This weekend, it was the Karapoti Classic mountain bike race, near Wellington, NZ. Ken Looi had told me this was the best race in NZ, and it certainly has a reputation amongst mountain-bikers for being super a hard XC race.
So, I couldn’t resist it. Now Wellington being quite a way away, and complexities of ticket prices being as they are, it would have cost me twice as much to go Friday-Sunday as Friday to Monday, so we figured I’d stay there an extra day, and maybe do a little warm-down ride or go into town or something. Fortunately Ken was offering sleeping space, which made things even easier, thanks Ken.
Anyway, the Wednesday beforehand, my Schlumpf crank snapped spontaneously. Aaargh. Fortunately unicycle.com sorted out a replacement in the post to Ken’s house in time. So I got there Friday night, and need to swap over the cranks on the Schlumpf, and Ken needs to build up his 29er. So much pizza and crank extracting later, we have two live unicycles, sitting there. But we’ve just switched the cranks, so it’s only prudent to test them out, and we go for a quick 5 minutes up the road, then 5 minutes in, Ken says ‘this is a nice little hill to try out’, a little later ‘this is a nice offroad track, there’s a fantastic view from half way up’, followed by ‘if we go right to the top, we can ride down the quick way, it’ll save time’, and our 5 minute test ride degenerates into a 45 minute night ride, me using my lovely emergency night-riding lights which work fantastically, Ken running on carrots and any light spilling over from mine, plus the light from Wellington once we get onto more open sections and out of the trees. This is my first taste of Wellington riding, and sets the tone for the weekend, steep steep uphills, followed by wide very loose downhills, which are a bit tricky in the dark. The last section of off-road is a steep loose gravel track, that despite Ken saying ‘mind the gate at the bottom’, I still get caught out by the steeper section at the end, and it’s only the brake that stops me wanging myself off the gate.
That kind of proved the unicycles were working, so we went to get some sleep, and got up at the crack of dawn (well like 7ish or something), to go out to Karapoti. On the drive there, the hills look quite big like. As we get closer, the hills look quite bigger. From the car park, the area is showing all the signs that there are some darned big hills in them there hills.
We have just about time for a quick look round the start to see what’s what, and then we watch the super-duper-elite bike racers start. The start is a carry across a river crossing, mounting on the other side of the river, and it’s awesome watching the surge of riders running across the river and jumping onto their bikes. Then it’s time for us to start, along with singlespeeds and other bikes ridden primarily by men with beards. When the countdown goes, we rush across the river and mount. At this point, I’m in high gear, and pedalling quite hard. Ken is spinning away, just in front of me, on a non-geared 29er, at just the same speed. This first section goes about 2k up a road, before turning onto a 4wd track, which is fine in high gear until a river crossing, where I take a dismount, and see the last of Ken for the course!
From here, it’s riding as fast as possible along a 4wd track for 10k or so, this is low gear riding, and I’m going what seems like fast to me, but turns out is a mere 15km an hour based on the signs at the edge of the track. Not too slow for off-road though. Then we hit the first few little uphills, which are ridable undulations, but hard work, and some fun little downhills. So far this is all good clean fun riding. Then it’s round a corner, and there’s a big queue of riders walking up a super-steep hill, the ‘Warm up climb’, a mere 100 metres of climbing, this one, I run past tons of riders with the unicycle over my shoulder, and fall down the descent rather quickly if I say so myself. This is followed by ‘Deadwood’, which is a bunch of super-steep climbs, linked by rideable flat bits, which goes up 400m or so, over several kilometres, and appears to be endless. Some point later, I’ve lost the power to run, and am walking up the unrideable bits, and I finally reach the start of ‘The Rock Garden’, which everyone has been warning me about. The first section of this, I’m thinking you bunch of wusses, what’s this about, as it’s all rideable, but then suddenly I see loads of bikes being walked downhill, and people gingerly climbing down a 2 foot step down, and the rock garden proper starts. I get off, cos no way am I doing those drops on a 29er, this is at the hard end of XC riding, I’d be scared on a 26 with a proper fat tyre, let alone this all out fast machine with a 2.1" tyre. Fortunately running is significantly faster than most of the people trying to ride, and I overtake a few people, and then it’s onto the end of this downhill, another rideable section fortunately.
The next bit is called the ‘Devil’s Staircase’. It turns out there’s a reason for this. Basically it’s a set of really steep (even pro-bikers run them) uphills, interspersed with thigh deep bogs. Yum. For something like 6km. At the top however, you’ve officially done two of the big climbs and only have one monster to go. There’s a water station, followed by ‘Big Ring Boulevard’, which is a fantastic high-speed downhill, which I bombed down surprisingly fast thanks to my legs not working at all, and using the brake like mad yet still not being able to stop.
Then it’s over a creek crossing, and onto the last climb, which is called ‘Dopers’ for some reason. This is one climb, but it goes up something like 500m, and takes something like an hour when your legs have stopped working on a boiling hot summers day, and you’re low on water. On the way up there are something like 50 false summits to get your hopes up, and at least for me on this ride, 90% of the uphills are too too steep to ride, and my running legs have long gone and I’m getting cramp.
Finally the welcome sight of a table full of water cups and I’m at the top, the person at the table telling us that it’s all downhill now, and giving out jelly beans, yum. So it’s onto the final big descent, the ‘Pram Track’, this is oh so steep, I’m hard on the brake all the way down and still riding flat out, the trail is dry and dusty, and there are loads of tight corners, where you wash out the tyre slightly each time, and it’s all super-fast riding, again my legs having no power has overruled my sense of self preservation, and I make it down this really rather fast.
Then it’s a slightly slow 8k back to the final river crossing, and to run through the finish because I just can’t mount any more after bombing the last road section in high gear and dismounting at full speed by the river. Mmm.
Ken is waiting at the finish, having been there for about an hour, despite stopping for 40 minutes to provide medical assistance at some point round the course. I did it in 6:05 I think, which is kind of slow for a 50k mountain bike race. Having said that, this isn’t your ordinary 50k, it was super-hot, and running out of water didn’t help. But yeah, this was pretty hard for me, but fantastic fun, the support you get from the riders round the course doesn’t half keep you going. I’ve also still never come last in a race, there were still people coming in well after I finished. The final downhill was so much fun, that I said to Ken that yeah, maybe we should go ride a bit tomorrow after all.
So we go back to Ken’s, and eat bowls of yummy fried rice thanks to Ken’s mum, plus big loads of chips + accompanying fried stuff yum. I go to have a shower, get changed, and am just sitting on the bed drying my hair, when suddenly it’s all dark and I discover I fell asleep until 1am. Ooops.