Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Not the Akatarawa Attack, 2015

In contrast to 2014, when Simon and I did not ride the Akatarawa Attack, this year we rode, in an event called Not the Akatarawa Attack.

In an effort to maintain the challenge of navigating in the complex trail system that is the Akatarawa Forest, the organisers have chosen recently to run every second event somewhere else.  This year was one of those, and the venue was Belmont Regional Park, starting and finishing at the end of Stratton St.

My most recent write up, from 2013, gives a bit of the history of the Makara Peak Mudslingers, but the short version is that Simon and I have had a very successful record at this event:  1 win in the four hour event (with Simon's brother Paul), and then 6 wins out of 7 starts in the eight hour event. 

Last year we were focussing our road tandem racing, but this year, there were no clashes, and we couldn't resist the opportunity to spend a day riding together.  Simon had some concerns about his form, but we managed an excellent evening ride out at Rata Ridge a couple of weeks out, giving him a nice boost on top of his usual base endurance (and substantial class, after almost three decades of racing at a very high level).

The Stratton St event HQ made for a relatively leisurely start, and certainly no worse than the multitude of trips I've recently made to the Wairarapa. Maps were to be handed out at 7:30am, and we were ready for them.

We rode back to the car and laid the two A3 maps out in front of us.  Thanks to the organiser, and mapper, Michael Wood, for providing a merged version of the map below - the green rectangles show the two A3 outlines.

OK, where to start.  Thanks to Michael Wood for the map (then and now)
We had 50 minutes or so to make a plan of attack, less any time we might need to organise ourselves.  And, as is often the case, initially it seemed we would need every minute of it.

The event is a treasure-hunt of sorts.  Subject to an 8-hour time limit, you ride around collecting as many points as possible.  The first digit of the control numbers tells you how many points the control is worth, e.g. control 83 nets you 80 points.

Obviously there are a lot of unknowns: how fast can we ride today?  How many of these do we need to eliminate?  Which?  What's wrong with our plan?  What should we be doing instead?  Where on earth do we start...?!

While I couldn't tell you exactly how it happens, based on our results, I think Simon and I must be pretty instinctive.  We started by adding the total number of points on the map (from the clue sheet rather than the map itself).  From memory, there were about 2600, requiring a rate of 300 or so per hour to get all of them.  That gave us not only an impossible target, but a sense of what might be a reasonable hourly rate.

The Dry Creek loop in the north-east looked worth getting, and so we discussed how we might hook into that loop, and how we might get out of it.  Simon estimated that something like 80-90-100-60-70-40-40 and home might take a couple of hours.  We made a note to point out the control number duplication, and also debated the merits of the various out-and-back trips we'd need to make.

Then, we began looking elsewhere.

I was interested in the western extreme of the map, as I'd never ridden any of the access points to Belmont from Porirua.  We looked for loops, and had a couple of ideas, but then getting to and from was starting to do our heads in, and we moved on.

Simon pointed out how nice the bush-clad climb from Korokoro Dam to Belmont Trig would be in the cool of the morning, and we both agreed that would make a sensible starting point. Control 64 looked a total nightmare, and there were good points on offer looping around in the south, so we also ruled out starting with 28.  We soon had a nice sequence:  26-27-45-92-3A-54-63-39-83-38-47.  This not only took us through a whole lot of points, missing few, but also delivered us to the middle of the map, whereupon we'd have plenty of options.

In fact, we were now up above the Porirua controls, which had defeated us earlier, and things started to quickly take shape.  We had to be careful about two one-way tracks, and to an extent the first of these heavily influenced our agreed order:  93-37-65-48-82-55-3B.

We were now not miles away from our Dry Creek loop, and so it was a matter of joining the dots to get there.  We hummed and hahhed for quite a while, before jotting down: 46-72-34-71-44-42-20-81-30-50-91-51 and then onto 80.  Switching between the maps masked somewhat our zig-zagging around, though we were conscious of how much of this was on "possible routes" (code for, the organisers got through here with their bikes - in one direction or other...).

All of that took just over 30 minutes, and figuring we'd make up the end as we went along, we used a highlighter to mark up both sets of maps, and also a black-and-white "flight plan" which we'd leave with the organisers in case we didn't show up later in the day.  The flight plan was actually a great visualisation of where we were heading, and I was pleased that I'd seen it.

We were soon at the final briefing, and a few minutes after that, we were away.

The first three controls reminded us we hadn't done this for a while, but that was partly bad luck.  The first two were in a small patch of native bush riddled with tracks, but Simon did a fine job of getting us to both controls, despite me trying to convince him we were somewhere we weren't.

Simon again had a much better sense of where we needed to go once we'd arrived at the Oakleigh St entrance to the park, and also had the better instinct that we'd overshot our third control.  I'd been too intent on keeping my bike under control on the steep, narrow and prickle-lined descent to monitor our progress distance-wise, and to note the knoll we needed to find on our left.  We ditched the bikes, and while Simon started up the track, I bush-bashed parallel to him - a mere 5m away, and I'm sure he wondered what the hell I was doing, crashing and bashing my way up the hill.  At least I'd had the foresight to ditch my bag, and the terrain was reassuring.  Soon, we were at the high point we needed, and then we got to run down the track for a little bit, both wishing we'd stopped our bikes a little earlier.

We had to ditch our bikes again, but this time in observation of a rule prohibiting bikes on the track heading up the valley above the Korokoro Dam.  While the stream took a mellow gradient up the valley (well, down, I suppose), the track was steep almost all the time, up and down, up and down.  I hoped like hell my riding legs would endure all this shuffling (something in between walking and running) I was doing.

It was bloody nice to get back to the bikes, and get immediately onto some sweet singletrack.

Simon got a bit ahead of himself for the next control, but I knew where we were heading and what we were looking for, and he soon was on the same (part of the) page too.

Given how hot the day was forecast to become, wet shoes didn't seem like such a bad side-effect of the 30 pointer, and then we were into the climb to the trig.

While the bush cover was lovely, and the air was still cool, the riding was hard going.  The track is too steep to be pleasant in either direction, and was covered with loose gravel.  We met a team of three foot-orienteers popping out of 54, but didn't see them again.

I thought I was going to get crashed into by a guy in full on Enduro colours, but luckily when he broad-sided into me, he was barely moving.  His riding companion, a generation older, was much easier to avoid.

I got a nice surprise at the trig itself, and a fitting one at that.  Sitting in the shade was my old friend "MIKE LOWRIE" (a Bad Boys reference, for those whose recollection of 90s movies has dimmed), his brother Alan, and friend Phil.  Mike was not only the person who introduced me to mountain biking back in 1998, but also had introduced me to rogaining - on foot back then.

Simon and I had a good breather at the top, chatted to Mike and co, before leaving the last bit of shade we'd be in for virtually the entire ride.  Even in an 8-hour event, it is hard not to rush, and consequently I failed to correctly photograph the stunning view to the south, over Wellington, and beyond to the Kaikoura Ranges.

For the next while, we plugged away at the control sequence we'd planned.  We made a couple of side trips without our bikes - whatever time we'd have made up on the off-track descent would have been lost on the uphill legs.  We were having much more luck, navigationally speaking, than we'd had initially.

Before too long, we were onto the one-way track to 65.  For some reason, we hadn't considered the mellower climb at the planning phase, and nor did we in the heat of the day, despite what lay before us.  Once my momentum had been used up, I jumped off my bike and started walking.  Simon continued on his bike for about 5 seconds longer, but he quickly succumbed to the insane gradient.  By this stage I was panting too much to point out that this was his area of excellence, but was also glad that he'd parked his pride, and was conserving energy.

Perhaps due to the effort, I got confused at the top, and climbed over a gate onto a shitty farm track, completely oblivious to the perfectly good 4WD road on my left.  It took me a long time to catch up to Simon.  Rather than go back over the gate, and ride the good route, I subjected myself to a couple of fences, and off-track travel.  Dumb, but a good lesson.

I was surprised how much elevation we lost to the control closest to the Cannons Creek road-end, but welcomed the rare bush-cover.  What goes down must go back up, and by the skin of our teeth, we both managed to stay on our machines on the steep climb towards the Takapu Road substation.    Beyond that was a 50-point control, but the real bounty was the 40L container of water.

I'd consumed about two-thirds of my camelbak bladder, and we refilled everything, and sculled a bunch more down too.  The time spent doing this turned out to be very lucky, and we met a pair of women on horseback at a nice wide intersection, with good sight lines.

Ten seconds later, we were hurtling down a steep gravel road at at least 50km/h, and once we'd slowed to a speed at which we could hear each other, we agreed that meeting those horses anywhere on that road would have almost certainly ended up in tears.  As we completed our loop, we both looked enviously at the alternative climb up to 65, which surely would have been worth the extra distance. 

We were soon winching ourselves up a road which would have been a dream to ride if it had been flat.  The actual gradient of it was such that I felt like my whole body was crying.  It was pretty much at the limit of what I could sustainably ride, and while I wasn't having to struggle too much for traction, the power needed to keep the bike moving up was significant.

We debated the order we'd take the next two controls.  I was very worried about the climb we couldn't see, up-valley from 72, while Simon was more worried about the climb we could see from 46.  I deferred to him, and was pleased that I had.  The ride through 72 turned out to be one of the climbs I most enjoyed, and its quality was a very pleasant surprise indeed.  I jumped off about 100m from the top, opting to forgo my pride, in exchange for a slightly less demanding effort.

Stunning view to the north over the non-existent bush cover
By this stage, the day had marched on, and we felt we needed to rejig things slightly.  We deliberated for a few minutes before deciding to do an out-and-back trip to 71.  After dropping my rather heavy bag on the grass, we hurtled down the ridge, the grass hiding very hard and rough dirt.  I hoped like hell it wasn't going to be too horrible climbing back up, and in the end wasn't too disappointed.

We thought it wise to make a quick detour to a second water drop, and there chatted briefly to Mike and Jenny.  Unfortunately the bunker the station was at was full of sheep remains, so despite the shade and the otherwise nice company, we didn't linger.

We'd planned on 44-42-20-81-30-50, a 260-point sequence to get us to control 91, but ended up doing 23-24-81-20-42 for 180-points.  We probably saved some time, but it did mean we approached 91 from below, and this turned out to be the most unenjoyable part of the day for me.

We were off track, and the spur was too steep to ride.  Problem was, it was also too steep, and uneven, to push the bike.  I found if I eased the gradient slightly by going to the right, I could lift the front wheel over things, but heading in the opposite direction, with my bike on my right side and above me, that was impossible.  So, I followed Simon's lead, and put the bike across my shoulders.  Good Karapoti training I told myself.  And, while I was doing that, my legs were telling me how unusual this was.  The section seemed to take an eternity, but in reality it was probably less than 15 minutes worth.

We made an quick trip out to 51, before climbing back up the ridge, stopping only to pick up my bag again.  I relished the steep climb, for the simple fact that I was actually on my bike.  It's funny how things are so relative, and compared to the grovel we'd just been through, this was pretty sweet.

We were at cross purposes before we successfully got to 80, and I'd ridden off in the correct direction, while Simon was looking in another.  After a nervous minute he appeared on the skyline, and we were soon notching up another 80 points.

We agreed we didn't have time to pop down to 90, and so made straight for 100.  It was Simon's turn to be spot on, and he navigated directly to the control.  On a roll, he suggested we forgo the Dry Creek loop, nervous about the climbing between our next two controls.  We had a quick tally of the points:  210 if we stuck to the plan, and 130 if we didn't.  But, we were certain we'd buy more time if we went down to 90 after all, which would surely give us an opportunity to recover a few of those 80 points, but would also eliminate a shit load of risk.

I bitched and moaned my way back up to the start of the singletrack we needed to take, in my head at least.  As we'd blazed down 10 minutes earlier, I'd consciously noted how glad I was not to be riding up it, and yet, here I was!!   The first section of the singletrack sucked too, but we soon had gravity on our side once more, and the niggles became a distant memory.

After about 6-hours of error-free navigation, counting to four foiled us.  We must have missed a suburban street, or perhaps it had been just a driveway.  Luckily we were able to access the 40 pointer through the school, which might well have been a better route anyway.  How nice when slip-ups work in your favour!

My legs were complaining vigourously when we hit the steep pedestrian way at the bottom of Hill Rd.  By the time we'd collected control 21, after a short walk down into a bush reserve, it was definitely time for a short team meeting.  Simon was keen to go up Sweetacres Drive, but I feared the steep gradient would kill me, and made a case for the mellower, but unsealed extension of Hill Rd into the regional park.  In my favour were points, and eventually Simon relented.  I talked him out of an assault on control 31, but only after we were standing at the 4WD road we would have needed to grovel up.  We agreed it wasn't worth it...!

For the next while it was "will we make it? Or, won't we?" and as the clock ticked on, so too did the distance between us and base.  We grabbed 10 points at a concrete bunker without going out of our way, and then rode purposefully on to control 52, taking the steeper route up off the Old Coach Road rather than the sustained, albeit lesser gradient of the more direct route.  Funny how conflicted the decisions sometimes are, given my recent aversion to the steep stuff.

By the time we'd grabbed that penultimate control, we knew we had plenty of time to get to the finish, early enough to avoid the hefty penalties for lateness.

Simon did a very good job of navigating to 25, and we both enjoyed our first ride down Borderline as a result.  We finished with about 7 minutes to spare, which in hindsight would have been more than enough time to grab control 11 before descending to base.  We did briefly contemplate 35, but thought better of it having seen the approach to it.

One of the curiosities of a race like this, is during and immediately after, you have absolutely no idea how well you've done.  Strong riding is important, particularly at the pointy end of the field, but probably more so is a good plan.  And, it's hard to judge the quality of that without knowing what everyone else's plans were.

We found some shade, and tallied up our points - always a difficult task at the end of one of these things.  Funny how a tired brain struggles to cope with adding one digit numbers! 

Eventually, we agreed that our score was 1840, which, we were somewhat delighted to see, put us at the top of the leaderboard.  Barryn and Liam were the next bike team, and they were a way back, though partially due to some faulty arithmetic (revised to 1510).  Between us were a foot team on 1584.  We'd collected our margin to third in the last hour and a bit - and by the time we'd been through control 100, we had enough points to win.  I would have gladly stopped then, to be honest!  But of course you simply don't know how things are stacking up.

Our route in the solid purple line

It was fascinating to see our route one the single map, and Simon was the first to notice we'd grabbed all the controls worth 80 or more.  Notably, the 670 points and 20 controls we hadn't visited were worth an average of 33.5 each, while the 1840 from 35 were worth an average of 52.5.  Not a bad plan after all, I guess.

Once we'd finished labouring through our arithmetic, Sarah, Khulan and Kaitlyn arrived, and not empty-handed either - the custard square with my name on it was just the thing to chase down three sausages.  We sat in the shade together for prizegiving, and then made our way home in two cars. It was lovely to see them, and it was kind of them to make the trip out, cutting short their own ride at Makara Peak to do so.

Even after the decent amount of BBQ, the afore-mentioned custard square, and some chocolate milk from the first dairy we passed, I was 82.1kg on the scales when I got home, down almost 3kg on my usual weight at that time of the day.  The salt on my riding shorts, jersey and backpack attested to the amount I'd sweated.  The day had been bloody hot after all, and with little wind, and generally low speeds, the local temperature had made everything a lot harder.

Simon and I haven't had much of a chance to ride together, and that aspect of the day had been great.  It's much more of a social experience than you'd imagine, even with lofty goals.  The strategy and navigation, and the duration, give you plenty of incentive to talk, and that in itself is a great feature that is pretty redundant in a standard cross-country race.

My inclination is always to downplay successful outcomes, and while I readily acknowledge that good preparation and execution is a key ingredient to that, it is bloody nice when it all comes together.  Nice too to have one more data point that makes it increasingly hard to argue that it's all a fluke!

Thanks to Orienteering Hutt Valley, and the Hutt Valley Mountain Bike Club for continuing to put this great event on, despite the relatively small number of enthusiasts.  And, in particular, Michael Wood, who's done so much to promote orienteering in these parts, from his excellent maps, through to the hours planning, organising and running these events.  It's greatly appreciated, and while I've had the pleasure to experience the satisfaction of organising something others enjoy, I also know how much effort it is.  Thanks Michael, from all of us.

Finally, to Simon - thanks heaps mate.  Given your limited riding this summer, you were solid as a rock!  Riding these things with you has always been a blast - a nice mix of upstairs and downstairs, and everything in between.  When Michael said "what number is this?" and I replied "our last", I definitely didn't mean it.  The Makara Peak Mudslingers will roll again, I'm sure.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Family Fun

From our very beginnings, we've been a mountain-bike family.  The girls met at the very first W.O.R.D. holiday camp, and Sarah and I got to know each other in the following months.  Things have moved fast since, and we've been a blended family, under one roof, for just over a year.

And, what a year it's been.  We've had plenty of lovely time together, with and without bikes. 

Last summer's riding holiday had to be cut short, but not before we managed to enjoy the Classic NZ MTB Ride that is The Bridge to Nowhere.

The next morning, the two smaller ones were emptying their stomachs on a regular basis, and with the sense of impending doom on the part of both parents, and a rainy forecast for Rotorua to boot, we made for home.  While Sarah and I somewhat-miraculously weren't also sick (Simon, Sarah and Miro all had been, in addition to Kaitlyn and Khulan), we all felt we'd made the right call to return to Wellington.  Rotorua would wait.

In the 12 months since, we've all undergone a riding transformation of sorts. 

Khulie's got an incredible work ethic, and has not only been the only regular user of the spin bike we bought for the garage, but has almost been the only one on it, subsequent to the initial flurry of one-minute sprints.  (Kaitlyn is a distant second, and Sarah and I haven't been on it at all!!!)  She and Kaitlyn often walk 6km to school together, but she does it alone too, and will often go for a short MTB ride on her own. 

Sarah's been the stand-out improver this year, motivated in no small part by being the slowest in the family last summer!  She bought a road bike mid-year, and she's become quite a machine since, often riding alone, but also with friends or a Revolve bunch.  Commuting by bike has helped immensely too, facilitated by the kids' willingness to walk or take the bus.  She's also recently bought a nice new fully to replace the hard-tail 29er with about negative 5mm standover height - needless to say, this has made a big difference to her comfort and confidence.

On the flip-side, Kaitlyn's had the toughest time fitness-wise.  She's had to cope with the different routines and opportunities having two homes brings.  She's also missed her winter football with its associated fitness gains, and has had a generally less active school day with her transition from primary school to college.  All the while, the rest of us have got fitter, in both relative and absolute terms.

We'd had Sarah's sister visiting from Mongolia for two weeks through to Boxing Day, and so we were all a bit short of exercise when we loaded up the car for the drive north.  The Corolla isn't so mighty when it comes to accommodating four people, helmets and clothes, and camping gear, so we opted to splash out on a hotel.  In doing so, it freed up space in the boot for the coffee machine, which was an added bonus.

The virtues of waiting until December 30 to head north were obvious once we got on the road, and it was almost a shame to stop in Otaki, such was our good progress.  Though, stop we did, and after successful visits to the Icebreaker and Bendon stores, we had a little less space in the car, and a little less weight in our wallets.

We'd rented a talking book from the library, and this kept us entertained, as we made our way up SH1.  Whether or not related to bedtime stories as a youngster, I occasionally needed to put some rock music on to boost my alertness, but otherwise it was a mighty fine form of entertainment.

We arrived in Rotorua mid-afternoon, and once we'd emptied the car into our room, every one was happy to suit up for a ride.

We made our way somewhat haphazardly to the Redwoods Information Centre where we picked up an up-to-date map of the forest to supplement one the girls had brought home from the 2W Enduro event earlier in the month. 

That done, we pedalled our way up Nursery Road in search of sweet singletrack, which we found in the form of Grinder.  In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best way to introduce Sarah to the Whakarewarewa Forest, but she coped with it very well, and we all soon emerged onto Nursery Road with all the blood on the inside.

As we made our way back towards the top of the Challenge tracks, we saw a familiar blue helmet, and we were soon alongside the girls' long-time MTB instructor and friend, Ashley Burgess.  We rode with her and her two buddies for a little while, before getting a little bit lost (in the wrong direction, no less) on the Dipper and ending up on Creek Track.

After reorienting ourselves, we made our way up Lion Track...

... and then rode up the 4WD road to the top of Tokorangi.  There, we were able to enjoy a bit of a rest ...

... and to take in one of the forest's rare views.

Khulan and Sarah with Lake Rotorua in the background
Having done so, we cruised down Tokorangi, Turkish Delight and out of the park on one of my old favourites, Exit Trail.  Soon after, we were showered, and not long after that, we were all hoeing into a plate of roast pork each at a quirky little eatery on Fenton St.

The next morning, armed with a pile of cash for the shuttle driver, we made our way into the forest soon after 9am.  Our first single-track of the day was Paddy's Run, followed by Tickler and Bunny Jugs 2.  I had a day's worth of snacks in my backpack, while Sarah was carrying 4 raincoats in a second.  I soon discovered that my earlier assumption that they wouldn't all fit in my bag was incorrect.  I squeezed the coats into mine, Khulie took on the empty bag carrying duties, and Sarah's riding immediately became more pleasant, and the irritating bag stopped irritating her.

When we got to the shuttle pick-up point, there was quite a queue, but we heard there were two buses running and that the wait wouldn't be long.  I had a quick chat to Steven, before ditching the bag with the girls, and, and with a promise to meet them at the top, headed off for my first climb of the shuttle's route.

Given it was busy, and I was relatively fresh, I managed to beat the first bus up, and had a nice sit-down before the girls arrived on the second bus.  We then finished the climb to the top of the hill, and disappeared into Tuhoto Ariki.

The conditions were the best I'd seen in the four or five times I'd ridden it.  There was very little mud, and the climbing traction was excellent.  We had a few stops to regroup, and at one, we were just lining up for a family selfie when another rider came along and happily took a photo for us.  Once he'd moved off, we took the selfie anyway!

It was nice to be in the native bush, and I was reminded of the Akatarawas just north of Wellington.  The girls were good-humoured enough, but I'm sure they were looking forward to getting back onto the tracks which better typify the style and conditions of Rotovegas, and were glad when we were finally done.

Their patience was soon rewarded with the lovely descent through Split Enz, Pondy DH and New and Roller Coaster in anticipation of a second shuttle ride.   On my way up the hill this time, I decided to go via Frontal Lobotomy.  An apt name, I decided, while I struggled to cope with the constant grade reversals. It was the only time I took that route!

No sooner had the girls jumped off the bus, than they were jumping on again, with only a quick blat down Corners in between.   I rode up the hill once more, and was definitely starting to feel it in my legs.

Our third descent was via Billy T, G-Rock, Chestnut Link, Roller Coaster, Moonshine and Old Chevy.  Towards the bottom, I checked my watch - expecting it to be about 2pm, I was shocked that it was almost 4.  We all instantly felt more tired, and we made our way home.

Still smiling, despite the hour!
I was pretty amazed at how well the girls had coped.  We'd made relatively good progress through our snacks, but the pace hadn't dropped much, and there'd certainly not been any complaining!

We popped in on Ash and Steve, before heading out to Lone Star for dinner - well deserved after our long day's exertions!

Pilsner sitting on Khulan's lap
We made a suitably casual start on Day 3, hoping to maximise our recovery time.  This time we headed in via the Waipa Mill carpark - I hadn't ridden the cycle trail alongside the highway before, and lamented the lack of camber on the very first switchback corner, just managing not to disappear into the bushes.

We bumped into WO Paul Larkin, whose mud-splatter confirmed the heavy overnight rain had put paid to the previous day's wonderful conditions on Tuhoto Ariki. 

We did our usual family-shuttle routine, and I had time to admire my bike for a bit before the girls arrived.  It's by a long shot the most beautiful mountain bike I've owned, and with a hefty amount of XTR on it, it typically only gets taken out on special occasions... 

It was a delight reacquainting myself with my rarely ridden, and now almost retro, ASR-5C
We did a quick blat of Corners - I was a bit tentative because of the rain, and struggled to get my flow on.  I joined the girls on the bus for the second trip up the hill, and we descended this time via Underbilly, Billy-T, G-Rock, and Roller Coaster.

After making our way relatively sedately back to the shuttle stop, we found we'd been caught out by our late start, missing the last shuttle of the afternoon by a few minutes.  That stymied our assault on Eagle vs Shark, and rather than ride up the hill to some surely sweet single-track, we decided simply to take what was immediately on offer.

That was in the form of Chop Suey, Spring Roll, and Sweet and Sour - much more sour than sweet, we all thought!  Smiles were soon resurrected on Dragon's Tail though, but they didn't last long.  About 10m up Piglet, we had our only bike issue of the trip, namely Khulan's chain snapping!  I accused her of sabotage in response to my plan to ride up to the top of Tokorangi once more.  To add insult to injury, I wasn't carrying a chain-breaker (tut-tut), so we opted for Plan B, which was Khulie hanging on to my bag!

By the time we got to the top of Nursery Road, I could taste my legs in my mouth, but not before we'd pinged Kaitlyn and Sarah!  Khulan kept apologising, but there was no need to, and I was simply glad that we weren't all having to walk!

Khulie did a great chainless run of Exit Trail, and once onto the suburban streets, we were able to resume towing again.

Almost home!

We thought we'd check out the Pizza Library for dinner, but it was closed and we ended up at the Fat Dog.  We couldn't raise Ash and Steve on the phone, but took a punt and went past their tent with some ice-cream and cones.  Alas, they weren't there, and so, somewhat over-catered, we headed back to the hotel for dessert!

We did, however, get to enjoy their company in the morning, by virtue of some actual organising...!  We met at the Waipa car-park in anticipation of the first shuttle departure of the morning.  I was pleased when Steven suggested he and I ride up, and we enjoyed a lovely catch up while doing so.

We had a short wait at the top of the hill for the women, and I was pleased to see that the Day family (Mum, Dad and three daughters) had been on the shuttle bus too.  They were keen to join us on our final big descent in the forest. 

And, what a beauty it was!  We started with Eagle vs Shark, which had us all whooping and hollering.  In some ways it was good we hadn't ridden it on the first day, as we might have subsequently foregone all the other tracks we'd hit up. 

Five W.O.R.D. clients in amongst that lot!
I loved the ride up Sidewinder, which had been recommissioned as a climb to better connect Eagle vs Shark into the network.  Traction was great, and it was nice to put the legs, lungs and core under a bit of pressure. 

We took the right-hand side of the loop across to the top of Hot X Buns, and I was treated to a lovely shot of my three gals in matching jerseys.  The young Days seemed quite aware of the photo composition, and drifted back so I had a clear shot, which impressed me (both their insight and courtesy).

Kaitlyn, Khulan and Sarah
Kaitlyn had a wee spill on the way down Hot X Buns, but apart from that, we'd all had fun.  Khulan had been hot on Steven's heels - a sterner test than following me around! 

At the bottom, we said goodbye to Ash and Steven and the Days, who all headed back across to the shuttle.  We jumped on to Be Rude Not To - it really would have been rude not to.  Despite the block now being devoid of trees, the track was as good as ever, and we all had a lot of fun on it.

Can't get enough of these beautiful people!
We cruised up Lion Trail again, and then had a bit of a picnic before tackling the 4WD up to the top of Tokorangi once more. 

Daisy-man and Mother
This time, we took Corridor down, before a somewhat unpleasant ride through Soakhole, and our final descent of Exit Trail.

We cleaned up, and then headed into town for a cruise around the bike shops.   

Despite Kaitlyn begging for a new helmet, we made no purchases, at least in our imaginations saved by Bike Culture and its bling framesets being behind locked doors. 

We drove out as far as Lake Tarawera, and then spent a few minutes on the beach at the far end of Blue Lake, before our stomachs announced it was time to think about dinner.
Lake Tarawera in the background
There were again no signs of life at the Pizza Library, so we opted for greasies instead.  "The Fish & Chip Shop" on Lake Rd got good online reviews, so we made for that, and then ate our kai down by the charming St Faith's Anglican Church. 

After dinner, we wandered around the cemetery there, and then one of the two local marae.  There was steam emanating from a crack in the courtyard, and upon closer inspection we were amazed at the temperature of the paving stones. 

Not quite hot enough to cook on, but close!
No-one was that keen on the music festival that Ash and Steve were attending that evening, so, saving a few bob, we headed back to the hotel. 

We did get to see them once more before we headed home, for breakfast the next morning.  Once they'd left, we loaded up the car, and started the journey south.  Ash and Steve had given us good directions and intel on the relatively new Rainbow Mountain ride, just south of the Murupara turn-off.  The heavily pot-holed road was a bit rough on the poor Corolla, particularly with four bikes hanging off the back of it, and the short drive seemed to take ages.

Now on our bikes, we back-tracked along the road for about half its length, before jumping onto the track we'd been advised to avoid the first section of due to some nasty spring growth.  We were soon at a turn-off, which we took, against the advice of the girls (who'd done this ride on a W.O.R.D. trip)! 

I found myself alone soon after, and enjoyed the challenge of trying to stay on my bike.  I fluffed one section once, then twice, but got it on my third attempt.  Another section higher up also defeated me first time around.  I thought of Simon, who would absolutely love this climb, and would no doubt rise to the challenge of cleaning the whole thing.

There were some nifty views, but behind me not all was well.

A happy view, photo by Sarah
Sarah wasn't enjoying the climb one bit, and had lost track of the girls and stopped to wait without realising they were ahead of her.  I hadn't answered my phone, so when I found her down below, she was stressed out and a bit pissed...!

Not such a happy view, photo also by Sarah
Before long we were all at the summit, and we had a short rest.

Khulan, resting!
On the top of the hill was a Forestry lookout, but it was unattended.  We had great 360-degree views, with much of it pine forest and indistinct hills.

Looking north along SH5

Reconciliation?  With Kaingaroa Forest in the background

Temporarily happy family!
I was hoping the descent would be enjoyed by all, but Sarah loathed it!  The top half was technical in places, and quite in contrast with our previous four days' riding.  She hit the deck a few times, and when we regrouped at the bottom of a nasty drop off, my pleasure at riding safely down it was soon blown out of the water by Sarah's experience. 

There are a few ways to deal with a tantrum, and one nifty one employed by me then was to run away from it.  I resumed enjoying myself, and by virtue of being quicker than Sarah, was able to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet for the remainder of the descent.  All the while hoping the change in nature of the track was more to her liking.

We decided against joining the masses in Kerosene Creek, and instead drove a little further south to a quiet little spot Jenifer Silva had shown me a few years ago, and which I've enjoyed many times since.

The confluence of a very hot stream and a surprisingly warm stream (usually cold) helped wash our worries away, and we were all good friends again by the time we were changed and back in the car. 

Nonetheless, I was annoyed at myself for leaving this last ride until last, and a little annoyed at Sarah for having such an allergic reaction to it.  In hindsight I understand it a lot better though - her confidence, and indeed ability, had grown immensely at Whakarewarewa, and this ride had brought her down to earth - literally at times.  She was worried that it had undone all her good progress, a concern that was dispelled upon her first ride back at home, when she managed to lay her Starfish bogey to rest. 

* * *

We've been back a couple of weeks, and it has been a nice time to reflect on what was an amazingly successful holiday. 

All told, we probably notched up in excess of 25 hours out and about, including the 9-hour mission on the second day.  The shuttle was an invaluable way of extending everyone's range, and well worth the hundy we spent for a 20-trip ticket (six each for the girls, one for me, and one for Steven in appreciation of him riding up the hill with me on the last day).  Aside from Khulie's chain, we'd had no trouble with the bikes, not even a puncture between us.

It seemed like no big deal at the time, but I'm amazed at the scale of it all now the dust has settled.  The level of fitness to sustain that sort of activity over successive days doesn't come about by accident, and each and every one of us has worked hard to be able to cope.  I'm impressed by all of them, but Kaitlyn in particular, who only a couple of months ago burst into tears on a switchback on Sally Alley, and broke my heart by crying "Dad, I'm so unfit".  I've reminded her of that, and of how far she's come since.

Most of all, I feel incredibly lucky.  How wonderful it is to have three riding companions on tap, whose skill level and endurance is such that we can all enjoy riding together.  There were no complaints, and only some mild discouragement at my occasional suggestions to ride up yet another hill to knock off yet another trail.  Not a single "are we there yet?!"

I realise that some of it isn't luck at all.  I am glad that we've together managed the challenges of riding as a family, and that we've all opted-in to accommodating each other's strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.  We've all made it about each other, and it's paying us back in spades.  It's becoming apparent that there are few remaining limitations to adventures like the Heaphy, which not so long ago seemed like crazy ideas.

I'm very proud of them, and us, and am looking forward to the next bit of family fun immensely.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Five lessons from the North Island Series

In the middle of March, just as I was "getting ready" for my ill-fated PNP Easter Tour, up popped promotion of a new race series.

It garnered a great deal of excitement among the Wellington road cycling community - while a few riders compete in the South Island's successful Benchmark Homes Elite Series, team racing is a mostly foreign concept to us.  The wheeling and dealing began immediately, as people who weren't already affiliated to the likes of Wheelworks and MeoGP started to rustle up some mates to form a team with.

I put my feelers out, but soon realised forming a team was going to be an impossibility, and instead accepted a spot on Rivet Racing's roster.  After a very disappointing Easter Tour, and fairly lousy condition, I opted to ride the Masters division, i.e. those 35 years and over, complete with its shorter distances.

The series provided a nice carrot which complemented my general desire to be fit.  I realised that waiting for the inclination to ride often meant that I couldn't ride at all, and so I reprioritised slightly and forced myself out when the opportunity arose.  Within a few minutes, I was usually glad to be on the bike, and was wondering why I didn't do it more often.

Throughout winter, I managed 3-4 decent rides a week.  These were typically short, amounting to little over an hour:  a Makara Loop on the way to or from work, a loop around the South Coast taking in Brooklyn Hill, Murchison St, Mt Albert and Mt Vic, and Wednesday Worlds, a 50-minute blast around the bays.  I started joining my team-mates on their regular Saturday morning ride, which usually took around 3 hours, punctures notwithstanding.

These slowly but surely started to make a difference.  My weight post-France had crept up from 85kg to around 92kg, but a reversal began.  I also started to feel stronger. Limited time on the bike also meant that I stayed healthy during the winter, and didn't succumb to any of the nasty colds and flus that were going around.

Eventually, local races began, and I went to as many of these as I could, even grabbing fastest time in the second Balfour-Pennington handicap race in cold and wet conditions down-valley from Wainuiomata.  That performance, and the fact that in the Chinese Zodiac, 1973 was the year of the Ox (and element, Water), lead to the Rivet boys giving me the nickname "Water Ox" which appears to have stuck, including Jase's take on it which brings a smile to my face every time I read it - Woxy!

In the final few weeks before the series, I'd followed Joel Healy's advice and done a set of hill and flat intervals, and by the time the first race rolled around on September 19, I was pleased with my progress, and apprehensively looking forward to getting underway.

Race 1:  Wrap up warm

The conditions for race one could not have been much worse.  The course was three laps of the Gladstone-Millers circuit, and it was cold, wet and windy.  Water Ox conditions.

It was hard to know what to wear, but opting for a Castelli Gabba beneath my Rivet jersey was spot on (the Gabba definitely lives up to the hype and is the best bit of cycling kit I've owned).

Photo:  Michael Wills
The Open riders were underway first, and then the huge Masters bunch lined up.  We were neutralised for the first few kilometres, and then racing got began.  We managed to pass safely beneath the finish gantry, despite the bunch using the entire left side of the road, and cones sitting on the centre line.

I didn't much enjoy being at such close quarters in such foul conditions, but the pace was manageable at least.  At one point I joked with local legend, Brent Backhouse, that I could see him a mile off in his bright orange POC helmet. He was one person we'd identified to keep an eye on.

I kept waiting for the hammer to drop, but the bunch seemed content to ride at a pace I was comfortable with.  As we made our way up our first of three ascents of the mellow Miller's Road climb, I went to the front and set a good tempo. Over the top I was surprised to hear there was a breakaway 4 minutes up the road.

Setting the pace over Miller's Rd, Lap 1.  Photo: thanks to
The bunch was well strung out on the steeper descent, and my mass gave me a good advantage. Mark Donald and one other got a bit of a gap, and I ummed and erred in between, but in the end drifted back to the main field.

The next leg was into a stiff headwind, and it was good to think of the people ahead getting less shelter.  I hadn't been prepared to grab some food from my jersey pocket - I wanted both winter-gloved hands near my brakes - so it was great to be offered a chunk of one-square-meal by my team-mate Ben.  Joel was up front doing some solid work keeping Mark and mate within sight, and we were soon into the crosswind leg.

As the road started to tip up slightly, I was in second wheel, with another Rivet in front.  Craig was setting a good hard pace, and as we neared the top, I urged him on.  When he peeled off, I decided I'd bury it for a while.  It was nice to be at the front, and I figured that in the strong cross wind, the bunch might split, making for slightly less hectic riding for the remainder of the race.

I rode in the gutter, ensuring that the riders behind me got no draft.  Every time I checked, there was someone on my wheel, but I kept my head down and kept pushing the pace.  After perhaps 5 minutes of this, we made the left turn for the down-wind leg.  I eased up and swung wide to slot in further back in the bunch.  I was expecting 20-30 riders, but to my surprise there were only four.  While none of my team-mates were there, I was sure they'd be keeping a watching brief in the bunch behind.

Before too long, we'd picked up Mark and his cobber, making us a bunch of seven:  Mark, three riders from East Coast Velo, including Craig Hoskin who'd recognised me at the start of the Bridge to Nowhere ride at the beginning of the year, a Tararua Builders rider, myself, and none other than Gary Anderson, Olympic Bronze medalist, and multiple Commonwealth Games champion.  Despite ECV's strength in numbers, we all started working together and it finally felt like we were racing.  The conditions continued to be foul...

The chasing bunch.  Dire.  Photo: many thanks to

And another, just to make you glad you're indoors...  Thanks again to

I had absolutely no idea who was up the road, but I'm sure the ECV guys knew of at least one - their team-mate, Stephen Sheldrake.  They weren't obviously keeping the pace down, but I'm sure they had absolutely no intention of letting us catch up to the front of the race.  On the other hand, I'm sure they didn't want to be caught by the 100 riders behind either, and we continued to make good progress.  On the second lap, we took two minutes out of the front, but two minutes adrift was the closest we came.

On the final lap, and I lead into the left turn a few kilometres from the finish.  The foxing began, and I had to slow dramatically to get off the front.  On the short descent past the Gladstone Hall, my mass gave me a bit of a speed edge, and I ended up at the front again.  We were on the cross-wind leg again, so I stuck to the gutter and kept the pace high.

When the gantry was in sight, I gave it heaps, and got a small gap which I was able to hold all the way to the line.  The five riders in front had finished two-and-a-half minutes earlier, but placings were the key to the series, and I was very happy with sixth.  Despite being completely oblivious to the breakaway in the first few kilometres, I was pleased that I'd made the most of what remained, and glad to have repaid the early work by my team-mates with a high placing.

Success, sort of.  Photo:  Di Chesmar

The after-match was a bit of a fizzer, with not even so much as a biscuit each to help with the resupply of the considerable amount of energy we'd expended during the race.  On the other hand, team managers got a stern email warning of the penalties for riders fronting up to the podium not in riding uniform!  These were quite different priorities to the usual, casual club race.  But, it was nice to be doing what felt like serious racing.

There was news of crashes galore, but luckily no Rivets had gone down.  Dave Weaver in the Open race had steamed into an unfortunately placed road cone and busted his collarbone, while Backy had crashed out of the master's race.  Among many others...

We were also taken by surprise with the allocation of team points.  When we'd entered, it hadn't been clear that the 35-44, 45-49 and 50+ age categories were being run with separate series points.  Also, the field size had expanded from the 80-rider limit, to close to 100, and space on the road had been at a premium.  Emails full of "constructive criticism" were flying left, right and centre...!

I'd lived up to my Water Ox moniker, and had ridden well in the foul.  Despite not eating much early on, my chest was warm throughout, and being big comes with large fuel tanks.

Joel had put a lot of thought into tactics for the race, and it was a shame we were all so busy trying to keep upright that we missed that initial breakaway.  Our next chance was in four weeks time.

Race 2:  Keep your eye on the prize

The second race was based out of Masterton.  The organisers had received a fair bit of flack from the local authorities unimpressed with all the crashing, and the quality of riding more generally, and we were put on notice about crossing the centre-line in particular.

We Rivets lined up nice and early to ensure we got a good start, but were swamped by everyone else and ended up with lousy position by the time we got underway.

I did my best to bide my time, and used the various intersections we went through as good opportunities to move up in the bunch.  A couple of dozen hard pedal strokes were enough to make up good ground with judicious corner-cutting.  I figured there was no way anyone could define "wrong side of the road" when we were crossing it.

The weather conditions were very nice indeed, and there was no wind to speak of.  A shame, since we'd been effective in the cross-winds in Round 1.  A team-mate, Matt Webber, was up the road with Peter Murphy, from Gisborne but riding with local team MeoGP.

When we hit the undulating road between Martinborough and Masterton, I'd been near the front for a while.  Word was coming through the bunch of disqualifications, including that of Craig who'd been an asset to the team in the first race.  Despite this, the U17 Lanes team were constantly riding on the wrong side of the road.  They were very strong, and obviously eager, but us oldies were losing patience with it, and they were regularly being bellowed at.

What minimal tactical nous I have was well and truly tested in the second half of the race.  I was feeling strong, and with no sign of any other Rivets, I felt like I was obliged to chase just about everything.  MeoGP and East Coast were taking it in turns to attack off the front.  The thing was, they were never going together, and it didn't cross my mind that they'd chase each other.  Stuart Holder from Auckland was looking strong too, and was also doing a lot of covering work.

I was keen to get away with someone, but every time I bridged to an attack, they'd sit up, and I was too thick to realise their attacks were successfully wasting my energy.  About 10km from the finish, I spent a few minutes away with one of the young Lanes boys, but I wasn't prepared to go 100%, and we were soon swept up.

Despite having excellent bunch position for all but the first 25km, I got swamped in the run to the finish.  The pace was high, and I was scared I wasn't going to get a look in come the finish.  It was nerve-wracking riding the in middle of an increasingly high-speed bunch, with every man and his dog trying to get near the front.  About 1200m out it was like the Red Sea had parted, and I had nothing between me and the finish line.

Rather than consolidate, I foolishly thought that it was now or never.  It was way too far out though, and I faltered 200m from the line, and could do absolutely nothing as those who'd been far more patient than I contested for the win.

I was 27th across the line, and bloody annoyed with myself, being upright and in one piece was only a tiny consolation.  I felt like I'd totally screwed up the race, and my perception was wholly accurate.  I hadn't been thinking about the importance of the series at all, and rebuked myself for not following wheels and securing a high place across the line.

While I was the first Rivet to finish, I hadn't been the only one in the 37-strong bunch. Peter Moore was a couple of places back, and Neil a few places behind him.  Peter had been stuck at the back just in front of a vigilant commissaire and hadn't been able to move up in support.

I vented a little bit of my frustration on the poor Lanes boys.  I first complimented their riding abilities, to soften the blow:  "you guys are incredibly strong, but you're riding like idiots...".  They and their parents looked suitably embarrassed.  The organisers obviously agreed - five out of the starting eight had been disqualified for riding over the white line...  I felt slightly guilty afterwards, but as a father and an educator, I was somewhat glad I'd said something to them - they needed to hear it.

I'd dropped to 7th in the series points.  Despite attacking what seemed like constantly in the final 20km, Stephen Sheldrake won the sprint, and took the lead in the series.

Race 3:  Watch your speed

Race 3 was on the "Carrington circuit".  I'd deliberately made the trip over a few weeks earlier to do a club race on the same roads, so was feeling positive having had an opportunity to recce what I thought was the course.  I was slightly disappointed to realise we'd be in the reverse direction for the most part, though the upside was that the course would suit me better.

Conditions were again great (in the usual sense), and there was absolutely no need for storm gear.  Sun cream was a must though.

Finally we got an excellent position on the grid, and it was good to hit the road.  From our start just off SH2 south of Masterton, we took quiet back roads before linking up with the race circuit.  We rode once up the steep side of the hill we'd done seven laps of in the club race.  It had been described as a power climb - by someone with a hell of a lot more power than I have.  It was good to know what was coming, and instead of muscling up in the 53 as I'd done in the first lap of that race, I was spinning the easy gear and hadn't had to dig nearly as deep...  (By lap six of the club race I'd been in my granny gear on that hill, and never again rode it in the big chainring!)

Photo:  Chris Denholm
The descent was fast, and then we were onto a sinuous section of road.  The map made it look somewhat horrible, with regular 90-degree turns.  But, they were so beautifully cambered, you could ride through them at full noise, pedalling as you went.  So, no need to brake and then accelerate back up to speed - something which kicks my arse every time.

The course then took us across to the outskirts of Carterton, where we did a loop before returning back the way we'd came.  This time it was back over the shallow side of the climb, but not before we'd been confronted with the women's bunch and associated vehicles...!!!!  They'd obviously got as big a fright as we had.  It wasn't immediately clear why they'd been there, but we found out later that they hadn't been sent the right way and the delay had meant they weren't clear of the course by the time we'd come through.

The steep climb had become a steep descent, and I became aware for the first time of the differences between the alloy rims I'd been riding previously, and my new carbon wheels.  Jason McCarty had jacked up a deal with and I'd leapt at the chance to get a lightweight, aero wheelset for a bargain.  I wasn't used to the sounds and smell of heavy braking on carbon rims, but negotiated the tight corner at the bottom safely enough.

Joel was doing a fine job as road captain, and at one point sent me back to get him some help at the front. Craig responded immediately, no doubt being pretty gun-shy after a DQ in Round 2, and promptly got himself to the front within the rules of the game.  He and Joel both worked hard keeping a small group of riders out front in check.

I'd lost track of how many laps we were doing, but was feeling good enough that the "extra" didn't bother me that much.  In this direction, the climb was a perfect gradient for me, and one which was both suited to my power, and not steep enough that my mass caused me problems.

I resolved to lead over the top on the final lap.  From there we'd have a few kilometres to run to the finish, and I figured I could recover on the descent, drop back a few wheels and then unleash in the relatively short finishing straight (maybe 500m compared to the previous round's 3km one).

My plan started off perfectly.  I did get over the top first, and I did have a good breather on the descent.
So far, so good.  Photo:  Di Chesmar
Immediately beyond that, things didn't go so well...

Remarkably calm face, under the circumstances.  Photo:  Di Chesmar
Eeeek!!!!  Photo:  Di Chesmar

While there's light, there's hope...  Photo:  Di Chesmar

Pointing in the right direction, with some relief.  Photo:  Di Chesmar
When I finally had my bike back under control, I was in a going-very-fast-on-tarmac gear, not a mountain-biking gear, and as a consequence, it took a lot of effort to get off the grass.  Not ideal with so little of the race remaining.  Having moved from the front of the bunch to about 25th, and having expended a lot of energy doing so, I realised I was no longer in a position to win the stage.  Still, I hadn't found a ditch or a face-full of fence, and I was quickly able to redefine my task - to make up as many places as possible.

I drafted for 30 seconds or so to regain a bit of strength, before getting into my work.  Craig was amongst the riders I passed, and gave me a good bit of encouragement as well as a much appreciated momentary draft.

By the time the finish straight had come, I could see a cluster of riders an insurmountable distance ahead, but 5 or 6 still within striking distance.   I got the last of those a few metres from the line.

One of the useful things about depression, is that it prepares you well for disappointment.  As a result, I wasn't bummed out at all about my off-road excursion, and instead was stoked that it hadn't ended up worse.  I'd gone far too hot into the corner, and while I hadn't stayed on the road and contested the race ending I'd visualised, I felt like I'd recovered from a lousy situation bloody well...!

We'd finished quite a distance from Masterton, and so had 20 minutes or so to get back to base.  There, it was time for some chocolate milk and a bit of sitting in the sun.  I stayed in my riding kit just in case I was called up to the podium.  I knew Mark Donald had been ahead of me, but so too had some of the juniors, and Rob Kilvington, Craig Hoskin and David Meo - quite a few places taken by those in other age groups.

It was still a very nice surprise to be called up in 2nd place in the 35-44 category.  The last two people I'd passed - Aaron Sheldrake and Ben Copsey - had both been in my category, and those final few metres had put me on the podium...!  I hoped my non-regulation jandals and skin-coloured socks wouldn't result in a team fine.   In any case, I'm sure the boys would forgive me even if Jorge didn't...!

2nd, with Mark Donald (1st) and Aaron Sheldrake (3rd)

I'd been 10th across the line, and moved back into 4th in the series points.  Stephen Sheldrake hadn't been at this race, but after 2nd and 1st placings in the earlier races, held onto first.  Hannes Venter had been consistent in three races to lie in second, and Stuart Holder was in third again by virtue of his first two results - absent this round by racing Tour of Southland...!  Immediately behind me was Mark Donald, who like me had missed points in race 2.

Race 4:  Always start

By the time Race Four rolled around, things had become somewhat simpler - I had a decent placing in the series, and had to ride to improve it, or at least to protect it.  That was the good news.  The bad was that since Race Three, I'd been on a work trip to Beijing.

Unfortunately, the hotel I was staying at didn't have a stationary bike anywhere, and when I enquired about any local gyms, I'd been told there was one but that the staff were unlikely to speak English.  The extent of my Mandarin is of the fruit-consumption variety, so, I had to make do with one-and-a-half ascents of Hawkins Hill a few hours before leaving Wellington, and sprinting up some steps on the Great Wall of China - not entirely unlike cycling they were so steep.

Stopping for air after the second hill interval!

The route back down to the bus in the valley
I'd tried not to stress out about not being able to get on a bike, hoping instead that the rest was doing me some good.  I didn't enjoy the food at all - most of it was familiar, but at unfamiliar times of the day, e.g. dinner for breakfast - and it all put a halt to my weight loss, which had been running at almost a kilo a week over the last couple of months.

Despite the lack of exercise, and wacky diet, the trip was otherwise rewarding, including grabbing a photo in which, if I'd posted it to Facebook, I could have tagged both Barack Obama and myself...!!!

Obama on stage, and me in the crowd shot (holding my camera aloft)...!

I returned to Wellington a few days before the race, and while I had enough time to loosen the legs, there was no opportunity to test them.  Race Four was the "queen stage" being the only race with any hills of note, and had been the source of my self-imposed pressure to lose weight.

At least I knew bike was going to be sweet.  While I'd been in China, it had been with Oli, getting one of his classic "stem to stern" once-overs, and a race tune.  If you've not experienced one of these, I heartily recommend it - it's not unusual for your bike to run better than it did off the showroom floor...!

Pro-service, courtesy of Oli Brooke-White at Roadworks
I made my regular coffee-stop in Carterton before finishing the drive to Gladstone Hall.  Checking my phone while waiting for the long black with one sugar and a dash of mile, I found the internet was abuzz with tales of lousy conditions on course, and uncertainty as to whether or not we'd even start.  It was blowing a gale, and organisers and riders alike were nervous about the conditions.

Jorge Sandoval and the chief commissaire eventually held a meeting to gauge the field's views. Those who'd travelled were keen to race, while most of the locals weren't so keen.  The motivation of those not keen varied from genuine concern about the conditions, to concern with the sporting disadvantage we'd face with the foreshadowed shortened event.

Unfortunately, immediately after we were given the cell phone number of the ambulance driver, we were told that the race would go ahead, but that instead of the 84km we were expecting, we'd be stopping at the top of Limeworks Hill, about 33km into the original racecourse.  That obviously changed the complexion of things dramatically.  Hanging on over the two hills and then having a fast run to the finish (identical to that of Race One), was now a sub-one hour smash with a hilltop finish.  Not ideal for me at all.

To compound things, we were told it was an individual's choice whether or not to ride, and that entry fees would be refunded.  And, that we were off in less than an hour.  Given my position in the series placing, I felt compelled to ride, but didn't have any time to discuss this with my team.  I needed all the time I had to suit up, and get warm.

Getting the bike out of the back of the car was almost impossible.  The wind was so strong it was very hard to stand, keep the door open, and simultaneously pull the bike out of the car.  Sarah had driven over with me, and she was pretty nervous about me riding, but I promised her I'd be fine, and then headed down the driveway.

Even with my 60mm deep rims (which had been prohibited for the race, not that I had an alternative), riding was curiously easy.  In fact, it was hard to reconcile that with the problems I'd had on my feet only moments before.

Joel had also got organised, and we joined Dan Waluszewski - our Open team-mate who was similarly disappointed by the new race route - for a warm up.  We had absolutely no problems between the hall and the bottom of the main climb, but by the time we returned to the carpark, even if we had time to convince our team-mates it was OK to ride, they'd have had no time to get organised.  So, it was just Joel and I in the masters field.

The neutralised section was the worst of it as far as the wind was concerned, and even then it was nowhere near as bad as a windy Wednesday Worlds around Wellington's south coast.  Te Wharau Hill (aka Kourarau) on the other hand was something else.  It was blowing a gale, sure enough, but it couldn't have been more useful.  The wind was howling right up our jacksies, it was like having a turbo boost.  Every time I checked my Garmin, we were going almost 30km/h!!!!

Even with the wind-ass-sist, I was still 85kg, and had to dig pretty bloody deep to keep in touch with my rivals - well all but one of them.  Three Lanes boys went off the front about two-thirds of the way up the climb, and canny Mark Donald gave them a bit of space before attacking and successfully bridging to them.  Behind were seven of us:  Andrew Young from iRide, Stuart Holder (not completely fresh from Southland - although he'd finished in the top 50 on GC, he'd also crashed badly, and fractured a bone in his foot), Craig and Stephen from East Coast Velo, David Meo[GP], and another of the Lanes boys.

When gravity was finally on my side, my mass then became my friend, and I had a good, fast roll down into the valley, safely negotiating the funny left corner at the bottom of the hill.  I'd had one minor fright on the descent - there was wind coming out of a gully on our right, but Davis was just ahead of me, and having seen it hit him, I was both physically and mentally prepared.

Glad to be in touch, Andrew and I near the bottom of Te Wharau.  Photo:  Di Chesmar

I was slightly perplexed that the chase never really got going.  Craig and Davis were both the only ones from their age categories, and were both further securing their hold on the respective leader's jerseys they were already wearing.  Up ahead, Mark was in 5th place in the series, so maybe wasn't a concern to Stephen, so it seemed up to Stuart, Andrew and I to organise the chase.  We didn't, or at least not particularly well, and so we were effectively racing for second place.

I was shocked when we rode past the 5km to go sign - it felt like we'd only just started - though I should have expected the race would take less than an hour, given its distance.  I'd never really given up on chasing Mark, and with a bit of fatigue thrown in, didn't look after myself nearly well enough in the lead-in to Limeworks.

When I couldn't hold on to Stephen and Stuart any longer, I focused on getting across the line in front of Andrew - I needed all the series points I could get.  Davis shot past me near the top, not affecting my placing in the 35-44 class, but I'd successfully overcome Andrew to cross the line in 9th, with a 4th placing in my age-group.

Uncomfortable.   Photo:  Chris Denholm

It was nice to see Sarah waiting with the car at the hilltop, or at least it was once I finished feeling like I was going to puke.  Many of my team-mates were there too, each in various stages of regret at not suiting up and getting on their bikes.

Sarah offered me a ride back to Gladstone, but I took the opportunity to warm down by completing the loop.  It turned out to be quite a fun ride, complete with a wee peloton, and a convoy of cars.  We also got an interesting insight into the race organiser's decision, courtesy of several large piles of recently chain-sawed trees.   They'd come down across the road not too long before our shortened race had started.  I don't blame them for not wanting to race us along these roads!

Unfortunately Joel had had a miserable time out on course, but it was bloody good of him to start.  Dan hadn't fared as well as he'd hoped to either, so it was a bit of a shitty day for Rivet Racing.

Hannes had dropped out of second place in the series, to be replaced by the race-winner, Mark Donald.  Stephen, Stuart and I were unchanged, in first, third and fourth respectively.

Race 5:  Be patient

After a four-week wait for Race 2, Races 3 and 4 had been at regular two-week intervals.  The final race of the series kept us stewing for three weeks.  A podium finish in the series was not out of the question, but I needed to beat Stuart or Mark and have other riders in between us (three riders for Stuart, and an extra one for Mark).

Joel wasn't able to start this race, and designated Matt Webber as road captain.  He was told, by both Joel and I, that he'd need to boss me around!

We had a long neutralised section to get from the finish at Matahiwi Estate, to the start down the road to Castlepoint.  The Open, Masters and Women all rode together at a cruisy pace.

Once we were underway, we were almost immediately onto narrow roads, and it was clear that the crazy riding from early in the series had returned.  Guys were regularly over the white line, including on blind corners, and there wasn't a peep (or toot) from the following motorcycle marshalls or the commissaire's car.

Despite orders to ride near the front, I wasn't prepared to take the risks needed to move up, and so held my position about two-thirds of the way back through the bunch on the left side of the lane.  At least everything was all together, so it seemed like an OK place to be.

That is, until it wasn't.  Unusual sounds started from 10m or so ahead, and I temporarily moved onto the grass to avoid a growing pile of bikes and bodies.  I stopped momentarily, but the high-pitched screams of a woman in amongst the carnage forced me away.  While motivated purely by wanting to get as far away from that horrible sound as possible, I did tell myself that there was nothing I could have done to help anyway.

The bunch hadn't travelled far, and I was soon tucked in behind again, but now much more interested in moving to the front.

Matt had the same ideas for me, and had come back to collect me.  He told me to stay on his wheel, but 20 seconds later I was watching incredulously as he ducked and weaved his way safely through gaps that I simply couldn't see...

Frustrated that I didn't have the same nerve or skill to emulate him, I came up with a different means of getting to the front.  The bunch wasn't moving that fast, and the roads were undulating.  So, I moved to the right-hand side of the lane, and then when the road next pitched up slightly, I pedalled as hard as I could.  It turned out that was a strategy that suited me well, and what seemed like only 10 seconds later, I'd reached the front.  The effort had been sharp, but not really long enough to tap me out.

Just as well, since I needed to do it again not five minutes later, as for some reason I'd got myself in the slow lane and had been slowly but surely sucked backwards.  A bit like water out the plughole...

I was just making my way up again when I passed Sarah who'd ridden the last 25km of the course to see us pass through the Dreyers Rock Road intersection.

I was waving on the inside!

When I reached the front the second time, one of my team-mates, Mark Hussey, had just had a jab off the front.  I used my momentum to join him, and then, figuring I could benefit from some quiet time, put my head down and opened up a 50m gap from the peloton.

Matt Webber was surely shaking his head in dismay, but I was soon joined by two of Stephen Sheldrake's East Coast Velo team-mates.  We worked well together for five minutes or so, but the bunch soon shut us down...  Despite the expended physical energy, I felt like the short break had been worth it if only to recharge my emotional battery.

I was nervous about the turn around at the far end of the course, but need not have been.  The bunch strung itself out, and the road was relatively wide, giving us plenty of space to safely turn 180 degrees and resume racing back the way we'd come.

David Meo attacked, and Rivet were prominent at the front keeping him in check.  His timing had been bad, and he was swept up just as we began the short but fairly steep ascent of Dreyers Rock Road.  I found myself near Stuart Holder - in fact I was quite astonished to see him at all given his injury.

The road was still pointing upwards, and I tried to focus intently on the wheel immediately in front.  It got to the point that it was all I could see, and the horrible "I can't do this any longer" mantra started making an appearance in my head.  I don't know if the pace eased imperceptibly, or whether it was just a bit of old-fashioned teeth-gritting, but I managed to hang on, enduring probably what had been the hardest couple of minutes of the series for me.

Dangling off the back of a select bunch...  Photo: Rob Kilvington

One of the things I hate about road racing, is how it comes down to moments of weakness.  Getting dropped on Kuratau Hill a few years ago still sticks in my craw, frustrating on account of how strong I'd been apart from those key minutes where I lost touch with the bunch, and my competitors.

As then, as soon as the climb was over, my strength started to come back, like one of those video-game characters after a fight.  This time though, I was still in touch, and it was time to make the effort on the hill count.

It was the usual suspects in attendance:  Stephen, Mark and Stuart were joined by Mark's team-mate Rob Kilvington, and a couple of Stephen's team-mates, Aaron and Michael.  Conspicuous by their absence were Craig Hoskin, and Davis Meo - the latter had seemingly paid for his attack 5km from the base of the hill.

We were all keen to capitalise on our advantage, and we quickly organised an effective pace line.  With only seven riders, you didn't get much time in the slow lane, and we still had about 20km to the finish.  For the most part, people took their turns, though it was clear both Mark and Rob were getting a bit ragged.  We were occasionally disrupted by the odd level-crossing and a couple of short patches of gravel.  I never saw the bunch behind us, but Stephen had, and urged us all on.

Within a few kilometres from the finish, it was clear we couldn't afford to completely focus on the race win - the main field were only 20 seconds or so behind, and too much dicking around would have seen them catch us.

Only a few km to run, and in the sights of the bunch.  Photo:  Heysmartypants Design Online

I led into the final turn about 500m from the line.  I'd been on the front for a little while up to that point, and while I was trying to keep my effort down, I carried good speed through the corner, and ended up with a 10m gap.  Despite checking the finish straight out in my warm-up, and knowing it was long, I still am unsure about my sprint from a bunch, and so I put my head down.

The gap initially opened up, and besides, I knew the die had been cast.  I didn't look back again, and instead focussed on trying to keep accelerating for as long as possible.  50m from the line, I stood out of the saddle, and tried to fight through the growing levels of lactic acid in my legs.  I needed to change gear, but didn't have the wherewithal to, and even if I had, it's not clear I could have overcome it.

I held my line, and tried to get as low as possible to minimise the air-resistance, and desperately trying to force energy into the pedals.

But, it wasn't enough.  I sensed a rider on each side, and within spitting distance of the line was passed by first Stephen on the right, and then Stuart on the left.   I only just held off Aaron, and the results have the four of us within a quarter of a second.

L-R: Stephen, Aaron, me - going backwards - and Stuart

Mark was the next 35-44 across the line, which was enough to grab 3rd place in the series, but not to hold off Stuart, who moved into 2nd.  The bunch finished a mere 21 seconds later, and so it could easily have been a lot worse!

Once again, my impatience had probably been my downfall, though it was clear to me that I'd been beaten by stronger riders.  And, smarter too.  Nonetheless, I was pleased with my 3rd placing, both in my age-group and overall. Unfortunately there was no podium presentation for the race, only for the series, so I kept my sweaty kit on for nothing!

Summing up 

The final series standings had me fourth on 78 points, behind Stephen Sheldrake with 92 points (from only four starts); Stuart Holder on 84 points (also from four starts); and Mark Donald with 80 points.

While it was close at the end, the blown opportunities in Round 2 were ultimately costly.  In fact, Mark's possibly saying the same thing - he was one place behind me in that race...!

I can't say I enjoyed the series particularly.  The exceptions were once I was out in front of the massive bunch. While I do enjoy road racing, and would like to do well at it, I need to overcome my nervousness within the bunch.  Otherwise, events of this type will remain unpleasant. 
Even though Joel had been both an excellent leader off the road, and road-captain when he started, I still found team-leadership stressful.  Having a bad day is annoying, but screwing up, or otherwise underperforming, when a bunch of guys have already sacrificed their own chances for me is much, much worse.  
I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the Rivet Racing Masters team: Ben Storey (races 1 and 5), Craig Chambers (1-3,5), Mark Hussey (1,5), Matt Webber, (2,5), Peter Moore (2,3,5), and of course Joel Healy (1-4) for their support of me in the 35-44 category, and also of our final rider, Neil Harwood, who finished a fine second place in the 50+ category behind a rampant David Meo (who was five metres short in Race 5 of a clean sweep). 

That said, I wished then and now that I'd been in the role of a helper - something that I think I'm better suited to.  I think if I'd known I'd find myself in such good shape, I'd have opted to ride in the Open race, and would have done anything I could to support Dan Waluszewski in his bid to win that series.  Congratulations to him too for his second place, and well done to the Rivets who did ride in support of him, particularly those old bastards who could have opted to start in Masters like I had. 

It was magic to be able to have an early start on five Saturdays, in guilt-free fashion.  Thanks to Sarah for tolerating the 6am wake-up on what would otherwise be a gentler start to the weekend.

Finally, thanks to organiser, Jorge Sandoval, for putting the North Island Series together and giving us the opportunity to race as a team.  And, of course, thanks to all the other teams that joined us on the road.

While I do have some results to be proud of, if I was to name one highlight of the last couple of months of road racing, it would be seeing Tijs Robinson win a vet's handicap race in Whitemans Valley.  Having him as a protected rider, working for him throughout the race, and watching him leave my wheel 200m from the line and mow down two poor Limit riders who had prematurely raised their arms above their heads trumped what were arguably my best performances on the road (on a bike built for one, at least). 

I look forward to doing something like that again soon!  That, and learning what my strengths are, so I can better ride to them.