Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Cold, The Climbing, The Views, The Yeti St James Epic

I'd been looking forward to this trip for weeks now. John and I both flew into Christchurch on Friday where we rendezvoused with Kashi and Anthony from Yeti NZ for the trip to Hanmer Springs. After loading up our four bikes and ourselves in the Black Seal bat mobile, we were on our way! I've never been to Hamner Springs before and I was quite taken aback by how stunning the scenery is in the area. It's such a beautiful place.

First things first. When we arrived, we assembled our beautiful Yeti bikes. Registration for the event was an interesting experience. We drove around Hamner Springs for quite some time before we realised we were in the right place for rego and there just wasn't any signage to tell us that... This, we would discover, would be a common theme for the weekend. Number plates and rego packs in hand, we set off home to have a meal and prepare for the race the following day. I was sure to celebrate the fact that this was the first time The Ninja had donned a race plate (I think I was way more excited about this than anyone else!). It was a pretty cool sight having four blinged-up black Yeti bikes in the one place at the same time, and it was a slightly amusing sight to see four bikes lined up in the living room and four riders standing around taking photos of them (like the bikes were "working the camera"). I was also highly amused to discover that the bedroom I was sleeping in had a toilet in the cupboard (good ol' Kiwi baches!)

It was an early start the next morning. The race was due to start at 8am at Lake Tennyson, which was an hour's drive from Hanmer Springs. On the way out there, I was rude enough to stop the whole carload of us twice to jump out for a toilet stop behind grass tussocks... It may have been a combination of nerves, the bumpy road and the fact that I obviously drank too much water that morning... At least I knew I was well-hydrated! I didn't really know what to expect from today. I knew the St James trail was part of the national cycleways project, so I was naive enough to think it was going to be an absolute highway, and tipped myself for a sub-six hour finish. I knew there was close to 2000m of climbing, but that didn't really phase me too much. What did phase me was how cold it was when we got out of the car. I really did feel for the multisporters as I saw them jumping into Lake Tennyson in what felt like 4degree cold at 7.30am... It didn't even look like the start to a race... More like "survival of the swimmer who can deal with the cold the best"... I was glad to stick to the bike for today! It was really tough choosing what gear to start off wearing. We had a huge list of "compulsory kit" so it made sense to try and wear some of that. The rest of it was shoved wherever it would fit in my bulging Camelbak. I ended up opting for an Icebreaker layer under my jersey, which seemed to be the right choice after about half an hour, but lining up on the start line was freezing.

The race briefing wasn't all that reassuring... The race director gave us a really detailed overview of the course, to which I then asked "it is marked though, right"? I was relieved when he said yes, because I hadn't really paid attention to anything else he had said. We set off about 8.30am. There were two mountain bike races, a 65km and a 103km (of course, I was doing the 103km) and we started at the same time. The field was quite small, with all of about 8 of us doing the full 103km. The 103km course was the same as the 65km course, except it had three "side trips" off the main track, which were out and back trips.

As we set off from Lake Tennyson, the air temperature was freezing... My legs were so cold and felt so heavy I could hardly turn the pedals. Erin Greene was the only other female completing the 103km course and I was hoping that I could stick fairly close to her for a good portion of the ride. I started just in front of her and as we climbed the first hill, I managed to stay with her, but as we hit the top of the hill, I lost sight of her. The first descent with such cold legs was really quite sketchy on a loose gravel trail. I just felt like I had no control over how my legs moved on the bike... I ended up in a ditch on the side of the track at one point. I knew Erin was a good technical descender and would have made some time on me that first descent... I just kept working hard and I'd see where that got me. After that, we started to get the odd bit of sun and my legs warmed up a bit. On the odd occasion that I looked up, the scenery was amazing, with dramatic, jagged mountains jutting out of the landscape either side of the valley we were in.

The first side trip we did crossed quite a wide river (river crossings would be a big part of life on the trail today) and then climbed up along a lake and into another valley to a turnaround point. The climbing was hard work on the grass... Very energy and speed-sapping. The good thing about the "out and back" loops was that you could see where you were in relation to the rest of the field, and as it turned out, I was only a couple of minutes behind Erin.

As we rejoined the main trail, we were faced with the headwind again. It was pretty heinous and I really should have had some more foresight to try and stick with another rider to work on rotating through the headwind. But as it turned out, I was on my own, so I just had to deal with it. The second side-trip was really hard work. We were on grass, into a headwind and the trail was pretty poorly marked. We were trying to find tramping markers while we were scooting along on our bikes and there were a number of river crossings. I increasingly found myself slowing down thinking "am I in the right place? Have I missed a marker?". To be honest, it was a bit frustrating, but I was relieved to find the turnaround point with the plate punch on it and then to head back to the main trail with a tail wind. At this point, a sub six hour ride was still on the cards, but when I looked at the total ascent on my Garmin GPS, it told me that we had only climbed 500m in total so far. We were 50km in and I knew that there was supposed to be 2,000m of climbing for the whole race... I tried to put it into the back of my head, but I couldn't help thinking to myself "surely we don't have another 1,500m of climbing to do in the last 50km?" (for the record, yes, we did).

On our third side trip, as I got to the turnaround point, I saw that I was only about 500m behind Erin, which I was super stoked with. It was pretty encouraging and I turned up the pace a notch to see if I could bridge the gap (similarly, I'm sure she turned up the pace a notch to ensure I didn't!). The next 40km were the hardest in the race, but probably had the nicest scenery and trails. I really started to struggle with the river crossings... Being so small, the wind coupled with the current in the rivers conspired to knock me over at any given opportunity, so I found I was being fairly cautious with where I placed my feet. In addition to this, I had to make sure I lifted the bike right out of the water, otherwise the current caught it and sent me tumbling. I reckon I lost a lot of time on the river crossings. I would have to say that the most unusual part of the ride was just before we hit the single track and were riding across this huge expanse of flattened grass. It was the weirdest feeling... You thought you were riding in a straight line, but the grass seemed to suck your wheel any which way it felt... In the end, I found it quicker to tackle on foot with my bike in hand. We then headed up this rather long singletrack climb with amazing vistas back over the valley we had just ridden through. It was such a treat to take time out of huffing and puffing and suffering for five seconds to look at what was around me. We really were in stunning, dramatic countryside. The trail we had been on disappeared through countless rivers towards the horizon at the end of the valley which was guarded by towering mountains on either side which touched the blue sky. It was magic. Once again, I wasn't sure if I was in the right place or going the right way, and as I barreled down the single track on the other side of the climb, I came across a couple of groups of recreational riders who confirmed for me that yes, other racers had come past them (PHEW!). This was the best part of trail that we had ridden, but there was still 30km to go...

After crossing this really cool swing bridge (a camera at this point would have been awesome), I was faced with two rather long, steep climbs. They were hard work, and, quite honesty, they chewed me up and spat me out like I had done no training whatsoever... It was demoralising to say the least. I was hurting real bad, but there was no other option than to just keep pushing on. I pride myself on being a pretty good climber, and these hills taught me a big lesson. My chain was also running super dry and I hadn't brought any lube with me, so I just had to suck it up and deal with it. I took the time at the last aid station to stop and top up with a banana and some extra fluids before setting off down the other side. I considered removing my thermal from under my jersey, but decided that even if I got hot, it was probably good conditioning for what we would encounter in South Africa. The wind had picked up but was actually behind me now... A nice change from the head wind we had endured the entire race up until now. A couple of localised bug communities (best close your mouth when riding through them!), a few more river crossings and one more heinous hill and then I had a tail wind down hill to nail it home (or so I thought)... About 2km from the finish, we were directed off the road and onto a vague farm track (once again, marked with tramping track poles). I had no idea where I was going, most of it wasn't ridable and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to pick my way across this farm paddock, all the while with the finish line in sight. It was painful, and probably a bit unnecessary. I finally made my way across the finish line, well outside the 6 hours I had planned on, but with a good day of training in my legs.

There were a lot of tales circulating at the finish line of riders who got lost, or were sent the wrong way, or who had trouble finding markers. In a way, it was a relief that I wasn't the only one who found myself geographically embarrassed on occasion. All in all, the trail was great, and I'd love to ride it again (maybe even as a day trip with some mates). I felt like the side trips were a bit tacked on just to add distance, and didn't really add much value to the ride. It would be really great to see the 103km riders do the same as the 65km riders, but continue on and finish in Hamner Springs. And, as we have established, the course marking and marshalling maybe could have been a little more comprehensive. The sausages at the finish line were AWESOME! (see insert of photo of John enjoying an awesome sausage... A picture says a thousand words!). For a first year event, though, it was a good, fun, hard ride, and with a bit of work, I could see this turning into a really classic "must do" race in a couple of years. The Ninja served me really well. I'm still trying to get the shock pressure right, and I think that I maybe still have the rear a little too hard. In addition to this, I had definately put too much air in my tyres for this race and it made the ride slightly rougher than it really needed to be, but these are minor adjustments. Otherwise, the geometry seems pretty spot on. I had no complaints of pain, and it really is just a pleasure to ride (not to mention it looks bloody cool, too!). That evening, we hit up the Hamner Springs hot pools and chilled out, which was absolute bliss after the day we had. It was actually the first time I have been in my togs this year, and my tan lines no doubt raised a few eyebrows (it looked like I was wearing white shorts and a white t-shirt under my bikini).

Sunday, we had a fairly civilised start and headed off to Nelson to watch the national downhill champs, stopping at a really cool little cafe in Murchison on the way for a second breakfast. Unfortunately, we didn't arrive early enough to head out on a ride, so I got my bike packed up in it's box and then headed up to the track to do some spectating and take some photos (it was an unusual feeling to not be partaking in the actual race side of things!). Afterwards, we headed to the airport and boarded our planes for the trip home. It was a really wicked weekend and it was great to spend some time with Kashi and bounce ideas off him and get advice on the Cape Epic (which he has done twice now). John and I are really proud to be part of the Yeti NZ team, and even moreso when it means we get to hang out with such great people who have such a huge love of the sport of mountain biking (thanks Kashi!!!)

In terms of my own performance on Saturday, I felt pretty happy with my first 60km or so. I was pretty disappointed with how I closed the day out and with my poor form on those final few hills. I guess, though, with these events, it's important to see where you still have work to do. With Cape Epic only 7 weeks away, I will be working on getting in some long rides with hill reps at the end (my idea of fun!). That afternoon, both John and I were pretty shattered and I think it hit pretty close to home the thought that this is the exact sort of ride we will be doing for 8 days straight when we go to South Africa. I can't wait, but to be honest, I'm terrified of it. There will be nowhere to hide as we ride through South Africa, and how we work as a team, and how mentally and physically tough we both are, will determine our fate on the trail. I think John and I make a great team, and I think we're both pretty tough nuts... Bring it on, I say! (Just give me a couple more weeks to get some more hills in my legs!)


  1. Nice one Megan! I thought you rode a great, gutsy race. It was a long time to be out on your own, and those head winds were draining. As you say, Cape Epic is getting really close, but I think we'll be well prepared, especially after experiences like this one!

  2. I'm quite sure you guys will be fine in SA! Great blog, Megan, and keep up the good (hard) work. Cheers!