Saturday 17 October 2015


I set out to complete an Everest last Saturday.  This involves cycling up and down the same hill whatever number of times is required to take the total ascent up to the height of Mt. Everest – 8,848 metres.

If you’re only interested in knowing the results then, yes, I made it.  It took me 19 hours to ascend a total of around 8,900 metres over a distance of about 205 km.

If you want to know how it went, then read on!

Who in their right mind really wants to cycle umpteen times up and down the same bit of tarmac?  Talk about boring, tedious, and uncomfortable!  Of course, there are many reasons to be crazy.  In my case, the Everest was purely a training goal.  It was something to force me to do the hill-training for what was then my ultimate goal of eight times around Lake Taupo – NZ’s longest non-stop (and very hilly) road-bike race.  Perfect!

So it was that I set off on the first climb at 1:20 am on Saturday, 10 October.  My planned start was 2:00 am, but after tossing in bed with little sleep, it made sense not to wait.

My approach was to keep the thing as low-key as possible.  All the planning and preparation had been done, so all I had to do was hop on the bike and start pedaling.  To keep my mind relaxed, I had attached a speaker to the handle-bars with about three hours of battery.

The first climb was duly knocked off, and the next, and the next.  It was no big deal.  No dread or sense of anticipation of what was to come, just the business of getting the thing done.  And all to the accompaniment of The Beatles, Black Sabbath, The Cure, and an assortment of other musicians!  Indeed, sitting on a bike, enjoying the music, and doing my best to keep my heart rate down is hardly unpleasant.

Base Camp at zero hour - with its drink, food and log book
Two things were key to my completion of the Everest – pacing and nutrition.  My heart rate was around 145 bpm on the climbs and I definitely didn’t want it to go higher.  I even laid off the caffeine to reduce the likelihood of the tight chest I’ve experienced on previous long hilly rides.  Nutrition was easy.  At the bottom of each descent was the car.  On top of it were lots of drink bottles and a variety of food items.  I would stop at the car at the end of each lap, have a squirt of energy drink, a squirt of water, and a mouthful of food (potato fish cakes, corn fritters, honey sandwich, and banana).  That was a good amount of nutrition every 20 minutes.  I also had a half bottle of water on the bike to take care of the hydration.  Then, after writing the time and lap number on my log sheet, I’d click into the pedals again and resume climbing.

Cycling in the dark hours was beautiful, especially by myself.  No views of course, except for the odd glimpse of the lights of Raumati in the distance.  But the peace and quiet were wonderful.  I felt a great sense of contentment as I’d tick climb after climb off, happy in knowing that I had everything under control.

The great thing about hill climbing is the descending.  It’s something I love.  The Maungakotukutuku Hill is quite tricky for descending because of some sneaky corners, but it didn’t take me long to work out where to apply the brakes and where to just let it rip.  Descending at night is the easiest, especially when you finally work out what side the road-side reflectors are on.

Enjoying the descent, although admittedly the photo is a bit out of order as it's not night (photo: Karolina Stus)
I’m hardly a strong rider, nor even very fit, but one advantage I have is that I’ve done lots of these long rides.  I know how to ride them, what to expect, and how to keep my mind in the right place.  Having to do so many laps (54!) was a new thing though, but it offered so many milestones to tick off.  For simple maths and to keep my expectations at the right level, I had 60 laps as the goal in my mind.  Six laps and I’ve already done 10%; 10 laps and it’s a sixth; and so on.  So much to celebrate!

By 6:00 am, I had already done 15 laps.  Dawn followed soon after.  Dawn can be a beautiful experience when night-riding, but the road was on the western side of the hill and there were a few clouds around.  From black, the sky slowly turned a light grey, and then it was blue.  With dawn, the wind picked up.  Although a northerly, it was cold and would stay with us the whole day.

Soon after dawn came Brent Atkins.  Brent is a friend of mine and organiser of the Kapiti Epic, a 6-hour cycling event that would be starting at 8:00 am on the same hill.  I had deliberately planned my Everest to coincide with this event.  Part of the reason was to add to the publicity for Brent’s event.  But the event would also add a great distraction to me when I was beginning to need it.

And I was definitely suitably distracted.  Slowly people began arriving.  First, the various volunteers and organisers.  Then the competitors, with some arriving very early.  By the time the event started (and I was also an official participant of that), I’d already done 20 laps.

I must confess however that, while all these wonderful distractions were happening around me, I was very much in my own world.  My total focus was on getting those laps done and my mind-set was pretty grim.  While a few people called out encouragement to me (to which I responded), I just kept to myself, had my swigs of drink and mouthful of food, and continued back up the hill.  I was beginning to hurt and knew that I had a long, long way to go.

At last the race started and I had rider after rider climbing past me, with each calling out words of support and encouragement.

It took quite a while, but eventually my mood began to lighten.  There was a wide range of riders, from ex-racers competing against each other to newbies attempting a few climbs.  I loved watching Jonathan Neal and Paul Rawlinson torpedoing down the hill, and it was wonderful to exchange a few words with Mike Proudfoot as he charged up the slope.  Mike would eventually get the most climbs (26!).  Colin Anderson, New Zealand’s king of endurance cycling, was also there and would give me a great smile every time we passed each other.  I also remember Erica Hindle and Penny Mikkelsen giving me cheers every time I saw them.  How could I not be moved!  Everyone was giving me such incredible support and encouragement.

The Kapiti Epic event has started!  Rounding the corner at the bottom of the hill  (photo: Karolina Stus)
That day’s Kapiti Epic actually consisted of three events – the six hour one, a three hour one starting at the same time, and a one hour ride starting at 1:00 pm.  After claiming his King of the Mountain and finishing the 3-hour event, Jonathan joined me for 2 or 3 climbs.  I was flattered and it was nice to talk to him.  On one of these climbs though, I suddenly felt really hot and slightly dizzy.  It felt like heat exhaustion, so once at the bottom I took off my over-trousers and had a five minute rest in the car.  I find these breaks, where I just empty my mind and fully relax my body, very refreshing.  A toilet stop added to the time off the bike.  No more problems after that!

The one hour event eventually started and it was great seeing people new to the sport riding, including the youngest competitor, Mike’s daughter, eight year-old Aimee.

Suddenly I noticed the six-hour riders all at the bottom, happily chatting and looking pretty tired.  The event had obviously finished.  There were calls of encouragement from the riders and again I heard the voice of Glynis Te Maipi-Kemp above the others – thanks Glynis!

Chatting to photographers - thanks Karolina :-) (photo Karolina Stus)

It was now 16 hours, 40 minutes since I had started and I’d completed 37 laps, 17 of them during the event.  There continued to be some distractions, as the lovely event volunteer at the top of the hill had accidently switched her head-lights on and run out of battery.  A couple of visits from Brent and it was eventually sorted and I was by myself.

After all the activity, it was quite nice to be by myself again.  It was something different.

At the end of my 40th lap, it was time for another toilet stop, something made easy by a porto-loo being provided as part of the event.  This was also when Helen and Raewyn (my wife and daughter) arrived.  Helen had been working all morning, but would now stay with me to the end.

As well as the little milestones that I ticked off, there were a couple of big ones.  The first was 30 climbs.  This was the number done by my friend, Stu Downs.  Stu died in tragic circumstances late last year, so that milestone was very poignant for me.  However, every record is there to be broken.  Stu’s 30 laps were soon bettered by Charles Salmon, a local Year 13 student who had managed 40 laps. Both riders would no doubt have continued on for the full 54 laps if this Everesting phenomenon had been around at the time, and done so at a considerably faster time than me.  However, I had a small sense of pride on my 41st lap, knowing that I now had the record number of climbs (to the best of my knowledge anyway).

One thing I noticed by now was how much my heart rate had slowed.  Whereas previously it had averaged 145 bpm on the climbs, it was now down to around 120 bpm.  I’d obviously slowed down considerably.

Soon after Helen arrived, I had my second of only two short rest stops (apart from the odd toilet stop).  Once again, emptying my mind and relaxing my body, this time with Helen also making sure that I ate enough.

Down the hill, around the corner, and towards the car

And here's the car - Base Camp again!
When I look back on the ride, it is with considerable relief.  I’d had two main concerns leading up to it.  The first was cramps.  These are not much fun, especially on steep up-hills.  The main thing that causes them is intense muscular activity that you’re not used to, but I’d obviously done enough hill training and managed to keep my level of intensity down enough to avoid them.  The second was that my muscles would give out and I’d end up putting strain on my knee cartilage and also hurt my back.  However, I was really conscious of maintaining good riding form to prevent both, and my muscles did their job!

On my 44th or so climb I came across Bryce Lorcet descending on his mountain bike.  “Are you Andrew Morrison?” he asked as he stopped.  A really nice guy and it was great having him accompany me for this and the next climb.  I even discovered that he had recently Everested the Akatarawa Road with a couple of friends!

Riding with Bryce Lorcet

What a social ride it was turning out to be!  Mike Proudfoot had previously said he would return to give me support.  I had been in two minds about this, as he is a family man and I didn’t want to put him out.  However, there he was waiting with Helen at the end of my last descent with Bryce!  It was good to see him.  With him was also another rider, Hayden Martin.  Hayden was out on an after-work ride and had stopped by for a chat at the car.  He kept me company for a couple more ascents – I’ve made yet another cycling buddy!

Soon I was alone again and by now on my 47th lap.  With the distraction of other riders now gone, I became aware of how tired my body was.  I knew I could make it to the full 54 climbs, but wondered how much more I could have done after that.  Strangely enough, I had no plans of finding out!

Night eventually fell.  Only three laps to go!

At the back of my mind, I began to wonder whether anyone would come to see me at my finish.  Everyone has their own busy lives, but the Kapiti Epic prize giving would be soon finishing and it was just possible that …

It was on my second last descent that I noticed the lights of a car half way down the slope turn around as a car parked by the side.  As I rounded the corner, I saw Nick Dunne.  I screeched to a halt.  “Don’t stop!  Go!  Go!” he said.  But I stopped and shook his hand.  “Great to see you!” I replied.  Nick’s a top-notch endurance racer and friend who has given me lots of support over my years of riding.  He then jumped in the car and proceeded to chase me down the road!

I couldn’t believe what I saw at the bottom.  As well as Nick and his son Patch, there was Adrian McKenzie, Mike and his wife and daughter (Raewyn and Aimee), Glynis and Paul, and of course my wonderful Helen.  I was gob-smacked!  What an amazing sight!

Only one lap to go.  “Quick Andrew.  Go!” said Helen.  Everyone would be waiting for me, so the pressure was on!

Half my final climb was accompanied by a runner in the form of Nick Dunne.  It’s been a while since I’d seen him and was good to catch up a bit.  Then it was on by myself for the second half.  The last time!  Reaching the top, I wheeled around without further ado and raced down to the waiting crowd.

My arrival was greeted with claps and cheers.  Wow!  This was definitely the highlight of the whole day.  I wheeled over to them.  It was hard to express just how much I appreciated everyone coming, so I clumsily shook everyone’s hand.  It was such an honour to be cheered like this by people I have such a huge respect for.

Hero's greeting at the end of the last lap.  So lucky! (Thanks Adrian for the photo)
So how did I feel about the day?  Basically as a pretty humdrum challenge, but one transported into something exceptional by the support and encouragement of others!  Half way through the ride when I thought of what my ride report would be, I couldn’t think much more than something like: “I started. It was hard. I finished”.  However, it’s always surprising for a loner like me to realize how we live in such a socially connected world and how something we do can impact on others.  So many people were behind me and my challenge.  Completing it not only meant something to me, it also meant something to them!

One last thing!  At the end, Adrian asked how this ride compared with other rides I’d done.  The question surprised me but, after quick thought, the answer appeared obvious.  I couldn’t quite think why at the time, but the answer was something like “Nothing like them.  No way near as hard!”  All my races and even the randonneur rides have left me absolutely shattered, hardly able to walk, let alone talk coherently.  I think the difference is that this ride was not a race.  All I had to do was complete a fixed amount of ascents and do them within a generous time limit of 24 hours.  I was in familiar countryside, surrounded by friends, and always had the car and my refuelling stop at the bottom of the hill.

An Everest is very manageable, so … there are probably lots of un-Everested hills out there!  Go and try one!  Be the first!  Even try and best my time on the Maungakotukutuku Hill.  I know I’m not the only one who’s slightly crazy and look forward to my own record being bested!

See you on the road!

Part of my Garmin record.  It shows 46 completed climbs, with the battery running out half way up the 47th.

Saturday 8 August 2015

30,000 page hits!

A few days ago, this blog passed another milestone - 30,000 page-hits.  That's definitely cause for celebration!

I started the blog for several reasons.  A key one was to share one rider's journey into the extreme sport of ultra-distance riding.  There were few such accounts around when I did my first 300+km ride.  Endurance riding was a big step into the unknown for me and I wanted an honest, informative picture of what it was like.  What is more, I wanted it from a real person; i.e. a person I could identify with.  In writing this blog, I have tried to be that real person and my target audience has been myself those five years ago.

At some stage I would like to look back on that journey.  However, that's for another day.  Enough now to take heart in knowing that the blog has been successful in meeting a need.  I hope it continues to do so.  I would like to thank you all for allowing me to be a part, even the smallest part, of your own journeys.

Happy cycling!

The ups ...

... and the downs of endurance cycling

Tuesday 30 June 2015

To the Bay 600

First light in the Wairarapa

“Fuck this for a joke!” - my unspoken thoughts as I ended the 400km “Whanganui Rapids” ride.  Yet here I was, just three weeks later, about to begin the even longer 600km “Off to the Bay” ride.

I've no idea what drew me to the start.  Nick Dunne probably hit the nail on the head when he said it was who I was, or at least – my spin! - who I wanted to think I was.  I just love the idea of these rides, of their adventure, and of the wonderful scenery you come across.  Riding to the point of exhaustion is definitely one way of getting up close and personal with this beautiful country of ours.  I also realised that it might be my last long ride for a while, as Helen was well beyond her generous limits of tolerance about the time I was spending away from her and about what this riding was doing to my health.

Only four of us made it to Masterton on a freezing, late-May morning.  I was there along with the three usual culprits – Craig McGregor, Simon Henderson, and Jeremy Rowe.  The ride was to take us through the back roads of the Wairarapa and Hawkes Bay, going up to Napier then along a different route back to Masterton again.  (

I'd come down the night before to put as much sleep into the bank as possible.  But even this couldn't get me around a 4:10 am alarm clock call, and I was soon rushing through the various pre-ride routines.

It was a bit past 5:00 am by the time I came across the others, who had just started the ride.  Even then, a couple of niggles with the bike forced me to stop.  By the time I'd sorted them out, all I could see of Craig, Simon and Jeremy was their rear lights way in the distance.

I was going to use this ride as a race practice, but without putting myself too much into the red zone and requiring weeks of recovery.  My intention was efficient riding, no unnecessary stopping, adequate hydration (a new goal!) and, as usual, improved nutrition.  To achieve the latter, I was going to take more solids, ditching energy bars in favour of sandwiches, figs and baby food, and to swap my Hammer Perteteum drink for Horley's Replace.  I would try and stay away from coffee and caffeine products, to avoid the chest discomfort I'd experienced last ride.  I was also very conscious of how cold it would be and of my low level of body fat, so had loaded the bike up with warm clothes, which I would slam on if I had to stop for punctures or other emergencies.

So how did the ride go?

The first part of it panned out pretty much as expected, at least in terms of how the four of us went relative to each other.  Jeremy didn't hang around for long before taking off at a speed he was more comfortable with.  I caught up with Simon and Craig and rode with them for a while.  In fact, I was with them all the way to the town of Eketahuna, mainly because their GPS and local knowledge made this easier than finding my own way along the dark, convoluted route.  I then left them and wouldn't see either for the rest of the day.

One thing that surprised me in this ride was how low I was feeling.  The going was considerably more tiring than expected, most probably because I had not fully recovered from my recent long rides.  I was not the only one suffering however, as you will soon find.  But the crucial thing that was of concern was my mindset.  I just wasn't enjoying it!  One indication was that I'd even given up the simple act of taking photographs, despite my camera swinging madly about my neck.  Even the beautiful surrounding countryside didn't move me.

It was 10:15 am when I arrived at Woodville, the 110km mark and our first control-stop.  Five and a quarter hours is very slow, even with a laden bike and long-distance pacing!  It was probably even slower from there to Dannervirke, with the going made tougher by its uphill bits and what had by now turned into a moderate (and very cold) northerly.

At Woodville - only 110 km done and I'm already exhausted!
(The 2nd of only 2 photos I took on the ride)

As I said, I wasn't the only one suffering.  It was while riding to Dannevirke that I came across Jeremy cycling back the other way.  The ride had not been going well for him either and he'd decided not to continue on and destroy himself.  Jeremy is a world-class athlete and I was curious about what impact his turning back would have on me.  Surprisingly, it actually strengthened my resolve.  It acknowledged the fact that the ride was tough and it wasn't just me being a wuss.  I also didn't have Jeremy's excuse of having to optimise my training through a rigorous and heavy schedule, so was determined to press on.

The next main stop was Waipukurau, the 200km mark.  We had booked a couple of cabins there, mainly so that we could catch a few hours sleep on our way back.  This gave me a great chance to off-load some gear (and my camera!).  I even got 10-15 minutes of solid sleep in.

Dinner was planned for the Tikokino Pub, some 30km away.  I arrived there just past 6:00 pm.  It was dark and I was very tired by now.  I sorted out my stuff while waiting for dinner and tried to relax.  I must have looked quite a wreck, as I frequently caught myself sighing and rubbing my face and hair.  People were friendly and I had several pleasant conversations.  They couldn't believe what I was doing.  When I left, one of the female customers and the manager called out across the room telling me to take care.  They looked quite concerned.

You can imagine the voices in my head arguing with one another at this stage.  A very loud one was telling me that the ride was too much for me and I should turn back and catch a sound sleep at Waipukurau.  However, it was soon silenced by an even more determined voice.  Napier, the half way point, was only 70km away and it would be back home from there.  I just needed to take one bit at a time.

The next ten or so kilometers had several steep uphills, peaking at the highest point of the ride.  My main struggle over this part was trying to keep food in.  I suspect that my stomach was already tight from the physical stress, and that the added exertion of the hills was making it very uncomfortable with the extra food in it.  Thank goodness, it stayed in!

From the top there was an amazingly long downhill.  The hills were now over, at least for a while, and it was nice to be in completely new countryside.  Seeing the various “Napier” and “Hastings” signs and knowing that I'd made it there on my own power gave me quite a buzz.

I was pretty tired though.  There were a couple of times on this stretch when I just stopped and sagged on the handle bars, totally emptying my mind and relaxing my body for about a minute.  This is quite recharging and tends to help me through some physically-low periods.

After some distance, I worked out that I'd taken a wrong turn.  Despite seeing the turn-off to Napier some way back and even acknowledging it in my head, I must have just continued on in auto-pilot mode.  The symptom of a tired brain!  Rather than retrace my steps, I decided to press on.  I would get to Napier, but through a different and longer route.

However, as I continued on, I began to worry.  That morning had been the coldest of the year (according to one of the farmers at the Tikikino Pub).  A mist was settling down and it looked as though it was going to be another really cold night with a good frost.  My tired brain also concerned me.  What if I needed to make a repair far from anywhere in the early hours of the morning?  How would I manage with my physical tiredness, the coldness, and my confusion?  I became more and more conscious of the risks I was taking.

Suddenly the possibility that I might stop and rest up in a motel for the night dawned on me.  This was something that Helen had suggested to me if I got into trouble.  What an amazing idea!  The very thought of it filled my mind and I felt a huge happiness just thinking about it.  At the next intersection, I turned towards Hastings rather than Napier.

But Hastings took a long time to come.  I still wasn't convinced that my decision was a good one.  I was also aware that tiredness meant that I mightn't be thinking straight, so decided to ring Helen and talk through the logic of it.  She was all for the idea and began ringing around the various establishments.

As it was, it was another hour before I got into the Apple Motor Lodge, which Helen had managed to book for me.  What hadn't helped was the very limited communication I allowed myself through my failing old cellphone that was running out of power.  There were quite a few wrong turns on the way there and misunderstood instructions from people I passed – more confusion from Andrew!

Even now, some 3-4 weeks later, I can still remember my absolute joy on arriving at the motel.  The owner was very friendly and had stayed up for me.  The smile didn't leave my face as I showered and settled down to sleep.

The sleep was bliss, albeit somewhat broken.  I was up and out of the motel by 6:00 am, now taking the fastest route back to Masterton – straight down the No. 2 highway!

As you can imagine, it was a long haul back home.  Again I didn't take much in, despite the route being quite pretty.  Without map and my route notes now useless, I didn't know how long it would be to Waipukurau.  As usual, I lowered my expectations so as not to be unpleasantly surprised.

It was probably 8:30 am when I rolled into Waipukurau.  You can imagine my surprise when I saw Simon there at this late hour.  He had found the going tough the previous night, especially with the cold, and turned back from Tikokino Pub to return to the cabin for the night.  He was happy to see me, as he was hoping to ride back together.

I felt quite refreshed after a short break in Waipukurau, but this didn't last for long.  Both of us found it hard going, despite the relatively easy roads.  One thing that I noticed was how badly the local roads were designed for cyclists.  There is little verge and the frequent judder bars meant that we had to ride on the road-side of the white line.  Fine for the safety of motorists, but not of cyclists!

Our plan was to stop for a feed at Dannevirke, 55km on from Waipukurau.  But both of us were definitely ready for food by the time we got to Norsewood.  What a lovely little village it is.  That elated feeling I had when stopping at the motel the previous night was still with me, and I'm sure that I still had a grin on me while scoffing down the most delicious of scrambled eggs on toast.

Simon - after a breakfast stop at the historical Norsewood

I really can't remember much of the riding from here on.  It was hard and slow.  I'd developed some pretty good saddle sores by now, which got more and more uncomfortable as we went on.  It's funny the thinking that goes through your head when you're exhausted.  It's not the brightest.  For example, I sometimes compose sentences and prose in my mind when riding, but when tired this would be the most simple and stupidest of sentences that I would repeat and repeat for minutes on end.  Mathematical equations, such as the distance to go, would be all over the place, often with me just repeating a word or two for minutes - “four … thirty eight … four … that's four … divided by … four ...”.

Simon burst out laughing at our stop at a rather posh cafe in Dannevirke.  We were on a sofa and I'd just finished rearranging my clothes.  There I was, sprawled back, bare-footed, with my gear all around me.  It would have looked quite a contrast to all the other rather tidy customers out for a Sunday morning treat!

Getting ready to sprawl on the cafe sofa in Dannevirke

So it was a long, long slog back, made bearable by Simon's company.  It was so nice to have a distraction and there may even have been aspects of the ride that I enjoyed as a result.  Many thank to you Simon for your company!

At last we made it to Eketahuna, with only 50km to go to the end.  However, now the question on our mind was - “where's Craig?”  ((Or, if I was to be honest, it was more on my kind companion's mind.  My own most unworthy thoughts were more along the lines of, “Fuck Craig, he can look after himself.  I just want to finish this ride!”))  Craig was still out on the road.  He hadn't got to Ekatuhuna yet and the cut-off time was imminent.  “You just wait”, said Simon, “he'll arrive minutes before the deadline”.  And sure enough, a couple of minutes before 5:45 pm, there was Craig.  Boy was he pissed off!  “You and your fucken hills!”, he accused Simon, the course designer.  The number of the customers at Pongaroa Pub had meant that he had to leave before getting his meal there and then had to really hoof it to make the time limit.  He would have been really blasting the last bit and my memory is indeed of three nasty little hills that would hardly have been pleasant for a tired cyclist.  (For those who don't know Craig, I need to add that his comment was at least half said in jest.  Both Craig and Simon seem to take immense pleasure in fitting as many vertical metres into a ride as they can! ;-) )

Three tired individuals snacking in Eketahuna - Craig, Simon and me

We kept Craig company the rest of the way to Masterton and he definitely wasn't loafing around.  With the looming time limits, he was really moving it.  Not bad when coming to the end of 600km!  Out of the four of us, Craig ended up being the only one to finish the full course.  Another stirling effort from the President of the Kiwi Randonneurs!

You could not imagine the mad joy that swept over me when Simon and I finally rolled into the motor lodge grounds.  Although I hadn't completed the full 600km, it had been a difficult 500km and I felt pretty pleased with my effort.  The shower that followed was pure bliss, as was getting back into normal clothes, both actions no doubt accompanied by an insane grin.  Simon and I then stopped off at a Chineses takeaway, before driving our separate ways home over the Rimutakas.

Now, this blog has taken me ages to write.  I usually try and do them within a day or two of a ride, so as to get a better chance of accurately capturing my thoughts and feelings.  The problem with that, though, is that the writing is pretty much an endurance session in itself and adds to my time “away” from Helen, so I was reluctant to tempt fate too much this time around.

However, as I've delayed it more and more, the blog has become harder and harder to write.  So, rather than delay any further, I'm just going to publish it.  I already know the subject of my next blog, though.  It's something that I wanted to eloquently fit in at the end of this one but have been struggling so much to put into words.  It's the matter of where I am now with this sport.  Essentially, the issue is one of dealing with conflicting needs and of achieving the right balance.  More on this next time!

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)

Thursday 30 April 2015

The 600 km "Gentle Littl' Ride"

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:

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 ...