A little weekend of riding with Ken Looi

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.

Next day, I surface about 10am or so, and we decide to go for a short easy trail ride at Makara Peak, which is a local bike riding place. On the way there, Ken has to do some errands, so he arranges to meet me at the bottom of a hill, and leaves me at the top, so I get a quick warmup down a 3km slightly rocky 4wd track, which is mental fast, some of it high-gear rideable, and certainly surprises the people walking up the other way, followed by a k or so down a road, which suddenly gets steep at the end, leaving me riding too too fast and hauling on the brake, to avoid cutting across the main road where I’m meeting Ken.

So off we head towards Makara Peak, and Ken suggests we go take a look at Makara Beach, where there’s some cool old gun emplacements that you can go see. We park up there, and ride along the beach, part on a track, parts of it on a pebbly beach, which is a bit of a challenge to ride on to say the least. Then we get to the gun-emplacement track, whoooah, it heads towards the top of the cliffs steeply, on account of these army types being cunning and putting their guns somewhere with a good view. On the way up, we’re walking, riding, walking riding on and off, with a bit of an emphasis on walking, as it’s pretty steep. Just when I’m thinking ‘must be nearly at the top’, Ken says ‘almost half-way now’. But at the top, the view is amazing, totally worth it, all down the coast, and across to the South Island, it’s pretty sunny and hot, and we’re both suffering a bit after Karapoti, so we head back down pretty quick. The way back down is a real laugh fest, loads of tiny singletracks on the edge of a 200 metre cliff, we’re riding as much as we can, but the whole cliff thing, plus the 29ers do dampen the enthusiasm for the really steep sections, some of which I can bring under control with the brake, but some which are way beyond that, hard to walk up or down, but on the whole there is something awesome about cliff top riding that you just don’t get anywhere else, this is all really ‘natural’ too, in that it’s not graded to be rideable like built bike trails are, so part of the joy is that some of it may be unrideable. The final downhill is a sustained bumpy grass downhill that is insanely steep, I ride most of it in several tries, using the brake hard, whilst Ken doesn’t have the brake so takes pictures instead.

So, after this incidental little ride, like 6k and maybe 200m ascent, we grab some food at the beach cafe, yummy soup plus chips, mmm, and head off for the proper little trail ride at Makara Peak. We get to the car park at the bottom, and start riding up singletrack switchbacks, that seem to go on forever, until we’re suddenly spat out at a little jump park / skills area, with some very easy North Shore, which is so much easier to ride on the unicycle than on a bike, and we show off a bit. It seems like we’re quite a long way up, Ken points into the distance, at the highest hill that is visible on the horizon, and says, ‘That’s where we’re going to’, and we set off on a climb up a long fireroad, to the top, Ken riding most of it, me, I’m a bit sore from Karapoti and the other three rides I’ve done this weekend, so I’m walking some of the steep sections for sure. At the top, we stop and take photos, me stopping for the typical tourist photo next to the sign pointing in the direction of various other world famous mountain biking destinations, and telling us that we’ve just climbed something like 350m, which explains why my legs are feeling it a bit. So now it’s straight down to the bottom right? Well we’re heading downhill, but it turns out on completely the opposite side of the hill, down a really narrow singletrack called Zak’s Track, bordered by gorse. For anyone from EMUs, this was rather like Bowderdale, ie. a fantastically tight rut, ridden really fast, with brief breaks each time there was the clank of Ken flying off the unicycle as he pedal struck on the side of the track. Oh yeah, with added spiky gorse on the edge of the track. Somehow I lucked out and managed to keep my pedals the right side myself. I think I have quite narrow pedals on my uni. At the end of this, it’s back up the hill to ride down the right side of it. Ken shows me the route on the relief map of the park, but I’m not 100% paying attention to the hills on the map. We head down a track who’s name I can’t remember, which at least goes down the right side of the hill. This starts with a fantastically long set of switchbacks and ‘sidles’ round the hill till we’re a good way down. Here, thanks to Ken not being as used to riding switchbacks on the 29er as me, I finally get the chance I’ve been waiting for all weekend, to shout ‘faster faster’ behind him, which I understand is a UK tradition that hasn’t spread worldwide yet. Unfortunately for me, the trail opens up and Ken zooms off on the next not too winding section like a very zoomy thing. thing. So now we’re half way down the hill, and we get to a trail called ‘The Missing Link’, even Ken is not able to walk properly by this stage, and Ken tells me that this is the link between the trail we’re on, and the way back down, ‘just across that valley, up to the top again and it’s downhill all the way’, where the valley mentioned is rather a long way down, the top is most of the way back up again, and we’re both a bit tired. We bomb down this, stopping only to let a few bikers pass in the opposite direction, and to take the full-fat option by walking a few super-steep climbs, this section is great, it’s through narrow damp woods, with lots of twists, and you have to be really careful with the corners, not to take out a bike coming the other way, especially at the speeds we’re riding, which are still flat out, as we’re both running out of water by now. Finally, we get to the last top, and it’s downhill, switchbacks all the way, I womph an energy gel at the top, and this, plus the fact that this section is all corners, means that I can keep up with Ken all the way down, only losing him near the end where I stop to let a bike past and then promptly go head over heels, ooops.

What an awesome weekend, 48 hours, 5 rides, probably something like 80km, something silly probably over 2000m of ascent, all off road, all done with virtually no rest stops, thanks to Ken being unstoppable and me being stubborn.



What an outstanding write-up. Is going to another country and meeting up with someone you know online for a ride fun or what? Those connections lead to some fantastic memories. Thanks for sharing yours with us. (I would have done the 2 foot drop, sissy.)

That was a nice write-up. I enjoyed reading it so much it almost felt like I was there :smiley: .

By the way, here’s a newslink of the start of the Karapoti. The river was a bit lower than usual but still looks like fun:

Here’s Joe going across the river on the way to the finish:


And some of the riding the day after.

Joe climbing up to the Makara gun emplacements

Going up.jpg

And bombing back down

Makara Beach.jpg

good write up. chips=fried potatoe crisps or chips=french(or freedom) fries?

And down

Going down.jpg

And even more down

And down.jpg

This is New Zealand. The word chips means both fried potato crisps, and English style chips, which are like French Fries, except chunkier. They are stubbornly peculiar out here, and sure as hell aren’t going to change what they call something just cos it makes no sense. This leads to some confusion in bars sometimes, where you don’t know if you’re going to get a bowl of hot things, or a bag of crunchy things.

Actually, at that point in the ride, I had some salt and vinegar flavoured chips (crisps to any sensible person), and Ken had some chips (chips to any sensible person).


Fantastic! Joe, great write-up! I enjoyed every word as though they were chips. And congrats to you and Ken for the amazing 50K race. It sounded truly epic, even in these days of that word’s over-use.

Awesome writeup Joe! Congrats on finishing the race and not coming last (I’ve come last in two road races if you don’t count DNFs).

I was talking to a mountain-biker today, Thomas Lindup, and I mentioned Karipoti. He said he is over it because it is too short/easy. He’s pretty hard core though- I hitched a ride with him to the Day/Night Thriller and he came second and since then he has won quite a few 24 and 12 hour endurance events (recently winning one called N-duro). Thomas is building a 29er mountain bike. It seems easy enough to compete on a unicycle cos there is so few unicycle competitors but to actually win one of those events on a bike is pretty impressive eh.

It’s been said here on occasions but it is not yet a tradition that I know of (I’ll have to start using it more). Nathan Hoover’s classic “Ridable section” traditional quote (from Into the Thunder Dragon) has been used quite extensively for sections that vary vastly in ridability on the last few NZUni weekends.

I’ve got a few pictures, 3 so far, maybe a couple more from the weekend to come once I’ve sorted em.

Two of them are the wrong shape for the forum so I’ve linked to them instead.

Ken riding in the clouds

South Island seen from the N island.

Makara Beach Cafe


The trick with faster faster, is just that any time you catch up with someone, shout “faster faster”, then they have to speed up, which in turn forces you to speed up to catch up with them again and shout “faster faster” and you end up going mental fast.


And then everyone falls off, but it’s ace fun anyway.

Fantastic photos. I’m still not jealous, honest.

Hey it’s not all fun and games out here you know. I got a blocked up nose what with all the dust coming off those trails I did.


Can’t they counteract the “faster faster” call with a “slower slower” call which would force you to back off a bit (until out of earshot anyway) before you could catch them up again and start all over again?


Some photos of us riding on Karapoti course: