Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Whirinaki Scoping Mission

It’s not often that the Department of Conservation invites you into the wilderness to ride your bike in places that you generally aren’t allowed, so when I got an email from Simon “Tucky” Tuck from DOC (courtesy of the lovely Graeme Simpson) asking me if I would like to join a small group on a trail scoping mission in the Whirinaki, I wasted no time in replying with a resounding “YES” to his invitation. It had been some time since I had been out on a real adventure, and I suspected this was just what I needed.
A bit of negotiation with the boss (plus some chocolates, achievement of budget for the month and doing the beer run as the only non-drinking attendee at our staff Christmas party) got me an unpaid day off… No meagre task given I was asking for the Tuesday before Christmas off to simply “ride my bike” and was also going on a three week holiday the following week.
The day of our little mission arrived and I travelled by bike to the Rotorua DOC office early in the morning to meet Tucky and my fellow adventurers for the day. We loaded all our gear into a couple of utes and headed out towards the Whirinaki, stopping along the way to do various chores and also to do our “briefing” for the day… The briefing was conducted from the bonnet of the DOC ute and involved scouring topo maps, discussing the objectives of the day and Tucky showing us the various functions of the EPIRB, CB radio and GPS, should we require them (but hopefully not)… During our little chat, one of the Murapura DOC employees wandered over to chat about the area we were going into. With a chuckle and a comment about “hope you don’t mind a few river crossings”, he wished us luck and reminded us that maybe we might need to take lights along with us “just in case we had a long day”.
In the car, stories emerged of previous trail scoping missions… Long days, hard work, fallen trees and stinging nettle… Any “normal” person likely would have been grabbing at the door handle in an attempt to escape, but I couldn’t wait. Even though I have only lived in Rotorua for five months, I have long been part of the furniture in the mountain biking community, so it was refreshing (and a little surprising) to meet riders I had never come across before… As silly as it sounds, I felt a bit like I had been invited into an entirely new world of resourceful two-wheeled adventurers. As I recounted the last few months, it occurred to me that the last time I had been on a “real” adventure was probably way back when I was in Europe earlier in the year… I felt reinvigorated, like an adventurous spark inside me had been relit.
On arrival at our destination, the weather was pretty ordinary… Not necessarily cold… Just drizzly and a bit miserable. We kitted up and headed off up the end of the Moerangi Trail which was a stiff enough warm-up to have us stripping off layers in no time (I discovered through the course of the day, with all the humidity, that I could choose to be wet with rain without a jacket, or wet with sweat with a jacket… I chose the former). After a good solid climb, we regrouped at a trail junction and broke off from the Moerangi trail onto an old (rarely used) walking track. I’d just like to point out here that riding walking tracks is not ok without permission from DOC (and in any case, you would probably be sorely disappointed at how much hike-a-bike you would be doing)! The idea of these trail scoping missions, we were told, is to find appropriate areas to build suitable trails and develop some one day rides that create the incentive for riders to visit local communities and stay for a few days, providing economic benefits to communities rather than people just doing single day trips… So if, for example, there are two amazing single day rides based from the same town, riders are likely to do one ride in a day, then stay the night in town, spend a few dollars, and do the other ride the next day… Makes sense and is as good an excuse as any to scope out and build more trails!
Once off the original cycle trail, we let loose on quite a nice descent, dodging windfall and rubble along the way, and pulling to a stop and climbing over fallen trees that had made their mark across the track. One thing I was quick to learn is that on these “missions”, trail conditions change quickly and dramatically, and it wasn’t unusual, throughout the course of the day, to be enjoying a largely ridable section of track and then have to dismount and carry your bike for the next couple of kilometres. Our ridable descent turned very quickly into what one could only describe as “jungle bashing”… The route wasn’t even poled… Our only indication that a trail was present were the occasional orange arrows nailed to trees.
We descended towards the river bed and traveled directly upstream in the flowing water, riding until we were forced off our steeds into hike-a-bike mode. The further we delved into the forest, the more the track deteriorated. We worked our way upstream, negotiating mud, fallen trees, debris and scrambles up steep sections of “track” with our bikes over our shoulders. I was also introduced early on to the presence of whole lot of stinging nettle in the area… So much so, that over the course of the day, it just became a part of life that we would be stung by it, so we more or less just came to ignore it and tolerate its presence. In all seriousness, if we had been tramping this track, it would have been hard work… Doing it with our bikes slung over our shoulders was nearly superhuman. I remember at the start of the day, being a little concerned about my pace, and whether I would keep up with everyone else, and my fears were allayed somewhat as we had ridden up the first section of the Moerangi trail… Our jungle bash, however, was a completely different story. I’m pretty bike fit, but my hiking fitness wasn’t too impressive, and further compounded by my midget legs (simply “stepping over” a fallen tree trunk just doesn’t happen when you are merely 5ft short). I often found myself falling a little behind as we worked our way along the track.
The above mentioned challenges of the day, though, were all negated by the stunning beauty of our surroundings, and the sheer excitement of being out in the forest, in the rain, potentially being part of the first steps towards an epic new ride in the area. For a number of hours, we moved through the forest, sometimes riding our bikes, sometimes carrying them, stopping off at huts along the way. My lunch consisted of last nights leftover pasta, consumed from a Ziploc bag with a spork. I remember reaching our lunch hut destination, after a section of ridable climbing (through patches of stinging nettle) and peering at the maps to discover we were less than half way through our adventure for the day and being surprised by that… It felt like we had covered so much ground, but it had just been slow work. 
We finally reconnected with the Central Whirinaki Walking Trail for the ride home. Having just been on foot, carrying our steeds for half the day, it took me a while to get my balance on two wheels again, but once we were going, it was a largely downhill singletrack blast with incredibly spectacular scenery. The other thing that was incredibly spectacular (although with no witnesses to vouch for it), was my rather awkward dismount down the embankment off the edge of the trail. There were some rather narrow sections of trail to negotiate across old land slips, most of which also had precarious drop-offs on one side. At one such point, there also happened to be a rock in the middle of the trail, so as I negotiated my way around the rock, I also knocked my handlebars on a rock that was jutting out of the cliffside next to me, which sent me tumbling down the side of the embankment head first, and into another patch of stinging nettle. Ironically, the fact that my arms and legs were already numb from the nettle was probably the reason the fall (or any other dings and bruises, for that matter) didn’t hurt so much… It was a much different story a few days later when the nettle wore off. After somehow recovering myself from down the embankment with the grace of a small elephant, I continued on my way a little more cautiously than I had previously. The trail wound its way downstream back towards the Minginui Road end, glimpses of stunning, untouched native bush, the beautiful clear river, and waterfalls cascading down the side of the track… It really was paradise and I can’t wait until the construction of a cycle trail through there for everyone to enjoy.
Considering the navigation on this final part of the trip was relatively straight-forward, we had all moved along at our own pace. As I neared the end of the Central Whirinaki track, though, I crossed a bridge to the other side of the river. There was a beautiful waterfall cascading under the bridge… The crossing disoriented me quite badly, though… This whole time, I had been riding with the river on the left of me, and now it was on the right… It felt like I was heading back the way I came, and no matter how many times I assured myself that I was heading down stream and was now on the other side of the river, I still had this anxious inkling in the back of my mind that I was going the wrong way. I stopped a couple of times, hoping the group behind me would come through any minute and confirm I was on the right track, but they didn’t, so I just kept moving, constantly checking that I was still heading down stream… FINALLY, I saw a sign pointing to Minginui Road end (PHEW!!), and was on the home stretch. It took us 9 hours to work through 41km of riding/hike-a-biking. I arrived back at the car a little exhausted, but pretty stoked on an awesome adventurous day out with a good bunch of people, for a good cause.
It took five days for my legs to stop tingling from the stinging nettle… I’m sure it will all be removed in good time to hopefully make way for the new cycle track… There were some great sections of trail that were actually very ridable and good fun, which wouldn’t require any further work, but some sections where there would be a significant amount of benching work to secure a ridable trail along the route we followed (mainly along the river). The thing that I find very reassuring is that in Tucky’s hands, the work will be done with minimal disruption to the environment, and by a trail builder who is a rider and understands what makes an epic trail for an enjoyable day out on the bike… It would be such an honour if (when) this trail is developed, to have seen it through from its conception as “jungle ride with orange markers” to an awesome one day adventure that trail users will enjoy and will bring excellent economic benefits to the surrounding communities. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to head along at some point and do my bit shovelling some dirt.
I think it’s fantastic how much significance is now being placed on providing quality riding assets. It’s great to see that communities, politicians, and relevant organisations are recognising mountain biking as a successful, growing sport which brings economic benefits to communities, and are now investing resources in developing facilities that will, ultimately, raise the profile of our sport, which, in turn, provides better funding and resources all over again. I suppose it is also up to us, though, as riders, to make sure we foster a good relationship with these groups and communities by doing our bit in terms of being courteous to other trail users, respectful of the environment and the trails (this means controlling your braking and not leaving rubbish behind) and participating in trail maintenance when we have the opportunity. Furthermore, it is important that if you know you shouldn’t be riding somewhere, then please don’t… There is a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for trail advocacy so that we can enjoy getting out on two wheels, and this can be undone by the inconsiderate few who choose to ride in places where it is expressly forbidden, or by those who chose to abuse or torment other trail users. We are so lucky here in New Zealand to have a seemingly endless natural wonderland at our disposal to enjoy and share, and I don’t think I speak purely for myself when I say trail advocacy has come a long way in the last five years or so. Whilst I’m not in our current government’s camp, credit must be given to the establishment of projects such as the national cycleways project, which has opened the door for some outstanding adventures on two wheels. It’s an exciting prospect that as we tick New Zealand adventures off our bucket lists, that there will constantly be more there waiting to replace them.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Start of a Summer of Adventures

Wow, two weeks flies by pretty quickly in blog land! Since completing the Waiheke 4 Hour and then grovelling my way through the final of the Mid North Island Cup, I've been laying pretty low, and playing "catch-up" of sorts... It was bound to happen considering the weekend after weekend after weekend of flogging I was giving my body at races... And feeling so damn good doing it, too! So the last couple of weeks, I have kept training, but very much on how I'm feeling at the time. High intensity sessions have often turned into recovery sessions, or longer, easier rides... But this is part of the cycle, and a timely reminder that the human body is not entirely invincible (not even mine...).
It just so happens that for me, the timing of this little lull couldn't be better. I don't have another race for a month and a half, and am soon have my first Christmas off in fifteen years, so the opportunity for some good adventuring to reignite my enthusiasm is looking pretty damn tempting. This weekend just gone earmarked the beginning of my Summer of adventures. It started with, unarguably, the best staff Christmas party I have ever had the pleasure of attending. We started nice and early at 8.30am on Saturday and boarded a bus to our first stop-off at the Skyline Gondola for some luge action, then out to Off Road Adventures for some 4x4 driving and Go-Karting (man, those things are quick!), then topped off with an afternoon cruise on Lake Rotoiti and a BBQ at the bach Andy had rented for us to chill out at for the evening. I can't vouch for anything that happened past about 9pm because I went home (like a nanna), but fair to say that Andy did a stellar job organising an awesome do and has set the bar pretty high for the poor soul who gets tasked with organising next year's! You can see me in the photo below putting the boys to shame in our amazing "gun show" (hey, these things are all relative to size, ok???)

The next day's plan had originally been to go for a bit of a road trip to Opotiki and tackle the Motu and Pakihi tracks, but after awaking a bit later than planned to a slightly gloomy day, and having no friends to enjoy the ride with (I really need to find some more endurance-bunny buddies), I decided to tackle a trip a little closer to home that I had been wanting to do for a while. The fact that I had a sore neck and sore legs from the go-karting the previous day was also instrumental in my decision (yeah, that's right... I can ride my bike for 24 hours straight, but a 15 minute go-kart completely floors me!). So I set out at a fairly civil time for the ride to Rainbow Mountain. The Kennett Bros new book, "Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails" has become a bit of a bible for me planning trips over the next month or so, mainly because it is so easy to grab the book, choose an area, and then take my pick of any number of lengthy rides that I can knock out in a day or two, as opposed to just doing shorts trails or loops of the forest.

I have driven along the highway between Rotorua and Taupo on numerous occasions now, and whilst I appreciate the good intentions of creating a fully-paved concrete pathway for the 10km out of Rotorua, it wasn't exactly my cup of tea to endure a flat, boring footpath for the first half hour or so of my ride... So I set off into the forest to cut out the first 8km or so of the footpath... Up Nursery Hill, then following Nursery road around to Poplar Avenue. Then I took the forestry road that ran adjacent to Poplar Avenue until it joined up with Eight Mile Road a few kilometres down the highway to join up with the concrete cycleway. To be honest, I think the additional distance was negligible... There was, however, a bit more climbing than if you stuck to the highway cycle path. The great thing was that from here, I only followed the concrete path for about a kilometre or two before I was directed by cycleway signs off the main highway and onto a mixture of back road and gravel cycle path which meandered it's way through Waimangu Valley, past Mook the Goat and past Lake Okaro to join up with Highway 38, all the time with Rainbow Mountain looming in the background and drawing nearer. You can see Mook the Goat in the photo below... She was super friendly, very photogenic and a real poser... Her little house had a note on it asking for payment of one piece of bread for a photo... I wasn't carrying bread with me, but gave her half my muesli bar, which she seemed to enjoy before trying to eat my rear cassette on my bike! I was pleasantly surprised by how amazingly well-marked Te Ara Ahi was (part of the national cycleways project). The whole way to Rainbow Mountain, there were markers to follow and I didn't once feel the need to consult a map (although this does not mean that you shouldn't carry one just in case!!!).

From there, it was simply a matter of crossing the road and onto a piece of singletrack that wound it's way around the mountain to join the main carpark. It was evident that this track wasn't well-used. There was blackberry and gorse encroaching from the sides of the track and quite a bit of debris across the track itself, but it was definitely purpose-built for mountain biking. It's a shame it doesn't appear to get more use.

After joining the carpark opposite Lake Ngahewa, I headed straight up the track towards the Rainbow Mountain summit. The track has been beautifully constructed, and is dual use and two-way (so it is important to be aware of other trail users!). I stopped off briefly at the crater lake, a natural wonder with it's bright turquoise water upon a backdrop of an incredible ochre-red cliff-face... It was absolutely stunning!

Further up the track split in two. The left was a dual use track that was uphill only for mountain bikes and would loop back around to join the other track at Kerosene Creek. The climb up Rainbow Mountain has a reputation for being challenging and I concede that it was an absolute gut-buster! It was sheer grit that kept me on the bike on a number of occasions... And whilst I managed to clean each section of the climb, it wasn't in one clean sweep (I admit to stopping for a couple of convenient photo opportunities!). The steepest and most brutal section of the climb reared it's head right near the top, just before the trail popped out onto the fire road to the summit... Definitely not a climb for the faint-hearted!

By the time I reached the top, the gloomy morning had turned into a pretty warm day and the clouds had begun to clear. As I caught my breath at the summit, I took in the stunning 360 degree views of the area. Mount Tarawera was clearly visible. It just so happened that Barry, the fire watchman, was there for the day, so I was cordially invited up onto the balcony of the watchtower to enjoy the view completely unobstructed by trees. Barry was a top bloke, and also offered to top up my water supplies for the trip home (thanks Barry!).

The climb was absolutely worth it for the views, and for the descent. The top section of the descent was surprisingly gnarly, with loose, tight corners, and steep, rooty drops, then joined up to a more manicured (but still quite technical in places) track that delivered The Ninja and I to the foot of the mountain with a smile on our faces. The mountain bike descent joins up to the return trail right at Kerosene Creek, a stunning little natural hot pool spot hidden away off the main road... I will definitely be returning here with my swimmers next ride!

The return trail was another nicely-built piece of dual-use track, which swung past another stunning lake which boasted a shimmering green surface before arriving back at the junction to the summit, then onwards further back to the carpark. From there, I returned to Rotorua via much the same route, except I decided to give the concrete cycle path a chance on my return, stopping in for a smoothy at Waipa before heading back over the hill and homeward (I DEFINITELY much preferred the forest detour to the concrete cycle path).
I've also had the pleasure of trying out some of Endura's cycle clothing over the last month or so (thanks Nigel!). I've given it a pretty good thrashing so far and I have to say that I've fallen in love with the Women's Singletrack baggy shorts... Combined with the Womens pro shorts underneath, I've found them to be perfect for these sorts of adventures because they tend to protect my legs from nasty stuff like gorse and blackberry (I really miss sitting on the couch for weeks afterwards picking gorse and blackberry remnants out of my legs!), and they look pretty cool, too. They'll be getting a heap more use over the summer, along with their comfy Firefly shirts, which sit nice and loose under my Camelbak for longer days out. All in all, a great weekend to see in the adventure season! Looking forward to some exciting trips over the next month or so!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Success From Suffering - A Crazy Person's "How To" Guide

There are often times when I question my own sanity (although probably not as often as other people question it!) and as we loaded up the car and headed out the driveway at 4.30am on Saturday morning was one of those moments. I'm extremely lucky to have a partner who tolerates this sort of abnormal behavior... And, in fact, nearly encourages it by offering to stand on the sidelines and hand me drink bottles, but driving me to Auckland to catch a 7.30am ferry so I could race my bike whilst I spent the time either sleeping in the seat next to her, or offering unhelpful advice on how she should be driving was really showing her commitment (or perhaps her resignation to the fact that she was stuck with me). Either way, I am exceedingly grateful for her ability to put up with me and my biking ways.
So anyway, we arrived at the ferry terminal bang on 7.30am, met up with Tim, Mark and Belinda, loaded our gear into their car and then jumped on a ferry to Waiheke Island on our way to the Round Rangihoua 4 hour race. Now in it's sixth year, I'm pretty sure I have participated in all but one of these events and it has been such a pleasure to come back year after year and watch it grow. It's always a great day out, and a huge privilege to have the guys at Waiheke Mountain Bike Club share their lovely island, awesome tracks and amazing passion with everyone! Once we arrived at Onetangi Sports park and registered, I jumped on the Ninja to hit up the track for a practice lap. I had missed last year's race, and since I last rode here, there had been an additional loop of singletrack added in that I hadn't ridden before. The track wound it's way up an exposed climb, then once you were at the top, made it's way through a rabbit warren of tight corners, loose dirt and steep, pinchy climbs. It was important to pay adequate respect to the brakes and check your speed in time for the corners because being as dry and powdery as it was made it very easy to overshoot corners and end up in the bush. The track then opened up into a vast clearing before dropping back into a final section of track aptly named "Chicken Run" (you were almost guaranteed a rooster would crow to announce your entry onto this trail)... Then a quick lap of the oval (with a headwind) and you were ready to do the loop all over again! The great thing about the track was that you got the climbing out of the way first thing and then could enjoy the rest of the lap, and once I had knocked out a couple of laps at the start of the race, I had the course pretty dialled.

In true island style, the race began a little late, just before midday. The sun was beating down hard on the race village, and also on the climb up the side of the hill. We lined up across the middle of the field and ran to our bikes in a (relatively easy) le mans start. I had placed my bike in the perfect spot, and whilst my run was lacking in inspiration, I still managed to get a good position in the field to start with, and as such, experienced a relatively small amount of trail congestion in front of me. My dear friend and close rival, Sasha Smith, was also punching out a solo effort of the race, but any hopes I had of a fair rematch of last week's Huka XL, where I was narrowly edged out of a pay day by 15secs to Sasha, were dashed when I saw her line up at the start line clad head to toe in a full-body morph suit (I mean, seriously, it would be unfair of me to gloat about beating someone who was in fancy dress). Having said that, though, I was also not too keen on being beaten by her exactly for the fact that she was in fancy dress and on a single-speed (that just would have been plain embarrassing), so I dutifully put my all into my effort just to make sure. Around the fourth or fifth lap, I passed Sasha with a flat tyre, which kinda sucked. It's always nice to know when someone is hot on your heels, and she has always kept me honest!

I pushed through my laps with purpose, and was really pleased with my consistency (all my laps were within a minute of each other!). It's funny how the first couple of hours of a race can go so slowly, then the final hour or so seems to slip away from you so quickly. By my final two laps, I was definitely feeling the hurt quite a bit, and was ready to wind up my day. I punched out 13 laps of the course in just under 4 hours, winning the female category, and coming third overall in the mens solo category, and eighth overall including the teams! Not too shabby at all! And a very pleasant day out! We narrowly made it onto the earlier ferry back to the mainland and arrived home about 10pm that evening, ready for me to rock out the Mid North Island Cup race the following day.

I woke up the next morning feeling a little worse for wear. I had done my best to recover well, but the long trip home the previous day, and the late night, had made my recovery a little ad-hock. Luckily for me, the final of the Mid North Island Cup was being run from Long Mile Road, less than a kilometer from my back gate, so I was pretty much able to roll out of bed and onto the start line. Truth be told, I didn't feel too bad up until the start of the race, but once the front bunch set off up Nursery Hill, I pinged straight off the back of the bunch after about 200m, like a broken rubber band... It was going to be a loooong 25km! I just worked my way through the laps. It felt like I was riding in slow motion, and to be honest, it was a bit embarrassing and a little disappointing to ride such a poor race on my home trails. It was, in reality though, what I had expected. I knew I would suffer because I had left very little in the tank from the day before... And suffer I did! I had considered pulling the plug that morning, and for my body, it probably would have been the best thing to do, but considering it was a series final, and especially after my rantings about the lack of women at the races, I figured I should put in the effort to be on the start line!

I any case, I finished the race, and came first again, being the only open woman again. The bonus was that I took out the series win, which I wouldn't have been eligible for if I hadn't ridden today, so there was, indeed, a silver lining to my morning of suffering!

So that pretty much wraps up this year's racing up to Christmas. I have some amazing adventures planned over the next month or so during the break which I am super excited about and will be sure to share with you all! Until then, though, I think I might catch some sleep. Watch this space!!!