Monday, November 21, 2011

Le Petit Brevet - Climbing for Africa

When I decided to do this event, I thought to myself "I'm fit, I train, I ride my bike a lot... How hard can 7,000m of climbing over 230km around the Banks Peninsula be? All I have to do is just keep grovelling". It appears in hindsight, there was a little more to it than that, although luckily I saw it this way at the time I booked my airfares, or I may not have ended up in Christchurch on what turned out to be an absolutely stunning weekend.

Cape Epic teammate John Randal was also heading down for Le Petit Brevet, so we decided to do the event together for a bit of a team outing. I arrived in Christchurch on Friday afternoon with a fraction of the gear I was carrying at my first tour in Wanganui earlier in the year... For the next two days, I was living out of an 8 litre drybag strapped to my Freeload rack with bungee cords... I was using my little hardtail steel-frame bike, which isn't the lightest setup, but always reliable and comfortable, and I wasn't keen on a dual suspension setup for so much climbing. This was going to be awesome!

We rocked up at our starting point nice and early on Saturday morning. It was blowing a gale and raining. My preparation for the event had been a bit rushed. Ideally, I would have swapped my tyres out for something a little more fast rolling and set them up tubeless, but time restraints during the week had stopped me making any last minute changes to my setup (possibly a good thing!!!). As others showed up for the start, I felt quite comfortable that I was travelling sufficiently light for our little trip. We set off and straight up Rapaki Track (technically still closed due to rock fall hazard but appeared to be very well-used by all the locals). The first climb was a killer... John pulled away from me with ease and I found myself being blown about by the wind. I was desperate to get into some kind of rhythm, but it was steep and windy and I just didn't feel right. We got to the top and kept climbing up the Mount Vernon single track. It had been a long time since I had ridden with gear on my bike and the rear end bounced and clunked around over rocks making me feel like a complete bloody gumby on the bike. I finally found some rhythm and was able to settle in and enjoy the lovely flowing singletrack which skirted along the ridgeline with a full view of Christchurch. We continued climbing up the Port Hills to our first peak at 500m. I admit, it was bloody hard work, and it was really quite cold. As I descended the first hill, my nose ran and the wind blew in my face at the same time, making me feel like I had put my head upside down underwater in the pool, burning my sinuses. It was quite an unusual feeling. We hit the bottom of the first hill back at sea level... This would be the general theme for the weekend; Climb a massive hill from sea level, then descend right back down to sea level, then do it again... I quickly learned there is no room for undulations or gradual gradients here on the Banks Peninsula. It was hard choosing what to wear and for the whole day we found we were taking jackets off to climb then having to put them back on to descend so we didn't get cold in the wind.

A rather boring and long, flat stint along the Rail Trail followed, and I was quite happy to be able to sit in on John and get protection from the wind. We hit the coast and headed up our second hill... A gravel climb with a pretty reasonable gradient that just kept going up and up Kinloch road from Birdlings Flat... As we climbed, the weather started to fine up and the amazing views of the coast sprawled out behind us if we took the time to look back for a moment. To be honest, I was struggling with my climbing and I started to feel like maybe I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew. It was frustrating me and I tried to remain upbeat, but I was annoyed I was holding John up so much. The descent that awaited us down the other side of the hill at over 600m was a winding descent that we could see disappearing down the hillside. It reminded me of the sort of thing you would expect to see in Europe. As we descended through the clouds, the air warmed and we railed the corners snaking our way back down at speed into Little River for lunch.

Bacon and egg sandwiches fall into the same category as pies for long rides like this... They look good and seem like a great idea at the time but your heavy stomach soon tells you otherwise. We set off after lunch and up Mount Fitzgerald on a steep, loose gravel climb. I felt pretty ordinary and was taking delight in sucking down my Powerade (red flavour ended up being my drink of choice for this trip). We passed a couple of other riders, which perked me up a little... Maybe I wasn't climbing as slowly as I thought I was. We turned off onto the Fenceline track up towards Waipuna Saddle. The scenery was magnificent... And so it should have been on our highest climb of the trip at a mere 820m. It was nice to be offroad. It kept things interesting but there were sections of the track that were not easily negotiated carrying gear and required walking. As we crossed the saddle, we had been warned to look out for a shortcut we needed to take so we went down a rutted firetrail as opposed to an overgrown walking track... We missed the turnoff and ended up halfway down the walking track (not ideal with bar ends!!!). I got the impression that John just wanted to bash on through, but as a female, my commonsense kicked in and I talked him into walking back up and taking the turnoff (in the end, it turned out to be a good decision). The whole day I had been lagging behind John on the ong climbs, but as we descended the rough off-road sections, I found I was able to hold my own, which I was quietly stoked with.

We then climbed another small (200m) hill before descending towards Akaroa. I was ravishingly hungry and couldn't wait for a good meal, the prospect of which seemed all too far away as a couple more small "bumps" reared their ugly heads before reaching Akaroa. We bumped into another couple of guys doing the tour who explained that we could head down to the fish and chip shop or join them for dinner at their mate's restaurant for some pasta, which sounded like too good an offer to refuse. It was lovely sitting in the sun and having a good meal, but the food took quite some time to arrive at the table. I was pretty keen to not sit down for too long, very aware that we were running short of daylight and that the longer I sat down, the less likely I was to face the next hill. Our intended half hour stop stretched itself out to over an hour (the pasta was lovely though) and we found ourselves rushing around to get food and snacks for our supper, breakfast and next day's riding before heading off to smash another two hills out before we reached our overnight stop in Okains Bay.

We headed off up towards Purple Peak via Purple Peak Track... Until I saw this, I hadn't seen steep (downloading my data when I returned home confirmed we had been riding up an incline at more than 30 percent gradient!!!). The road section was tough, but then we hit the track and saw a long, steep, winding, grassy slope menacing before us. We got off our bikes and started slogging up the hill on foot. The weight of my bike and gear just seemed to get heavier and heavier and my legs seemed to get shorter and shorter (like that was possible?). John was striding up the hill with what seemed like relative ease (although I know he was working hard)... He started walking his bike up, putting it down, then coming back down to carry my bike up while I walked next to him. I felt terrible... I just felt like a huge burden to him and it was really eating me up inside. At dinner, he had told me to have a think about whether I seriously thought I was up to the two massive hills we have left in front of us before Okains Bay. We had three options... 1) We could continue as we were, but it would mean we would get in to our accommodation really late and hamper our recovery for tomorrow morning. 2) We could both cut out the descent into, and climb back out of LeBons Bay and head straight to Okains Bay, but John was pretty keen to finish the full course after not being able to fully take part last year due to injury. 3) We could split up and John could complete the full loop through LeBons Bay and I could continue up the road direct to Okains Bay (which would be about 200m of climbing as opposed to 600m of climbing), but we only had one phone, one map and one set of tools between us, so if anything happened, we would have to be prepared to be very resourceful. As I pondered these three options, Purple Peak Track continued to loom before us... We would round a corner at what we thought was the summit and then see the fierce green trail disappear further up around another corner. We finally hit the top of the track, over 600m up and looked out upon a shimmering ocean... This had been worth it. John lifted my bike over the stile and I said "Hey John... Thanks"... I even felt a little tear come into the corner of my eye... He then recited his favourite line out of the movie Pulp Fiction, which was a little bit rude, but highly appropriate. What an awesome team mate. He was so hell bent on making sure his strengths contributed to the overall team result and I thought that was pretty cool... I felt much better, but I knew I was in no real shape to continue on with the next climb out of LeBons Bay. I was loathed to short cut the course, but I knew it was for the best if I were to have any chance of recovery to get out and do it all again tomorrow. I sent John on his merry way to smash out the LeBons Bay part of the course and I continued straight up Summit Road and down into Okains Bay. As I was riding, I felt much better... Much stronger, like my legs had finally got it and realised "oh hey, we are doing some climbing here... Time to wake up". The sunset was spectacular and I descended into Okains Bay right on dusk and headed to the Double Dutch Backpackers.

This place was a treat in itself... It is called a backpackers, but really, it is a house with three "dorm" rooms, a lovely modern living area and a selection of music to unwind to. It seemed a shame to have this beautiful haven descended upon by a bunch of dirty, smelly mountain bikers. I looked after myself... Had a shower, made sure I ate well and stretched and recovered and by the time John arrived, I felt like I was ready to head out and start all over again. He told me how much I would have hated the last climb and he was on a real high... I was glad we made the decision we did. I was a little disappointed I missed out one of the climbs, but I didn't feel like it had detracted from my experience at all. I was feeling quite philosophical about it. I knew I'd had a busy time at work and home over the last month or so which had been quite draining and maybe this had contributed to some sluggish legs. Asides from that, though, I had realistically underestimated where my training was at to take on such a mammoth task as what I had this weekend and I was pretty well aware that I had maybe bitten off a bit more than I could chew... But it was good because it showed me what work I needed to do. I was pretty determined to put in a good effort the next day. I had the best sleep I'd had in months that night.

We woke at a very civilised time in the morning to prepare ourselves to leave by 7am. The other riders staying there had already left and we found that some of the faster riders had finished half way through the night. John and I both agreed that we were glad we had decided to overnight it somewhere comfortable because it meant we got the opportunity to enjoy the experience and the views... There were some amazing sights that would have remained unseen had we ridden through the night. We climbed into our smelly, used riding gear (nothing is sacred on these sorts of trips!) and our breakfast consisted of two minute noodles, fruit toast and fresh scrambled eggs (thanks to the owner of the backpackers!)... I really had reservations about our mixture of breakfast foods. I was almost certain I would be seeing it again on the side of the road within a hour... How wrong I was... It sat really nicely in my stomach and kept the energy levels up for a surprisingly long time. We climbed out of Okains Bay on a stellar morning. Calm and cool with a bit of high cloud... Perfect conditions for riding! The first climbed disappeared beneath our tyres and I felt really bloody good. I felt better than the day before... Much better. Even John commented that I seemed to be stronger (YES!!!). We started our second climb and I remember half way up saying to John "so this is the climb that joins up to Saddle Road, right?"... Wrong... Our first climb had been a "warm up"... A mere 200m blip on the map... Bummer! We undulated around the hills, which was a bit of a tease, but quite refreshing to get the legs going. We had various wildlife and farm animals pounce in front of our bikes on occasion and then we rounded the corner to be faced with the view of Little Akaloa, this gorgeous little bay full of turquoise water. It really was a special sight. We had been told the climb out of Little Akaloa was "not too bad... Quite gradual"... Whoever told us that had lied... We grovelled up this endlessly steep sealed road (the fact that it was sealed didn't seem to make it any easier). I zigzagged across te road, trying to relieve the pressure of the gradient in a pretty futile attempt. I considered getting off and walking, but I knew once I was off, I wouldn't get back on... I was in my easiest gear, up out of the saddle driving my poor body up this horrendous climb. I was so pleased to see the end of it.

Backtracking along Saddle Road, we then dropped down a steep, corrugated 4WD track... Great fun to bomb down, but the inopportune meeting with the 4WD on the corner was a bit of a shock! Along the waterside at Pigeon Bay and then back up another climb. This was another gravel climb, but to be honest, it was a pretty pleasant climb (all things considered). The gradient was pretty reasonable, the sun was out and there were views for miles to distract me from the pain. I had developed a bit of a saddle sore the day before which I was nursing and being on a climb where I could comfortably get out of the saddle in a good gear to preserve my legs and my bum was a very simple pleasure. At the top, we stopped for some hard boiled eggs (oh man, this was the BEST morning tea of the whole trip... YUMMY!) and then bombed down the other side on the loose gravel track. It was a really sweet descent that I was able to let loose on. It was warm enough now to not have jackets on and I savored every moment of the wind rushing over my body and the tyres skating across the gravel surface as my bike skipped from side to side on the road taking the inside corner each time. It was one of those moments where you just feel so connected to the bike and so aware of just how fricken cool it is to ride... We had one last sealed climb after that before coming down into Port Levy to catch the ferry across. We accidentally-on-purpose missed one ferry, which allowed us time for lunch, ice cream and coffee (poor John had been caffeine-deprived since little river at lunchtime yesterday!!!).

On the other side of the harbour, we headed off from Lyttleton and up Dyers Pass Road... This was our last climb of the trip. As we approached the climb, my rear derallier decided to stop working, although, conveniently, it was stuck in the largest cassette ring, so wasn't really a problem for the climb... As we came up over the top of the hill, though, I had to spin like crazy to get anywhere, which was highly frustrating considering I should have been able to whack it in the big chain ring and smash out the flat and downhill back home. I was also really sunburnt (I had kept forgetting to ask John for the suncream out of our team kit) and I just wanted to get off the road and into the shade. We flew back down Rapaki track and then finished our journey where it had started yesterday morning (before riding the 12km back to Tim's house!). We had clocked up a total of 236km and 7000m of climbing... To put this in perspective, as John pointed out, it wasn't that far shy of starting at sea level and riding our bikes up Mount Everest. It was a bloody good workout and such a cool opportunity to spend some time with John on the bike and work with each others strengths and weaknesses. It was also a really good kick in the bum for me to get out and into some solid hill training. Cape Epic is only a few months away, and whilst it was very reassuring that in two days, we climbed half of the total vertical that we will climb in eight days at the Cape Epic, it was a good indication of what I need to work on... So I have some cool trips planned over the Christmas and New Year period before smashing out some shorter races over January and February. Looking forward to it!!!

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