The Manfield 6 Hour Challenge is a 6 hour race around a 3km car-racing track in Fielding. I was barely aware of the event and would never have considered it if Tim Neal, a Graperide Ultimate rider, hadn’t mentioned it to me soon after the Graperide. It would be in May and there were no big events near it, so, I thought, “Why not? It might be fun”.
So my alarm went off at 5:30 am, Sunday 20 May, and by 6:30 I was on my way. It was a 1 ½ hour drive up to Fielding on a beautiful morning, with the sun slowly rising to welcome a lovely, clear day.
When I arrived at the Manfield race track, I noticed a van. That’s Nick Dunne’s van I thought, but who’s that by the van? My God, it’s the man himself! I’ve only seen Nick a few times, all while riding the Graperide Ultimate. I know his kit, his helmet and glasses, and riding style – especially his riding style – but had no idea what he looks like in person. Until now! It was great to say hullo again. A great guy and I wish him all the best in his Race Across America (RAAM) next month!
I then went over to Tim Neal (the Potato Guy). He was still recovering from a hip operation, but had assembled a team around him (Nick, Damian Day, Pete Jennings, Matt Oliver, and Charles Salmon, being the ones I knew) under the Potato Guy banner and also had a Potato Guy stall to raise money for Nick’s RAAM assault. This time around, it was Tim’s turn not to recognise me without my helmet and glasses on! He even invited me to join the team, but didn’t have a shirt big enough for my bulging muscles.
There was just enough time to cycle once around the course, get the blood flowing (it was cold!) and line my bottles on the barriers, before we were ready to go. I had a bit of a chat with Damian while waiting. Damian’s is a really nice guy with a very interesting story. For medical reasons, he spends most of the year touring around NZ on his bike. Check out his blog: http://lifeonabikeinnz.blogspot.co.nz/ . Also the following interview with him: http://pathlesspedaled.com/2012/01/kiwi-short-damian-day-new-zealands-bicycling-nomad/ .
My plan was simple: to get into a bunch, hopefully the first bunch, stay there, and (importantly!) take my fair share of turns at the front. My hopes? I wanted to do well. Before, I was totally anonymous at such events, but now a few people actually know me. It puts a slightly increased pressure on me to perform, to earn respect. I had no idea what this event would be like, imagining it would be a relatively small affair with a huge range of abilities. I’m not at all used to bunch riding, especially for 6 hours straight, so there was some anxiety about this. However, all in all, I was calm and relaxed about the whole thing. It was less than most training rides I did before the Enduro and Ultimate and I felt that I could handle the discomfort. So – no worries!
Obviously a little too relaxed! While angling to get near the front, I was a long way off it when the race was suddenly on. It was crowded – 88 cyclists on the track, with 25 of us doing it solo and the remaining 63 being members of a team. There was a massive bunch at the front. Where I was there was confusion, or most probably it was just me who was confused. Many around me just continued cycling on by themselves, but a few small bunches formed. I jumped on one of three other people, feeling confident that we would catch the main group up. Duh! Obviously I don’t understand the physics of these things. Not surprisingly, the front group just continued pulling further and further away.
I can’t remember too much of the first lap, as things changed pretty fast. But by the end of it I had made the decision that I would do the thing by myself, unaided by any drafting. That is more like endurance riding. I was also just not comfortable with racing in bunches, especially bunches where people were faster than me and I would be freeloading.
Anyway, I was not at all dismayed, despite my plans and hopes of the race drastically changing. Sure, I wouldn’t get a good placing and impress my fellow endurance athletes, but at least I’d get some good training in. Time for impressing people later ;-) The idea now was to go at a hard pace that would put me into the hurt zone, and to continue in the hurt zone while pushing hard all the way to the end. It would be another good opportunity to get used to discomfort, to check my riding style, and to keep the food intake going.
I really enjoyed everything there was about the day. The best way to describe the course is as a banana bent almost flat, with the course being the skin part of the banana. This meant that in many of its parts you could see the riders coming the other way. The shape of the course also meant that you got the wind in your face twice each lap. And that was the other great feature of the day – quite a stiff breeze the whole time.
After two or three laps, I worked out that I was cycling around the speed of another rider who was also riding by himself – Donald Packer from Hawera. At times I rode next to him exchanging the odd remark, at other times I drew slowly ahead of him, and finally, after around four hours, he came back from a break and slowly drew ahead of me. I see from the results that he ended up three minutes ahead!
There’s really not much to say about my race itself. No big hills, no duelling or hanging on like grim death to a peloton, and no great drama. Because I was cycling by myself, it was just grunting all the way to the end. The laps soon developed a routine of their own. The finish/start straight was straight into the wind, so it was head down and powering along, usually a bit under 30 km/hr. The curve would then take me away from the wind. At later stages on this bit, I would stand, stretch one leg, then the other, sit, have a sip of my drink, then power along again, usually a bit over 30 km/hr. And the whole thing repeated for the second part of the lap!
There were four stops over the six hours. The first was after only 1 ½ hours, when I had to exchange my two empty drink bottles for another couple. The swap went well, taking only a matter of seconds. The other drink stop took a wee bit longer, as I struggled to work out which were the full bottles and also had a quick chat with a guy who was standing next to the bottles. He even kindly filled a couple of them with juice for the next time. The other two stops were pee breaks – the downside of using food that involves lots of liquid!
The pedalling was uncomfortable, but I had enough confidence in my fitness and mental side to be able to continue slogging it out to the end. It was a struggle though. After a while, I found a great way of focussing, which was to vocalise on my out-breath, i.e. make it audible. Not the most glamorous of things to do, but it really did help me going into the wind when I was struggling.
Another couple of things helped take my mind off things. One was looking awestruck at the really fast bunches (and later individuals) whizzing past me. Because most cyclists on the course were members of teams, they could really blow themselves away for just a few laps and hit amazing speeds in the process. The fastest average lap speed, for example, was a freakish 64 km/hour over what is a 3.03 km lap, although most of the fastest laps were just under 50 km/hour. These guys looked really professional. The whole thing looked exciting and I'm half tempted to do a bit of training to race with the front groups next May! Bugger trying not free-load in a peloton, I'll be spending most of my time trying desperately not be be spat out from the back!
The other thing helping was the interaction I had with people. One of these was the odd exchange with people I passed or who passed me. With all that time on the track, you soon notice people. There was a young teen girl with whom I was really impressed. She looked broken, but I kept on passing her again and again – she just kept at it! I also frequently passed a couple of women who rode at a slow and steady pace for the full 6 hours, eventually managing to just beat their goal of doing 30 laps. They were in the process of training up for the 160 km Lake Taupo ride.
Something else I enjoyed was taking on passengers. After a while, I would notice a shadow or glimpse of a wheel out of the corner of my eye, as the odd person drafted behind me. Once again, with so many laps, I got to notice some familiar faces there too. It was not only company of a sort, it kept me honest, and I felt really chuffed being able to help fellow riders out. It also salvaged some of that pride lost from being blown away by those really fast riders.
The other company I had for a while was Nick Dunne. We had a few longish chats together, which I really enjoyed. Nick is only a few weeks out from 5,000+ km RAAM (13 June!) so was trying to take it easy. He hadn’t though and had blasted away with the fast ones for quite a while. I think he enjoyed going at a more relaxed pace the second half and talking with people. What a wonderful ambassador for endurance cycling! He’s a guy I’d like to know better.
At last, an announcement of three more minutes was made as I went past the finish line. Only one more lap to do. So, it was head down and around again. I even got the checkered car-racing flag waved when I finally passed the finishing line! I did a wide wheel around the person waving us back into the transition area, just enjoying finally being able to reduce effort and to rest.
I slowly peddled though to the Potato Guy team, leaned my bike against a wall, and shook hands with the riders I could find. I then clip-clopped over to get my gear. Hey, my jacket’s gone. My bottles were there but not my jacket. Who on earth would take it? It’s old and hardly something that anyone would want to wear. What a pest! I checked to see if anyone in the Potato Guy team had taken it to look after and also went to see if anyone had left it with the officials. No luck. Bugger! I wasn’t staying for the prize-giving, so gave a last farewell and good luck to Nick, then slowly pushed my bike back to the car. And there was my jacket, lying crumbled in a corner in one of the garages I was walking through. Someone had probably felt cold, grabbed the jacket, and just dumped it when they’d finished with it!
In the end I had done 61 laps, making it a 185 km ride at an average speed of 31.3 km/hour, pretty much all with no drafting. I was pretty tired afterwards though and the drive back was quite hard. Pretty shattered that night!
In my opinion, the standout performer was, as always, Colin (Wal) Anderson. What an athlete! He’s in his mid-sixties and has been in the endurance cycling scene for ages, having set New Zealand records that still hold and encouraged others into the sport. He was 2nd solo rider and 25th overall, doing a total of 75 laps. He’s undoubtedly the king of endurance cycling in NZ and always will be!
The results can be found here: http://www.mylaps.com/results/showrun.jsp?id=2272982&perclass=0
So, what were my lessons? They were the usual ones:
- I was happy with being able to take a level of discomfort and continue taking it. No issues there.
- I’m a lot better at riding without full weight on my arms, but that is still work in progress.
- Nick asked me if I pulled with my legs when I cycled and suggested I include one-legged pedalling as part of my training. I thought I was alright, but obviously not. Something to work on!
- Perhaps the most important thing of all, however, was food. I didn’t do well on this; it’s something else I have to work on. No problem for the race, as it was so short, but what if it had been longer? It was fine while I had the Perpeteum drink. However, when this (prematurely) ran out, I didn’t get into my stock of faster working sugars (e.g. Goo). Part of the reason was that I was racing hard and struggling against the wind, which meant that my stomach was tight and the thought of consuming something that was not a liquid didn’t appeal. The other was the slight awkwardness of retrieving the food, which would have slowed me down. Lesson: slow down and take the food; make the time; think positively and enjoy it; and you can only benefit!