Whoever named this the Gentle Littl' Ride has a great sense of humour. If “little” is a 600 km ride, then no-one would be surprised to find that “gentle” was to be a whopping 8,000 vertical metres of climbing. And yet 8 of us signed up!
The weekend started with my watch alarm buzzing at 3:40 am. A quick gulp of breakfast, then I was into the car and heading for Feilding where the ride would start and finish.
I usually try to sleep in as long as I can while still leaving enough buffer in case of some mishap. In this case, the mishap was getting lost on a short-cut around Palmerston North, having instead to drive through the town with its speed limits, and then getting delayed with the ANZAC day traffic.
Yes, today was indeed ANZAC day. In fact, it was the 100th anniversary and there were to be big commemorations across the country. Feilding was like rush-hour traffic when I arrived. The town centre, where we usually park and meet, was full of people waiting to greet the dawn, so I instead found a park in an open space where I hoped my fellow riders would see. I then got down to the serious business of getting ready for the ride – bike out, saddle bag on, bottles filled, lights on,shammy cream applied, shoes on, etc. etc.
As I was getting ready, Simon Henderson, Andrew Kerr, and Tim Neal cycled up. I studiously ignored them as I went about my preparations. Naresh Kumar then parked next to us and proceeded to get ready. I was looking forward to meeting Naresh after seeing a video of him the night before. An Indian man and now New Zealand resident, he had recently walked/run the length of New Zealand. Have a look at this short newsclip: http://www.3news.co.nz/nznews/hobbit-fan-completes-own-middle-earth-journey-2014120818#axzz3Y7qPSyJp
At last I was ready, but Naresh was having problems getting his rear wheel on. I added my incompetent skills and between us we managed to solve the problem. By this time however, it was past start time and we didn't yet have our brevet and direction cards. This could have been a bit of a problem, but Tim had very kindly cycled back to see what was holding us up.
All ready now, the three of us set out together from Feilding, a glimmer of pre-dawn light on the horizon. The first bit of the ride is as straight as anything, rising about 450 metres over the 45 km to the village of Kimbolton. There was still a bit of traffic on what should have been a deathly quiet country road at this time of day, all of it heading one way – to the ANZAC ceremony at Feilding.
|Tim and Naresh at start|
|Riding towards Kimbolton|
After a while Naresh left us, slowly disappearing into the distance. I stayed on with Tim, who is a friend I've know a number of years. He is still in recovery from a recent episode of surgery, so was joining us for only the first part of the ride. The pace was slow, but I felt confident in catching up with Simon and my brevet card when we parted company.
I was probably poor company for Tim, as I'm not the most talkative person, but with what chat there was, we were soon in Kimbolton, another town slowly getting ready for an ANZAC service. I said my farewells and rode off through the town, only to see Simon to the side of the road, packing away his night gear. He yelled to get my attention and I wheeled around to pick up the brevet card. I then realised that there wouldn't be a toilet for a very long while and I hadn't had time to do the necessaries at Feilding. Tim, who had joined us, pointed out the local loos. Just as well, as I hadn't realised how desperate I was. He kindly looked after my bike while I was inside. A final goodbye to him, then I was off in pursuit of Simon.
The countryside here is beautiful. Kimbolton is the high point of the Apiti Hills. As I rode north, I kept admiring the view of rolling hills stretching in every direction. Further to my right were the Ruahine Ranges, a muted, dark-purple wall that I knew we would eventually have to cross over. To the left I was blessed with the sight of the snow-capped Ruapehu, which kept us company for much of the day.
|My constant companion|
|View from the top of the Apiti Hills. Ruahine Range in the distance|
|View of Mt Rupehu|
I rode quite a long time by myself. The narrow, winding roads were wonderfully scenic. Although hilly, there was nothing too arduous. Nothing eventful had happened yet and no problems were likely to occur for a while, however one of the great excitements of setting out on long adventures is not knowing how things will pan out later on. There is no way that such a ride will leave you unscathed; the mystery is in finding out how it will ultimately effect you and how you will cope with it.
This was the first time I'd tried an over-sized saddle bag in addition to my backpack. It had about 12 litres volume which, as usual, I had packed full. I was definitely the most heavily burdened rider there. Being skinny, I worry about getting hypothermia, so had lots of spare clothing. I also had piles and piles of energy bars, drink powder, and other snacks. The extra weight took some getting used to balance-wise and meant I worked harder than I wanted to. It was to be a long ride and I wanted to recover well in time for the next ride, so my intention was to keep my heart rate below 130 bpm on the flats and 140 bpm on the hills. The extra weight, however, added another 10 bpm to that range.
After a while, I passed through the village of Rangiwahia. A group was gathered by the town memorial. My third ANZAC service! Those readers not familiar with New Zealand may be surprised to know that almost every small (and large) town in the country has these memorials to those who died in the world wars. New Zealand had a terribly high casualty rate amongst its soldiers and most families lost someone close to them. Unlike some other countries, the day is not one of pomp and ceremony, but of solemn remembrance. And so it was that I found myself trying to discretely wheel past the crowd in front of the memorial at that most solemnest part of a solemn occasion – the sounding of the Last Post.
Eventually I caught up with Simon and Craig, who had just finished fixing a puncture. They kindly gave me good advice about my new saddle bag – keep it tightly tied in so that it doesn't jump around when you go over big bumps. I then rode with them until we crossed the Rangitikei River, just north of the town of Mangaweka. Simon didn't want to hold me up, so told me to go ahead, an offer which I took up.
|ANZAC ceremony at Rangawahia|
|Craig and Simon|
|The Rangitikei River|
I was now on the No. 1 highway and in countryside I'd never ridden before. There's a big long hill climbing north of Mangaweka and, every time we've driven on it, I've wondered what it would be like to cycle up it and down the other side. It was a lot easier than I had thought it would be. At the other side, I stopped to take photos of a deep gully, puzzling Simon and Craig as they whizzed past this cyclist with no bike.
I caught up with my two companions again to see what food they were planning to get at Taihape, the next town and 93 km into the ride. So it was that I ended up with a 6-inch Subway sandwich consumed on the spot and another in my backpack for later on, my water bottles refilled, some more Perpeteum drink made up, and the brevet card signed. I then wheeled to the cafe where Craig and Simon were having some food. My intention was to bid them adieu, but I then realised I should fill my bottles up more after making the Perp. It took ages to queue up and do this and, by the time it was finished, Simon had already left.
|"Going cheap. Handyman's dream!"|
|Restocking at Subways|
|Craig proving that there's much to enjoy about randonneuring|
This was the part of the ride I was most looking forward to – the Taihape-Hastings highway, which included the notorious Gentle Annie, the source of the “gentle” in the ride's title. The 140 km road takes you over the Ruahine Range to the east coast and includes some pretty challenging climbs. I was finally going to do it and couldn't wait to see what everyone had been talking about over the years.
There is nothing about the route that is not good, including those gentle "bumps" on the highway. The road began winding its way around clumps of deciduous trees with their autumnal colours at the outskirts of the town. The steep bits began almost immediately and I soon caught up with Simon. I rode with him a bit, but would then ride ahead, only to be caught up again as I stopped to take photos.
The terrain is really lovely, as can be clearly seen from the photos. Adding to the beauty was the excitement of seeing a part of the country I was not familiar with. The Ruahines ended up not being just one range, but a series. Big rounded hills surrounded the road, which in turn climbed up and down these hills, getting higher and higher. The colours differed, from green grasslands, to tawny alpine tussock, to dark green scrub, with hidden ponds and streams adding to the variety. The odd glimpse of Mt Ruapehu provided the snowy icing to the cake. All the while, I would be looking at the distant range, the final big hills (or, at almost 1,000 metres, maybe mountains) that we had to climb over.
The Gentle Annie! It has a notorious reputation. On making my way up a particularly nasty hill, Simon mentioned three big hills, one of which had an 18 degree gradient for quite a distance, no doubt Annie herself. I assumed that we had done the first of these hills, but he laughed and told me that these were just the foothills.
The uphills were followed by soaring descents. The first big one was particularly nasty, being rough, covered with pot-holes, and ending with a narrow bridge with a nasty edge and holes ready to upset the unwary cyclist. Apparently Craig had lost his Garmin charging down here at night just a few weeks previously.
|You can see the road winding its way up the distant hill|
|Simon still smiling|
I found the hills tough, especially with the extra weight. Simon had a gear ratio better suited to such riding and would spin up the hills, although no doubt he found it hard too. He appeared quite concerned about the effort I was putting my knees through and would kindly tell me to go easier and to stand up more. But I find it hard to do so as I haven't trained for either. Despite this, I feel I managed the hills well, making sure that I was fully engaging my muscles and not putting undue stress on my kneecartilage. But I would definitely have benefited from an easier gearing ratio.
One thing I was surprised with was the amount of traffic on the route. I had expected next to none, but perhaps a long weekend meant heavier flows than usual. There were also about 70-80 Vespa motorbikes that passed us throughout the day, creating a distraction from our efforts.
At last we were onto the biggie, and I don't mind admitting that I was a little bit scared. At the start, I went through the “I wish” games I often do when confronted with something hard, as in “I wish I could just get off and walk”. But those moments pass as the hill continues and you gain confidence. The hill just went up and up, it's steepness unrelenting. With the extra weight, my pace was so slow that there was the odd moment I thought I'd come to a halt and lose balance. But it's really all about focus, just concentrating on turning those pedals and knowing that the hill will eventually come to an end. Even steep hills have degrees of steepness and I would use the less steep parts as time for (relative) mental rest and joy. On the sloped corners, I would ride wide on the other side of the road, doing all I could to catch an easier gradient while keeping an ear out for any approaching traffic. As is always the case, the top eventually arrives. Time for a few photos, then onwards again.
|You can see Mt Ruapehu way in the distance|
A slight diversion here about nutrition. Nutrition is the most important thing of any long-distance ride and is something I rarely get right. It was going to be my undoing this ride. My plan was to have a solid base of Perpeteum drink, taking a sip of concentrated mixture every 20 minutes. In between these sips, I would have a bite of banana or muelsi bar. I also had that Subway sandwhich, which should see me through to the Hastings stop. I followed this regime fairly religiously at the start and felt strong and full of energy. But the post-Taihape, second mixture of Perp was not so nice, possibly because it was more concentrated than I'd thought. I really had to force myself to sip it. At the top of one of the latter hills, I moaned to Simon about how disgusting it tasted, and he said it had probably gone off in the sun. I would also have warmed it up in my back pocket with my body heat. I chucked it out with disgust. I also threw away my half-eaten subway sandwhich. This was going to cost me in the long run.
Finally we reached the top of the last hill and stopped to put on lights and night gear. While hot in the now setting sun, the air was distinctly cooling in the shade. By the time we reached the bottom of the 500 metre descent, night had fallen. It would still be quite a way to Hastings and I made sure I kept my expectations low, never under-estimating the distance to go. This proved hard though, with frequent glimpses of the lights of Hastings in the distance making it look deceptively close.
|The final hill. It's gong to be all downhill from here|
The road now was different, as we were entering an urban area with lots of traffic. The silence of the countryside was replaced by the sound of cars and the glare of their lights. It took some time to get to Hastings proper, but at last we were there and stopping for food at an Indian takeaway restaurant.
It's interesting the tricks that memory plays. Mine tends to be to forget the bad things … which is probably why I still do this sort of riding! My memories of the Taihape-Hastings highway are pleasant, but I do remember commenting to Simon that it's only when I do such rides that I fully recall the horrible aspects of long-distance riding. No doubt there are parts of this ride that weren't as nice as I remember, it's just that I've forgotten!
I was obviously hungry the last hour or so before Hasings, constantly dreaming of downing a large glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice – an obvious early symptom of poor nutrition. The first thing I did on entering the restaurant was go straight to the drinks fridge, only to find no OJ. Such disappointment! A Fanta was a poor substitute, but I gulped into it while waiting for my Butter Chicken.
I quickly dived into the Butter Chicken when it arrived, but soon ran out of steam. A feeling of tiredness was overwhelming me. I just ran out of the energy to finish it. Not long after we had arrived, we were ready to leave. As we were about to do so, Craig arrived. This delayed us, but there was a silver lining, as it provided a great opportunity to try and catch some sleep while Craig wolved his food down. I managed 10-15 minutes lie-down under the bright lights of the restaurant, at least a couple of which may have been close to genuine sleep. This made a real difference to my mindset and helped get me through the next few hours.
|Simon - catching naps where we can (photo: Craig McGregor)|
We were then off. Craig was still sorting his bike out, so Simon told him we would slow-pedal until he caught us up. The slow pedal took us all the way through Hastings and along the 5 km highway to Havelock North. It wasn't until the petrol station there that Craig got to us, having had the misfortune of a flat tyre.
Immediately out of Havelock, we were straight into the darkness of the countryside. What a relief to say goodbye to the lights and traffic. The route we travelled along must have been nice, as we often passed signs telling cars to keep their distance from cyclists. It was obviously a scenic cycle route of some sort. Although the road was relatively flat, I could see the silouette of hills either side. The night sky was clear and the stars and half moon made for a pleasant night.
The three of us rode together for quite a while. Well not entirely together. Simon would be in the lead, with me behind and Craig rear-guard, but with some distance separating us. I was happy with Simon in front for three reasons: he had a GPS, his light was nice and bright, and I was happy with his pace. I hate drafting people though, unless it is reciprocated, so held my distance.
It would be 50 km to the town of Waipukurau and a further 45 km to the village of Porangahau where a house had been leased for the night. I actually felt alright for much of this time. The pace was relaxed and my mind was in the right place. I think that brief time-out lying on the seat at the restaurant had really restored my sense of balance and equilibrium. As far as the ups and downs of endurance cycling go, I was definitely on a tolerable up, just riding in the moment, keeping my expectations low, and not thinking of the many kilometers to go.
I think that Craig was struggling over this bit however, as he would drop right back. My up was no doubt balanced by his down. When the route turned off the road, we waited for him to make sure he went the right way. I rode with him for a bit and he seemed fine. However, after a while his pace fell off. Thinking he might want some time by himself, I continued on until I'd caught up with Simon. I wasn't to see Craig for the rest of the ride. The good news, however, is that he managed to complete the full 610 km.
It was while riding with Craig that the mist descended in full force. Visibility was only a few metres at times and I had moments where I was scared of riding off the road. The mist would stay with us for most of the night and made things pretty uncomfortable. Luckily, my core body temperature remained fine. However, some of the riding was tricky. I was conserving my front light batteries, so didn't have them on full-beam. By contrast, Simon had no such worries with his dynamo-powered light. It just lit up the road, which meant he could keep up a good pace. Trusting in his navigation over the bumps and frissures of the road, I would just blindly follow his red back light. This was a bit freaky when twisting and turning on the downhills, as I had no vision of the road, just that back-light that I had to do my best to keep up with.
It was as we were getting towards Porangahau that my lack of nutrition finally began to catch up with me. I still had no Perp made up and the odd nibbles of disgustingly sweet energy bars were getting less and less frequent. I felt as though my body's batteries were gradually running down and it became more and more of an effort to keep up with Simon. Eventually I couldn't manage it and watched as his light slowly but inexoriably disappeared into the distance.
Luckily, we were very close to Porangahau when this happened. After a while I saw Simon waiting for me and we rode into the village together. It was really wonderful coming to the house, the way to which Di Chesmar had marked with flashing lights. We'd reached our haven! There were no bikes outside, so I assumed that everyone had left and were well ahead of us. Di immediately came out to greet us and I could just smell the warmth and food waiting inside.
On going through the door, I was surprised to see everyone still there, with the walls stacked with bikes. I chatted for a while with Jeremy Rowe. Apparently he and Sean Batty had arrived around 10pm, had a shower, a feed and managed four or more hours sleep. Chris Little and Naresh Kumar were also there, the latter having had the misfortune of taking a wrong turn and adding 50-60 km to his ride. Andrew Kerr was still asleep. The cyclists I saw looked pretty fresh. By contrast, I felt exhausted.
|A busy house at Porangahau (photo: Di Chesmar)|
|With Naresh at Porangahau (photo: Di Chesmar)|
|Readying for battle after a short nap (photo: Di Chesmar)|
|Simon Henderson ready to go (photo: Di Chesmar)|
Got to eat; got to eat! Being at the tail end of rides has disadvantages, as you have little time to rest and you often find that provisions are low. There was little left of the lovely stew in the pot. I divided the remainder into three, serving a third each to Simon and myself and leaving the rest for Craig in the pot. I then plodded my way through it, tiredness and a dry mouth making the going difficult. Di had mentioned eggs and bacon and I know I should have taken the effort to make some, as my body and mind was still shouting food, food, food. But I was exhausted. After checking with Simon about when he was going to leave (“Soon”), I asked him to wake me up 10-15 minutes before he did so and made my way to one of the vacated beds. I then had a few minutes of uncontrollable shivers, as I lay under the blankets in my damp and cold clothes. Sleep however soon over-whelmed me and I was out for it. Simon found me snoring loudly when he woke me. I'd been in bed 10-15 minutes.
I don't know how long we were in the house for, probably about 45 minutes. I'm not even sure what time it was now, but am guessing it was around 4:30 am. While I'm sure that the sleep did me well, I definitely left feeling hungry, hungry, hungry. Not good!
Question - when do you welcome a hill? Answer - when you're cold and wet and have just left a warm house. The ride began immediately with a hill. We were back into it, although considerably quieter than before. If the ability to converse is an indication of how much energy you have, then I was pretty dead. The mist was still there and would be with us until just before dawn.
Much of the following few hours is a haze for me, although I do remember being surprised by a couple of large steep hills that we had to struggle up. I also remember watching the light of day slowly share it's delight with us. It looked as though it would be another stunning day, still calm despite a forecast of a brisk Northerly. And it was great to finally see that lovely countryside surrounding us.
Every so often I thought I should take a photo but, as I was struggling to keep pace with Simon, had put the thought out of my mind. However at the top of one climb, Simon himself suggested a photo stop. The lightening sky and valley below us just looked beautiful!
|A beautiful morning!|
|Dawn with Simon Henderson|
By now it was becoming even harder to keep up with Simon. Whereas I had previously been faster on the hills, he would creep ahead everytime he stood on his pedals. I would then reel him in when he sat down, but soon I wasn't even able to do this. I told him a few times not to wait for me and eventually watched him slowly disappear into the distance.
Soon after, Chris Little whizzed past me, saying he would see me at Pongoroa, which is around 65 km from Porangahau. I didn't think that was too far away, but still worked on steadying my mind and just pedaling, just in case I was wrong.
Finally, I got there. The first thing I looked for, eagle-eyed but knowing that I'd be disappointed, was whether any shops were open. Of course they weren't - it was early on a Sunday morning! Both Simon and Chris were still there. The main thought I had was of just sitting down in the sun and resting for a minute or two. I took my night clothes off, had a nibble of an energy bar, and even had the gumption to make up some energy drink (Horley's Replace), a preferable taste substitute to the Perp.
That was when we noticed a cyclist coming from the other direction. I assumed it was a local who had made an early start, but it proved to be Sean. He had been riding with Jeremy and suffered the nasty end of a mishap with a rabbit some hours before. Sean had struggled on after the crash, but his knee had swollen more and more and eventually forced him to turn back. Contact was made with Di Chesmar, who would eventually pick Sean up and deliver him to where his car was in Ashurst.
|At Pongaroa with Simon (photo: Chris Little)|
After a while Chris was off, followed soon by Simon. I stayed behind, as I was still waiting for that sit-down. The plus for me with Sean's accident was that I had an opportunity to talk with him. He's a super-athlete, highly competitive and always doing well in the 1,280 km 8-lapper of Lake Taupo. He's also a nice guy and I enjoyed chatting with him. However, soon my short sit-down period was up and I had to leave.
My energy levels were really low by now. I just worked on turning those pedals. As I went on, I would coast more on the down-hill bits, even if the slope was only gradual. At the top of one hill, I stopped for a break, once again trying to recharge my mind and spirit.
|Recharging myself on the way to Alfredton|
Well before now, I had been struggling with options. Initially the two options were whether to complete the ride despite probably missing the cut-off time or to take a short-cut back, which in itself still meant a lot more riding. I wavered back and forth on this, but eventually plugged for the short-cut. The wind was pretty strong by now and my mind soon turned to the unmentionable – calling Helen. This would be a big move. Helen's one of those people with a long list of things to do, and weekend's are precious to her for that reason. I hated to have to force her to sit in a car for hours driving out here to my rescue and back again. Just as important, it would mean that I would have used up what few brownie points I had with her and burnt my remaining bridges. As a wife, Helen is not too happy with me spending all this time away from her, added to which is the time spent recovering and (innocent whisle!) writing my blog. She also hates seeing what it does to my health. Despite all this, however, I chose to ring.
There was no reception on the flats but I managed to get her on one of the hills. As usual, she was very obliging. While talking with her, I was surprised to have Naresh catch up with me. I'd thought he was ahead, but he'd stayed on at Porangahau for a bit of a sleep. I asked him how he was for food and water. He replied that food was fine but he wouldn't mind some water if I had any spare. I split my remaining water in half, but after seeing him thirstily gulp down what I gave him, I handed over the rest. It wouldn't be far to Alfredton School and I gave him directions to where the water tap was.
Alfredton was where I'd agree to meet Helen, being a distance of 45 km on from Pongoroa. Naresh was still there when I arrived and we filled our bottles up together. I then found a place to get out of the cold wind and wait the two or so hours it would take until Helen came. After unpacking my bag to have another half-hearted go at those energy bars, I lay down on the path by the hall and spent most of the time fast asleep on the concrete.
|Alfredton. Journey's end. Now time for some sleep!|
So that was my ride – a total of 445 km and around 7,000 vertical metres of climbing. Only four riders were to finish. All in all, I'm really pleased with the ride. The countryside was beautiful and we were really lucky with the weather. I saw some wonderful sights and had some great experiences. It's experiences gained with duress that you remember and treasure the most. It was good riding with Simon and I enjoyed meeting some new people. Sure I'm slightly disappointed with finishing prematurely, but there are lessons to be learnt from this. I really don't have any regrets doing so, as I was pretty spent and my intention with these rides is not to drive myself into the ground. It's not racing, after all!
It's interesting comparing randonneuring with long-distance racing. In most ways, racing is tougher, as your aim is to go as hard as you can, usually to the point of mind-numbing exhaustion. Randonneuring is not as intense. I enjoyed being able to savour the ride more and was using it to get fitter without destroying myself and any chance of adequate recovery. But randonneuring is tougher in other important ways, mainly because you have to be self-sufficient. I was very lucky having Simon for company, especially with his GPS and light. It was also reassuring to have Craig behind me, as he would have been able to help if I was struggling with a mechanical failure. However, I didn't have Helen or other crew-members helping me with food and forcing me to eat. I definitely failed on that point. I hate to imagine what I would have been like on a similar ride if it was cold and wet, I had no company, and got lost and/or had mechanical failure. It's a scary thought and one that I need to make sure I'm as prepared for as possible.
So where does this leave me now? Randonneuring of course! In many ways it's better than racing, although it is good to really push yourself with the odd race. Actually, even better than randonneuring would be credit-card touring; i.e. travelling light but eating good meals and stopping at night to sleep. It would still build up my fitness and would also mean that I'd actually see that lovely countryside hidden by the night. You could always toss in some night riding every now and then as well, as it does have it's fun side.
Perhaps the biggest frustration I had after that ride was with my lack of fitness. But that needs to be put into perspective. “Why do these rides destroy me so much?!” I moaned to my family the next day. My daughter had the perfect retort - “Dad, you've just ridden 450 km!” Still, they do knock me about and I had periods of heart arrythmia for much of the next day. I also know of other stronger riders being up and riding again within a day or two, and not just recovery rides either. My daughter again had some good advice – manage the recovery: do the recovery rides; eat, hydrate and sleep lots; use the massage roller; and don't do big rides until you're ready. I need to train well and recover well, and this should make me even stronger.
Now to that thing that's been hovering over my head all this while. When she picked me up, Helen said that we'd need to talk … “when we're both not so tired!” Now I know all the hidden messages and menace in that statement! But you see, there's this amazing 400 km ride in just two weeks time, which includes the magnificant and historic Wanganui River. I love my wife … but but but but ...