Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Not so stoked at Taupo

The omens were never particularly good leading in to the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge.

Several months ago, Captain Kennett asked if I would consider a crack at our 2012 tandem record.  Feeling a bit deprived of Simon's company, and keen to take advantage of some very good road-racing form, I agreed, and Simon set to getting himself in shape.  It seemed a good opportunity to wipe from the slate a somewhat testing time around the lake.

As the main event drew nearer, we made the point of entering a couple of local "fun rides".  Neither was...

The first was the Featherston Fun Ride.  I'd done it the year before and had experienced cross-winds from hell on the leg down the western side of Lake Wairarapa.  The forecast was for the same, and it was going to be very interesting on the long bike.

We were both very late getting there.  I'd been held up by a good samaritan, who'd stopped on a narrow stretch of the Rimutaka Hill Road - about 20m short of a blind corner - to pick up a couple of women who'd chosen to ride over in the gale force winds.  When I finally arrived, I realised the downside of putting my Garmin Vector pedals on the tandem without bringing a pair of MTB shoes too - I couldn't warm up without Simon.  He too had got stuck on the hill due to a problem with his car.  A stoker is not much good without his captain.

We managed a 30 second warm up, which wasn't nearly enough for me.  I'd been dropped by a rampant scratch bunch a month or so earlier with a similarly short leg-loosener, and was kicking myself for being so unorganised.  I hate making the same mistake twice.

We started at the back of the first wave, and when Dave Rowlands began moving towards the front, I urged Simon to go with him.  Worried about getting tangled up with the solos in the wind, he stayed put, and when the hammer went down a few minutes later, the bunch split all to hell, and we quickly lost track of the race leaders.

Being at the back of the bunch was annoying from the perspective of the race, but it was safe, and otherwise entertaining.  At one point, we saw three riders ejected out the side of the bunch by a gust of wind.  They were breifly off the road and riding in long grass, but thankfully none of them went down.

We started picking riders off, and before too long had a group following in our wake.  The wind was insane, and we were constantly leaning into it, to the extent that I felt more like a sailor than a stoker.  My legs felt sore, and by the time we turned onto the East-West Access Road, I was starting to fade.

The bunch took over at that point, and a couple of times we had to chase back on after a gap had inexplicably opened up.

Distance half-done, legs mostly-done.  Photo: Paul Davies, Capital Cycles
We worked far too hard over the rollers towards Martinborough, and basically dropped ourselves.  Having let go physically, my brain promptly followed, and in Martinborough I asked Simon to stop the bike.  We limped back to Featherston.

Finished, literally and figuratively.  Photo:  Paul Davies, Capital Cycles

Despite the first hour feeling horrible, I demolished my power curve - the first time I'd had power data from the tandem.   I figured that the complete absence of down-time in the cross-winds had meant I was constantly on the pedals, unlike my own bike where I must get a bit lazy!

Next up was the Tour de Whitemans - not a particularly tandem-friendly course - with a critical ascent of Blue Mountains on each of four laps, but otherwise a nice racetrack.

We were a lot more organised this time, and made good use of the base of Blue Mountains to get the blood flowing through the legs.  After a short neutralised loop on the flat, we were racing, and straight into the first climb.  We were at the back of a fairly large group, packed with very handy local riders.

About a quarter of the way up, we found ourselves moving quicker than everyone else, and for the middle half of the climb, we had clear road ahead. We'd lost a whole lot of places by the top though, and had to mount quite a chase to join the back of a depleted lead bunch.

We sat at the back for a while, which was a good opportunity to let the legs recharge a bit.  On a nice bit of false flat, we put the hammer down from the back of the bunch, and despite an earnest chase by a couple of riders, we quickly established a good-sized gap.  We rode hard, for much of it into a stiff head-wind, and by the time we looped around to the top of the Wallaceville descent, we had a couple of minutes on the bunch behind, enough that we didn't see them before disappearing down into the Hutt Valley.

We were still clear at the top of Blue Mountains the second time, and kept plugging away down Whiteman's Valley, oblivious to what was going on behind.

Plugging.  Photo:  ATPhoto
We had a bit of a mare at the Silverstream roundabout at the start of the third lap.  The lead-vehicle had given-way to a car which had entered the roundabout on our right, and everyone kind of stopped and stared at one another.  We took the inside line, and made it safely around the corner, but then dropped our chain, and by the time it was back on again, we were in a totally unsuitable gear.

Getting the bike moving took a lot of energy, and the tell-tale signs that we'd gone too hard in the first half of the race started to emerge.

We got a fright when Andy Hagan, who I hadn't noticed approaching us, came alongside. He said he'd wait for us at the top, figuring (a) the wait would be short, and (b) that we'd be a handy ally on the remainder of the loop.  No sooner was he out of sight, than we slowed to a crawl.  Brendan came and went too, looking like he might be able to catch Andy - I wondered if Andy waiting for us might be good for Brendan's chances.

We were passed by a few more, but managed to get up the hill in touch with  them.  Once safely in their company, I told Simon I wasn't prepared to help them chase Brendan and Andy.  So, we sat in until the base of the final ascent of Blue Mountains, and then immediately popped.  It wasn't clear to me that we'd be able to ride the whole climb, but we did manage it, much to my surprise.

The rest of the lap wasn't so bad, and we almost managed to pull back Jordan and Calvin by the end.

Out of focus, pretty much like the world was at that point.  Photo:  ATPhoto
We finished 8th overall, exactly six minutes behind Andy, who Brendan hadn't managed to catch.  I really struggled to put the high placing into perspective, and despite giving a couple of big climbs in the Wairarapa a good nudge the day before, was disappointed with my performance.

By this stage, I had two competing targets - the final two races of the North Island Series, and nestled in between, Taupo.  The 4th series race went well, which at least gave me some confidence that Taupo might too.  A short but intense ride with Simon the Sunday before the main event seemed to go fine, and beyond that there was little we could do.

I drove up to Taupo with Sarah (doing her first 160km Solo), and Khulan (doing the 65km Huka Steamer MTB event) on Friday afternoon.  Simon had taken the tandem, and we met up that evening, after the women had signed in.  It was nice to bump into Danny from Ultimo Clothing, and Dave Weaver, who has scorching form at the moment, and is a lovely guy to boot. I had a brief visit from Yancey, one of my North Island Series team-mates, who was grabbing some Roadworks kit to wear the next morning - hot off the ultimo press.

Despite a very warm evening, I slept well, which was a good thing given the five-something alarm.

We'd failed to secure a late checkout, so among my tasks for the morning was packing up the car, and moving it out of the motel carpark.  I'd brought my roadie, and a wind-trainer, but distracted by the morning's logistics, and getting Sarah ready for her start, had little time to make use of them.

I lost track of Sarah in between the car and the street, and spent a stressful 10 minutes waiting, before deciding I'd better head off to meet Simon.  He too was late, and so it was just as well I'd managed at least a bit of a warm-up on my Colnago.

Ready to rock'n'roll.  Photo:
We found our tandem bunch a few metres short of the start-line, and to my surprise, and delight, saw Sarah in the group ahead.  I left Simon with the tandem and gave her a quick kiss, before retreating.  Apparently a chap next to her was a bit perturbed I hadn't "wished him well" too!

Sarah started a few minutes later, and then we were moved up to the line. Simon wanted to go for a slash, and despite a marshall indicating he had plenty of time, I still had a nervous wait, wondering if I'd have a captain when they said go.

I did, which was excellent.  We started at the very front, and led the small peloton of large bikes - including two triple tandems, one of them towing a fourth rider on a trailer-bike, and about a dozen tandems - over the Waikato River.  A few metres short of the turn-off to Acacia Bay, I felt the bike move.  I shouted "GO STRAIGHT", but too late, and Simon, confused by a marshall's gesticulations, made the (wrong) turn.

Fortunately, only a few tandems followed us (and none onto the deck), and it was relatively easy to wheel around and rejoin the race.  Mid-pack, of course.

It only took a minute or so to get back to the front, and we had clear road by the time we made the correct left turn.

We had one tandem on our wheel, and we left them there for a while.  We were chasing the record, and so opted to keep the pace high.  After 10 minutes or so, Simon invited them to the front, but they very politely declined, blowing smoke up our arses with the comment "we're not in your league".  Whether they actually believed that or not, is another matter.  Simon was wearing my TT helmet - motivated more by the rainy forecast than its aero benefits - and we were both in skinsuits.  Who knows...

In any case, we left them there, and plugged on.  At that stage we were confident in our ability to shake these guys, and figured we'd start working together eventually, or we'd drop them.

Neither happened, and so we threw in a couple of big efforts to try to break loose.  One in particular was comical, and though well conceived, was very poorly executed.  We dropped behind them, let a gap open up, and then attacked in a massive gear.  Alas, we never really had the bike moving fast enough and they had no trouble closing us down.

Simon was royally pissed off by this stage.  He'd tried to encourage them to work with us, pointing out that we were aiming for the record, that they were at least as strong as us, and that we could make a real race of it.  They'd asked about the existing record, and we'd admitted we held it.  It was brought up again, and tensions only increased from there.  I'm a pretty non-confrontational guy, and it all made me feel incredibly uncomfortable.  I'm more of a "let your legs do the talking" kind of guy.

We'd also recently passed Sarah who'd been left behind by her start group.  That added to my emotional burden. 

Eventually, we realised that they weren't going to contribute at all, and that if we continued as we were, we ran the risk of towing them to a record time.  So, we slowed down.  It seemed like a smart thing to do, though in hindsight it reminds me of children fighting over a toy, and when one realises he can't have it, breaks it so that no-one can...

Despite dropping our pace considerably, they remained on our wheel.

We gave Kuratau a good nudge, and had a decent gap once the main climb had finished.  It didn't stick though, and despite us giving it everything, they pulled us back well before we began the plunge down to Tokaanu.

When the catch was imminent, we got stuck in a shitty gear, and I bellowed at the world.  They were surely in earshot, and when they slowed to slot in behind us, I called out "good chase fellas".  Their response was friendly, so maybe they were keen to race after all.

A little too much hooning for my liking
I didn't enjoy the descent  one bit.  The roads were wet, and Simon wasn't in a great mood, and was riding pretty aggressively.  But, he did an excellent job of getting us safely down the hill.  We had even opened up a small gap, but couldn't capitalise on it.

Things got really, really, really ridiculous over the next 30km to the base of Hatepe Hill, when not once did the other tandem leave our wheel.  On a couple of occasions, we stopped pedalling, and despite our bike losing most of its speed as we coasted, I could hear the sound of the disk-brakes behind being heavily applied lest they actually pass us.  RIDICULOUS.  I wondered what they thought would happen if they were in front.  They were certainly going to great lengths to avoid it.

We caught up to a bunch of solo riders, a rotated with them a bit.  I lost track of the other tandem for a while, and thought they might have sat at the back of the bunch without contributing at all.  Either that or they'd swung behind us when we pulled through...

Hatepe was our last chance to make something happen.  We hit the base of the climb at the back of the bunch (well, not quite the very back!), and started slogging away.

About half way up, I sensed a gap has opened up behind us, and asked Simon to change gear.  He misinterpreted my request, and for a moment things got easier, before a second request gave an opportunity to make the hilltop come quicker, and our advantage to grow.  I urged Simon to pedal harder, which he did, and we had a great gap at the top.

We passed a few solo riders, but about a kilometre from the start of the descent, I could see behind us an ominous sight.  I willed the figure to be that of the solo we'd most recently passed, but in the end was sure.  "THEY'RE COMING MATE"...

Drilling it.  Photo:  Bob's Bikes

By the time we got to the far end of Waitahanui, they were glued to our back wheel again.

At that point I actually felt really sad that they hadn't gone straight past us. They were quite clearly stronger, and it was disappointing that they weren't prepared to take the race to us for a change.

So we rode...

... and rode ...

... and rode ...

The stretch along the lake foreshore was into a nasty headwind, and I had no idea what Simon and I had left in the tanks for the finishing straight.  I also have no idea why I thought it would come to that, because of course they attacked well before the final corner.  I guess I should have been watching them, as on one of the very rare occasions when we'd been behind them about half way through the race, their stoker had been constantly doing to us.

They made great use of the width of the road, and the relative freshness of their legs.  And the race was done.  We chased for 15 seconds or so, but knew we weren't getting them back.

The finishing straight summed up the race perfectly.  It was no competition, just as the rest of the "race" had been.  I couldn't help thinking of the event three years prior which had been a race right from the get-go, and had been in the balance right 'til the end.

Done, like a dinner

We were a good 12 minutes slower than the record, which leaves me in no doubt that we could have beaten it, had the other tandem worked with us.  Which one of us would have taken it is much less clear to me, but it would surely have been fun finding out.

I was glad not to run into the other tandem after the finish.  Had I, I think I would have told them that they had really sold themselves short.  I hoped that at the very least, they were pleased with their performance, and the outcome.  At least that would be something.

I did see the Hagans, who had had mixed fortunes in their races, not that I was in any state to ask about that at the time.  Instead, I blurted out a 30-second summary of our event, before being moved on. 

Sarah finished soon after in a mighty fine cherry-popper lap, clocking in at 5:01. Very respectable indeed, though I reckon if she'd started 15 minutes back she would have been 15 minutes quicker!

It was a while before Khulie finished (mostly by virtue of her very civilised 9am start), during which time we were able to get changed and catch up briefly with Brendan, who'd enjoyed cruising around on his commuter/training bike.  He was fascinated by the tandem result, and was very surprised we were unable to get away from the other team.  He's seen plenty of me racing my own bike, and knows better than most how strong I am at the moment.

We hit the road pretty much as soon as we were reunited with Khulan - a hot shower was waiting for us in Carterton! 

* * * * *

As usual, this blog is a useful way for me to process an event, and it goes a long way towards getting it out of my system. But, particularly when being critical, it's hard to find the right words.

Chatting to Brendan just now, I admitted I was having trouble finishing this, and he reminded me of what Dan Waluszewski had told me after my Club Nationals TT: "There's either winning or learning", admitting it had resonated with him as it had me.

And there are plenty of lessons in that ride.  There are all sorts of things we might complain about, but really they were all things we could have managed better.  In short, tandem racing is a team sport, and a good team is much greater than the sum of its parts.

I admit that I'd focussed my attention on getting myself in the best shape I could, and assumed Simon was off doing the same thing.  To really do this tandem racing lark justice in the future, we need to optimise our performance on the tandem, which is plainly not as simple as jumping on your pre-determined seat, and pedalling as hard as you can.

* * * * *

As frustrated as I was about how the morning had panned out, the sight of the Kennett Brothers' triple tandem in the back of a trailer at the Shell station in Waiouru put the whole race into perspective for me.

While the race Simon and I had disappointed us, the three triathletes who'd been on the triple when the fork had collapsed had a much worse day.  At 60km/h they were very lucky indeed to get away with one broken collar-bone and some road rash between them.  (It still makes me a bit sick to my stomach thinking about it.)

There's a lesson there too, I'm sure of it...