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.

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