Saturday, March 14, 2015

Legs Eleven: Karapoti 2015

As the 2015 Karapoti Classic approached, my sense of trepidation grew.  In the giant scheme of things, my build up was pretty good.  Khulan and I rode the "interesting" bit of the course about a month ago, and a recce of the Challenge course for Kaitlyn's benefit the Sunday before filled in some of the missing section. 

Closer to home, I managed to fit in a few ascents of the Tip Track, in amongst Time Trial races on the road, and various other road rides and races.  I was pleasantly surprised by my first time on the tip track:  21:19, only 11 seconds slower than my best set two years earlier prior to my fastest Karapoti.  My next efforts, roughly weekly, were consistent:  21:26, 21:24 and 21:31, the latter followed by a "run" (actually more like a rapid shuffle) up the top half, and a second full ascent in 23:59.  The conditions had been nigh on perfect for the first three of the season, but a growing northerly on that last session took its toll.

As Karapoti loomed, my nervousness grew.  A couple of hiccups with a gift for Khulan, a lovely set of Chinese carbon rims laced to Hope Pro IIs (in the end!), added to the final-week stresses, but we got there in the end.  Thanks to Brent Hoy at Burkes, and of course Oli at Roadworks for helping keep the drama to a minimum!

Final preparation included chucking a Maxxis Ardent on the front of my bike, and replacing the rear Ikon with the one that had been on the front (one was a Cape Epic veteran and still going strong)!  The girls collected the race packs after school on Friday, and we organised the race numbers and attendant transponders that evening before loading the car up ready for the morning.

While January and February had been unusually dry, the pretty crap weather that had been predicted for the week's end showed up on Friday, with occasionally torrential rain.  The girls and I drove out to Upper Hutt without the need of the windscreen wipers, but there were plenty of rain-bearing clouds around, and forecasts were signalling heavy rain soon after midday.

My pre-race prep was apple-pied soon after leaving the car when Khulan informed me she had very little front brake.  On inspection, she was absolutely right, and I urged her to go ahead in search of Ricky or Oli.  She did manage to find Ricky, but unfortunately he wasn't able to do anything to help.

I was feeling very stressed about it, but needed to get my legs warm.  After 10 minutes on the road, I was fortunate to bump into Rod Bardsley (who'd sold me my first mountain bike at Cycle Services in 1998).  After I'd described Khulan's problem, he offered to take a look, and I rushed off to grab the bike.  As luck would have it, he had plenty of other brake pads, but not the ones she needed. While pumping the brakes hadn't done any thing, once Rod had taken the front wheel out, the calipers closed up a bit, giving the brakes some bite.  I probably rushed the thank you part of the transaction, but I'm sure Rod understood.

I had a few more minutes to warm up a bit, and again headed out onto the road once more. There, I bumped into Callum Kennedy, a good hard man who's not shy of sitting on the front of the Wednesday Worlds bunch.  Just before meeting him, I'd been unable to get my chain into the big ring, and sensing my flustered state, he kindly took a look for me.  He also offered me a bit of cold espresso, which I gladly accepted, and a quick sprint later, I headed down to the river bank to line up with the rest of the Pro-Elite field.

It's a bloody strange way to start a cycling event - my understanding from Simon is that early on there was no bridge, so there was no choice but to ford the river.  And, when the bridge went in, they stuck with the original format.  I savoured my dry shoes while they lasted!

Underway, and with wet nads no less...

I got across the river well, and was 3rd or 4th onto the road.  Big chain ring was a good choice, but I was surprised by the sedate pace.  I did wonder with the recent rain, and the absence of the many of the best senior MTBers in the country: Anton Cooper, Sam Gaze, Dirk Peters et al, whether the race was more about winning than getting around quickly.

I actually led the race for a little while, before the inevitable swarm as we entered the top carpark.  No sooner had the speed doubled than most of us were hauling on the brakes to avoid concrete blocks and fences as we hit the singletrack for the first time.  It was quickly confirmed that the course had a lot of water on it.  Both the pace and the size of the puddles made them very hard to avoid, at least consistently.  And, it felt like at the bottom of each one I did ride through was a row of hands grabbing at my wheels trying to stop me.

I had a good clean run through the drop into the the creek, but ended up stopping when someone fluffed their line soon after.  That necessitated a match or two to get back onto the wheel ahead.

We were soon out of the gorge and onto a fast gravel road which was relatively devoid of puddles.  The pace was high, but my legs seemed OK.  By the time the warm up climb started, I was at the back of a lead group of eight, and I did briefly congratulate myself for hanging with the front for so long.  That ended promptly though, and I had to switch into TT mode and try to forget about the others.

Robbie Bradshaw passed me a little way up the Deadwood climb, and I had no chance of following him.  I was struggling to hold my lines, and as a consequence, was simply struggling generally.  The wet surface was taxing as I had to fight that little bit harder for traction, and I had a short walk before the climb was over.

As always seems to happen to me at Karapoti, I struggled along the top of Deadwood.  The steep climb takes me a while to recover from, and I really felt like I was haemorrhaging time.  I'd wrapped some Gu Chomps - caffeine laden jellies - in gladwrap, even putting some cellotape on a makeshift tail to make them easy to unwrap and get into my mouth.  It was a major fail.  Three had stuck together, and I lost two on my first attempt to eat one.  The chomp still in my hand had got wet and stuck fast to the gladwrap, which in turn tore as I tried to unwrap it.  The delay had me riding into a corner one handed, and I was lucky not to crash.

Despite feeling slow, I wasn't passed by anyone until the Rock Garden.  Gav McCarthy was very jolly as he made his way by, and I noted that I'd dropped to 10th.  Another rider blasted past before I was done, but for the most part I was pleased to be in one piece, happy enough with my conservative strategy of running the second quarter.

I had little energy for the Devil's Staircase, and my legs were not particularly pleased to be doing such a strange activity.  They were designed for pedalling, not walking, surely?!  Someone had thoughtfully sprayed arrows showing the best bypass routes of the biggest bogs.  That said, confusion reigned a bit later on when the same paint was used to highlight hazardous routes on Big Ring Boulevard.

When I finally emerged from the bush, the attendant marshalls told me I was 11th, and also 11 minutes down on the leader.  Both fitting, since I was riding with race number 11.  I promised myself that I wouldn't deliberately hold this place, but I did admire the charm of it.

The small rag I had in my pocket was covered in filth, but I flicked my bike upside down and used it to "clean" the chain anyway.  Then, on went some lube, surely a 30-second investment that would pay dividends later on.  I coughed and spluttered my way through a cup of water, but managed to drag in enough air to get underway again.  It was nice to be back on the bike, and I felt surprisingly good, especially given the terrain now suited me better.

I was sorry to see Callum tending to his bike, and asked if he was OK as I went past.  "Yes" he replied, followed by "see you soon".  Cheeky, but accurate.  It spurred me on ever so slightly, but it was clear he was having a good day, and I knew from observing him on regular Wednesday road rides that he's a powerful rider even on an off day.

The aforementioned spraypaint confused me on more than one occasion, but a judicious bunny hop or two, and the virtues of riding a plush full suspension bike saw me through without incident.

There was a large bunch of people, some in costume, at the left turn off the ridge.  It was nice to get a good cheer, and some recognised me, and the significance of my relatively early appearance.  That too spurred me on.   I was starting to tire a bit, but tried to keep pressure on the pedals, all the while enjoying the grip my new front tyre was giving me around the unpleasantly regular off camber right-handers.

All good things must come to an end, and I was soon at the bottom of Dopers.  I'd forgotten how nasty the first hundred metres are, but I managed to stay on the bike, desperately charging down through the gears to do so.  I got a nice surprise a few minutes later, glimpsing a rider up ahead.  The catch took much longer than I was expecting, given how he'd appeared out of nowhere.  When I finally was ready to pass him, I totally screwed it up, and was off the bike for a brief moment.  Not at all pro...

He said his tyre wasn't holding air, and I apologised I couldn't help.  "That's racing" he said, and I pressed on.

As with the top of Deadwood, I struggled once the climb had ended.  I didn't feel fluid at all, and I was starting to screw up my lines.  The slick clay didn't help, but mostly it was due to my fatigue.  The fast descent down to the river passed without incident, but as I climbed out of the river bed, I heard the tell-tale sound of another rider right behind me.

I knew I couldn't afford to hesitate, and I opened the throttle.  Young Jack Compton had said to me a couple of years ago "you're pretty much a roadie these days, aren't you", and I milked that for all it was worth over the next few kilometres.  At the end of a long straight, I let myself look behind, and saw no-one there.  Head back down, I pressed on.

I really enjoyed hitting the gorge again.  It injected a nice bit of fun into the ride, and despite the nasty uphill sections which my brain tells me should be down, my energy levels picked up a bit and I was holding a good pace.

Apart from the multitude of puddles and loose rock, there were also now Challenge riders to contend with.  For the most part, I tried to ghost past without calling a warning.  "On your left!" is horribly ambiguous, especially to tired (and often young) ears.  I felt a better strategy was to ease off slightly, get myself organised, and blast past on the shitty line.

In one case the shitty line was right through a big puddle, and the rider I shot past had every right to be annoyed.  After all, she was making her way carefully around the puddle so she wouldn't get the drenching I gave her.  "SORRY ABOUT THAT" I shouted back...

I thought the penultimate photographer was pretty game - it looked like a pretty wet spot to me as I rode by, holding my breath and hoping he was doing the same. 

Not long after, breathing resumed, I emerged from the gorge to a nice cheer from Karl, and then onto the always-miserable road section.   The distinct lack of gravity assist (despite the downhill gradient) was amplified by the nasty headwind.  On the other hand, the appeal of finishing kept the spirits up.  And of course the risk of losing a place.

I remembered to stop before pitching over the handlebars in the river, but the transition from pedalling hard to trying to run was as challenging as ever. 

Having a quick wash before the final 100m

Oli, Kaitlyn and my Mum and Dad were all on the riverbank, and they gave me a good cheer as I went by.  Soon after, I was done, and a quick check of my watch suggested a time of around 2:41.  I was surprised, as I'd felt slow at times, and the course certainly wasn't as fast as it could have been had Friday's rain not drenched it.

I was keen to see my loved ones, and they were of a same mind, and we met in the middle.  I was almost overcome with emotion - a strange reaction which I've not had before at the end of a race.  It was wonderful to see them, and I think the relief at being in one piece momentarily overwhelmed me.

It was great to hear that Kaitlyn was pleased with her ride, despite being blown off her bike at one point on the very-exposed top of her course.

I collected a hug from Oli, and then went back up to find Kaitlyn and her grandparents.  Before getting completely changed, I went and brought the car a bit closer, and then finally it was into some dry clothes.  Sarah had arrived by this stage, and it was lovely both to see her, and to hear that her road ride to the top of Akatarawa Saddle (from home) had been enjoyable.

I was, and remained, very subdued for the rest of the afternoon.  I sat with Kaitlyn, Jase (who'd had a scorcher getting fastest time in the Expert race), and Jonny beneath some pine trees.  The trees were an excellent umbrella, but while they coped very well with the light rain we experienced for most of the afternoon, when the heavens opened, the tree was overwhelmed, and our dry seats were lost for good.

Instead, Kaitlyn and I cowered in the marquee, where it was nice to find not only the Kennett-Drakes, but also a photo of Kaitlyn and I that had been published in the Upper Hutt weekly-rag after our wonderful "tandem" ride back in 2008!

Photo: Oli Brooke-White

Sarah had disappeared, so Kaitlyn and I nervously awaited Khulan's arrival alone.  I guessed she was down at the river with Oli, but that seemed like a very long way away, and even had it not been pouring, I think I would have struggled to find the energy to get there.

Khulie had announced a goal of five hours at breakfast, and so we were delighted for her when she appeared with just under 4 hours 30 on the clock!  Her front brake pads had all but vanished, something I'd fretted about on and off during my own ride, but she didn't seem fussed by it, and hadn't had any crashes as a result.  She'd loved the wheels, and the attention they'd got from those who'd been on course with her.  What an amazing effort by a brave young girl - possibly the second youngest girl to have done the Classic (after Hannah Barnes, who I think had been 13 when she did her first lap)!

We didn't have to wait long for prize-giving, and it was lovely to watch Kaitlyn go up on stage as the fastest U19 woman on the Challenge course.  
Photo:  Oli Brooke-White

Unfortunately, the Weekend Warrior division, in which Khulie rode, weren't called up for merit prizes, so her fastest time for U19 women in that race was not recognised publicly.

I'd finished 15th fastest overall in the end (behind the first three in the Expert race, and two singlespeeders, former world champ Garth Weinberg, followed closely by Tom Lynskey) but was still called up to the stage by virtue of my 10th place in the Pro-Elite category.
L-R:  Eden Cruise (1st), Matt Waghorn (3rd), Chris Sharland (4th), Steve Bale (5th), Gavin McCarthy (6th), Robbie Bradshaw (7th), me (10th).  Missing:  Tom Bradshaw (2nd), Edwin Crossling (8th), Callum Kennedy (9th).  Photo:  Oli Brooke-White

When the "dust" settled, it was fascinating to have a look at the results.  Eden had finished in 2:28, about 9 minutes slower than his time from 2014.  At 15 years old, he's a phenomenon, and it will be exciting to see where he's at come the next Commonwealth Games or two, not to mention Olympics and the other elite-level MTB races on offer to a guy with his talent.

I was 13 minutes back in 2:41, and at 41 years old, with two 14-year-old daughters, am old enough to be Eden's dad!  While I'd been 11 minutes down at the top of the Devil's Staircase, I'd only lost another 2 minutes to him on the rest of the course.  Aside from the Ak Attack earlier in the year, it's been a long time since I've raced on a mountain bike - perhaps as far back as Karapoti in 2013.

I've tried my best to be pleased with my effort, but for some reason, I've struggled.  As mentioned, my overwhelming sense was relief, and I was glad to get through unscathed.  I had little feedback about my progress during the race (once people had stopped passing me on Deadwood and the Rock Garden), and the famous Greg Lemond quote comes to mind: "it never gets easier, you just go faster".  How easy it is to confuse fatigue with lack of progress...

I'm proud of my daughters, for their results, but more so for their choice to get out there.  The day was a big challenge for both of them, and they rose to the occasion wonderfully.

Despite my now-retro wheel size (26" which has since been surpassed by the 29er, and now the "best of both worlds" 27.5 inch) my Yeti ASR-5C had been a joy to ride.  (I should get out on it more often!)  It doesn't look like it's available any more, but there are some carbon ASRs and all sorts of other bling available at  I think both Tom and Callum were on ARC-Cs while Robbie was on a SB 5-or-6 C.  I'm not sure if all wheel sizes were represented there, but good to know there are some very fast bikes on offer in Kashi's stable.

I feel motivated to hit up the Tip Track on a nice cool day with a light-southerly blowing, but not before Oli gives the ASR a good working over "stem to stern" as he so capably does.  I'm sure there's some very useful grease missing from bearings all over the place.

My next target is the Road Club Nationals in Hawke's Bay in mid-April, and I'm looking forward to holding my form through to then - ideally building on it.  I'd like to ride a good time trial, and then ride hard for the PNP club in the road race.

Karapoti puts the shits up me, but it's a very useful gauge of form.   While I've struggled to get excited about it, I'm nonetheless glad to note that two years on from my PB of 2:40, my form is similar, if not better.   I tentatively look forward to another crack in a year or two...!  It would be nice to think good legs and good weather might coincide before I start slowing down.