Sunday, March 10, 2013

Colville Connection - A Long Time Between Drinks

It wasn't the ideal start to the weekend... I had left Rotorua bang on 5pm when I finished work and was on my way to Colville, tunes cranked, grooving and dancing along unashamedly to some sort of Ministry of Sound Classics, when I realised I had left something behind that was quite important... The padding out of my helmet. I'm not sure what even made me think about it, but I pulled over and got my helmet out to confirm my fears. I had already traveled forty minutes from home, but there really was no more logistically feasible option than to turn around and go back. I couldn't ride 72km with no padding in my helmet...

That's what I get for cleaning my helmet... Remind me never to do that again...
I eventually arrived in Colville about 10.30pm, found Sarah and Annette tucked away in a corner of the campground, then made myself comfy on the futon I had rolled out in the back of the van, which made for a pretty comfortable evening of sleep.

Fortunately, the weekend only got better from there. I awoke to glorious blue skies and an amazing sunrise and made my way down to registration at Colville School. The morning was mild and before long, we were rolling out of the start line, down the road, narrowly avoiding one of those sketchy "lock up your brakes and pray" accidents you would only have when riding in a bunch with mountain bikers. It's been a long time since I did the Colville Connection... Probably three years... And the last time I did it, I remember the weather was absolutely miserable and I rode my best time of 4:18.

Today, I was aiming for a sub four hour, and the weather conditions, much like Karapoti last weekend, could not have been any further from the weather I rode in last time I did the race. As we started climbing, the temperature soared and perspiration soaked through my jersey. It's hard to believe that a few weeks ago, I was questioning whether or not I wanted to race this year... It makes me feel so alive... And I think that the combination of mixing up my training with a bunch of other activities, like meditation, Yoga and Search and Rescue has breathed some new enthusiasm into my riding. I still remain a fair way off the pace of the really pointy end of the pack in these "shorter" races, but surprisingly, feel like I am riding comfortably strong races on a fraction of the training. It's encouraging because it means that once I ramp up the training, I should see exponential results in my strength and, subsequently, my times.

There's quite a bit of climbing in the 72km course (1,686m according to my Magellan Switch Up), but I must say that there weren't any climbs that were real gut-busters... Most of the climbing was of a relatively easy gradient on gravel roads, followed by sketchy, loose gravel descents. The climbing was where I noticed my lack of training. I was comfortably power climbing the beginning of each climb, but maintaining consistent legs up the longer climbs was losing me time... Definitely something to work on, but nothing to be too bothered about at this point in time. I laughed out loud as we crested the second climb of the day to see a sign that said "course high point 232m"... How deceptive, I thought... I had seen the course profile... It may be the high point, but it certainly didn't mean it was all downhill from there on!!!
The Colville Connection
My favorite part of the course was about 25km in, where we sidled through a camp ground at Stony Bay and began climbing up a DOC track through native bush. Views of the rugged coastline flickered through the trees and occasionally opened up to stunning expansive vistas across the Coromandel. It's funny how as I get older and the more I ride in different places, the way I experience trips and races gets vastly different. I remember saying to a friend after my trip to South Africa and Europe last year that the development of my adventurous spirit had played such a huge part in the amazing experience I'd had while I was there... In stark comparison to my previous trips overseas, where I thought I'd had some amazing adventures, but had come nowhere close to appreciating the experience the way I did when I felt confident to leave everything behind and trust my own instincts and skills with a map and a bike. My lust for adventure and my desire to experience places fully has only truly developed within the last couple of years, and I nearly feel like I need to revisit every place I ever traveled to and experience it all over again with a more inquisitive mind and adventurous spirit. Today was exactly one of those times... I don't remember ever appreciating the Coromandel, or the Colville Connection the way I did today. I was quite taken by the place. The views took my breath away and I remember riding that section of DOC singletrack and thinking to myself "I really need to do a long weekend cycle tour around the peninsula here" just so I could stop and enjoy it instead of racing through at full pace, catching a stunning glimpse of what it had to offer before moving on.
The Colville Connection
Half way through this lovely piece of trail, we descended back to the beach and climbed up the other side again (mainly on foot on the steep trail). The descent was treacherously loose... So much so that no matter how much respect I gave the brakes, and how gentle I was with them, I found the bike locked up, sliding down the track towards a small cliff with no way to stop... I unclipped my right foot, dropped my bum onto the top tube and dipped my heel into the gravel to tip the bike off onto the grass (preferable to the cliff that was in front of me) and then scooted my way down the remainder of the switchbacks... I'd like to say it was great fun, but it also scared the crap out of me!

For the remainder of the ride, we sidled along the coastline. There is a point in the course where it becomes quite flat, and a just a little undulating in places, and if you end up with a headwind, it can add a good 15mins to your time. It was about this point that I was lucky enough to be riding with another lad who suggested we work together. I was stoked, although I felt a little guilty that I offered him no more protection from the wind than a small twig. As we steam-trained along the dirt road, we picked up other riders, and dropped some... Our little train of four to five people was chewing through the kilometers like a demon possessed. It wasn't easy work, by any means... There road was riddled with corrugations, and as we took turns on the front, we attempted to guide the train through the smoother terrain, often in vain. There were times I struggled to stay on the back of the bunch, and a couple of occasions where I was close to just letting them go, but I reminded myself that the pain of putting in a couple of stiff pedal strokes and holding on was much preferable to dealing with a headwind on my own the whole way back to Colville.

We were about 10km from the finish when we hit a section of road that appeared to have been watered... Yes, that's right... A water truck had been through and sprayed about 6km of dirt road, turning it into an a muddy sludge that flicked up off our wheels onto ourselves and our bikes. Before long, our entire bodies were covered in a fine, lumpy mud casing which dried and set hard against our skin as soon as we were on dry road again. It was heinous, and I couldn't help but laugh at the irony... In the current state of drought, I think mud was the last thing any of us were expecting today, and I don't think I was the only one who was wondering if it was some sort of sick joke the organisers were playing on us (it wasn't, just for the record!).

There's a couple of hills about 5km out from the end of the Colville Connection that really twist the knife in your already struggling legs. I managed to stay with the bunch up and over the first, but I was struggling... I suspected I would be dropped on the final climb... But I wasn't... Instead, I dropped off the back of the pack, expecting the other riders to disappear up the hill, then got up out of the saddle and rode them straight off my wheel up the final climb. They yelled out a couple of jibes about whether I had been saving myself, but I think they knew it wasn't the case... I yelled back that it was purely because I only had 49kg to carry up the hill... They knew that was bulls#@t, too...

Two of the guys caught me again on the final flat, but the girl that was in the bunch with us was nowhere to be seen. I crossed the line in 3:45... 33 minutes faster than the fastest time I had done on this course!!! I was absolutely stoked. The strong womens field for the day meant my efforts only got me 6th place (Karen Hanlen smashed us all in under 3 hours!), but I was so pleased with my ride, especially considering my lack of structured training lately. I emerged from the finish chute looking like the swamp thing and was handed a celebratory cider. Now, I generally don't drink much alcohol, but I actually really felt like a cold one right at that moment, so down it went... Ten minutes later I giggled to my mates "wow, I think I'm a bit tipsy" and had to sleep it off in the van before I drove home!

The drive home was spectacular. The coastline of the Coromandel peninsula bordered a turquoise-colored ocean which stretched out to the horizon to meet the stunning blue sky. Sarah and I stopped along the way for the obligatory swim (it would have been rude not to!) and then again in Coromandel for a feed and a cuppa (The Chai Tea House in Coromandel does actually have the best chai tea I have ever tasted). I set myself up for the afternoon in this cosy little spot to write my musings for the weekend and enjoy some "chill" time before driving the rest of the way home.

This week, it will be exactly a year since I boarded a plane to South Africa to set off on the trip of a lifetime. It seems like only yesterday, but so much has happened between then and now. I've often wondered if it ever gets better than that... I think this weekend was a poignant reminder that it doesn't get better... Or worse, for that matter... It just gets different, and how we experience those moments is our own choosing.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Karapoti - Good Times, Smack Talk and Petty Theft

I'm glad I went to Karapoti this year. It's a long drive from Rotorua to Wellington and I remember thinking on a number of occasions during my road trip late on Friday night "why do I do this to myself??". I stopped off in Palmerston North overnight, bumming a bed for the night from the lovely Em and her amazing bike-washing hubby Mike, and then drove on to the start line early the following morning on a definite lack of sleep, but rather pleased I had decided not to try and negotiate the road over the Akatarawas in the dark.
In stark contrast to last year's event (which was postponed), when I arrived at the start line, the sun was shining and the river was probably the lowest it has ever been for the event. The course was dry, dusty and loose, and there was the general flutter of excitement surrounding the start area. The girls field was looking strong, and to be honest, I felt like a bit of an imposter in the pro-elite category... I have long battled internally on which category I should race in these shorter events. I am fully aware that I am not fast enough to keep up with the quick girls over such a short distance, but I really don't feel like it's the right thing to potentially be burgling the category down, either... My thoughts are that I really don't mind if I win the pro-elite or not, and that is the standard I should be chasing for when I eventually grow weary of endurance biking and need to settle into a more sedentary way of life. In a funny sort of way, too, it means I can just ride hard, not feel guilty and not stress if I don't win... If I rode the category down, I would be upset with myself if I didn't win, and probably a bit guilty, too... Decision made! So I lined up on the start line next to the likes of Karen Hanlen, Kim Hurst, Samara Sheppard, Sasha Smith and Melissa (Mops) Newell to do my best at being the absolute shortest rider I could be (see below photo).

The Karapoti start line is an unusual beast in itself, and I was hoping to put my river crossing training skills from land search and rescue to the test... After the usual start line banter and smack talk, we plunged into the cold river carrying our bikes, emerging on the other side disorientated and wet before jumping on the saddle, smacking our shoes on the pedals to remove the chunks of stone from the river bed that had lodged themselves into the cleats and then taking chase down the road after all the other riders who had negotiated the crossing with more grace than I had managed myself. Any glimmer of hope I had of sticking with the top elite girls for even the first kilometer or two vanished with my clumsy river crossing (obviously the search and rescue training was of no use to me on this occasion in my carbon-soled shoes and lycra).

I settled into a good rhythm as we headed up big ring alley, jostling with a couple of other girls. They kept me honest and as such, I kept pushing along at a good pace, determined not to drop them, but also mindful that I didn't want to waste myself before we started climbing... No sooner had I thought this than we were on our way up the first climb. I was surprised to do a clean run of the first section before our descent back into the river... With minimal time on the bike of late, and certainly very little hill training to speak of, I was quite chuffed to be climbing past riders who were off pushing their bikes. Same went for the descent into the river... I remember last Karapoti, I let the gnarly, loose boulders scare me into submission and off my bike, but not this time... No sooner had I thought to myself "this isn't as bad as I remember" that it changed to "geez, I don't remember it being this tough". The dry conditions had made the track dry and loose and difficult to negotiate and get traction in places. Where we thought the track should have been fast, it was actually the opposite...

In all honesty, I had forgotten just how heinous the climbs were in this race. Everything was conquered in granny ring or on foot. Having said that, I was pleased with just how much of it I rode without resorting to walking... My short legs just weren't made for that sort of carry-on. The group of girls I had been to-ing and fro-ing with thinned out behind me as I made my way into the rock garden. The dry weather had done nothing much for the condition of the rock garden except dry off all the water to leave behind a slimy deposit on the surface. It was as treacherous as ever, and as much as I wanted to ride it, once I was off, any attempts to get back on again were a waste of time.

Devil's Staircase in the dry was a welcome change from the last time I did Karapoti in 2011, but the mud bogs along the top were still permanent. Cresting the top of the staircase and into the descent was a great feeling, knowing there was only one significant climb left in front of me. As I was barreling down the hill blissfully unaware of anything going on around me other then the track directly in front of my wheel, I let out a yelp of surprise as two wheels flipped right in front of me... Mops was on the side of the track just putting the finishing touches on repairing her second flat for the day and hadn't seen my midget figure careering down the track towards her as she righted her bike to jump back on (phew! That was close!). She came rocking past me at warp pace, putting me to shame as she yelled something about flats and disappeared into the distance. I was pretty sure that was the last I would see of her for the day.

I'd forgotten how huge Dopers Hill was... In fact, there appeared to be a great deal I had selectively forgotten from my last Karapoti... Maybe that's why we all keep coming back year after year. Finally, after the frustration and pain of an endless number of false summits, I made my way over the crest of Dopers and down the other side, through the river and onto big ring alley. I had been determined to pull in a sub 3:30 time and as I came into Big Ring, I realised it was going to be ever so slightly out of my reach for the day. I rounded on of the nicely bermed corners coming towards the end of the race and there, on the side of the trail was the familiar figure of Mops again... Fixing her fourth flat... She yelled out something about a CO2 canister, but I was gone before it even registered what she was asking for...

Back onto the road, through the river (stoked it wasn't up to my neck this time!) and across the finish line in 3:33:43... Only four minutes shy of my target for the day... Having said that, I had a great ride, felt good and knocked 15 minutes off my 2011 time for Karapoti. I had come 5th in the elite womens category, but well off the pace from the other girls, Kim Hurst winning in 2:50. When Mops followed me down the finish chute not long after I came in, I couldn't help feeling like a bit of a burglar that had she not endured four flats for the day, I probably wouldn't have been standing on the podium (sorry mate... Beers on me next time!). I took home a small pay check that covered my petrol expenses for the trip, joking with the other riders at the rego tent that it meant I could now afford to eat that week!
Post race catch-ups were also a big highlight for me... It was awesome to catch up with John Randal and Alex Revell. It was my first really hard race for the year, and it reminded me what I love about racing... The good people, the hard work, the pain, the achievement and the smiles... We don't make riding what it is in our own right... It is the people that we do it with who make it such an amazing experience... You can't win a race, lose a race, or race at all without competition and you can't enjoy that experience without comradeship.