Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Back in the Saddle

With Christmas Day out of the way and less than six months to the Great Divide Race, it was time to start training. So, on Boxing Day a storm came in from the south giving Mount Ruapehu a fresh coating of snow. Summer, and training, would have to wait for a day.

The next day dawned fine and I was on the road out of Rangataua at 6am. A mix of fog and sun-strike made be paranoid of the traffic for the first half hour, but once I turned onto State Highway One, the ample shoulder gave me room to breath.

I was heading north along the 'Desert Road' - the volanoes Ruapehu and Ngaurahoe standing proud to the west. This is New Zealand's version of the Continental Divide - a string of alps, mountain ranges and volcanoes thrown up by the collision of the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are fairly common in this young country. Recently, one poor climber had a leg squashed by a flying boulder while sleeping in a hut near the summit of Ruapehu. Today, Mother Nature was on her best behaviour.

The Rangipo 'Desert' is all of a couple of kilometres across, but it's New Zealand's largest, so don't knock it. I'm off SH1 and halfway round Tongariro National Park (the world's 2nd oldest after Yellowstone) after 3 hours. An unfavourable wind starts to brew and my first training ride slows considerably when a rear spoke gives up.

Today's bike, the 'Yellow Bullet', is an 11 year old DBR carbon MTB, long since converted into a commuter by my friend Jonty Ritchie at Revolution Cycles. It's done many rough-stuff touring trips and owes me no favours. We limped back into Rangataua in time for a late lunch. 150km under the belt - slow but steady.

A couple of days later it was time to find out what 3000m climbing in one day feels like. 3000m is about the average amount of climbing you have to do each day to finish the GDR within the time limit. The local ski field access road climbs 1000m - the first half through beautiful native forest with tall rimu and north rata towering above the main canopy - the second half through alpine scrub with massive views.

I'd raced up this road at Easter in 48mins, so was a little disappointed to do the first ascent in 1hr 15min. Then it was time for a picnic with Sarah and Miro, during which the temperature picked up and the road started to melt. The second and third ascents were a bit slower (and totally unnecessary from a training perspective) but the descents were still sweet and the day felt worthwhile.

Another couple of days later my family arrived to help my twin brother and I celebrate our 40th birthday. Loads of conversation, laughter and good food. Perfect.

The last ride of the holidays was a 100k jaunt to Hunterville on the way home. For 70km of this I was following a breeze down the Turakina Valley with it's idyllic scenery and well banked gravel corners. And, during that stretch I saw just four cars in 2.5 hours. I was in heaven! This ride (capped off with an ice cream in Hunterville and another picnic with Sarah and Miro) was the best possible start to the new year. Now back to the real world.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A month off, of sorts

After the Taupo Enduro, some time off the bike seemed in order. Time to recharge my batteries before a long slow build up to the Great Divide Race. Time to catch up with things at home and work. And time for a bit more GDR planning, of course.

Miro started eating solids and sitting up. She burned the extra energy off by waking more often during the night, banging blocks and pooing a lot. She's adorable.

Managed to get stuck in and break the back of the new Mewburn Rise track on Wrights Hill (with a lot of help from my friends). Kept things ticking over at the Cycling Advocates' Network office. Coupla work parties at the Makara Peak MTB Park. Almost finished our new garage.

On the GDR front it was time to try and get some gear together. Proposals went off to Alastair at Cycletech and Allister at Worralls. These guys are both sharp operators with a philanthropic streak who have supported various Kennett Bros projects in the past. This time I asked them to lend me the right gear to make up a fancy gravel road racer and they said yes. Sweet! (Details on that in a later post.)

On the whole, December felt like a month of Fridays. Despite the time off the bike, I was exhausted. Christmas without Mum or Dad was a tough nut to crack. Luckily we've got a fair sized family and some fast friends. My mother-in-law, Shona, really hit the jackpot when she gave me a set of GDR maps and a some loving words.

On Christmas Eve Sarah, Miro and I headed up to the tiny, shop-less town of Rangataua to chill out with her Dad and Janet. The month off finished with a brilliant burst of sloth - eating, chatting, reading on the couch, the odd stroll in the forest, and playtime with Miro. Life could be worse.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Just Checking

Although I've been mountain bike racing for a long time, and cycle touring longer, I've never done an ultra-endurance MTB race. Apart from the odd 24hr race, they simply aren't a part of the New Zealand racing scene. Racing round in circles for 24 hours with fresh team riders blasting past at regular intervals has no appeal for me. However, going into something like the massive Great Divide Race as an ultra-endurance race virgin is somewhat un-nerving.

A big part of the appeal of the GDR is that I'm not sure I can complete it. It is a true challenge. But, flying halfway across the world for a DNF seems like a pretty stupid idea. Before I would commit, a long test ride was in order.

As a cycle tourer, my longest day was 210km - the final day of a week-long, high school holiday trip with my brother Paul in 1985. It was a 13-hour trudge of mind-numbing proportions, never to be repeated.

As a racer, my longest day so far is 425km on the roads from Nelson to Christchurch - ridden on a triple with brothers Paul and Jonathan. It was a 14.5-hour trudge of truly crotch-numbing proportions, never to be repeated. And while that was a long day at a reasonable pace, it was over a decade ago, and didn't present the same challenge as a solo effort.

The Great Divide Race introduced time limits in 2007. If I couldn't average 100 miles per day for weeks on end, solo, on mountainous gravel roads, without support, I may as well stay home. 100 miles in those conditions is probably roughly equivalent to 200 miles on road. As luck would have it, there was a 200 mile option at the Taupo Cycle Challenge in late November. Seemed like a good place to check my endurance, without trashing myself off-road (yet).

The plan was to do minimal training, use only food available from service stations, and see if I could ride it without burying myself in a fatigue crater the size of Lake Taupo. As an added bonus, sleep deprivation was added to the mix, courtesy of 4-month old Miro.

With just 2000 km of training logged in four months and a bag filled with bananas and Powerade sitting by my bike, I went to bed on the eve of the event brimming with confidence. Miro was back home in Wellington and there was nothing to stop me sleeping soundly for a change.

At 1:30am sharp, the race started. At 2:45am I woke up. 'Shit'.

My support buddy John and I were at the start, signing in, just after 3am.

The first 100 mile lap was beautiful. The roads were mostly deserted, bar the odd rabbit or bird. A light, refreshing rain fell for an hour or so. Dawn spread across the sky ever so slowly, and I pedalled on and on, solo.

An Australian rider with knee problems joined me at the start of the second lap, and together we started to overhaul the slowest of the 100 mile riders who had started at 7-9am. Old battlers with authentic retro gear. Newbies with shiney, expensive-looking bikes and underpants under their cycling shorts. Tough guys with tattoes, puffing on cigarettes. And my friend Andre with Brazillian tunes radiating from his handlebar bag, and a spare nut bar (thanks).

After 12 and a half hours I sprinted for the finish line, feeling relieved, satisfied, surprised. Normally, a 100 miler with a bunch would leave me feeling trashed. But 200 miles at my own pace turned out to be OK. I was duly tired, but not wasted. It had been fun!

A short ride the next morning to confirm I wasn't fooling myself and I was committed. It was time to get serious about preparing for the Great Divide Race.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Great Divide What?

June 2006 - I'm minding my own business when 'swtchbkr' puts a post on about a crazy event called the Great Divide Race - the mother of all mountain bike races.

A non-stop, 4000km, point-to-point bike race from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide. Check out for the details and an inspiring slide show of what's on offer. It's nearly all on gravel roads and 4WD tracks. A total of about 200,000 feet of climbing. Unsupported (ie: no course marking, no drink stations, no support crew of any kind). Solo - no drafting. No entry fee and no prizes.

How cool is that?!

I was glued to the race coverage for the next 3 weeks. In 2006 there were 8 starters and only one rider, Matthew Lee, managed to finish. The others did well just to make it to the remote start line of such a daunting event. Unfortunately they fell by the wayside as extreme weather, relentless climbs, illness and mechanicals took their toll.

Matthew, an experienced GDR racer, finished in 18 days, a couple off the race record set by the organiser, Mike Curiak.

In August 2006 I was helping run the UCI MTB Worlds - the antithesis of the GDR. The Worlds is an impressive exercise in promotional hype and organisational overkill. It is a huge MTB party where riders are outnumbered 100-to-1 by spectators and crew. It's a world away from the adventurous roots of mountain bike racing.

Straight after the worlds I started work for the Cycling Advocates' Network, a grass roots organisation lobbying for a better environment for everyday cycling, particularly commuting. It was a relief to be doing something 'useful'. I tried to put foolish notions of riding the Great Divide Race out of my mind. 'The race is so gruelling it's unhealthy'. 'It would be too expensive'. 'I would probably end up hating cycling before halfway'.

These perfectly good arguements against doing the GDR failed for various reasons. I was inspired by a book my brother was writing about New Zealander Harry Watson who completed the 1928 Tour de France. Planning for the GDR was an easy escape from the reality of my dad's battle with cancer. The Great Divide Route looks like it heads through some awesome country. And, I'm just vain enough to think that I might be able to finish GDR without suffering permanent injury.

Although the Great Divide Race became firmly lodged in my consciousness, a start in 2007 was not to be. My first child, Miro, was born on 19th June, shortly after a record 24 riders started the '07 GDR. A week later, my dad died.