Monday, December 28, 2009

To Taupo, and beyond!

In late November every year thousands of passionate cyclists gather together with thousands of other ordinary New Zealanders wanting a cycling challenge at the iconic and historic Wattyl Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge - this year, and for the first time in well over a decade, I would be joining them.

I have to admit it wasn't really my idea, and for various reasons it wasn't actually a ride I'd initially been keen to do again, but I was roped into my wife's Team to do a leg of the relay she had entered with some friends as her first ever cycling event.

Initially the "Ridgway Rollers" were going to consist of four mums from my youngest son's primary school, but one mum dropped out and foolishly I put my hand up to take her place if they couldn't find a replacement. They couldn't, and then mum number two dropped out - suddenly I'd gone from a half-hearted offer to do 40 km to being committed to doing the first 80 kilometres!

Eighty kilometres wouldn't have been a problem to do when I initially committed, as I was fully into my Quest For Fitness and was feeling strong and fit for the first time in years. Sadly though, as Taupo approached, a six-week spell of appalling weather coincided with a very busy time in the shop and a manic home life to drop me back from 4-5 solid training rides a week to approximately one sifty hour long grovel every fortnight...consequently, I felt I'd lost most of my gains, and coincidentally many of the kilos I'd managed to shed had magically reappeared around my midriff!

Before long though November arrived and I realised that even if I wasn't as fit as I'd like I was really looking forward to doing Taupo with my wife. Jacq has always supported my work so well, and has dealt with me travelling with other teams, so it was going to be very cool to be part of a "Team" with her. Her training had been even scantier than mine - I think she'd managed about ten rides all year in the end, and only one 44km one with most being only 10-16km! If she could do it I sure could, even though her cracking pace on the 44km ride nearly put me into difficulty at times...

In the last days before we left for Taupo I made sure the bikes were fettled. Jacq's bike was proving to be a fine weapon for her, with stable handling and a perfect fit.

And of course my beautiful Bianchi was purring. I added a computer (more about that later) and lubed the chain but it was otherwise perfect and ready to race.

Months prior Jacq had arranged for a holiday home in Turangi to stay in, so when the Friday dawned we packed the bikes and piles of gear then bundled our tribe into the Roadworks Team Car and headed off...

Jacq and I took turns driving, and the ride seemed to pass swiftly with a couple of timely food stops and much merriment and banter to while away the time.

All the way up the island we passed and were passed by other vehicles loaded for bear with bikes of all descriptions, and as we hit the Desert Road we were overtaken by a car covered with Subway logos that we presumed belongs to Wellington star Joe Cooper.

Ruapehu loomed large on a hot and clear day - hopefully the Friday weather was a good omen for Saturday, although the forecast wasn't very inspiring...

We hit Turangi at around 3pm so made for our digs to rendezvous with fellow Ridgway Roller Tina, her husband Sean and her three children Eden, Reuben and Keiran. We were stoked to see them and to check out our cool base!

We unloaded our gear and settled in. Here Reuben checks out my bike - too young to remember Snifters yet he still admired the colour.

While Jacq, Tina, her husband Sean and I gathered to nut out a rough idea how the next couple of days were going to play out the six kids took advantage of the hot afternoon and huge section for some shenanigans - here Harry has unaccountably found himself in the dogbox while the other kids try to force Kester in there too...

After working out our plans we headed off into Taupo to register and to take in the atmosphere of a town taken over by cyclists. First step was to queue for what seemed like an eternity for our race packs, luckily everyone was very jovial and it provided a great chance to catch up with many old cycling friends from all over the country. Here Jacq takes a bullet for the Team before we dropped her and Tina's bikes off at the relay trailers.

Once that was taken care of I dragged the family to watch some of the criteriums being held in the centre of town - we got there too late to see the women race, but were able to see some of the mens event before having to pull the pin and head back to our HQ in Turangi. Very exciting for the kids to see Julian Dean racing, although Bodhi was getting tired of the crowds and his Dad's relentless socialising. Lovely to catch up with Tim Wilding, my old mate Ken Bewley and ex-Wellyites the Humphersons while wandering around...

After grabbing takeaways on the way out of Taupo we made it back to HQ in time to have a quick beer while organising our kit and my bike for the morning. I learned long ago from Susy Pryde that race numbers should be screwed up before being pinned on, as they tend to sit flatter and not act like a sail once on the road.

My Bianchi has never before been sullied with such base additions as timing chips,but there's a first time for everything I guess.

A race number on the top tube, tyres pumped and seat bag fitted and she's ready to go for her first race in over a decade.

My bidons were full, my race bag packed and my clothes and kit laid out for the morning - now to sleep...

...or so I thought, I struggled awake at 6.30am after a terrible night tossing and turning in a strange bed in the unaccustomed heat of Turangi. I sucked down a coffee and wolfed down some Vogel's toast and jam then Jacq drove me into Taupo for the start.

As we drove over the feared Hatepe Hill we passed my man John Randal on his way to the start from his base in Motuoapa - as part of his preparation for February's Kiwi Brevet he was doing 40km before doing the full 160 as part of his Dad's Team, Ross's Rouleurs! As I pondered what was to come I noted that the weather was dry but the clouds were pregnant with rain - I prayed to Eddy that hopefully it wouldn't persist down while I was racing!

I got Jacq to drop me off in a side street, whereupon I unloaded and got suited up for the ride, realising I'd left my damn gloves in Wellington. I quickly put my annoyance aside and said my goodbyes so Jacq could get back to HQ. I'd be seeing her again in just a few hours, and the gloves would only be an issue if I crashed, which I wasn't planning on doing. I then made my way through the throngs of specators and competitors to the start/finish feeling a touch of nervousness and anticipation, I must admit.

Despite the Elite race having left an hour before and several waves of the Solo already on the road the crowds were massive ahead of...

...and behind me. Once I was in the start chute I stopped feeling nervous and just felt ready to go. But it was at this point I realised my computer was still back at Turangi. I had removed it for the drive from Wellington and had totally forgotten about it. I was mildly annoyed at my poor prep but soon put it out of my mind...

The wait for the off was dragging until I was joined by fellow Vorbateer Thorg. We chatted in the chilly morning air as the time to race drew inexorably closer. This shot was taken by another Vorbling, Shmoodiver from Auckland - always good to meet my online friends in person.

Then it was time to roll out - game on.

There is a small descent to the bridge over the Waikato River then an initial climb to hurt the legs before the real pain sets in. Thorg on his fixed gear Cotic Roadrat weaved expertly through the throng of disparate cycling abilities until we were on the outside and were able to climb at our own pace. We turned left onto Poihipi Road and I settled down to work, being forced to leave Thorg behind as he spun out his single gear and I mashed the Big Dog.

I found myself feeling surprisingly good and was quickly able to get into a nice rhythm, working hard but not too hard - I knew the course profile was lumpy enough to really test my lack of fitness if I went all out. I found myself group hopping forward, along with some other riders. We were able to get some semblance of a group working before the first real climb detonated things as some riders moved forwards and some fired backwards.

I managed to put myself at the front of the group as we hit the climb, allowing me to slip backwards as we ascended yet still be with the front quarter of my bunch as we crested. The descent surprised me as I passed the entire group and bridged to the next one using my vast mass to it's full advantage! This tactic came into play over almost all the many small but sharp climbs, allowing me to creep happily forward rather than backwards...on almost every climb I found myself feeling stronger by the top than at the bottom, so all the hillwork I did in winter really did have a payoff...

I quickly found my long-unused bunch skills were very useful, as I was able to move around the bunches at will. The usual Taupo chaos of dropped bottles, litter and crashes were a trifle unsettling at times but I managed to keep clear of any carnage, and I felt somehow personally immune from harm. Ambulances passed by every 15-20 minutes, but luckily I gather most injuries were minor - the half a helmet slam-bang in the middle of the road at one point notwithstanding.

As I rode I bumped into Kim Humpherson being escorted by her legendary Dad Garry - a luxury to have a multiple National and World Champion as your companion. Garry was cruising and making us all look very slow on the climbs as he monstered some huge gear. I also found myself getting much encouragement from people recognising the kit or the name on my number, so I tried to pay it forward as often as my puffing and wheezing would allow...thanks to my friend Zoe for the shout out too!

The first 70km of my ride wasn't exactly super fast, but I certainly felt fine and had a great time - for some of it I even felt like a real bike racer for the first time in years! I found myself at the front of the various bunches more often than the rear, and was continuing my downhill bridging maneuvers with great aplomb. My hydration and feeding were going to plan too, and some brief friendships were being forged in the crucible of competition. The weather was playing it's part too, with light winds and the overcast conditions keeping us all cool. Despite my fitness reservations and limitations I found myself really enjoying the ride...

However, the last 10km of my ride proved somewhat more onerous as my get up and go got up and left. The relentless hills coming one after the other eventually hit me in the legs, and my lack of preparation caught up with me. I must have still been going okay though, as it was just after this point I caught up to another bunch on a slight incline. My eyes were sweaty slits and I was in a kind of tunnel vision hoping it wasn't too far to go when I heard a stentorian voice say, "Oli Brooke-White!" I turned to see the cheery smile of my good buddy John Randal who, as I mentioned earlier, was escorting his Dad Ross as part of Ross's Rouleurs.

John effortlessly pedalled up beside me and we chatted for a bit before I put the hammer down and dropped his arse...or more accurately, I proceeded painfully forwards on sheer willpower as John deliberately soft-pedalled at about 1/4 pace to look after his Dad, who was doing his first ever road ride. Read about their awesome exploits in John's fine blog, Sifter Goes (Bike) Riding. It's not often I will be able to say I caught and dropped John in a race so I'm going to seize it with both ungloved hands...

Thanks to my lack of computer and general fatigue I thought I still had about 10km to go when my second bidon ran out, so I took advantage of one of the awesome volunteer-staffed drinks stations to fill up with delicious, rejuvenating water on the summit of one of the many hills as the rain began to lightly fall.

As I climbed back aboard the Bianchi I was just in time to see a spectacular crash, as a guy tried to do a last minute right-angle turn on the gravel to get a drink and fired himself over the bars in a cloud of dust and stones! He seemed fine so I hit the road (not literally!) again, feeling like a new man. My second wind meant I was once again hauling as I made the descent from the rest stop only to find that I was actually already at the Kurutau Relay Exchange! I climbed off my bike with a mixture of relief and disappointment, and began to look for my support crew...

...who had been patiently waiting for me in the increasing drizzle as I completed my 80km in just less than three hours.

I staggered gratefully towards them as my legs felt increasingly more rubbery.

We swapped transponders and I gave Jacq some last minute tips as she readied herself.

Then it was time for a quick photo and she was off!

She had to shuffle through the many riders pushing out of the one gate...

...before she could finally take to the tarmac.

Me and the boys piled into the Wagon and headed out onto the course to get to HQ. One of the defining images of the Taupo event are the bunches of cyclists of all dress codes, abilities and desires, riding all different kinds of machines that seem to stretch along the road as far as the eye can see in both directions.

We passed rider after rider fighting their various lone battles as we searched for a sight of Jacq.

Getting out of the carpark and onto the road had taken some time but we were expecting to pass her long before we did - we had actually decided we must have gone past her and missed her when we finally caught her on the early slopes of Kurutau Hill, so she was fair flying along! Harry did his best to snap a pic as we went by.

The plan was to hit HQ for me to have a quick shower and get changed while the kids had some lunch, then head to Motuoapa to meet Jacq as she finished her leg. However, we didn't count on the ferocious pace she was setting...

As we drove along the side of the race on SH1 into Taupo we were slowed by the traffic that in many cases seemed utterly unable to cope with the sharing of the road, so when we hadn't passed Jacq I realised she was actually going to beat us into the transition, and just as I was parking the car the text asking where we were arrived - we were gutted to have stuffed up and not been there to see her come in, but we soon found her smiling a delighted grin as wide as the Lake itself.

Jacq wasn't worried or grumpy at us (me), although she did say later she would probably have continued on to Taupo with Tina if we'd been there to be told. A bit of a shame for sure, but she was still delighted with how well she rode - the 40km smacked out in 1:47. She felt she'd coped with the rain and the bunches well, and was super proud of how she'd ridden the climbs as well as the tricky descent off the Waihi Hill. She must have been stomping on the flats too!

We wandered out of Motouapa towards the car to the sight of a mad unicyclist on his way around the Lake - our suffering paled into insignificance when we realised how hard it must be for a guy who had neither gears nor brakes, and who couldn't stop pedalling for a single second of the entire 160km!

We got into the car and debriefed while Jacq got changed as we chased Tina into town...

We hit the lower slopes of Hatepe Hill in time to see a happy and composed Tina climbing strongly...

...but at this point the old Brooke-White Curse raised it's ugly head with a very loud *POP!!* Suddenly the always reliable Sex Wagon was sounding like an out of tune Sopwith Camel at the volume of an AC/DC concert! Spectators on the side of the road were covering up their ears as we laboured up the hill desperately searching for a clear spot to pull over and figure out wtf was going on!

We found somewhere to stop as the Hill flattened out at the summit and, just as a canny older gentleman was laconically telling me I'd popped a sparkplug (???), Tina came by smiling and waving and clearly having a ball.

Now I've never heard of "popping a plug" but when the AA truck arrived it turned out the diagnosis was bang on the money so it was straightforward to get back under way, requiring only a modicum of listening to the AA couple bleating about all the cyclists cluttering up their pristine roads with their uncouth pedally behaviour.

We raced into town hoping we would be able to find Tina and the family, and despite Jacq's cellphone going flat so not having their numbers it proved easy enough once we'd used the event tannoy to broadcast a plea for turned out Tina had completed her leg in a great 2:28 with gas in the tank and was as stoked as Jacq was at their efforts.

We regrouped and made our way into the Domain to watch the Jon Bridges MCed presentations, along with the thousands of other tired but happy participants.

We didn't win any of the many spot prizes, but we did enjoy ourselves greatly and loved the awesome low level air display by the RNZAF's Red Checkers aerobatic team.

As evening fell the show was over and the crowds dispersed for another year. We drove back to Turangi as the sun set... partake of some excellent and thoroughly deserved Chinese takeaways and a bottle of bubbles, as the two families sat around the dining table recounting stories from the long day, before hitting the sack for what proved this time to be a sound night's sleep.

Tina and Sean upped sticks early and took their brood away while the Brooke-Whites took their sweet time getting packed and ready to roll.

Me and my two big boys had just enough time for a quick cuddle...awwwwww.

Once we'd left, then returned to close the window we realised we'd left open, then left again, we headed to Tokaanu for a walk around the the mud pools then a refreshing soak in the hot pool on what was a scorching day. Then we headed back down the line, joining the hordes of other lower North Island cyclists returning to their daily lives. Managing to not get killed by some of the stupidest driving I've ever seen was a blessed relief also...

A quick stop for late lunch in Mangaweka, then before we knew it we were safely back home in the B-Pore.

The next day as I cleaned the grime and race stickers off my Bianchi...

...and got it pristine once more...

Then did the same and touched up the tiny paint scratches on Jacq's bike from it's time on the relay truck...

...I was able to reflect on what had been one of the standout weekends of our family life.

The negatives included;
*The breakdown, but in light of the ease of repair and the laughs it caused it seemed pretty minor once it was sorted.
*Missing out on seeing Jacq finishing was disappointing, especially as it cost her the chance to continue on to Taupo. I underestimated her pace and ability a wee bit, but it was the inept driving of others that really slowed us down so I take some comfort from that.
*Lastly, I was a bit irked that I had stuffed up by forgetting my gloves and computer - minor issues to be sure, but for a guy who prides himself on helping top teams be ready for anything I'm a bit miffed I couldn't take that same level of prep into an event for myself. Again, I take some comfort in the realisation that Jacq and Tina were fully sorted with both material and advice, so I didn't let that side of things down.

The positives far outweighed the small niggles though;
*We had a great time away as a family - the kids were awesome and had heaps of fun.
*The race went well for us all. While we didn't set the world on fire we all did great and all enjoyed the ride. It's a very cool event and a beautiful parcours to hold it on.
*No mechanicals!
*The hot pools.
*Catching up with heaps of friends, and loving the inclusive nature of the whole event.
*Our accommodation was amazing - we've booked it already for next year.
*The great support the kids showed Jacq and I. We couldn't have done it without that support, and it blew us away. Harry and Kester want to do it next year, and Bodhi is talking it up as well!
*I really enjoyed being in a (sort of) road race for the first time in over a decade. I loved revisiting some of the old sensations, and the feeling of being experienced in a bunch.
*I also was really happy with how I managed my meagre resources - instead of going out too hard and blowing I spent almost the entire ride close to but below my limits, meaning I really enjoyed myself - at least until the last few hills, at any rate!
*My descending. No one, but no one, passed me on a downhill, and I made up ground every single time the grade tipped downwards. Great fun.
*My climbing. Not fast but always steady and a lot better than I expected considering the lead up. At least until the 70km mark where things got a tad more torrid for this old fatboy...
*My flat road riding. Being able to use my size and some power I didn't know I even had was pretty cool. Putting all three aspects together I'm surprised I wasn't a lot faster lol!
*Jacq was AMAZING. Considering how busy she has been of late and how little training she did she did a cracking time, and seeing how much she enjoyed her ride was one of the great pleasures of my married life. She rode so well I'm trying to encourage her to do more of these sort of events.
*Hanging out with Tina and her family was lovely, and seeing Tina's pre-race nerves turn into a glow of pride and satisfaction on completion of her ride was very cool.

So there we have it, the Taupo Experience through the eyes of Oli. I look forward to repeating it either as a rider or as support for my kids riding it in 2010.

Cheers for reading, Oli