well remember how to move a bike forward.  Simon's had a relatively quiet year riding-wise, though it's been a delight to see he and Miro rocking Kaitlyn's old Phillips Trailer-bike.  Perhaps on account of our own relative strengths, we agreed to dust the tandem off, charge the Di2 battery, and load it up with kit for two.

Route-wise, we probably let logistical convenience dominate common-sense, and we settled on a reprise of our Triangle Trip - the second spring tour we did together - back in 2010.  For a bit of variety, we'd thought we'd do it back to front, leaving the car in Ashhurst, just north-east of Palmerston North, and riding via Taihape and the Hawke's Bay in a big old loop. 

I'd been lecturing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, so we had the option of Friday-Sunday, or Saturday-Monday.  The weather looked better for the later grand depart, so it was on Saturday morning that we drove north out of Wellington at a very civilised 8.30am.  The tandem was hung across the back of my corolla - on the diagonal in at least a couple of dimensions to minimise the overhang.  Joining it was my partner Sarah's road bike.  We dropped her in Waikanae, and she rode home via the Akatarawas.  Not bad for a woman who's undergone the sort of transformation as a rider that you only get to do once in your life (if at all)!  It was an absolute pleasure to see the txt a few hours later:  "best road ride evaaaaaaa!!!!!". 

Our usual strategy of parking outside the local police station was stymied by Ashhurst's Santa Parade.  An overly officious fire man refused to let us between his cones to park on a side street (he must have been worried we'd push our way into the parade).  Simon and I had a bloody good laugh at his expense when at the next intersection, we found ourselves on the "wrong" side of another set of cones.

A couple of minutes later, we were not yet done mocking that prick, but we were parked up outside a nice looking home with no fence, and were getting ready to ride.

The Revelate Viscacha behind my saddle, though a mouthful to pronounce, is outstanding kit for this sort of ride, and accommodated both of our overnight gear, plus my phone and GPS charger (!!!), and some extra riding gear should the weather turn foul.  Most of our tools were in a Revelate Gas Tank, and on the handlebars was a very nice 2.7L Ortlieb handlebar bag, loaded with sun cream, butt butter and a whole lot of food.

We also had a custom-made frame bag suspended below my top-tube, courtesy of Michael Tridgen, a local guy Simon had fortuitously bumped into a few weeks earlier at the Eastbourne Fair. He owns and operates Stealth Bike Bags and had not only whipped up a custom bag for the tandem, but had also paid a house-call to measure up.  Impressive - many thanks Michael.  In this bag we put our rain gear, pump, a few tubes, and some more bars.

Loaded, and almost ready to go
Before too long, the was no good reason to linger, and we hit the road.  After a short stop at a handsome map board promoting the Manawatu Cycleway the next milestone was missing the turn off onto Pohangina Valley East Road, nestled between the Pohangina River and the Ruahine Ranges.

Simon, admiring the mapboard
I was soon using Simon's back as an excellent mapboard, as we'd sailed past an intersection which had a small sign reading "Sealed route to Apiti".  We'd stayed on the road which would soon turn to gravel, and I merrily consulted the AA map now laid out across Simon's back.   We wondered outloud what other things we could use it for, and wondered if we might cope with a game of cards in the future...  

As we headed north-east, the riding got progressively less tandem-friendly, and unfortunately the scenery was quite enough to offset the physical challenge.  The countryside was mostly open, with occasional tracts of native bush, and one superb letterbox.

Simon pointed out the Takapari Road turnoff, an 800vm MTB climb which I've not yet had the pleasure of doing...  One day, I'm sure.

Eventually we dropped down and re-crossed the Pohangina River, and started heading away from the mountains.  The river crossing was a bastard, and was a sign of things to come - a steep drop into a one-lane bridge which had Simon relatively hard on the brakes, and then a desperate shift through ALL the gears to finally get into granny gear at about the time that the bike had rolled to a halt...! 

The Pohangina River

At the intersection with Oroua Valley Road, we took a punt and turned right.  The various maps we'd consulted all promised an unsealed section, though none had agreed on the length (between 3 and many kilometres).  In the end, it turned out to be a very short section indeed, and it was so hard-packed that it might as well have been sealed.  On the other hand, the very sharp stone that we clipped within seconds of the "gravel" starting had us digging out a tube and the pump moments later.


I'd grabbed the pump off my commuter bike, and while it does a great job of filling a road tube quickly (and to a nice high pressure), it has no clamping mechanism.  When I tried to put a bit more air in the rear tube, I discovered it wasn't quite sealing on the limited valve stem protruding from the rim, and I was losing pressure instead of gaining it.  Luckily, I had a brass adaptor in the patch kit, and the pump has a reverse (Schrader to Presta) adaptor, and the combination had us back in business...!

That was the good news.  The bad news was that we'd had one puncture in the first 100m of gravel, and we thought we had at least 3km to go...  Lousy odds, perhaps, but we needn't have worried.  We stopped to let a flock of sheep by, and when the cockie kindly stopped for a natter, he told us that we'd be back on the seal momentarily.  As an added bonus, dodging the sheep-shit wasn't too hard either, and we were heading "downhill all the way to the Rangitikei River".

The traffic was crazy...
Downhill it might have been, but time had marched on, and when we saw a picnic table at the turn away from Rangiwahia, we took the opportunity to sit in the sun for a while.  On the mountain bikes a few years earlier, we'd been able to stay off SH1 a bit more successfully, but this time we had to stick to the seal, and emerged onto the highway at Mangaweka.

We detoured down to the "Mangaweka International Airport" and I smashed back a can of coke, while Simon had an icecream.  As we were getting set to leave, an unlikely looking cycle tourist pulled in - wearing jeans and a pisspot helmet, but he claimed he'd come from Hunterville, and somewhere else before that.  I felt glad to get away unscathed, and felt somewhat safer riding on the shoulder of SH1...!!

The long climb north of Mangaweka was a beautiful gradient relative to the shorter but steeper climbs that had punctuated the riding thus far.  And, that was a welcome relief!

The descent wasn't quite as hair-raising as I'd expected it to be, and Simon reeled the bike in as requested just short of the bridge at the bottom.  It is one of my very favourite moments on SH1, and I hoped to get a good view of the deep gorge beneath.  I was slightly disappointed to realise there was no shoulder, and I couldn't quite justify walking out onto the bridge just for a photo.  The unsuspecting motorists didn't deserve to have to deal with an amateur photographer taking up valuable real estate on their roadway.

I always regret not getting a better view off to the left of this bridge
We did notice a ladder, and took it down to a ledge below the bridge.  We admired the steel-work for a little while, and lamented the fact that the view from the top of the bridge would have been a lot better.  Once back at road level, we pushed the bike back up the hill 50m, and when we couldn't hear any cars coming, took a good run at the bridge. 

Next stop was Taihape, and soon after we'd found our lodgings.  The proprietor of the Taihape Motels seemed happy to see us, and even offered us a cold beer.  I gladly accepted - the first I've had in many months - but the cold, savoury beverage was a perfect antidote to a dry, and mildly irritated throat.  (I'd been making good use of the Fisherman's Friend I'd taken to France since Mangaweka.)

After showers, we strolled down the main drag, and grabbed some supplies from New World.  I was keen to buy more than we could possibly want, while Simon was in weightloss mode, and wanted less of everything.  We finally agreed to supplement our cereal with a pack of crumpets and small jar of nutella, and then it was off to find some dinner. 

I'd had a bad experience at the Chinese place near the BP four years prior, so we opted for the only other thing that was open.  Soon after, we were tucking into a chicken, brie and cranberry pizza.  I couldn't see the chicken, but at least I could taste it, and Simon generously offered me the 8th piece, which rounded the meal off nicely.

We only came back to this once the next day, but our hearts weren't in it this year

The finest lancewood I've seen, on the main drag in Taihape

Haha...  A 50c piece glued to the footpath, and a sucker.
Then, it was back to the motel, where be borrowed Shooter on DVD from the office, and settled back to watch Marky Mark (sans the Funky Bunch) shooting people with aplomb...!

Feet up
We smashed back a couple of nutella-laden crumpets each at intermission, and enjoyed a good solid sleep once the movie was done.

The motelier had indicated quite clearly that he wasn't keen to give us access to the bike until 8am, so we had a relatively gentle start to the day.  Things worked out well, and we were able to use the time we had effectively, and were ready to roll as soon as we got the bike back.

As is often the case in those first few minutes of the day, we both quietly ran diagnostics to make our first predictions of how the day would play out.  We were both feeling pretty beat from a hard day before - it had only been 120km, but it hadn't been particularly tandem-friendly. 

It didn't help that the first 10km out of Taihape were mostly climbing.  On a short descent, Simon indicated that the front derailleur wasn't shifting, and when that fault repeated soon after what appeared to be a local highpoint, we stopped the bike to check it out.

We were wracking our brains to remember how the Di2 indicators worked.  A red-flashing battery light looked ominous - frustrating since I'd charged the battery a fortnight before and we'd only ridden an hour or so since.  We did a couple of resets, but the front shifting didn't return.

Ahead lay Hawke's Bay.  Between us and it, were 150km of sealed but almost completely uninhabited road.  We had height to burn off, but we'd do so in a series of steep descents followed by long steep climbs.  We focussed on the risks:  if the battery were going flat, we'd soon lose the rear shifting too.  Then, we'd be in the middle of nowhere, and be stuck with manual shifting between granny gear, and the third, second, or first cog at random intervals, if history was anything to go by.  Not only that, but neither of us were feeling that flash.  Not a good state, if things were to go bad. Finally, even if we did get to Havelock North that day, we'd still be a loooong way from the car, and we didn't think hitching with the tandem would be particularly fruitful.  After debating all this for 5 minutes or so, we made the difficult decision to turn the bike around, and to head back to the car in Ashhurst.

Simon gazing longingly East...

The first stretch back the high point brought back fond memories of the end of our second day of the original Triangle Trip. I'd had to walk up this "incline" - a big ring climb on a good day - due to empty tanks.  Even Simon's strepsil hadn't really perked me up.  It was funny to see that slope again, to remember the one square meal bar hiding away in my bag, and to pedal up the hill with relative ease.

While Simon had been up front stressing out about the shifting, I was having difficulties of my own in the back seat.  Slowly but surely, I worked out that Simon's red coat was the source of my problems.  Seated, I was able to look to one side, or over the top of him, but when we'd stand to climb, my eyes were about 20cm away from his coat, and it was literally freaking me out...  Like a red rag to a bull, I guess. 

I eventually asked Simon if he'd consider turning his coat inside out, or popping my black one over the top.  He pragmatically suggested we swap seats for a while, and we did so out of Taihape.  The long climb, now after the bridge, wasn't too bad, but we stopped at the top anyway to catch our breath. 

Rest stop? Don't mind if we do...
With no access to the big chain ring, we were coasting anything other than an incline, so we rolled all the way into Mangaweka.  We didn't go into the village, and turned off to drop down to the Rangitikei.  We were waved on by a loon, who Simon identified as the chap we'd seen at the "airport" the day before.  Another bullet dodged. 

From the river, we had a long climb up onto the plateau between the river and the Ruahines.  Near the top, we stopped and had some morning tea, before cruising on up the remainder of the climb.  We past the intersection where we'd sat in the sun, and Simon briefly cursed his burnt knees.  I must've sat with my legs under the picnic table, and hadn't been affected. 

We had a brief stop, and some honey roasted peanuts, in Rangiwahia, and Simon took over on the front again, this time sans red coat.  The climb up to Peep-O-Day was pretty sweet, and there we stopped to replicate our Graperide trick of sticking some cardboard through the front derailleur parallelogram.  With the big chainring engaged, we picked up some speed along the relatively flat ridge, but the inevitable happened, and we were both chuffed to muscle our bike up some slopes which definitely called for the smaller ring.  Simon's pacing and gear shifts were spot on.

We soon reached Kimbolton, and the first signs of commerce since Taihape.  We felt compelled to stop at the cafe, and we were soon tucking into a bowl of fries.  While we did that, Oli fixed our bike for us, and so when we were ready to set off, we again had a full complement of gears. 

Oli, fixing the front derailleur while Simon and I wait inside the Kimbolton cafe
I'd fired a photo up on Facebook when we passed through Taihape, indicating shifting problems, to which Oli had commented: "Loose lead? At the derailleur, battery or under the lever hood?"  I'd checked the lever hood, since that was where the Graperide fault had been, but hadn't checked the derailleur itself.  When I gave the lead a tug, there was no resistance at all, and I immediately knew it had been the culprit.  I pushed it back into place, Simon gave the lever a nudge, and voila, we were (sheepishly) back to 20 gears...  

The next stretch was a dream - we had a tailwind, and elevation, and proceeded to blast down the long straight run into Cheltenham.  I was on the front, and enjoyed seeing our speed in the low to mid 50s for what seemed like an eternity.

All good things must come to an end though, and boy did that.  First, we lost gravity, as the road levelled out.  Then the wind dropped.  By the time we made the left turn onto Colyton Road towards Ashhurst, we had a very strong block headwind.  55km/h was replaced by about 16-17km/h, and the riding slowly but surely sapped the last energy from our legs.  

While we were sharing the pedalling load, I dare say both of us was wishing for a bike of our own, so at least we could have some short turns in the lee of the other.  On a bicycle built for two, the stoker feels every bit as much headwind as the captain, even though he can't feel it on his chest...

As if the wind wasn't enough, we had a few short hills to contend with too, which added insult to injury.  The last few minutes of the ride weren't all bad though - we had a nice descent into the edge of town, and then Simon took what seemed to me like a random left turn that spat us out onto the main drag about 10 metres from the car!

Our 400km-plus, three day loop had turned into a 250km out-and-back over two days, but I don't think either of us was disappointed.   We were both feeling pretty shagged, which surely meant we'd got in some excellent training.  We were both also glad that we weren't in the middle of nowhere - despite the bike being fixed, we were both conscious of the fact that in a parallel universe, things might not have worked out nearly so well.

The shortening of the trip also had its benefits, and we had both started to look forward to seeing our families again, and had begun plotting what we'd do with our windfall gain of a Monday!  

Most of all, we appreciated that the trip had served one of its primary purposes, and that was to enjoy a weekend away together, out in the open.  However inappropriate the tandem had been for the terrain we'd chosen, it had ensured we were always within earshot of each other, and we'd made the most of that charming feature.  

As always, it was bloody good to get out.