Sunday, November 17, 2019

Doctors Randal at the Whaka 100

Email time-stamps confirm that about a week after publishing my Mongolia Bike Challenge write-up, and the day after being invited to ride the Queen Charlotte Track by Simon, I entered Sarah and I as a team in the 2019 Whaka100.  As a hat-tip to our academic qualifications, and our surnames, we chose a team-name of Drs Randal.

This would be my third "all you can eat" 100km MTB extravaganza in the forest on the edge of Rotorua, having last done it in 2015.  I'd done a fair bit of riding in Mongolia on my own, and the discounted team entry seemed like a good way for us both to take part in the event, and for me to support Sarah in her first attempt at anything of this nature.  While I've not done much off-road riding to speak of, she'd been regularly commuting via the Polhill tracks, and had been really enjoying the variety. 

Once again, the event was during the 3-day Labour Weekend.  The daughters were both keen to come with us, and while Kaitlyn had an exam on the Friday afternoon and Khulan one on the Saturday morning, we managed to sort the necessary logistics to get everyone to Rotorua for most of the long weekend.

The race itself was on Sunday, and after over-nighting in Taihape, and an early lunch, Sarah, Kaitlyn and I unloaded three of the four bikes on the back of the car for a cruise at Craters of the Moon, just north of Taupō.  It is one of the few places in NZ you need to pay to ride, but followed the rules and bought passes at the cafe near one of the trailheads.

I'm fairly certain we didn't sample the best the forest had to offer, but nonetheless had a nice spin.  It was Kaitlyn's first ride in a long time, and the only advice we had on which trails to do were the "loop suggestions" on the map.  I found navigation a bit of a drag, and must have refolded the map a few dozen times!  In any case, it was a good opportunity for me to get the shock and fork pressures on my aging but still awesome Yeti ASR5C sorted, to test out the hand-me-down Light-Bicycle/Roadworks  carbon wheels (that had gone from Khulan's Merida to Kaitlyn's Yeti, and now to the only remaining 26"-wheeled bike in the family),, and to loosen the legs a bit.

Sarah and Kaitlyn at Deb's Seat

We uplifted Khulan from Rotorua airport that evening, and had a lovely dinner together - one of those where it seemed wise to keep shovelling food in well after the point that the stomach says "that'll do...".

"What I love most about my home is who I share it with" - never a truer word spoken

Aside from putting race numbers on the bikes, I had a couple of things to try to sort, and they tested both my skills and patience.  Sarah's headset seemed on its last legs, and tightening the stem cap bolt only a few degrees took it from too loose to too tight.  Also, my brakes weren't functioning quite the way wanted them to, but I managed to improve them slightly, and was satisfied I'd be able to stop if needed!!!

Unlike '15, the race day weather forecast was great, and when Sarah and I rode down to the event HQ the next morning, we were only wearing Gore Shakedry jackets over lycra jerseys.  I was using the Revelate Vole to carry spare tubes and tools (as well as our jackets), so just had a pump and food in my pockets.  It was a delight not to be carrying a back pack!

We dropped off a couple of bags which would later be available to us at the 50km aid station, and said gidday to a few friends from Wellington.  Then it was time to line up at the back of the first start wave - unfortunately, the Teams weren't seeded by predicted finish time, unlike the rest of the field.  Looking back to see the likes of Andy Hagan on the front row of the next start wave had me figuring it wouldn't be too long before we were getting in the way.

It was a wee while before we hit singletrack for the first time, at which point I decided just to follow Sarah.  Everything seemed to be going fine, but I was still second guessing my choice to follow her  after she'd taken a nana-line on Creek, and again when we started getting swamped by the lead riders from the second start wave. 

We stopped several times to let people past, so it was doubly frustrating when we got stuck behind a rider for about 5 minutes on a torturous bit of track.  From my vantage point, things seemed to be going fine, and we were moving along well, but then out of the blue, Sarah hit the deck for the first time.

Photo:  Redstar Images

She quickly dusted herself off, and got moving again, I heard some hollering from a rider that had got between us, and rounded the next bend to see Sarah lying on the track trying to disentangle herself from her bike.

During the crash she'd burped her front tyre, which was good, because it gave me a chance to settle things down a bit.  I took the bike off the track, and forced her to sit down and have something to eat.  Luckily, I was able to re-seat the tubeless tyre again, and after a five-minute spell, we set off again.  I hoped that would be the last of our troubles.

Alas, it wasn't to be, and after a couple more silly crashes, I started to threaten withdrawal if she hit the deck again.  She was quite belligerent, and I spent a long while wondering how on earth this was going to go - perhaps I was overreacting, but I was fearful that she'd eventually hurt herself badly or damage her bike.  I didn't like the close up view I was getting of all this carnage.

I was getting really worked up, and may have shouted "USE YOUR FUCKING DROPPER" as she resumed riding down Tukonohi after yet another crash, - again with her seatpost at full extension, making life harder than it needed to be.  We were only about a quarter of the way through the event, and in very different ways (but with the same cause) neither of us was having any fun.

Halfway up Hill Road
Fortunately, we now had an epic climb ahead of us, and with all the crashes, the "race" element had at least gone.  It was now a matter of survival, as it should have been from the very start.

Back at the top of Tukonohi, we saw Shane Wetzel, whose voice I hadn't recognised when he'd cheered us on our way into the track.

Photo: Shane Wetzel
I hadn't done any homework on the route, so didn't know what to expect after Frontal Lobotomy.  As it turned out, we were off down Billy T, which went mostly OK.  There was at least one silly spill in front of me, but it looked more like indecisiveness was the cause, rather than the operator being on the ropes, and we proceeded with caution.

After Billy T we had a bit more climbing to do, before heading off down Kung Fu Walrus - a much better prospect in the dry than it had been for me four years earlier in the wet.  Below that was a new bit of track - Te Kotukutuku - which suited us down to the ground given our current state - wide, and a nice smooth surface.  

After a bit of riding in amongst some massive redwoods, we did an anticlockwise loop through Mossy Trail, the course crossing itself in the process.  Soon after that, we reached the half-way point, and an opportunity to refill bottles and pockets, and empty bladders.  Sarah even received a bit of first aid on her multiple-times-gouged knee, and it was a nice opportunity for both of us to relax a bit.  

We were able to ease back into things with a warm up on gravel roads before the climb up to the top of No Brains.  On the way up, we met a school teacher from Christchurch who sounded like she dabbled in all manner of sports, and doing a great job on the day despite, by all accounts, not doing much mountain biking.  

After making it safely down, we had a long, and at-times very steep, climb ahead.  It was the biggest single elevation gain of the course, at about 500m, and took us almost 40 minutes.  My legs were feeling OK, and I glad to be managing to stay on top of the fairly unhelpful granny gear in my 2x10 setup (hot tip:  beware when an ex-pro MTBer specs your bike...!!!).

Body language not screaming "fresh"
The long climb took us to the top of the new Split Enz, which I hated my way down.  Sarah was riding suitably conservatively, yet at about 25kg heavier, and not inhibited by any crashes, I wanted to carry a bit more speed than I was able to.  Consequently, I was glad when we were done with it - aside from the "spectating", it was the section I least enjoyed.

40 to go!!!
While I was no longer terrified about my wife axing herself, I was starting to tire of the riding.  The singletrack that took us to the bottom of the Direct Road climb was taxing, and while the climb itself was fine, a stressful descent took us onto Be Rude Not To, a trail which was glorious in its early days but is now pretty horrid (or at least is, 80km into an event).

Even though I didn't familiarise myself with the course, I had some sense of what was remaining to get us back to base.  In particular, I knew there'd be more than was welcome.

Still power in those legs, despite all they'd been through
Sure enough, even though we were tantalisingly close to the finish, the course seemed determined to take unexpected turns, each time adding in a bit more climbing  and a few extra minutes on singletrack.  But, eventually the inevitable conclusion drew near.

I took the lead into Rosebank, but was shouted after when one of Sarah's tyres randomly lost pressure - just riding along, apparently.  Unfortunately, I'd resumed my position keeping watch from behind when Sarah - ever the trooper - thought to ride through the bog which would prove to be one hurdle too many.  In slow motion, she wrapped herself around the log bridge I was prepping myself to walk over.  Bloody knee and drenched, but with a lovely smile on her face nonetheless.

Photo:  Whaka100
That was to prove the last problem, and we made it safely through the last minute or so, crossing the line together, and greeted by our two beautiful daughters.

Photo: Ryan Hunt

We were both pretty stunned, and didn't celebrate overly much - I'm not sure we even embraced. Sarah went off to the first aid tent to get cleaned up, while I enjoyed the temporary space to recover a wee bit.

I wouldn't have been surprised if Sarah had asked me to go back to the accommodation to pick up the car.  That turned out to be unnecessary though, and all four of us rode the couple of kilometres back to base.  I was happy to ride ahead, and it warmed the cockles of my heart seeing the three of them approaching from my vantage point above the track.

After a good clean up, it was time for some dinner.  All the way from Victoria, British Columbia came the suggestion of Lone Star, and we were very happy to take Rich's advice.  It was a lovely family occasion, and I was so grateful for the company - that the girls had both wanted to come up to Rotorua despite that the parents would be racing the whole day, and that Sarah was in a fit state to dine!!

Photo inspiration: Richard Martin!

It took Sarah a week or so to bounce back after her bruising encounter with the Whaka 100.  The emotional scars were obvious, and it was sad to see her feeling so humbled.   The downside of being tough as nails, and as incredibly physically capable as she is, is that sometimes she sets her expectations a bit too high - and in this case she didn't live up to her own lofty standards.

She should (and I hope does) feel proud of completing what is surely one of the hardest one day MTB races in the country.  It was remarkable to see the recovery she made after a terrible start - not only to overcome the physical costs of crashing so many times, but also to successfully endure the associated emotional roller coaster. 

I hope that my presence was more useful than just to carry a bit of spare gear.  I may have been overly hysterical at times, but I was genuinely becoming scared of the consequences of continuing.  That said, perhaps even that added drama served a purpose, and enabled things to converge onto a sustainable path through to the finish.

I'm ever so proud of Sarah - actually, I think more than I would have been had the race gone less badly.  I knew she was tough, but this event really drew out her inner strength, and over the space of almost 10 hours (less the first couple), I was able to hang out on her wheel in admiration.  What a day!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Everywhere has roads

International travel is one of the "perks" of an academic's role, but it is not something I have typically enjoyed.  My introverted nature makes me feel quite uncomfortable in a conference setting, and trips as an administrator in recent years have consisted of virtually zero exercise, and abundant cheap and delicious food.

It has only recently registered through my thick skull that travel is good for me - perhaps not the environment, but having ridden my bike to school virtually every day in the last 30 years, I feel like I can justify burning a bit of gas.  My job is stressful and easily imposes on my leisure time, and holidays help make it all feel worth while, before, during and after.

Recent indulgences - to France, New Caledonia and Taiwan - have been specifically chosen because of the reputation those places have for quality riding.  But, as I once noted to Matthew, a colleague in the International arm of the university, "everywhere has roads".   So, when a last minute opportunity came up to visit Melaka (the 9th largest city in Malaysia, according to Wikipedia) for a few days, despite it having no reputation as a cycling mecca, I decided to pack my bike, and request a meeting schedule that would accommodate a bit of R&R.

My hotel was on the outskirts of the city, and with three afternoons and one full day to play with, the extent of my planning was to try to head in a different direction each day.  I had zero expectations, nor any specific targets - the sole purpose was to be pedalling, a goal which I figured would easily be achieved.

The extent of my planning had been to download a base map from and load it onto my GPS.  Getting my bike ready was a cinch, and consisted only of remounting the rear derailleur and wheels, and pumping up the tyres (the former by virtue of my Scicon bag which doesn't require the handle bar to be removed, and the latter aided by a nifty Topeak travel pump).

Day 1 - West

I was clear of work and ready to roll out at 2pm the day after arrival into Melaka.  I figured the best shake-down ride would be to cruise into the old part of the city via the outskirts and coastal road.

The beauty of having no fixed agenda was immediately apparent, and with no riding companion, I was free to duck and dive as I chose.  I had the map screen up on my GPS, and used both a suitable level of zoom, a general sense of the direction I wanted to go in, and the colour-coded roads, to identify a likely route - albeit one subject to last-minute change.

One of the first gems of the ride!
My legs felt surprisingly good - I'd been on a daytime flight between Auckland and Singapore, so had moved around a lot, and between times was seated in relative luxury by virtue of an Air NZ elite airpoints dollar upgrade to premium economy.   When I arrived at the intersection I'd been gunning for, I stayed on the main road rather than turn left - the Melaka waterfront would have to wait.

On the way out to Masjid Hanan, I toyed with various small loops, before settling on a less convoluted loop back to Acer Keroh on the outskirts of Melaka.

The mosque the town was named after

I was struck by how nice the roads were - a great surface mostly, and plenty of space, due either to a complete lack of traffic, or the sort of courtesy you rarely get on New Zealand roads.

Not atypical road conditions!
Rounding one corner, there was one hell of a commotion on the left side of the road, and it was clear that I startled something.  Three macaque monkeys lingered long enough for me to snap a photo of them, before also disappearing into the jungle.

On the homeward leg, I had only a single navigational blunder (to add to a few earlier in the ride).  A likely looking road was actually the E2 freeway, and I wasn't welcome there.

Almost home, but not before a quick stop to admire this temple

By the time I rolled into my hotel lobby, I'd been out 4 hours, a far cry from the couple that I'd been expecting.  I'd really enjoyed the heat, and the format, and was very pleasantly surprised at how well my legs had travelled.

Stats:  103km at 27km/h, max temp 33 degrees

Day 2 - East

After the previous day's cracker, I planned to head in the opposite direction as far as Muar, about 50km along the coast towards Singapore.  I headed inland initially, saving the relatively straight coastal run for the homeward leg.

No sooner had  I got underway, than I realised that it was going to be a warm one.  While I love the heat, a humid 40-degrees was pushing the comfort zone a little!

The outbound journey was great fun, again making it up as I went along.  There were long stretches in the countryside, but also time spent passing through small towns...

... with the occasional deadend, at least one of which I managed to avoid doubling back on.

100m or so of this, and I was back on the pavement

Nearing Muar, the back road I was on was so sweet...

... it was a shame to dive off it, but the tiny wee road I spent the next 10 minutes on was totally worth it.

My route got a bit messy just before Muar, and I decided not to venture over the river.  Instead, I admired the town from afar for a couple of minutes, before circling around and picking up the back road between the main highway and the coast.

Mwah, Muar.
The old legs started to tire a bit, and both sundown and dinner time were approaching.  Luckily, there was no shortage of places to buy drinks, and cracking scenery kept me going!

Probably the "worst" road surface of the trip - I'd take this over NZ's standard chip seal any time.   
On the edge of Melaka, I turned away from the coast, saying farewell to the occasional ocean view and marina.

Mmmm, boats
About 10 minutes from the hotel, I decided to stop for dinner, and spent all of $5 on a delicious chicken murtabak and roti, washed down with 100-plus and teh tarik.  It was dark by the time I got back to the hotel, but I wouldn't have had it any other way!  Another great success, albeit a bit more energy sapping than the previous day's ride.

Stats:  124km at 26.4km/h average, max temp 39 degrees

Day 3 - South

I had a 3pm catch up with a former colleague, so didn't roll out until just before 5pm, with a view to doing the ride I probably should have started with - a loop through the Melaka city centre.

I was becoming pretty good at following my nose, and managed to pick out some great wee lanes to kick off with.

Give. Me. More!

I hadn't been right to the coast on my earlier rides, so it was nice to finally do so.

The Straits of Malacca, with Indonesia off in the hazy distance
I was keen to try to find a "chinese pillow box" for my dear wife, but my loops through the Jonker district and a bit of walking through various markets were unsuccessful.

Malacca centre is full of garish rickshaws! 
It was dark by the time I pulled the pin, but I felt very safe on the roads nonetheless.  I'd packed my lights, and the traffic seemed very mindful of my presence on the road.

I'd have been screwed without my GPS - the streets rarely go anywhere in a straight line, and the constant direction changes, particularly after dark, were hard to keep track of. 

There's no shortage of road-side dining in Malaysia, and so I grabbed a few bucks worth of deep fried goodies at a stall a few kilometres from home, a big bottle of water from the servo, and then back to the hotel for a bloody good wash and a rest.

Stats60km at 20km/h average, max temp 31 degrees

Day 4 - North

My final day was the first time I'd literally have the whole day to ride, and having headed up and down the coast, and to "the beach", today was the day for a foray inland.

First port of call was to head past the Durian Tunggal reservoir, which presumably is a water source for Melaka.

I'd ridden through a lot of palm plantations, and seen plenty of rubber trees (complete with their diagonal scars and small buckets collecting the latex), but also various fruit crops.

Fruits!  (Don't ask me which)
I eventually settled on Tampin as a target, and managed to find some nifty wee back roads to get there.

Not the rail underpass, but very close to one!
My legs were feeling pretty tired, which seemed odd after the relatively easy ride the day before.  But, progress seemed fine, and I was even up for doubling back to record a stunning array of mushrooms for sale in someone's front yard.

I was getting pretty peckish by the time I reached the outskirts of Tampin, and stopped to remedy my hunger.  Teh tarik and a couple of plain roti slid down so well, I had to order a second round of each.  As I made my way through the last of it, I realised they were packing up, and I was reminded that the time of day you can't typically buy roti is at lunchtime (seems very counter-intuitive to this westerner)!  These roti were great, and it would have been a crying shame to miss them.  The whole meal cost less than $2.

I filled my bottle at the other end of town, and managed to avoid too much time on the main road towards Rembau.

Transmission lines getting a bit of a tickle up

I was skirting around the back of a conservation area, and took a wonderful shortcut between two bits of highway.  The wee roads through the villages were an absolute highlight of these rides.

Back on the highway, I got into the only major climb of the four days, and my timing could not have been worse.  It was a rampy 2km ascent, averaging 10%, but peaking at over 20% in one stretch.  As if the gradient wasn't bad enough, the temperature shot up, and I saw 40.3 degrees on my GPS just after the summit!

At least things cooled down a bit on the other side, and I had almost 30km of gradual descending to do.  My single 900mL bottle was empty, and while I'd had plenty of stops (during which I'd usually skull a can of 100-plus, and empty a 1.5L bottle of water into my bidon and stomach), there had been no resupply since well before the climb had started.  But, sure enough, it wasn't long before I spotted a store and pulled in for some drink (and an ice-cream on a stick).

The locals were enjoying nasi lemak - rice with sambal, eaten with fingers on one hand, in a fascinating motion which I'm certain it would take months to perfect.  One fella asked if he could have a selfie with me, and I obliged.  I guess they don't see too many cyclists passing through, and certainly not gringos like me.

I made the symbolic turn for home just before the 100km mark.  While I was keen to avoid the main roads if I could, it was hard to imagine I was going to take on too many more optional extras from here on!

I don't think this was a shooting range
I had a couple more stops for fuel before riding through the UTeM campus and dropping down to the hotel in Acer Keroh.  Luckily, I still had a wee bit of energy, and was able to pack the bike for the next day's flights back to NZ. 

Stats:  154km at 26km/h average, max temp 40 degrees


I'm so glad I took my bike with me, and am somewhat bemused by the quality of the riding in and around Melaka.  The road surface was fantastic, the sights and sounds were fascinating, distances between shops were never too great, and the drivers were incredibly courteous. 

As a single data point, it is hard to know how unusual this might be, but my temptation is to think that I could have had a comparable experience on the outskirts of any of Malaysia's cities, but perhaps in South-East Asia more generally.

Most of my bike-travel has been of the point-to-point variety, a format I love, but which is not without considerable logistical challenges.   This alternative, riding each day from home base was no less satisfying, and is something I'll definitely look to do more of.

I'm back at home now, and feel so much better (both physically and mentally) having been active while away.  Not to mention that I was out doing my favourite thing.  440km of riding in celebration of the fact that Melaka is surrounded by not just any old roads, but great ones!