Monday, 26 November 2012

The Taupo Maxi Enduro

About to head off for Taupo with my support crew - Helen and two dogs.
After the 505 km Graperide Ultimate in March, I had decided to take things up a further level and do the 640 km Maxi Enduro – four times around Lake Taupo.  It’s only 135 km more than the Graperide, but the terrain is a lot tougher.  I was going to step up my training and be in a condition where I would not only finish the race, but also get a mid-field placing.  However, things don’t always turn out as we want.

As it was, I entered the final countdown to the race with a great sense of disappointment.  Injury and other reasons had meant that I was under-trained.  What’s more, I was still recovering from a prolonged, debilitating cold.  Not only would I not be getting a good result, even finishing was going to be a huge effort.  However, at no time did I think that I would not finish.  The key thing with endurance sports is mind over body.  I didn’t doubt myself and wasn’t going to let any set-back such as insufficient training stop me racing.

"Skinny legs" having a chat with Stu Downs
(Thanks to Liz Gibbs for this and some of the following photos)
Question: what's more important than a clipboard?
Answer: the woman holding it! 

However, all thoughts of dread were thrown to the wind as I gathered at the starting line just before 10:30 am on Friday 23 November.  I tend to spend a lot of time preparing myself mentally for such events, and part of this is having a positive and open mind.  So I was relaxed at the start and had a big smile on my face.  I was determined to enjoy this as much as I could.  There would be hell to come, but it could wait its time.  It was great catching up with old friends and making new ones.  It was also a somewhat surreal experience, with a small crowd of supporters and well-wishers gathered around, including several photographers taking photos of each of us as we got ready for the race.

I think it was 16 riders that started the Maxi this year, which is historically a big number.  We were quite a mixture.  Some were absolute top athletes, setting out to make records around the course.  I placed myself firmly amongst those mainly interested in just finishing.

A minnow standing in some exalted company - the start line (Liz Gibbs)

After a couple of short speeches, we were off, with cheers from the onlookers.  The rabbits took off.  I was determined to go my own pace and expected to be well towards the back.  But, as the field quickly stretched out over the long initial hill, I found myself about three-quarters down the field.  I slowly caught up to Craig McGregor, expecting him to hop on my tail, but soon found I was by myself.  There were a couple of people ahead of me, who were tantalisingly close at times, but they slowly pulled away.  Once they were out of sight, I saw no other rider for the next 120 km.

I find Taupo a tough course.  A lot of it is very hilly, with the hills tending to be sharp and frequent.  Being 1.85 meters and just over 70 kg, I should have a power-weight ratio well suited for the hills.  However, once they become too steep, my lack of power more than counter-balances any weight advantage.  The Taupo hills are incessant and really wear me down.

For the first three laps, the Maxi Enduro riders take the slightly longer route over the first “40 km”.  Over the last lap, it’s the shorter but considerably hillier route.  I much prefer the former!

The first 100 km is a series of almost continuous rollers, with sharp up-hills and down-hills.  I quickly developed a pretty simple approach to riding them.  It was to have the bike in its easiest gear for the up-hill bit and just grunt my way to the top.  I would then be down on the aero-bars with the smallest chain-ring clicked in and plummeting down the other side.

Despite using the easiest gear, the up-hill bits were still difficult.  They required far more effort than I wanted to spend, which was very different from the Graperide Ultimate where I surprised myself by handling the two big hills quickly and easy.  However, I felt confident that any delays going up would be made up by the high speed I could achieve going down-hill, especially on the longer, less-steep segments.  I can get some pretty decent speeds while down on my aero-bars and was able to use this to successfully stave off any challenges from behind until I stopped for a gear re-arrangement around the 120 km mark.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The hazards of cycling, although the traffic was very considerate
(Thanks to Matt Oliver for this and some of the following photos)
About 10 km from the start-line.  Notice how the backpack is pushing my head forward? I didn't for a long time! (Matt Oliver)

Cramp proved to be the dominant theme for the first circuit.  The plan was to meet Helen every 40 km.  I would stop the bike, grab a couple of electrolyte tablets that she would have waiting for me, wash them down with water, change drink bottles, and then be off again.  This tended to work very well and I really don’t know how I could have managed without Helen, especially later on as things got difficult.  I don’t know when the cramps first began, but it was well before the 80 km mark.  As they got worse, I upped the number of tablets to three, started using my homeopathic anti-cramping spray, and also, once past Turangi, upped the frequency of the stops.

I know from experience that my memory gets quite confused in these races.  Because I wanted to keep a record for this blog, I asked Helen to jot down some notes for me.  My plan was to say the odd thing at most stops.  At the 80 km stop, my unedited notes-to-self were apparently: “Finding the hills hard work.  Very hot.  Feeling light-headed”.  They were to be my last and only such words, but luckily Helen also jotted down some notes, which have helped a lot in putting a sequence to some of the events in the race.

The race turned out to be so very different from the Graperide Ultimate.  There I had the luxury of being able to Zen out.  I had worked on putting my mind into a good place where I was positive and open and enjoying every minute.  I’d done this while maintaining a high speed and surprisingly respectable placing, at least until around the 350 km mark, from which time some grim moments began to sneak in.  I couldn’t do this in Taupo.  The hills were just too intense and took my full effort.  In a way, this is also a Zen-out, as you totally live in the moment.  Your full focus is on moving those pedals, maintaining that momentum, and getting to the top of the hill.  Then, when at the top, the hill would immediately start to descend, so I’d be down on the aero-bars and concentrating like heck as I reached average speeds of around 60 km/hour on the narrow, windy roads.

However, my mind was steady.  There was at least one fleeting moment later in the race when I wondered whether it would be physically possible for me to actually complete four laps, but I’d quickly chased that thought from my mind.  The focus would instead be on the shorter milestones – the 40 km relay transition stops and the three big hills – Waihaha, Kuretau, and Hatepe.  And this tended to work.  I’ve done the shorter Taupo races quite a few times already and had a fairly good idea about where the different bits were, where things tend to drag, where the going got really intense, and so on.  So Waihaha Hill was duly ticked off, although it felt somewhat longer than before.  Kuretau hill and the shorter Waihi Hill were eventually also ticked off.

A hill somewhere on the other side of the Lake

I was surprised not to see Helen at the Waihi Hill lookout, which was pretty much the 100 km mark.  She’d mentioned its views of the Lake, which are stunning, but she’d obviously decided to meet me at Turangi, where there was a compulsory check-in – not for me, but for the support-crew to say that I’d passed.  Once down the other side of Waihi Hill, the going would be mostly flat for about 35 km until the famous Hatepe Hill.  I hoped to put on a good time.

I found Helen waiting for me just before Turangi.  This was convenient for two reasons.  First, I desperately needed some more electrolyte tablets.  Second, I wanted to take my back-pack off.  I’d made the decision to wear a back-pack, because I could put my race number on it and then change shirts easily without always having to take off the number.  The only trouble was that it was putting a gentle pressure on the back of my head when I was down on the aero-bars, which made my neck strain just enough to be likely to cause trouble as the race went on.  It was while Helen was pinning the number to my back that Alistair Davidson and Don Bruce rode past.  A friendly “Hi” from Alistair (one of a few to come!) as they whizzed by.  It was duly responded by me, of course, but my inner voice loudly said, “Bugger!”

The early afternoon traffic along the No. 1 highway was not as bad as I’d thought it would be, and I was able to keep up a good speed without too much stress.  I was down on the aero-bars most of the time, only going up on the main bars when the verge got a bit narrow and for the slightly hillier bits.

It was definitely a pleasant change to be on the flat part of the course.  It’s especially beautiful when you suddenly reach the Lake shore and ride along it for quite long periods of time.  However, as I said, my mind was not in a space where I could enjoy it too much, except at a sterile, intellectual level.  But things were still going well on the mental front.  My focus was purely on turning the pedals.  Interestingly, my mind had actually slowed down, which was a great help.  There was no angsting, no clock-checking and working out how much I still had to do.  Instead, milestones were duly ticked off – village number one; village number two; lake view; caravan park; bluff number one; bluff number two; and so on.

Slightly before Hatepe Hill, Helen stopped again.  Yes!  Time for more electrolyte tablets!  It was while I was stopped that Alistair and Don passed me a second time.  They must have stopped off at Turangi and I had unknowingly passed them.  I was too slow to jump onto their tail and didn’t want to waste energy trying to catch them only to be dropped.  We were soon on Hatepe Hill and, once again, the cramps started to attack.  Some loud shouts of pain from me, which I’m hoping the other two riders didn’t hear.  Anyway, I slowly started to reel them in.  This was not intentional, but maybe my gear ratios (11/27) are slightly different to theirs, which meant that I was forced to go faster and spend more effort on the hills.  Who knows?

So, by the top, I’d caught up to Alistair and Don.  Don was in the lead and I exchanged some friendly words with Alistair.  No doubt they were very meaningful and intelligent, but I can’t remember.  Alistair then took the lead, with me behind.  I quickly worked out that there was no way that I could match his pace, let alone be able to take my turn at the front.  “It’s too fast for me”, I said to Don, and allowed them to slowly pull ahead.

The 20 km into Taupo was then quickly ticked off.  Just on the outskirts of Taupo, my daughter (Raewyn) passed me on her bike going the other way.  She’d come to give support.  “Good luck for the Criterium!” I shouted as I went past.  Raewyn was going to do her first Pro-Elite criterium race that evening.  She later told me that she’d then tried to follow me, and Helen was apparently waiting to take a photo of both of us as we went by, but that I was too fast with my aero-bars and high cadence.  It’s not that she couldn’t thrash me, but she was saving herself for the Criterium.  As it was, she was very pleased with her Criterium race.  She also did the Lake for the first time ever the next day, doing it in a time of 4:38 hours, making her the fourth fastest women around the Lake.

One lap over!  I clocked in at the Caltex Station with a time of 6:20 hours.  This was pleasing, as it was faster than my estimated time of 6:30-7:00 hours.  It was now 4:50 pm.

It was then a case of managing my way through the busy town, which was full of traffic coming to participate in the next day’s one-lapper of Taupo.  As it was, everyone was very courteous and I got through with no problems.  One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is the many toots of support I got from cars passing on the course.  They were all gratefully received.  I would try to wave an acknowledgement each time, although my waves admittedly became less enthusiastic and more of an effort as time went by.

So, lap 2 was beginning.  My speed was now a lot slower and the hills were especially hard.  I was also beginning to notice a tightness in the chest that would worry me more and more as the lap continued.  It’s like what you feel when you run up a steep hill as fast as you can, without any warm-up – even the next day your chest/heart feels strained.  However, cramps were again to be the main theme, at least for the first half of this second lap.

I was very pleased to see Helen 10 km out from Taupo.  It had started to rain very lightly, so it was good to be able to get a wind jacket to stave off the cold.  Helen also met me 10 km further on.  Time for more electrolyte tablets!  I also did some stretching for the cramps, something that I’d not done so far this race.  “Shit this is hard”, I said and told Helen that I would have a quick rest.  “Why not wait until the 40km relay transition stop”, she replied, clever woman that she is.  I agreed and hopped back on the bike.  “I’m too tired to kiss you”, I said as I pedalled away (which was surely a first!)

By the time I reached the relay station, I was feeling a lot better.  I was now 200 km into the race.  Some tablets, some more stretches, then I was away again.  No need for a rest, especially so early into the race!

I found the stretches a real godsend for my cramps.  I’d also changed my riding style for the hills.  Up until now, I’d done the hills completely sitting down, which meant continually working my hamstrings.  From now on I would stand up on the pedals more frequently, especially for the steeper segments.  Also probably helping may have been the cooler weather.

I think that it was somewhere along here that I met up with Liz, who was supporting Tim Neal (The Potato Guy).  She was waiting with Helen at one of the stops.  I did my stretches and caught up on Tim’s progress.  She said he was about 10 km back and doing well.  It’s great coming across friendly faces along such a lonely course!

By now Helen was meeting me every 20 km or so, I think.  At one of the stops, I added a couple of rear lights and one front light to the bike.  According to Helen’s notes, this was around 8:00 pm and about 215 km into the race.  Her comment was “Tired.  Going OK”.  An hour later I stopped again to put on some warmer clothes.
My three support crew members took their job seriously - to wait and wait and wait

There was no let up from the hills.  While I was getting somewhat on top of the cramps, I was quite worried about my heart.  Once I got to the top of a hill, I would take it easy for a short space of time, letting it recover as much as possible before I plunged down the other side.  I was also working on going up the hills with as little effort as possible, sitting upright on my seat, gently holding the aero-bar pads in my hands, and also making sure that I did not unduly strain my knees (the cause of my previous knee injuries).  This was all somewhat humiliating, but I accepted it as a plain fact.  I needed to do this to get through the race, despite the time cost.  On the positive side, one great plus about the race this year is that I managed to reduce the amount of time I used my arms to support my weight.  Such poor riding technique has resulted in agonised arms in previous races, but there were no such problems at all this time around.

Night must have fallen by now.  I was still totally alone, not having seen any other cyclists since Alistair and Don left me after the top of Hatepe Hill on the previous lap.  However, as I was nearing Kuretau junction, I became conscious of a light appearing then disappearing to my rear.  At one stage it was quite close and I thought I would soon be overtaken, but then it was quiet for a long period of time.  Obviously a cyclist was closing in.  The light appeared again on Kuretau Hill, but then dropped back once more.

I found Helen waiting at the top of Waihi Hill.  I didn’t want to stop too long, as it would be cold on the down-hill section.  I quickly used one of the portable toilets, did my stretches, and took my tablets.  Helen’s comments in her notes were: “Cold.  Lots of sighs.”

It was while we were stopped on the hill that first one cyclist, then another, passed, each saying “Hi”.  They must have been well ahead by the time I got to the Tokaanu flats, as there was no sign of their lights.  I later discovered that they were Alistair and Don!

I didn’t see Helen again until the 3rd relay transition stop, 280 km into the race.  It was now 11pm.  Her comments in the notes were: “Some swearing.  Says cardio-strain.  Beautiful starry night – chilly.  Trucks going ridiculously fast.”

The traffic was actually a lot lighter than I had expected.  For a lot of the way, I was able to go on the road-side of the white line, trusting that cars passing me would just pull over to the oncoming lane.  I only had one incident, when there was a toot behind me.  I quickly rode to the left of the white line and was immediately passed by a car and trailer inches away from me.  A little sports car had chosen that moment to pass the car and was thereby blocking the road on the other side.  It could have been a close call, but a warning toot and plenty of verge saved the day.

Helen mentioned the trucks.  She said her whole car would shake as they whizzed past.  I actually found them very considerate and would often hear gear changing as they slowed down behind me, rather than risking passing at uncertain places.  I always tried to give a wave of thanks when they did this and hope they noticed.  However, I think that I might have also caused the trucks some other problems.  A couple of the oncoming vehicles turned their full beam on just as they came up to me.  Finally, when one truck turned off his lights and flickered his side-lights, I worked out what the problem was.  My forehead light is bright and concentrated and, when I look up to see them, I was inadvertently shining it into their eyes!

It was somewhere along the Lake shore that Alistair passed me again – a fourth time!  As well as having to make up food and drinks, I think he’d had some mechanical issues.  These stops were somewhat longer for him because he was riding unsupported (except what was required for the compulsory check-ins and also emergency back-up when required).  He was looking strong though and soon rode off ahead of me.  Apparently Don had pulled out at Turangi.

At last, I was at Hatepe Hill.  This is the first time I’ve done it at night.  It seemed a lot longer than it probably was.  The pattern was routine though, with me being up on the pedals for some seconds, down on the seat for some more, up again, and so on.  Cramping was kept to a minimum and the hill duly ticked off for a second time.

By now, however, my riding style had totally changed, even for the flat sections.  I was no longer on the aero-bars.  I wasn’t even down on the handle-bars.  Instead, I was sitting upright, again holding the aero-bar pads with my hands, often with only one arm, travelling along the road at a very modest 25 km/hour.  It was slow, but it was taking me in the direction I wanted to go.  I was also riding with a hand over my chest, as though I was doing the American pledge of allegiance.  I was finding it quite cold by now, but the heat of my hand allowed me to maintain some heat.

My plan at Taupo had been to stop at the holiday house, take a quick shower, change clothes, and be off again.  However, I’d decided that I would probably forego the shower and just stop for a short (10 minute) rest.  My heart/chest was still making me worry and I hoped that a period of inactivity would help.  After a while, though, I discovered that the tube of Hammer gel in my back pocket had leaked and had already gone through several layers of clothing.  It might be a shower after all!

You need to realise that much of what I’ve written above comes from a hazy memory and has been difficult for me to piece together.  This especially goes for what was now to happen.

I arrived at our holiday house, which was at a great place just off the main Taupo road.  The time was a bit before 1:00 a.m.  I clomped into the house (cycle shoes!), absolutely tired but with a plan.

“I need to change my top – my gel’s leaking.  I’ll do some stretches first, then have a rest.  I’m really worried about my heart.”  I went over to the sofa and began to do some stretches.  “Oh, when you take my race number off, could you please fill in the contact details on the other side.  Just in case something happens!”

After I’d done a few half-hearted stretches, I sat down.  “I’m cold”, I said.  Apparently, I also kept saying over and over, “I’m worried about my heart”.  Helen put a blanket around me and Raewyn, who must have been woken by my noise, was massaging my quads and hamstrings.  Alistair, my oldest son, also came downstairs to see how he could help.

Helen asked Raewyn to use her watch to check my pulse.  “Your pulse is fine – 76 beats a minute.  Just breath easy.  Breath easy!  You’re hyperventilating.”  “My heart”, I kept saying, “I’m really worried about my heart”.

In a very quick time, out of the blue, I found myself shaking uncontrollably and hyperventilating.  I eventually curled up into a foetal position on the couch, with Helen lying on top of me to reassure me and get me to control my breathing.  After a couple of minutes, things calmed down.

When I’d come in, Helen had mentioned that Nick Dunne had recently texted about my progress and she had given an update.  Both Nick and Stu Downs – endurance cyclists with very creditable records – had checked in several times with Helen to see how things were going.  Both had also said that I could ring them any time I wanted.  “Thanks”, I’d replied when this offer had been made, but I really could never imagine myself asking for help.  I could do this myself.  But they knew!

As I was beginning to recover my breath, I said, “I need to speak to Nick”.  Helen realised that the time was now around 1:45 am and didn’t really want to wake him, so suggested that she text him to see if he was awake.  Nick’s a hard-arsed endurance sportsman.  He’s still recovering from his Race Across America ride in June, where he literally broke his body doing what is one of the toughest endurance races in the world.  Sadly, body won over mind.  After 2,500 km of non-stop cycling, he was one of the 50% or so riders pulled out because they failed to meet the arduous time cut-off requirements (requiring an average of more than 250 miles cycling each day).  As I said, Nick is a tough bugger.  One of his most frequent responses when giving advice is “Cycling Rule Number 5” or, to translate, “Harden the fuck up!”  Now it wasn’t to get a HTFU message from Nick that I wanted to talk to him about, it was because of his wealth of experience at pushing his body to the limit.  If anyone could, Nick would be able to tell me about chest pains such as these and whether or not they were something to worry about.  Sadly, Nick must have gone to sleep, as the text was not responded to.  Now, after the event, I deeply regret and sincerely apologize to both Nick and Stu that I did not telephone them.  I know that their offers were genuine.  My only excuse is that I was not thinking straight.

“I’m pulling out”, I said.  Poor Helen, Raewyn and Alistair did not know what to do.  They knew how important the race was to me, but I was also in obvious distress and greatly worried about my health.  However, my clever wife hit on a compromise.  “Have a sleep.  When you wake up, you can decide.  In the meantime, I’ll text the check-in and let them know what has happened.”  It was a deal.  But as I made my way to the shower and then to the bed, I’d already made up my mind.  At 5:30 am, I officially pulled out.

What the hell happened?
Still recovering the next morning.

Why, you may ask, go into all this detail?  Well, it obviously was quite an experience for me.  But, more importantly, there’s a puzzle and a lesson to be learnt.  When I entered the holiday house at 12:45 a.m. pulling out was not anywhere in my mind.  Sure I was exhausted, but I had a workable plan and was intent on actioning it.  But, within 15 minutes, I was a physical and mental wreck and had completely convinced myself that I had no option but to pull out.  Even now, I still don’t think that this was necessarily a wrong decision.  However, the question is – why the sudden change of events and how can a similar thing be prevented from happening at a future time?

I really don’t have a good answer to this question.  In the end, I think it comes down to the fact that endurance athletes can come to a stage where their brain is just not functioning correctly.  Support is vital if you’re going to be successful at this game.  And that support is the support of people experienced in the sport.  There are many cases where the cyclist absolves all responsibility for decision making to the support crew; the cyclist’s only function becomes to turn those pedals.  Nick and Stu knew this when they made their offer of help.  I should have taken it up.  However, there is another thing about this sport – you do learn by experience.  In the early morning of Saturday 24 November, I learnt the hard way!

So, what of my chest pain?  I still don’t know what caused it, but have a combination of likely reasons.

  • The first is the difficulty (for me!) of such a hilly course – my training was inadequate and my body still weakened from a 4-5 week cold.  It’s not surprising that such a race would put so much pressure on my heart.  
  • Here’s a surprising second reason – caffeine overdose!  I’m a two-coffees-a-day person, but I cut this to a small instant coffee each day for the two weeks leading up to the race.  I wanted to reduce my tolerance to caffeine so that it would be that much more effective when used to keep me awake over the race.  The problem is that, when I did race, I used too much caffeine.  The caffeine was in the form of the flavouring of my Perpeteum drink, which I was relying on for 100% of my nutrition.  As the hours built up, it was accumulating to quite a whack of coffee!  And the symptoms of caffeine over-dose?  Chest pains, racing heart, shaking muscles, stress, tension, a high-wired brain!
  • A third contributing factor is likely to be my breathing.  My daughter, who has recently graduated as a physiotherapist with top marks, reckons I had classic symptoms of Hyperventilation Syndrome.  Basically, it comes down to breathing too shallowly while cycling and, when getting physically and emotionally stressed, the breathing becoming more of a shallow pant, with all its resulting problems.

So many lessons to learn!

The next day, someone asked whether I’d be doing it next year.  “Hell, yes”, I had blurted out before they’d even finished asking.

Finally, I want to say just how lucky I am.  I’m alive to experience this.  Through doing this sort of thing, you really live and experience life!  Most important for me, I’m blessed with people who love and support me.  Top of the list is my most beautiful wife, Helen.  Also my three lovely children.  Not to be forgotten too are all the wonderful friends that I’ve made along the way and who continue to be there for me.  Thank you everyone!

I haven't earned the right to parade the pink helmet cover too publicly, but the time will come!  (Matt Oliver)

Friday, 16 November 2012

Strategy for the Taupo Maxi

There are three key things that I need to keep on top of to be able to make the 640 km Taupo Maxi Enduro:

  • Food intake
  • Riding style
  • Mental control.
Food intake will be vital.  If I don’t keep the fuel coming in, I’ll hit the wall and not be able to finish.  I’m going to rely almost solely on Perpeteum.  I’ll carry one bottle with 3x the concentration, set my timer, and every 20 minutes have 3 squirts followed by a squirt or two of water.  The only supplement will be electrolyte tablets and maybe the odd sachet of gel.

Any issues with riding style will be magnified as the hundreds of kilometres mount up.  This is still work in progress, but I’m definitely riding a lot more efficiently than before and with less strain on the body.  One of the mottos for the ride – relax!  I should preserve my energy and strength; focus on an easy, light style, but with high cadence; not do any wasteful efforts; BUT keep my focus on … going fast!

The mental strategies will be the key ones, especially given how unprepared I am physically.  Here are various things I will use:

  • Consciously working to keep my mind light and positive
  • Living in the present; focusing on the moment.  Not burdening myself with the weight of the kilometres ahead.
  • Chunking the race into smaller bits.  Focusing on milestones and celebrating them when they’re achieved
  • Looking for good things to enjoy – views, people, the peace of night, etc.
  • Focusing on my riding technique, which will keep my mind on things that it should be focused on.
  • Isolating any pain and discomfort.  There are three types of pain/tiredness that I can see: (1) that involving the key cycling muscles; (2) that involving peripheral parts; and (3) sleepiness and tiredness.  I must make sure that the latter two don’t get in the way of the first.  If I’ve got sore arms or am feeling tired, just keep those legs turning!  Isolate that pain and don’t let it infect my cycling!
  • Bouncing off others; i.e. using their enthusiasm and support to re-charge my own spirits.  Even telling people that I’m doing 4 laps, so as to get them cheering me on!
  • Staying in the racing mode and being pushed by the resulting sense of urgency.
  • Maybe inducing a crisis.  If I’m riding to escape a storm, I can dig deep and probably find that I’m not as tired as I thought I was.
  • Also, maybe thinking of my Dad, who died a few years ago.  It's not something I've done before, but it might work.
  • As a last resort, just weathering the low bits.  They might pass.  Or, if they don’t, just accept it.

My lap by lap strategies:

Lap 1.

  • Start 10:30am
  • Pace to be light and easy, but high cadence.  Use the gears!
  • Ride by myself; don’t ride at others’ pace.
  • Mind to be light and happy.  Enjoy the scenery; enjoy the moment.
  • Meet Helen every 40 km for quick exchange of bottles and 1-2 electrolyte tablets.  Carry food bottle plus 1.5 bottles of water.
  • I expect to go fast, especially along the Turangi-Taupo road (despite the traffic!).  However, most people will probably be ahead of me.
  • Along the No. 1 look for lines that I'll need to ride at night in the next lap.  Also, look out for debris and other obstacles to be aware of the later lap.
  • No stop in Taupo, except for bottle change and Caltex check in
  • Expected time: 6.5-7.0 hours.


  • Start 5:00pm – 5:30pm
  • Again, light and easy style.  I’ll be beginning to hurt, so my mind will need to focus on keeping steady and not panicking about the distance to go.  Get in the zone and live the moment
  • Meet Helen every 40 km for brief bottle change.  However, also meet her at dusk to put on full light set-up (2 back-lights, small back-light for helmet, front rechargeable light, front disposable-battery light, and light for forehead).  Only use minimal lighting necessary until the No.1 highway.  Get spare battery at 120 km mark stop.
  • The night traffic will be heavy.  Keep mind steady!  Just ride.
  • At the end, celebrate – it’s half way!  Have quick shower, brush teeth, and change clothes, as this will help me begin the next segment slightly fresher.
  • Expected time (including shower): 7.5-8.0 hours.

Lap 3:

  • Start 12:30am – 1:30am
  • I’ll be hurting now.  Focus on just going forward.  Enjoy the peace and quiet and KEEP CALM.  Keep the mind positive and happy.  Don’t even consider the kilometres to go.
  • Try and resist the urge to have breaks in the car.
  • At the top of Waihi Hill, celebrate.  I’m going to make it!
  • At end, CELEBRATE!  Maybe a few sips of coffee.  Change into day clothes and put on sunblock.  Get food/supplies to last for full round.
  • Expected time: 8.5-9.0 hours.

Lap 4:

  • Start 9:00am – 10:30am
  • I can’t even imagine how hard this is going to be.
  • Use the support of others to keep me going.  Talk with people.  Smile!
  • FOOD, FOOD, FOOD!  Do not forget.  Force-feed if required.
  • Just keep going!!!
  • No long breaks.  Don’t sleep.
  • There’s no escaping the pain.  Just grin and bear it, and remember it’s a race.  It will not last forever.
  • Keep that mind focussed.  Don’t let it get befuddled from tiredness.
  • Expected time: 8.5-9.0 hours; 5:30pm – 7:30pm.

All up, the total estimated time is 31.0-33.0 hours.  I’ll probably be at the upper end of that range, even higher.  My guess is that I’ll be at the lower end early on, but will creep to the upper end in the later laps.  My challenge – keeping the mind and the engine going in the last two laps, and making them fast!


In car:

  • Foot pump
  • 2 spare wheels
  • Spare tire
  • Lots of spare tubes
  • Lube
  • Spare tools
  • Lots of clothes
  • Lots of water + food
  • Towel and blanket
  • First aid kit

On bike all the time:

  • 1  spare tube; toilet paper; money; puncture repair kit; cellphone; multi-tool; tyre levers
  • Back-pack with race number on back
  • Pump

Laps 1-3:

  • 1 bottle Perpeteum (3x concentrate)
  • Tube of solid Perpeteum (as backup)
  • 1.5 bottles water
  • 3 sachets of Hammer Get
  • Electrolyte tablets / anti-cramp spray

Lap 4:

  • 1 bottle made-up Perpeteum (3x concentrate)
  • 2 bottles water
  • 1 empty bottle with 3x concentrate powder
  • Tube of solid Perpeteum
  • Lots of Hammer Gel sachets
  • Small bottle of electrolyte tablets and anti-cramp spray
  • 1 OSM muesli bar
  • 3 spare tubes in total

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Am I mad?

The graph shows the number of hours I’ve spent on the bike each week over the last months.

It’s been a highly variable performance, with weeks off due to knee injury, visiting family, other activities, and, at the moment, a rather lengthy cold.

What’s more, it’s well short of what I’d planned.  By September, I’d been hoping to have had the weekly total at around 15 hours, with a long ride of 10 hours plus at least every month.  Late October and early November were to be shorter hours but with harder hill work and lots of efforts.

The irony is that, despite the low mileage, a lot of it has been accompanied by symptoms of over-training – e.g. poor sleep, sweating, higher temperatures, cramping, and feeling quite exhausted.  Probably the result of ramping up the effort to make up for lost time.

So, basically, my training has a lot to be desired.  Next year, it might be worthwhile getting into a proper training programme to make sure I’m doing things correctly.

However, what about the here and now?  This time in three weeks, I will be 11 hours into what will probably be (for me) a 32-34 hour race, the longest race I would ever have done.  There’s no way that I feel any way ready for the Taupo Maxi Enduro.  The training is nowhere near what is required for a hilly 640 km race.  It’s probably sufficient for the 320 km race, but only just.  Should I be doing it?

There’s only one answer that I have for that question.  It’s “Hell yes!”

Most people would think I’m mad.  But they would also think that anyone doing endurance racing was mad.  I’ve always been interested in this type of racing, but the sudden revelation that let me take that first step into endurance cycling was a simple one.  The revelation was that … you are never ever ready for it!  There’s no way that you will ever have your body prepared for what such races will put it through.  There will be long periods where continuing riding will rely purely on your mind.  In the end, it’s mainly a matter of mental courage.  And that's the great test and the great appeal of endurance cycling.

So, should a lack of readiness stop me racing in three weeks time?   The answer – “Hell no!”

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Twice around the Aka block

It’s seven weeks to the 640 km Maxi-Enduro at Taupo.  My training is well behind due to 3-4 weeks off with a swollen knee and various other things getting in the way.  The longest ride I’ve done for a while was a 6 hour ride a couple of weeks ago, and that was mostly on the flats.  So I’m beginning to panic.  Weekends to date have generally involved back-to-back hill rides of about four hours’ duration each.  But that isn’t enough.  I needed to do a long ride, to test myself and remind myself again what endurance racing was all about.  So I planned the 300 km Wairarapa Loop.  However, gale force winds were forecast.  Never mind, I’d replace it with twice around Akatararawa block, which would be up in the hills and somewhat sheltered from the wind.  It would be just under 200 km in all, with about 2.3 km climbing.  Even though it’s not even a third of what I’ll soon be doing, it would still be a huge step up and would test me.  So that’s what I did.

I made up a bottle of Hammer Perpeteum four times the usual concentration, added three bottles of water to my kit, and set out at 8:35 am on a fine but very windy Saturday morning.  The ride down to Paekakariki was fast, down on the aero-bars and mostly protected from the wind, which was coming in from the side.  The 250 metre Paekakariki Hill was neatly disposed of, and after 1:10 hours I was riding through Pauatahanui village.

Progress was great and I was feeling really confident.  I’d been doing quite a bit of interval work during the weeks and this seemed to be paying off.  The 300 metre Moonshine Road climb was quickly ticked off and I was soon tearing up the Hutt Valley, down on the aero-bars again.  It was definitely windy, but much of the ride had been sheltered, with the wind hitting side-on from the West.  Then I turned up the Akatarawa Valley.  That was when I truly discovered the wind.

The wind gusted over 100 km/hour in Wellington for much of the day.  Usually the Akatarawa Valley is fairly sheltered, but not today – the wind was powering right down the valley.  Not to worry, I was still feeling strong.  But that didn’t last too long.  It was fairly slow going at times, having to hold the handle-bars tight to stop the bike from veering to the side.  Around an hour later, I crested the 450 metre pass, beginning to feel quite knackered.  Then it was down the hill, on to the aero-bars and powering into wind to Waikanae, through to Waikanae Beach, and then over the river, through to Otaihanga and home, from which I’d left just over four hours ago.

A quick hullo to the dog, reapplication of my shammy cream, grabbing another bottle of 4x Hammer Perpeteum concentrate from the fridge, and out the door 10-15 minutes later.  I was sure the weather forecast had said the wind would ease a bit, but it definitely wasn’t.  If anything, it seemed stronger.  But still, there were no problems getting to Paekakariki, with my speed again helped by the aero-bars.  I love those aero-bars to pieces; you can go so fast using them!

What was quite nice was being greeted by a couple of people in Paraparaumu.  A mountain-biker gave a wave of recognition as I passed him; I think it was Martin from the 60/40 group, but although I said “hi” I wasn’t that focussed to be sure.  And a driver passing on the other side of the highway gave a sudden toot and wave, but I didn’t recognise the car.  Long-distance riding is pretty lonely, so I really enjoy these all-too-brief encounters.

So, it was now Paekakariki Hill, the most difficult of the three hills.  The wind was a bit of a problem now, coming from the side mostly and bouncing off the hill and back.  Sometimes it would be from the front and sometimes from behind.  When it was from the front, it would slow me down a bit, then it would suddenly change to the side and almost push me off the almost stationary bike.  But no worries; the thing about climbing a hill is that it takes your full focus.  Despite being tired, I had no option but to keep pedalling.  Before I knew it, I was up the hill and riding down the other side.  Sure I was tired, but no real problems so far.

The false flat of Moonshine Valley was slightly harder this time, with a lower gear and less standing up on the pedals for spurts of speed over the little rises.  The main hill itself was also slower, with more time up on the pedals this time.  But soon it too was ticked off.  Only one more hill to go!

By the time I got to the Hutt Valley, I was really feeling it.  The wind was still from the side and was actually quite dangerous now, especially with me being more tired.  A bit scary given that some of the cars were whizzing past quite closely.  Bloody hell, I’ve only done around 150-160 km, the equivalent of just one loop of Lake Taupo.  Sure, I could do another loop after that, but three more?  I was really beginning to doubt it.

The Akatarawara Road was even harder this time.  The first time around, I had seen quite a lot of cyclists out.  I don’t think I saw one for the whole of the second time around.   Again, I had to grip the bars tightly.  It was a long way up.  My mind was still positive and business-like, butmy body was suffering.  I really was worried about how difficult I was finding it 7 weeks out from the event.

I don’t know if anyone else has discovered and uses the power of the “F” word.  No-one was around to hear me, so I could shout it at the top of my voice, “F”, “F”, “F”.  Very powerful and it helped get me up that hill.  However, as I was nearing the top, I could feel the first drops of a light rain.  And they were cold, both because of the temperature and the wind.  It was a hellish descent, especially as it was too steep and windy to use my muscles to pedal and keep warm.  My “F” words were soon replaced by incoherent roars, as I struggled to keep my mind focussed and ignore the cold.  Half way down, I was even thinking of stopping at one of the houses near the bottom to warm up and call Helen to the rescue, but it did seem too much like a wus-out.  At last I was at the bottom and rejoicing at the two little climbs that allowed me to stand up on the pedals and attempt to get the muscles warming up again.

What a change of mind-set.  From feeling exhausted coming up the Akas and dwelling on how tough it was, I was now in a semi-survival mode, with nothing on my mind except to power along and get home as fast as I could.  The wind and showers did not let up all the way to Waikanae, nor did my stinging fingers and general coldness.  I decided to take the shortest way home, so went south along the highway instead of riding through Waikanae Beach.  And boy did I go fast!  Before I knew it, I was turning into Otaihanga and was soon home.

What a ride!  The first loop was about 4:10 hours and the second around 4:30 hours.  So, that’s about 195-200 km in 8:40 hours, plus a 10-15 minute break in the middle.  I’m not really too disappointed.  Sure, I feel really sore and exhausted now.  But, despite continuing moments of doubt as to whether I can make the 640 km, I’m still planning to do it, fool that I am.  I think that my riding strategy (light, fast, and focussed, with high cadence) is the right one.  There are several things to work on, though.  One is that head-space.  I have to work on tricks to keep myself positive and happy.  Having a support car will be great, and I might also work out treats every time I pass through Taupo (maybe a shower).  Another thing I might experiment with is curbing my enthusiasm at the start, just in case it is causing me to be sorer and more tired later on.  Food is the other issue.  Hammer Perpeteum is fantastic!  It met all my food and energy needs and I did not crave food when I finished.  It was also the first time I’d experimented with having it in a more concentrated form and that seemed to work well.  However, eating or drinking anything is always difficult when you’re working hard, you’re exhausted, and your stomach is in knots.  I also found the drink started to make me burp a bit towards the end.  I hate to think what it’s going to be like after 30 hours riding, but there’s really not much alternative.  The other thing I found is that, despite my best of intentions, my arms ached.  That’s something that I’m just going to have to put up with.

So basically, it’s going to be a case of getting my planning and strategy as developed as possible, but then just relying on Cycling Rule No. 5 – “Harden the fuck up!”  As Nick Dunne once said to me, you just can’t let the idea of giving up even enter your head.  I tell you what, I find these things easy to nod to and agree with; however, putting them into practice will be quite another thing.  I’ve entered myself into a race well beyond my level.  Have I got the balls for it?  We’ll just have to see how things go on the day!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Training and the place of long rides – part 2

Part 1 was all by way of introduction to describing my ride last Saturday.  This was a 7 hour ride with lots of hills and is early on in my programme of ratcheting up of the distance.  

The previous weekend had been a disappointment, as my bike was out of action due to a broken rear gear cable.  However, I got it back on the Sunday afternoon and, out of frustration, promptly went for a three hour, high-tempo ride that included the 450 m high Akatarawa Rd.  Tuesday night was a one-hour high tempo pace ride on my trainer and Thursday night a one-hour brisk ride with nine 2 minutes-on / 3 minutes-off efforts.  At the end of each ride, I was struggling.  The week also included three sessions of weights/core-strengthening/stretches.

So along rolled Saturday!  I was to do a ride that I love: Paraparaumu – Paekakariki Hill (240m) – Moonshine Road (290m) – top of Akatarawa Road (450m) – and back again, a distance of around 155 km and almost 1,800m of climbing according to Map-My-Ride.  While these Saturday rides are meant to be at LSD (long-steady-distance) speed, I also want to include lots of hills due to the terrain I’m training for.  Unfortunately, LSD and hills often clash!

Down the road and left - the start of the ride
Across the railway line and onto the No. 1 highway
Due to a heavy frost and the fact that I would be riding through hills and valleys, I left slightly later than usual.  So at 9:35 am, it was clip in, free-wheel to the end of the drive, swing a left, another left, and then onto the main Otaihanga Road.  Otaihanga Road is windy and narrow, with cars whizzing close by, so it’s all focus, cycling fast and staying as close to the left as possible.  Then it’s across the railway line and up on the pedals for the last bit of the road, often with a short breather at the end as I wait for a break in the traffic to cross the No. 1 highway.  After crossing the highway, it’s still up on the pedals to stretch and get the blood flowing, then charging downhill along the No. 1 south into Paraparaumu.  Paraparaumu has a couple of intersections where I sometimes have to wait, then I’m through and at last heading south along the No. 1 towards Paekakariki.  Ten minutes have passed, my heart is racing, and I’m well and truly warmed up.  Now time to settle and get down to business.

Highway between Paraparaumu and Paekakariki
It’s strange how your attitude to things change as you develop.  I never used to like the road from Paraparaumu to Paekakariki before – it is rough, the cars too many and too close, and the ride flat and boring.  However, I now love it.  I get down on the aero-bars and just motor along – high cadence and light on the pedals, but still managing a good speed.  There’s the steep Paekakariki Hill to come, so a chance to enjoy some respite before the storm.

We’re really lucky in Wellington; it’s such a beautiful place.  It’s coastal, especially the Kapiti Coast where I live.  It’s also cut through by several sizable hill ranges.  So, as I whizz towards Paekakariki, I have a view of hills to the left, the coast just out of sight to my right, and countryside all around.  Paekakariki itself is a quaint small town (village really), nestled in a narrow strip between Paekakariki Hill and a great beach.  But the No. 1 just skirts the railway yards to its side.  As I get closer to the Hill, I’m again at full alert, with the Hill at arm’s distance to my left and trucks thundering past on my right.

Approaching Paekakariki
The start of Paekakariki Hill
Suddenly I’m there, swinging sharply off the No. 1, and immediately up on my pedals climbing.  This is truly a wonderful hill to climb.  It’s steep, with the rock face of the hill almost brushing my left elbow, the expanse of Cook Strait stretching out to the right and, behind, the flat Kapiti Coast arcing to the northwest, pointing to the citadel-like Kapiti Island before curving away to disappear into the distance.  Like all seas, the Strait is always changing, sometimes glass-like but more often racked by the Wellington winds.  Usually you can see the South Island and I’m frequently reminding myself to glance at the stunning weather patterns as the prevailing north-westerly is forced through the gap separating New Zealand’s two main land masses.  My goal, the viewing lookout, often with cyclists and drivers enjoying the view, is deceptively close, straight ahead but up, up, up.

It’s 15-16 km from home to the start of Paekakariki Hill and just over 3 km to the top of the 240m slope.  There is nothing easy about the hill.  After the opening short steep bit, things flatten out (relatively!) for another short distance, giving riders a chance to recover somewhat from the first onslaught.  The going then gets tough again up to the first of what are the hill’s two sharp hairpin turns.  Then it is relatively easy going for a while, as you move up a gear or two and quicken the pace.  This provides another chance to catch your breath before the final assault, the hardest part.  The road gets steeper and steeper over this bit, with the lookout hovering tantalising just in front of you but still far too high up.  At last you’re at the second hair-pin turn, up on your pedals as you enjoy freewheeling for a couple of seconds, snatching a look back at that stunning view while you catch your breath, then it’s up, past the lookout and over the crest of the hill.
Paekakariki Hill - 1st hairpin
Paekakariki Hill - up up and up - to lookout
Paekakariki Hill - a quick look back - the 2nd hairpin
Although fun, I always find Paekakariki Hill tough.  Definitely a good, sharp workout and, might I add, something that cannot be done at LSD pace!  This time round, I again found it an effort.  In fact, more so than usual, as my legs felt over-worked and my heart had been pumping more than usual even before I’d reached the hill.  My body was obviously showing signs of over-training, probably not helped by the previous week’s three fast rides and the sudden step-up in distance.  It was going to be a tough ride!  And it is here that we come again to that training dilemma I mentioned in part 1 of this post.  According to friends and what I’ve read, these were warnings that I should listen to my body, adjust my plan for the ride, ease back, and put myself in a better position for training in the coming week.  But no, for me this was the perfect opportunity to put myself into the exhausted, hurt state of an endurance ride and to learn to deal with it.  And I could do it all within only 7 hours!

Just as the road begins to descend, there is another all-too-brief glimpse of Cook Strait to the right.  It’s always well worth a quick glance as you begin to power towards the first of many corners.  The ride down this side of Paekakariki Hill is quite different from the upward section.  It is steepish, but not so steep that you can’t pedal most of the time, albeit with a pretty high gear.  It’s fantastic fun powering along at speed, with full concentration as you lean into the many wonderfully sharp corners.  Once away from rock and scrub, the scenery is one of small life-style sections scattered along the tight, narrow valley.  It’s actually quite a distance (7 km) before the ride finally bottoms out around Battle Hill Park.  When I reach it, I often find myself surprised at how quickly it is all over but also at how much it’s taken out of me.  It's not only the aftermath of climbing the hill and being at full concentration rounding those corners on the way down, it's also getting caught up in the speed and excitement, which means some harder work than planned over some of the flatter bits.  Time for a much needed drink, and I reach down and take a few full squirts from my bottle of Hammer Perpeteum.  Now it’s time to hunker down for the next bit of the ride, the remaining 6 km from the lookout to Pauatahanui, the tiny village at the head of the inlet of the same name.

A quick look back before descending Paekakariki Hill
Down the other side of Paekakariki Hill
Going on a slight tangent, I’m often surprised at what a poncy lot cyclists can be, both roadies and mountain bikers.  It’s all about the bling; about wearing the correct gear, having the most expensive equipment, and looking good.  The peacock reigns supreme!  Maybe, at the age of 53, I come from a different era.  For me, the heroes are the Edmund Hillarys and back-block trampers, where what you wear is irrelevant, the great thing is to push yourself beyond your limits and make do with what you’ve got.  I would like to think that this is the ethos of endurance cycling.  No doubt many cyclists turn their noses up at me.  I may wear lycra, but none of it matches.  I also often have on a loose, yellow, oil-stained wind jacket.  For me, dressing like that is a point of self-respect, about being modest and letting your deeds rather than your dress count, but few other cyclists would think so.  As I cycled past Battle Hill, I suddenly saw my shadow on the road and realised that my appearance had been made even worse by my zipped-up wind jacket not even covering my back; I had inadvertently tucked it behind the two spare bottles in my back pockets.  Not a good look, even for me!  It was as I was slowing to sort this out that I was passed by a bunch of about 8-10 riders.  They had been at the Paekakariki Hill lookout when I passed.  One by one they rode past me, with only one rider towards the back of the bunch calling out a greeting.  I really think that the cycling culture has a lot to be desired!

By now only around 55 minutes have passed and I’ve already ridden three very different and most enjoyable segments, with a fourth about to begin.  As I said, the joys of riding in the Wellington region!  The ride will continue like this too, with no chance of getting bored or fed up with any segment.

As the bunch of riders passed, I briefly considered joining them, but decided that this wasn’t in keeping with my game plan.  As it was, a couple of them were soon dropped from the bunch, one of whom I passed.  He was in his late teens and looked pretty spent.

The ride from Battle Hill Park to Pauatahanui is picturesque, with the valley opening up to show wider fields and brief glimpses of a gentle, meandering stream.  Often there are pukekos (purple swamp hens) exploring the side of the road or squabbling just over the fence.  I’m generally beginning to feel quite tired by now, especially after the steep climb and full-on descent of Paekakariki Hill.  So it’s time to gather myself together and just keep those pedals spinning.  I’m usually down on the aero-bars for this bit, only moving to the bars when cars pass, or clicking up a couple of gears and standing on the pedals for a change when there is any slight rise.  This part of the ride isn’t at all long, but it always takes longer than I think it should.

The more sedate lower valley

The head of the Pauatahanui Inlet and the hills of Whitby
Pauatahanui Village
Finally I can see the houses on the hills of the suburb of Whitby, just across the Pauatahanui inlet, and eventually the reeds and water of the upper part of the inlet itself.  I’m soon riding through Pauatahanui Village itself, standing on the pedals as I glide over the several speed bumps.  The village offers another change of scenery and a chance to slow the pace down a bit as I look out for cars, pedestrians, and car doors opening.  It’s quite fun looking at the people as I pass, many of whom are stopping off at the cafĂ©.  This time, unlike previous rides, I too stopped.  Usually I’d do the ride taking 6 bottles of made-up Perpeteum, which I’d consume over the 7 hours.  For this ride I decided to take only four, but with two of double concentration.  So I half-filled the bottle I’d finished with a bottle of the double concentrate, then added water to both.  Sweet!  The delay more than made up by not having to carry as much weight as before.

From here, it’s a short ride on part of the No. 58 highway, which stretches between Porirua Harbour and the Hutt Valley.  Traffic can be quite heavy here, but I just stick to the side of the road and try not to think about it.  Anyway, I soon turn off onto Moonshine Road.  This is a far preferable route over the Haywood Hills than the No. 58, being quieter and more picturesque; it’s also slightly higher.

Apart from the Kapiti Coast segment, the overall ride is really one of a series of valleys.  In many cases, I feel that I’m entering a secret world that is off limits to most.  Moonshine Road is a case in point.  The road is up the Moonshine valley.  It begins looking relatively picturesque and twee, with a narrow two-lane road, grass-lined border, and trees neatly placed on either side.  However the road soon deteriorates in quality, with potholes and patches of rubble.  It follows the Moonshine stream, with maybe 5 one-lane bridges of varying quality spanning it.  The section in the middle is the best, as the valley closes in and you follow the stream on a narrow, windy road for a while before the valley again opens up.  Although the slope is a false flat, the windy road and closeness of valley make you feel you’re making progress.  The valley has an unkempt feel about it, but no doubt with some well moneyed life-style blocks.  There’s usually more traffic than there should be for such a place, with some quite courteous cars but a few too many black utes whizzing by far too fast.

Coming up to the 1st bridge of Moonshine Road
The mighty Moonshine River!
View from Moonshine Road
Moonshine Road - still in the valley
Soon the flattish part of the road ends.  I freewheel for a couple of seconds, taking a sip from my drink as I mentally ready myself for the climb.  The first climb is close and personal, up a steep, windy bit, with banks or trees on each side blocking any view.  It’s short but quite a grunt, but soon the road opens up to a few life-style properties on the left, with goats as sentries grazing by the side of the road.  Here the road flattens, offering a short breather and opportunity to pick up the pace before the second steep slope starts.  This is finally accomplished and I’m cresting at 290m along a flattish bit with pine trees above and views of steep, barren hills leading down to the Hutt Valley.

Top of Moonshine Road
Now comes the steepest bit of the whole ride.  Luckily, at this stage it is down, but in 2-3 hours I will be returning the other way, which is something I’ve never enjoyed - it's an absolute grunt!  I’m less foolhardy going down hills now – too many close calls!  The road is steep, really narrow in parts, and it’s difficult to see what’s coming around the corners.  After what seems ages, it bottoms out in what is again secret valley stuff, with the entrance to a forestry works on one side and a damp, claustrophobic, small farm on the other.

Before I know it, I’m swinging around the Riverstone Terraces roundabout and am soon out on the Hutt Road, the No. 2 highway.  Some more quick sips of my drink, then I’m charging over the bridge spanning the Hutt River as fast as I can, just trusting that none of the heavy traffic passing decide to take any risks at my expense.

Another valley now, the Hutt Valley, but this time it’s a wide, old glacial valley and not so secret.  The river is now to my left, big, wide and shallow as it makes its way through an expansive, rock-strewn bed.  To my left are the hills of the Akatarawas, across the valley to my right the Blue Mountains, and chains of hills lining the way ahead.  At last I have a flat bit of about 5 km, offering a great river view before climbing up into the Upper Hutt suburb of Maoribank.  I settle once again onto the aero-bars and enjoy putting on a bit of speed.

The Hutt River
It was about 17 km from Pauatahanui to the Hutt Road and I’m now about 50 km into the ride and beginning to feel the effort.  A couple of hours have passed and I’m going through my mental check-list.  How’s the hydration; am I taking in enough fuel?  How strong am I feeling and what are my energy levels like?  I check my posture and riding technique.  Often I have to make a conscious effort to relax my shoulders and make sure I’m putting as little weight on my arms as possible.  On this ride, I was trying to let my right arm effectively hang loose, as I’ve been finding that I put more weight on it than I should.  I was also trying to push my sitz bones back into the wide part of the saddle, as I think that not doing so is what has caused the swelling at the top of my left thigh that I’ve had since the Graperide Ultimate.

After the Hutt River segment, there’s a chance to stand on the pedals and stretch my legs on the slope up to Maoribank.  I follow the No. 2 through suburbs for another kilometre, before hanging a left and cycling for a kilometre through the suburb of Brown Owl.  It’s then across the Hutt River again, trying to have a quick glance at the view as I glide over the bridge.

Passing Akatarawa Cemetery - the start of the Akas
View of the first part of the Akatarawa valley
At last the Akatarawas proper start.  A metaphorical pause and two deep breaths to prepare myself, then I’m off.  It’s 33 km from here to Waikanae, but for this ride I’ll turn back at the top of the Akatarawa Road, about 21 km from here.  Another valley and another river for me to follow!  Although generally uphill, there are at least a couple of places where you cycle quite a way above the valley, with both occasions offering good, fast, windy descents.

I know the Akas so well, I feel it's like an old friend.  I've ridden it slow, fast, exhausted and strong.  It's thrown all it's got at me in terms of weather; mostly it's sheltered, but there's also been rain, wind and even snow.  I know and love every curve and bump and have so many deeply-felt memories of it.  There’s just so much to look at and experience through the valley.  A big cemetery starts the ride, followed by blue berry farms, the turnoff for mountain-bikers (Karopoti), grand views of the valley, Bill Tito’s drive with its great sign “Slow down you bastards – speed kills”, cosy bush scenes with steep hidden-away streams, the world-renown and fantastic Jock Atkins waterfall, horse training yards, artists’ retreats, timber yards, gardens, and so on.  Each corner of the road brings another surprise.

Akatarawa Road
More views of the valley
Bridge leading past Camp Wellesley
View from bridge
Coming up to last house and bridge of this side of Akatarawa Road
When I cross the river by Camp Wellesley , I feel that I’m into stage 2 of the Akatarawa Road.  From here the valley narrows.  Another 5 km and you pass the Staglands Wildlife Reserve, then a kilometre from there it’s a double crossing of the river.  There’s a fantastic section and house spreading the river between the two bridges – it’s the last house before the summit.

The remaining 4 km to the half-way point of the ride are magic.  It’s a narrow, windy road, with the bush arching over you.  The road is steep, so no rushing through oblivious of everything.  You’re aware of the bush above, the land slips, the branches broken by the odd storm that’s passed through.  If you’re lucky, you also come across the odd wood pigeon.  Not too long, but a good grunt and it’s always great to get to the top.

Water vapour rising as the sun reaches into the valley

Rubble on road
Lots to look at!
Stream, moss, and the road!
The magic of the Akas!
Up and up
Almost there - graffiti on rock
At last, the top!
So it’s the half-way point, at 77 km according to Map-My-Ride.  Now what?  Back the other way of course!  No waiting around here, as it’s easy to get cold on the way back down.  So a couple of gulps of drink, then I’m off back down.

Well, more of the same on the way back in terms of scenery, so no more travelogues from me, only to say it’s a ride I heartily recommend!

Remember though that, even at the end of the first hour, my body had been feeling under pressure.  So, how did the ride go as a mental workout?  Actually, it went very well!  The first requirement was that my body suffered, and it definitely did that.  Halfway up the Akatarawas, I noticed that my jaw and mouth had gone all slack, which is something that only happens when I’m really tired.  I even had a couple of distracting thoughts, which don’t usually happen – “wouldn’t it be nice to just continue over the Akatarawas straight home” and, halfway up the wrong side of the Moonshine Road, “what would it be like to just hop off and rest?”  My arms ached, my energy levels were low despite me keeping up a good food intake (good man!), and my butt was sore.  I later discovered that I had rubbed my peritoneum and surroundings raw (so more experimentation needed for saddle, position, and shorts!).  But all though this, I just kept going, keeping up the cadence and, most important of all, keeping my mind steady and focused on the ride.  I was mentally strong!

When I got home seven hours later, I was totally exhausted.  Most of the evening was spent collapsed on the couch trying not to groan every time I moved.  However, things felt much better in the morning, so I went for an easy two hour ride trying to hunt down the 60/40 group, unsuccessfully as it turned out.  This ride was also a mind over matter one given my aches and pains, and offered another good opportunity to get my mind into that steady, determined frame that I will so need in four months’ time.

So, all in all, a good weekend riding!

77 km done, 77km to go - back down the Akas!
At last, the top of the last hill - another view of Kapiti Island and Coast
Fast descent - soon home!
Hey, where's your bike; where's the lycra?
Postscript: Photos taken a couple of weekends later.  Stuffed knee meant enforced time off bike.  Unfortunately the day was a really sunny glarey one which, when combined with my poor camera skills, meant some pretty poor photos (too much contrast).  Also, being reliant on a car and somewhat crippled, I missed out on taking photos at some of the more picturesque, less accessible places.  It's great see the ride objectively through photos; made me appreciate it even more.  I'll have to take the camera out more!