Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Tour de Manawatu 2013 (3 laps)

This was my 5th endurance cycling event.  I wasn’t even thinking of it as any big thing when I set out.  It was to be purely a training ride as preparation for something twice as long in 4 weeks’ time – the Taupo 4-lapper.  Boy, was I proved wrong!  By the end of it, I was even doubting whether I wanted to do the 4-lapper!

The Tour de Manawatu is actually a great course.  A lot of it is set in the hills north of Palmerston North, so you get a wonderful taste of typical North Island upper-hill country.  The ride also has long flat bits on relatively empty roads, which offer a great chance to get down on those aero-bars and just focus on going as fast as you can.

The race itself consists of doing 3 laps of a 115 km course.  This isn’t as boring as it might sound, as each lap is so different.  The first starts at 10pm and is completed in total darkness.  This adds to the challenge of finding your way through a maze of country roads with no signage.  The second lap is very much a “dawn” experience, where the sky slowly lights up to reveal that amazing countryside you’ve been passing through.  While the third lap is in the full light of the day, those pretty views are quite a peripheral to where your mind is at this stage of the race!

And so it was that nine of us gathered outside the Gull petrol station in Palmerston North just before 10 pm last Saturday.  Coming back from some preventative bladder-emptying, I was just in time to miss the end of Tim Neal’s pre-race spiel (thanks to Tim for facilitating this year’s endurance side of things!).  All I was aware of were some vague figures in the dark, lit up by a confusing array of flashing bike lights.  Then, without any fuss, we were off.
Race briefing for 9 intrepid souls
Suitably kitted out, but it looks as though my front light has already blown
As expected, the pace was fairly easy for the first 12 km, with people content to stick together as a group.  The route took us from the edge of the town, along some back roads, and then up the Napier highway to the village of Ashhurst.  I stayed at the back of the pack, using the opportunity to relax and have a chat with various people.  It was good to make the acquaintance of Jeremy Rowe and Margo Southgate for the first time.

At Ashhurst we turn and are immediately into the first set of hills.  Hills are really good at sorting riders out and tend to be where the pace heats up.  My plan was to cruise with the group until Ashhurst and then to find my own pace, whatever that might be.  I wasn’t going to rush to keep up with anyone, but neither was I going to slow down to wait for anyone.  I expected to be by myself for most of the ride, and indeed that was what I planned.  The ride was to be a practice run for Taupo, with the focus being on maintaining a nice steady but efficient pace and keeping myself in the right head-space.

It’s a great wee climb to the top of the hills above Ashhurst – only 4-5 km with an overall rise of around 110 metres.  Sure enough, it didn’t take long before 3 riders slowly pulled ahead (Brian Bushe, Jeremy Rowe, and Chris Pinkney).  I had already passed Tim Neal, who makes no bones about not being a good hill climber. He farewelled us, saying “See you at the end” (no doubt in jest!)  I was then up with Tim O’Brien and we topped the hill together, riding side by side over the next 11 km to the turn into Kimbolton Road.

As we approached Kimbolton Road, Tim noticed Margo and Brent Atkins not far behind and suggested we slow down and let them catch up.  I agreed enthusiastically.  My main front light had not been working since just after the start, so this offered a great chance to see if I could sort it out.  Sadly the bulb must have blown and I had no spare.  I had already been dependent on the flood of light in front of Tim’s bike, and it looked as though this would continue to be the case.  So much for my expectation of riding alone!

We had already done the first straight of a 17 km stretch of false flat (i.e. where the road appears to be flat but is actually rising) and Kimbolton Road was the remaining bit.  No problem for this lap, as there was plenty of distraction, but they can be soul destroying as you struggle to keep a speed more appropriate for a real flat.  The four of us rode two abreast, lit up by the car lights of Margo’s support crew, Sean.  After a while, we were surprised to have Tim Neal join us again.  He’d seen us in the distance, worked out that we were going no faster than him, so had put on an effort to join us.  We were surprised not to have seen Craig McGregor for ages and assumed that something had happened forcing him to drop behind.

At last we reached the corner that ended the long straight, now about 40 km into the race.  I was to really look forward to this moment in the two remaining laps.  And there was Helen!  As always, Helen is a very strong part of my race story, despite me trying to persuade her to not worry and to catch up on sleep herself.  This time I’d managed persuade her to only do the one lap.  One of the reasons she’d agree was that she planned to put balloons and other markers on the course to indicate roads that we should turn into.  I saw several the next lap and they did indeed save me from having to stop and pull out the map.

I really love the route over the next 45 km.  There is nothing boring about it.  I don’t know how many rollers there are, but there were lots, most short with steep upturns and downturns.  They really broke up the tedium of the race, but sure were to exact their due on my legs by the end.

Immediately after the turn, Tim O’Brien seemed to pick up speed.  With the choice of catching up with him or staying with Brent and Margo, I made the instinctive choice for anyone in a race.  I joined the faster rider.  The other two were slightly back and Tim Neal must have dropped off well before the corner.  With the various corners and the ups and downs of the rollers, it didn’t seem long before Tim and I were riding completely alone.

At about the 48 km mark, the route joins the Cheltenham-Hunterville Road and rises a further 50 metres over a 5 km stretch of road to top out at just over 300 metres, the highest point of the race and pretty close to half way.  It’s a bit of a grind up here, but it doesn’t last long.  Then, for the next 20 km the ride is mostly downwards, dropping around 230 metres.  Cycling down it is a great way to celebrate, although with the slight distraction of having to make sure that you don’t take any wrong turnings!

It’s fascinating what you come across on some of these rides.  This ride’s surprise was a graveyard way up in the hills all lit up with different coloured lights blinking merrily away.  A somewhat incongruous sight, but to come across this in the middle of a dark country night is sure to put a smile on anyone’s face.

At some stage (maybe just before the top?), Brent and Margo joined us again.  Interestingly, we dropped them another couple of times, but in both cases they caught up with energy to spare.  My guess is that they might have been having toilet stops, experiencing mechanicals, or just riding a different pattern from us.

Just before Halcombe, a village at the 78 km mark, Tim Neal caught up with Tim and I a second time, making some suitably cheeky comment.  This really surprised us, as we thought he was well and truly behind.  He looked strong too and blasted up some of the hills we came to.  “Whoa big boy”, said the other Tim, “You’ve got a long way to go yet!”

Anyway, at last, after some more climbing and descending, at the 88 km mark the three of us rode out onto the flats.  No more climbing!  But you adjust, don’t you.  We had what I thought was a pretty fast pace when, just before Fielding, Tim Neal got down on his aero-bars and began slowly to pull away from us.  Obviously neither of the remaining two of us felt like matching his pace, as we just continued as we were.

It’s funny how we so easily fall into traps and go off-plan.  Without even thinking, I was suckered into the wrong race.  Worrying about Tim Neal speeding into the distance, I got into race mode and put my foot down.  I wanted to manage that gap and possibly pull him in.  I’m not sure how the pace was for Tim O’Brien, but I was lucky to have him steadfastly behind me lighting the way with his lights.  Then, suddenly, on the home straight from Bunnythorpe to Palmerston North, I heard the cheery voice of Margo as she rode past me.  She and Brent had caught up yet again!  I did my best to match her pace and the four of us rode into the Gull station together, the first lap completed.

By the time we reached the station, Tim Neal had already signed in and left.  There being four of us, we took a bit longer, queuing for the loo and doing various bits of organisation.  Helen was there for me, changing my drink bottles and making sure I was alright (I think she’d been driving behind for some way as well, lighting the way).  I may have delayed things further still, as first Tim O’Brien and then Brent tried to fit me with a light.  Brent’s was successful.  Yes!  Such generosity from both of them, as parting with their spare lights involved some risk to them.  Real sportsmanship and just general niceness!

So it was that the four of set out on the 2nd lap.  And what a pace it was!  First Brent was in front, then Margo was up off her saddle and charging into the front, then it was Brent again.  I made no effort to add my share to the effort, as I thought it was too fast for such a race.  I was hoping that it was just a short-lived enthusiasm and that they would tire and the pace settle, but it wasn’t to be.  As we neared Ashhurst, I noticed that Tim O’Brien had dropped off.  Just before Ashhurst, I finally took the wise option and let them go.  Helen was waiting there outside the Ashhurst Motor Lodge, where we had a room.  I wheeled over to her, gave a goodnight kiss, and then set off after the others.

I talked of traps before.  The second trap I fell into was to continue on racing when I should have been riding in a measured way.  In fact, I raced for the whole of the remaining laps driven by two spectres – the threat of Tim O’Brien behind and wanting to reduce the gap that Margo, Brent and Tim had on me in front.  Even after those spectres had faded somewhat, I was just stuck in the racing rut, aided by a sense of disappointment and rage at how poorly I felt I was doing … but more on that later.

The Ashhurst hills mark 2 and, lo and behold, there was Tim Neal again.  I gradually closed the gap and rode with him to the top of the first slope, having a bit of a chat.  Tim then rode away from me in the short downhill and I caught up with and rode away from him on the second hill.  Soon after I’d crested the hill, Tim came charging past and there was no way I could keep up with him.  The next half hour or more was spent seeing his lights get further and further away.

By now we were on those long, straight, false flats again and I could also see Brent, Margo and their supporting car’s lights taunting me in the distance for ages and ages.  Looking behind, I also saw the lights of Tim O’Brien, hovering to strike.  Harder Andrew, harder!

And so it was that I eventually arrived again at the 40 km mark that broke that unpleasant stretch.  There was still the odd glimpse of light in the distance ahead and behind, but I was essentially alone and would not see any of my riding companions until the end of the race.  The hills were now somewhat harder, but I was essentially in a good race mode, keeping my mind steady, riding them without much thought, and just focussing on turning those pedals.

In such races, you seize on anything you can to lift your spirit.  The odd glimpse of the balloons that Helen had left out definitely gave me the warm fuzzies, which I succoured as long as I could.  The other thing was the impending promise and then the actual experience of dawn.  At first it was just a slight pale imperfection in the sky, which very slowly increased and spread.  After a long time, I found that I could make out vague shapes around me, eventually being surprised at just how beautiful this countryside was.  Being hilly, there was always a view, with a multitude of panoramas ranging from flat dairy farms, to rugged pastures with sheep, to bush-clad valleys, to distant views over the hills onto the plains below.  The other riders must have passed ages ago, as I sent at least a couple of flocks of sheep scurrying away as I whizzed by.  I also remember passing a wonderfully big, fat, white pig on the road, and also some cows walking just on the side.

And yet again, I was through the hills and onto the plains near Fielding.  I’d had to stop a few times to check out the route, but was lucky enough not to have missed turns, which has been a fairly common occurrence in past races.  In my mind, the rest of the lap was like a replay of the previous time, with me remembering different places and even small events of the previous lap.  By now, of course, I could see around a lot more clearly.  It was a pleasant change to see the world slowly wake up, with people taking their dogs for walks and intermittent early morning traffic.

But there was no let up.  Having tried so hard to maintain my distance from Tim O’Brien, I didn’t want to drop the ball.  So no rest, but down on the aero-bars and keeping that cadence up.

One thing that kept me in check, however, was fear of cramps.  Every one of my previous endurance rides had been plagued by them and they are no pleasant thing.  I’d previously tried to manage them with electrolytes, but I’m not sure if this had worked.  This time I focused instead on making sure that my muscles weren’t working full-out all the time, but sometimes just using momentum to turn those pedals.  I did feel cramps threatening a few times, but would just relax, which seemed to fix things.  So, one successful outcome of the race – no cramps!

While on such things, I should mention my food.  It was 100% Hammer Perpetuem, a food-based powder that you mix with water.  I’d made the drink at 3 x concentration and every 20 minutes I would have a squirt from the bottle, followed by a squirt of water to rinse my mouth and wash it down.  That was all I needed and I finished the race with no issues.  There were times, however, when I felt somewhat nauseous and, towards the end, I didn’t look forward much to that 20 minute alarm going, but I managed to get through those moments.  One thing though was that I only had one bottle of water and one of Perpeteum for each of the first two laps, which meant that I had less liquid than I probably should have and was thirsty a lot of the time.  Still, no harm came of it.

Now, for the second time, I had to sign in at the Gull station.  I’m somewhat ashamed to confess that I was now getting into mind games with my previous road companion and generous person who would have offered me his lights if they’d fitted my battery.  There was no way that I wanted to be anywhere in sight when Tim O'Brien appeared.  I didn’t want to give him sustenance and hope in the feeling that he’d caught me.  So I was in and out as fast as I could go.  Then, once around the corner, I stopped and gave Helen a text as she had requested.

It seemed even longer to Ashhurst this time, but you just switch your mind off and you're eventually there.  Sure enough, there was my lovely wife.  I careened over to her, leant the bike against the car, and started taking of my various night gear.  Helen slapped some sunblock on my face (far too much, of course), I grabbed some drink (1.5 bottles of Perpeteum and 1.5 bottles of water this time), and was off.  Just out of sight from Helen, I nipped behind a tree for a quick pee, then hit the hills.
A final farewell to Helen on the last lap
As I mentioned, each lap was different and had its own distractions.  Obviously a main one this time was other riders, but they weren’t to start just yet.  However, I began passing officials out on the course.  I don’t know what they made of this lone rider passing them, well before the event.  I waved each time I went by, and most would return my greeting, but few words of encouragement were given.  They probably didn’t know about the endurance event or were just too busy getting ready for the main riders.  Still, their presence did help take my mind off things.

It was hard going up Kimbolton Road this time, and every now and then I would stand up on the pedals and just freewheel for a few seconds.  All the time, I was looking back, waiting for the first bunch of 1-lappers to whizz by me.  At last, just before the 40 km mark, four really fit young men wolloped past, followed soon after by a slightly bigger pack.  I was surprised by the smallness of the various packs that would overtake me and the long distances between them, but guess that the number in the race is considerably less than in Taupo and the Graperide.

By now I had entered the suffer zone.  While my head was steady, my legs were sore, especially behind the kneecaps and the upper parts of my hamstrings.  They were also pretty weak - a few times I would stand up on them to stretch and rest, but the muscles would initially not give enough support and my legs would begin to collapse the wrong way, i.e. against the grain of the knee.  You quickly learn to be careful with that.

As you’d expect, the hills were a lot harder this time.  But you can do nothing about it except just switch your mind off and continue riding.  I continued to have the distractions of the people riding past me, and got a real buzz from the odd person yelling out words of encouragement.  Some even asked if I was alright – I must have looked like shit!

The distraction of officials on the course continued.  It’s great that they’re out there, so I would give all a friendly greeting as I whizzed by.  Many really took their job seriously, and would be holding out cups of water for me to grab as I rode past.  I felt rude declining the generous offers!

One moment I enjoyed was when Matthew Schipper caught up to me on the Cheltenham-Hunterville Road.  I had ridden with Matthew around this very course more than a year ago (a few weeks before the race) and have bumped into him a couple of times since.  He’s a nice guy and good company.  For almost 10 km I think, I had noticed a sole, yellow-jacketed rider behind me.  I had thought it was Tim O’Brien and adjusted to the inevitability of him catching me up.  But it was Matthew.  It was good to see him and I felt even happier when he said something like, “I’ve been trying to catch up with you for ages!”  I couldn’t have been going too slowly then, as Matthew is a good rider.  We talked for a while and reached the highest point of the ride together.

I had actually been planning to have a five minute “short death” rest at this point, something that I had been holding in front of me as a carrot for a while.  However, I was perked up now.  It was also a fast flat bit coming up, so I was down on my aero-bars getting some speed up.  I did feel somewhat guilty, as I would have liked to have chat with Matthew some more, but noticed him drop behind.  However, after some time, he overtook me.  I think he was expecting me to jump on his tail and draft, as he looked back a few times, but I was just too tired.  Soon after that, he hopped onto a passing bunch and was soon out of sight.  I’m sure he got a good time and wish him all the best for the Taupo Enduro this month, his first.
Nearing the end

Well, eventually I was out of the hills and onto the last leg of the ride.  I rode on the aero-bars most of the time, mainly for comfort now.  Lots of positives can be ticked off from this ride.  I might be able to manage long distances on the aero-bars.  My breathing is much better than before, with no hyper-ventilation.  There were no cramps.  Food worked out fine.  …  However, there was one huge negative.

By now, I was well and truly stuffed.  Of course, that’s no big deal towards the end of such a race.  However, what made this different was the fact that this ride was only 345 km.  In just a few weeks, I would be riding 640 km of an even hillier course.  I was already digging deep to finish and just did not want to be there anymore.  So what chance did I have for Taupo?! I would just be around the half way mark by now!  Even if I could take the tiredness and pain – and I was currently in a place where that didn’t have any appeal – would it be physically possible?  What is worst, this was after all the training I had done, which had been pretty intensive, getting up to almost 20 hours a week more recently, involving sleep deprivation from early morning rides, and considerable sacrifice to family life.  Thinking of all this through my tired, befuddled mind, I became really upset.  Not only that, I was angry.  Furious!

So the last half hour had me gritting my teeth, turning those pedals, and raging.  The odd "F" word passed my lips too.  I was just focussed on getting to the end and was pushing hard.  However, this didn’t exactly translate into speed, as I continued to get passed by the odd cyclist.  Finally I was over the line.  There was Helen’s smiling face, which is always so good to see.  “How was it?” she asked.  And my ignomious, shameful response?  “Fucked!”
The old man that Helen says greets her at the end of each race
So now, some days after the event, what do I make of it?  It was definitely hard.  But I did enjoy many aspects of the race, especially riding with my four companions over the first 100 or so kilometres.  It was also good from a training perspective.  There were the positives that I mentioned before.  Also, even that big negative that I’ve been whinging about is, in the end, a positive.  Once more, it’s wiped away all illusions about ultra-cycling away and given me an icy dousing of cold reality.  Taupo is going to hurt.  There are going to be huge tracts that I will definitely not enjoy.  There is also a possibility of me not finishing it.  But also, there is a glimmer of hope, and that is the other lesson I’ve got from the 3x Tour de Manawatu.  Sadly, it's a lesson I've had to keep relearning – the importance of good pacing!