Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Whanganui Rapids 400

The Whanganui River! (Thanks to Naresh Kumar for the photo)

A 400 km ride that included the Whanganui River and other beautiful central North Island areas – what wasn't there to like about that!  Well … um .. more on that later.

But seriously, the inclusion of the Whanganui River was a major drawcard for me.  I've canoed the upper reaches down to Pipiriki but not been on the road south of there.  Here was my chance to be up close and personal with this iconic bit of New Zealand.

With the ride starting from the town of Whanganui at 5:00 am, Helen and I decided it would be best if I drove up the previous night.  After a rushed dinner on the Friday evening, I made the two hour trip north, where I had rented a single room for a couple of nights.  The evening was spent preparing bike and gear.  By 10:30 pm, all was ready so I hit the bed and was immediately asleep.

From when the alarm went off at 4:10 am, things were pretty much on automatic-pilot mode … clothes on, breakfast, final packing, and lights on the bike. Finally ready, I rode the short distance to McDonald's, from where we were going to start.

Five of us had signed up for the ride: Simon Henderson (the ride organiser), Craig McGregor, Jeremy Rowe, Naresh Kumar, and me.  Sadly, Jeremy informed us at the start that he wouldn't be doing it as his shoulder muscles had gone into continual painful spasms.  His plan was instead to have a coffee and then cycle the 200 km back to his home in Ashurst.  That left four of us.

It wasn't long until 5:00 am arrived.  Without further ado, Simon rode off, with the rest of us following him in a fairly leisurely manner.  Suddenly I realised that I hadn't taken a photo of everyone at the start.  Never mind, I could at least get a shot of their tail-lights riding out through the streets of Whanganui.  This was when I made the sad discovery that my camera wasn't working.  After fiddling with it for a while, I gave up.  There would be no photos from me this trip.

The others were well into the distance by the time I'd put the camera away, so I set off to reel them in.  I don't have a GPS, only the cue sheets, but a couple of looks at the on-line map at home had given me some familiarity with the route.  My memory of this first bit was that it was quite straightforward, so I just carried on after crossing the bridge.  However, after a couple of kilometers of weaving my way through suburban Whanganui, I worked out I'd taken a wrong turn.  Duh!  I should have turned left after the bridge.  So back I went and took the road I should have taken.

There was a surprising amount of traffic for such an early hour, both in Whanganui and on the roads out of it.  This broke up the pace a bit, as it meant that I couldn't just put the lights on full and relax into an efficient peddling mode.  Most of the commercial bicycle lights on the market are bright and spread a wide beam that is blinding for oncoming cars, so I tend to push mine down when they approach.

At last, almost 15 km from the start, I was turning off the highway and onto the Whanganui River Road.  Yay!  The ride proper was about to start!  Unfortunately, the first bit of the road was slightly disappointing.  I had realised that there was the odd hill on the river road, but the looming hills later in the ride had made them seem miniscule.  I had underestimated the size of the first one, which rose up almost immediately.  The going was made tougher by my heavily laden bike, the loose gravel from road works, and lots of passing traffic on the narrow, poorly marked road.  There was no compensating increase of speed down the other side either, due to the gravel and quite thick mist.  Added to this was the fact that it was still night, with even the night views obscured by low cloud and patches of mist.

After a while, I noticed a couple of red lights ahead.  They weren't blinking and the headlights were bright, so I assumed them to belong to a car, albeit a slow moving one.  They turned out to be those of Simon and Craig!  I was glad to have caught up with them.

I no longer race on these rides, even against myself.  It's a long way and I need to recover for the next one.  However, my plan for this ride was definitely not to dawdle.  I'd suffered from lack of sleep on the ride a fortnight ago, so wanted to be back in my bed in Whanganui as soon as I reasonably could.  This didn't mean that I had to rush, but after chatting* a bit with Craig and then with Simon, I went down on the bars again and continued at my own pace.  I was surprised to notice that I'd soon left them well behind.
(*Note that “chatting” in my case is usually in one direction, as I can be quite a silent partner.)

It was now getting lighter, but the pre-dawn light was still not enough to see the uneven road clearly.  After a while I could at last see the various obstacles and begin to relax more.

The Whanganui River!  The place has a huge reputation for me.  Big and brown, slow but powerful, the river is fed from the rugged hills and mountains of central North Island.  It is steeped in history and no doubt in Maori myth and legend.  Its inaccessibility meant that  European influence was delayed and diluted.  The area still has a strong Maori presence and my memories from my previous trip was of being greeted by friendly, open-faced kids as we walked the canoes up from the river at Pipiriki.

Scenically, the environs were mind-blowingly beautiful.  I just opened myself up to the views as I rode along.  The reward was ample.  At times we were close to the river and at other times far above. The banks tended to rise far and steep on either side, with fern and native shrubs clinging to the slopes.  The autumnal colours of introduced trees contrasted with the dark green of the native flora, especially along the road.  On at least one occasion, we rode through beds of golden, fallen leaves, while at other times were riding up high alongside glistening cliffs.  And it wasn't just the river that changed, as it twisted and turned.  The views of the surrounding hills also were a continuing kaleidoscope, as each curve of the river brought new valleys and hills into view.

The Whanganui River Road (photo from Naresh)
The river (photo from Naresh)
Whanganui River (photo from Naresh)
What a perfect place to ride with Helen, I thought.  We would probably only do 20 or so kilometres at a very slow pace and would need to find local places to stay, but what an experience!  Then I thought of my local bike group.  It would be a stunning route for one of their “Big Day Out” rides!

I rode like that for ages, just wallowing in the scenery.  After a while, however, more mundane realities break in and you start wondering how far you've gone and when you will reach the next destination.  Simon had mentioned a cafe 55 km from the start that would still be closed at this early hour.  Sure enough, there was a small settlement of a few houses (although no cafe), so “Tick!”.

The next milestone would be Pipiriki, which was 75km from the start.  However, suddenly at around the 65km mark, I rounded a corner and almost stopped, I couldn't believe my eyes.  There, nestled in a corner of the river, high on a hill, was a beautiful steepled wooden church surrounded by a small cluster of houses.  It was so pretty that it could have been a made-up picture from a fantasy comic.  It was Jerusalem – a small Maori settlement that I recall for its association with James K Baxter, one of New Zealand's greatest poets.  The view was spell-binding.  I could see why Baxter had moved here all those years ago.  If only my camera was working; if only I could dawdle for a few hours and just soak up the scenery and atmosphere.  But, sadly, no time for that.  On I rode.

Jerusalem, Whanganui River (Thanks to Craig McGregor for photo)

The River (photo from Craig)
Church at Jerusalem (photo from Craig)
At long last, Pipiriki came into view.  The Whanganui River Road was over and I would now be onto the Pipiriki-Raetihi Road.  The road would climb almost 500 metres up to Raetihi, some 25km later.  After stopping at the local toilet and taking off my jacket for the climb, I set off.

The wonderful scenery just kept on coming as the narrow road snaked it's way up the tortured valleys and hills.  It was great taking in the views, but I was definitely looking forward to the top.  The summit not only took ages to arrive but there proved to be a false summit or three on the way, with the road diving and rising a few times before it at last flattened out.  I was now out of the wild bush and into tamer countryside, although it's unkempt, rustic look still made it very attractive.

Things now became a bit of a grind.  That's the problem when you become fixated on a destination. I was also around 100km into the ride.  My intention was to ride through Raetihi and stop at Ohakune, some 12 km on.  It seemed to take forever, but I was eventually there, wheeling around to the left where I knew there to be a cafe.  And who should I see, but Naresh!  He was just finishing his coffee and about to depart.  I had a pleasant chat with him, then enjoyed a a nice rest by myself while waiting for my own coffee.  The time was now 10:45 am – I know that, because this was the first check-in and that's the time the cafe people put on the card.  It was 115km from the start.

The coffee took ages to come, but that was a blessing in disguise given the longer break it allowed.  I should also have bought some food, but none of it looked appetizing and I had just finished a banana.  Silly!  Food would again be a problem.

As I was outside making up some Replace drink and getting ready to leave, Simon passed by.  He was stopping off at another cafe, so I waved to him and was soon off.

The route would take us 25km along SH49 to Waiuru, then 60km along SH1 to a bit after Mangaweka, from where we'd head south on the country roads again.  The downside of the highways was the traffic and the fact that they were not so scenic.  The upside however was that, although I'd driven along them countless times, I had never cycled them.  It would be interesting seeing the road from another perspective.

View of Mt Ruapehu (photo from Naresh)
Endurance cycling has its ups and downs.  I was on a slight down over this bit of the road.  The main reason was that my chest was tight, which amplified in my head my general (and expected) feelings of tiredness and discomfort.  It brought to my mind not-so-pleasant memories of the times in other rides where I was struggling.  “Why do I do this to myself?”  “Why do I put my health at risk?”  I was concerned for my heart and thinking that, the moment I got home, I would cancel my Taupo accommodation booked for the 640km race in November.  Not that I was in too bad a head-space.  There was still a long way to go, so I made an effort to keep my spirits up and kept on turning those pedals.

As an aside, this chest discomfort has been fairly common for me. On talking about it with Helen afterwards, she thinks that it's a symptom of chronic hyper-ventilation, something I've been trying to manage for some time.  My chiropractor found my diaphragm muscles to be spasming, which might be another symptom of the same thing.  She suggested a different way of breathing that relaxes the chest and engages the diaphragm more, so hopefully this knocks the thing on the head when I ride next.

My plan was initially to stop off at Taihape for McDonald's or some cafe food, but I decided to continue on with what food was on my bike and ride on.  After all, I still making my way through the Replace, had consumed another banana, and was now eating sachets of baby food (an ideal bike food!)  I would instead wait until the check-in at Apiti Pub, some 245km into the ride.  On reflection, I should have stopped.

Just a fortnight ago, our ride had included the stretch between Mangaweka and Taihape.  Now we were riding it in the opposite direction.  The quite manageable hill last fortnight proved to be a stinker the other way around.  It was steep and just kept going on and on.  Thankfully, when it topped, I knew that Mangaweka would not be far ahead.  I'd decided to stop there for a quick fruit juice and a few minutes sit down.

The fruit drink quickly became two, as I guzzled them down.  But soon I was off, riding the 10km further down SH1 to the turn-off to the Apiti Hills.  The second official check-in was to be in the form of a photo of Otara Bridge, which crossed the Rangitikei River.  As I was taking it, a car from the opposite direction stopped and a woman wound down her window.  “There's another fella just ahead.  He asked about whether this was Otara Bridge.  It is.  He's just ahead!”  This was good news for me, although after scouring the hill ahead for any sign of Naresh, I realised that someone in a car would have a different perspective on what was “just ahead”.

View of Otara Bridge, Rangitikei River (photo from Craig)
Rangitikei River (photo from Craig)

Selfie at the Otara Bridge - a photo check-in
A moderate westerly wind had been forecast and indeed we had faced it on SH1, although it seemed more southerly there and pretty cold.  However, that was the last time I remember the wind.  Things ended up pretty perfect for the ride weather-wise.

I was now travelling on roads I'd ridden on before.  The road up from the river was steep, but I just slogged it out.  I then tried to relax into a comfortable riding style, conscious that Naresh was ahead of me and wondering whether I'd be able to reel him in.

The scenery here is beautiful, as I've mentioned in previous blogs.  However, I soon realised that I wasn't lapping it up as I usually like to do, but made no effort to change things.  I was too focused on the riding.  I was also feeling tired and uncomfortable.  My chest was still bothering me, but this may have been getting less and less.  My saddle-contact areas were also beginning to get sore.  Basically, I just wanted to get on with the ride, with my destination now being the check-in at Apiti Pub at the 245km mark.

I think it was at Rangiwahia, some 225km into the ride, that I finally caught up with Naresh.  He was talking to a guy by the hall, where he'd stopped to fill up on water.  After saying “Hi / Bye” to the guy he was talking with, Naresh and I set off together.

I had actually been looking forward to chatting with Naresh, as he has done some interesting things.  But by now I was just too tired to converse.  Naresh intended to ride with me, but I find it tiring having to match someone's pace when I'm exhausted, so I dropped about 20 metres behind him and continued at my own pace.  We rode like that for ages, although the distance between us increased a bit as we went on.

The road to Apiti Pub had some nice long flat bits, but it wasn't easy-sailing all the way.  The route twice plunged down into river valleys, with the climbs up being long and steep.

Finally we were at the village of Apiti.  We left our bikes just outside the glass front doors and clomped inside feeling cold and tired.  The pub was relatively empty, with only some young children playing around, their parents, an older guy, and the patrician.  A few more people dribbled in later on.  It was a really nice, relaxing and homely sight.  As is usual, people couldn't believe what we were doing and there was quite a bit of banter (it was a pub after all!)  I see from the control card that the time was just after 5:00 pm.  We had been on the road for 12 hours.

After putting in our orders – mine was fish and chips and Naresh's soup and chips – we plonked ourselves down by the fire.  Both of us were cold and I was even shivering.  It took a while to warm up, but after a time I found myself relaxing and enjoying the ambiance of the lovely place we were in.

Dinner took ages, which held us up more than we would have liked.  It also took me a long time to get through the fish and chips when it finally came, which is something I often find when tired.  Eventually, food finished, I got my night clothes from the bike and put them on.  I was still feeling exhausted and was somewhat amazed at how fresh Naresh looked.  It was now an hour after we'd arrived.  I told him to go on as I prepared myself some Perpeteum food-drink.  He said I'd probably catch him up, but I sincerely doubted it.

Finally, drink made, I was on my bike and wheeling after Naresh when I heard a call, “Andrew!”  It was Simon.  “Can I ride with you?” he asked, “I don't want to stop here in case I get too comfortable.”  It looked as though it would be a case of deja vu, as I'd also ridden with Simon for much of the last ride.  Simon needed his card signed and a quick bite, so went in to order pie and coke.  “Pie and coke!” beamed the bartender, “Now there's a man for you!”  Just as well I did stop, as I discovered I was wearing only one of my gloves, so searched around until I eventually found the other.

Again I was amazed  by a fellow rider.  Like Naresh, Simon seemed fresh compared to how I was feeling.  I was shattered.

We rode together out of Apiti.  It was flat going for a while, followed by a steep, extended climb up to Kimbolton, some 20km from Apiti.  We both struggled on the climb, but Simon really hoofed it on the gentle downwards slope over the next 30km to Feilding.  Slowly his light drifted into the distance, with the gap being increased even more by me having to stop when asked for directions from a motorist.  I caught up to Simon when he took a pit stop, and we rode into Feilding together.

The plan was to stop at McDonald's to get our brevet card signed.  The time was now 8:15 pm and we were 290km into the ride.  “Get some food in you!” said Simon, “Have some coke!”  I think he was concerned about how I was looking.  Once again I had to force myself to eat.

Advertising for McDonald's in Feilding (thanks Simon Henderson for the photo)
Leaving was hard but there was no choice.  We were now only 110km from the end - 50km to Hunterville and a further 60km back to Whanganui.  Easy!

My recollection from the map was that the first part of the Feilding-Hunterville route consisted of a gradual uphill, climbing around 250 vertical metres over 25km.  There was then a rapid descent, followed by rolling hills all the way to Hunterville.

I don't remember much about this part except being amazed by Simon's ability to converse so easily while I struggled just to maintain my pace with him.  One bit I really did enjoy was charging down that descent.  It was exhilarating and also rewarding to cover so much ground so fast.  We did worry slightly, however, when we passed a stunned possum just staring at out lights as we raced part.  After all, a rabbit had painfully ended Sean's ride just a fortnight ago.

The last bit to Hunterville took a lot longer than expected and those rolling hills proved steeper than I'd thought they'd be.  The climb to SH1 on the other side of the Rangitikei River also surprised us by how long and steep it was.  “Hold up!” called Simon as we neared the highway.  He was really feeling it and wanted a short break.

Finally we made it to Hunterville.  The petrol station was closed, so there would be no provisions from there.  The pub, however, was buzzing.  We rode past, getting shouts from the drunks outside.  “Lets have a rest”, said Simon as we passed some seats.  I was more than happy to do so.

We were working out where to get water from when, who should ride past, but Naresh.  He'd stopped off at the pub for a coffee and was now off on his last leg.  The thought of coffee proved very tempting to Simon, so we back-tracked to the pub.  While Simon went in to see what was available, I stayed outside looking after the bikes and chatting with the people outside.  They couldn't believe what we were doing and were pretty unanimous in saying what they thought - “You're a Fucken Crazy Cunt!”

Finally Simon came out with the news that there was no coffee, but the publican was very friendly and was offering us coke on the house.  He then opened the back door so we could bring our bikes safely inside.

The publican was an English fellow who's bought the pub, unseen, from England some 10-15 years ago.  He was indeed friendly and seemed to get on very well with his customers.  Music was blaring, people shouting over it, snooker being played, and a lovely warm fire was blazing in the corner.  After chatting with the publican a bit, Simon noticed me slumped tiredly against the bar.  The two of us made our way to sit down by the fire, cokes in hand.

The pub at Hunterville (photo from Simon)
The pub (photo from Simon)
Who wouldn't be smiling! (photo from Simon)
 We must have looked a sight!  Lycra-clad and exhausted.  Word got around though and several people came up to congratulate us.  After getting some heat into our bodies by the fire, we began to relax enough to take in our surroundings.  It was a wonderful place, small, with trophy heads hanging from the wall, tables and a snooker table in the middle, and a jukebox in the other corner.  The crowd was a mix of ages and genders, quite inebriated but pretty relaxed and friendly.  Suddenly I heard the Rolling Stone's “Symphony for the Devil” loudly cranking out of the jukebox.  I relaxed back into my seat with a big smile on my face.  What an oasis we had found!

But you can't stay in an oasis forever.  After a while, I clunked over to the bathroom, then came back to see how Simon was doing.  “Let's see if we like the next song”, he replied.  I wasn't the only one enjoying the place!  Several songs later, we left, with good wishes and warnings about drunk drivers from the publican.  In case you're interested, the guy is called Ian and the place is the Argyle Hotel.  He's happy to take groups of cyclists for accommodation or just food, so definitely consider it in your itinary!

Sixty kilometers to go.  ONLY sixty kilometers to go.  AND it's mostly downhill.  You can see how I was setting myself up for a mighty crash!  You may also have noticed that, during our long stay at the Argyl, I'd only had a glass of coke and nothing to eat!

Simon had definitely perked up by now and appeared full of energy.  From ealier predicting that we would be limping into Whanganui, he would now pause frequently for conversation.  I would try my best to answer in a coherent way that didn't suggest I was totally knackered, but it was a struggle.

I'm not sure what time it was now, probably about 0:45 am.  No mist shrouded the road this time and I could just make out stars and the odd glimpse of the moon.  It did seem very dark however, but I was conscious of just how beautiful the environs were and would love to have seen it in the day.  The road was narrow and windy, surrounded by hills, with trees close in on either side.  At one stage we even startled a large stag on the road.  We also heard at least another large animal crashing through the trees off to the side of us.  They were special moments!

Unfortunately, that final 60km really dragged!  Far from being flat and downhill, hill followed hill.  The problem with hills is that they not only tire you but, more importantly, they slow you down.  I was feeling tired and weak, no doubt because I was hitting the wall.  I was also feeling nauseous.  Because I realized I hadn't eaten enough, I forced myself to drink my Perpeteum drink.  There was lots of burps as I tried to clear the gas in my stomach.  Finally I realized that it wasn't just burps coming up and quickly stopped and retched out what little there was in my stomach.  That made things a bit more comfortable, but it also meant that I was reluctant to take in anything now except the odd sip of water.  After all, it wouldn't be long until we were there!

At last we came to what was definitely the last big hill.  We had caught the odd distant glimpse of the glow of Whanganui's lights but even now they still seemed far away.  However, road signs assured us that we were getting closer and closer.

By now I was absolutely spent, both physically and emotionally.  Simon was still ahead of me but only slightly and I was trying my best to keep the gap from widening.  My pace would definitely have eased off a lot over that last bit if wasn't for Simon.

After what seemed ages, we were suddenly on the outskirts of the town and charging down the hill to the river.  We were there!  Simon was in the same mind as me – we wouldn't go to sign in at McDonald's, but instead take a photo of ourselves as proof of arrival.  We then shook hands and congratulated each other.  It had been a bloody tough ride but now, at 3:45 am and 400km and 6,000 vertical metres of climbing later, it was over!

Over at last (photo from Simon)
I find it hard to describe how I was feeling.  I was absolutely wrung out, both physically and emotionally.  Even now, some days afterwards, it's difficult to put my finger on how I feel.  There are so many wonderful things about these rides, but they are also tough and I always feel they take far too much out of me health-wise.  I do my best not to swear on rides, as it can often be the start of a downwards spiral of negativity and loss of perspective.  It's also not a very generous thing to share, added to which is the fact that I'm a pretty private individual.  The statement that I successfully held back from sharing with Simon?  “Fuck this for a joke!”

And so it was that we cycled together through the streets of Whanganui, ignoring the few late party-goers and couple of guys searching rubbish-bins for whatever they search for in rubbish-bins.  A last farewell to Simon, then I turned off to my accommodation.

I was tired and didn't want to wake anyone, so decided not to unpack my gear into the car nor to bring the bike into the hostel, but instead quietly let myself in and made my way to my room.  After halfheartedly spooning down a few mouthfuls of creamed rice, I took my clothes off and sunk down into the bed.  I was exhausted and knew that sleep would come quickly.  However, just as I was going off, I was suddenly aware that somewhere, deep within me, a tiny crack opened in my empty, fried mind.  From it emanated the beginning of a smile.  There was the tiniest glow of satisfaction and sense of a job well done.  Slowly it grew and spread to my face as I drifted off.  It was just a small crack in a mass of darkness, discomfort, and negativity, but it was enough.  I was still securely caught on the hook of my addiction.

Course profile (photo from Naresh)


  1. Great write up, good to see other people go through the range of emotions these things can bring though!,

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