I’ve just arrived home after riding 160km around Lake Taupo, New Zealands largest lake, and our biggest cycling event, with over 9,000 taking part this year:
This is an event I do every year because of the amazing atmosphere, with cyclists of all ages, fitness levels and enthusiasm taking part.
We had a team of four entered (Rox Price, Steve Taylor, Bryan Page and Warren Ellery), and Tim Newton attempting his first ever 100 mile century ride.
I was entered as a solo rider, doing the full 160km. I was feeling pretty fit, although I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to beat my 2004 course record (*set on a 36" Unguni, 110mm cranks) of 7hrs43min.
My last proper unicycle ride was back in August, on the Yunnan Unicycle tour, but I did have plenty of running fitness. The big thing for me was being 4-5kg lighter than my usual race weight, which was like not lugging around a sack of potatoes for 160km, including 1600m of total climbing/descent.
The unicycle of choice was a 36" Schlumpf, with 145mm cranks, KH T-bar, cut down KH seat and Magura HS33 brakes mounted on a KH frame. I was running a standard 36" tube and a shaved Nightrider tyre.
It was essentially the same set-up as last year, except I had a brake, and more importantly, seat foam. My slowest ever time around Taupo was in 2010 (9hrs58min), which I was pretty disgusted with, and blame entirely on the seat. I thought I’d save a bit of weight by removing the foam entirely from the KH seat (who needs it?). All I had was a strip of inner tube over the bolts, and a seatcover on top. It would make a good torture device if you were to bash it against your bottom for 10hrs, as it happened. At 80km, I wasn’t able to sit down. In fact, I was not able to sit down for another 2wks, due to the blisters on my bottom.
That said, I was comfortable with this years setup (with a thin layer of cut down seat foam); until race day when I found that my wheel was completely out of true and rubbing hard on the brake pad. After a quick wheel true at the local bike shop (5min before my race start), I had a working brake and a straight wheel.
3, 2, 1, go!!!
I set off with the 7hr+ group at 9am. Tim Newton and Rox Price had set off at 6am, before the waves of riders, as they were aiming to get in relatively early, and to avoid the worst of the wind.
When we hit the first hill, it was the usual case of passing dozens of bicyclists, due to the perfect unicycling gradient (about 5%). Most were not used to seeing a giant unicycle go past, so I was greeted by plenty of cheers and people shaking their heads in disbelief.
ding ding It’s handy to have a bell when you pass bicyclists
Then we hit the open road and a strong headwind. It was by far the windiest I had ridden in the 7 or 8yrs of coming to Taupo. You know it’s windy when you have to pedal hard, in low gear, to go downhill. Having wind + road camber makes it quite difficult to keep tracking in a straight line. I was blown off a couple of times.
It was at about 5km that I realised that despite having a straigt(ish) wheel, it was still flexing so much that I was pedaling hard in low gear and going nowhere. I eased off the pressure and tried to spin as lightly as I could, until 10km when I thought riding against my own brake was somewhat ridiculous, so I got off and released it completely. So now I had no brakes, but who needs em anyway?
I hit the 10km mark in 35min, not good for setting a record, and I decided to try to claw back a 20km/hr average to finish in 8hrs. I hit 20km in just over 1hr 8min, then when we turned left towards Kinloch, I was hit with probably the strongest wind yet. The headwind was bad, but the worst was the side wind, which meant you were constantly adjusting your balance. Bicyclists make for very poor wind breaks, so drafting them had limited benefit. I was left pedalling in low gear even on the flats or downhills, which was painfully slow.
Anyway, despite that (or in spite of that), my legs were feeling quite good, so whenever I had respite from the wind, I cranked up the big gear and tried to make up time. I slowly crawled back the deficit to hit 40km in about 2hrs 10, then 60km in just over 3hrs. Somewhere along the way I passed Steve Taylor from the Uni Relay Team, pedaling furiously and looking quite strong.
I went past the half-way relay changover in 3hrs 53min, which got me pretty excited, until I reached a sign at 4hrs 10min that said I was at the 80km mark! I should have known after doing this so many times- the relay changeover location was at an earlier location to previous years.
In past years, I had never done the second 80km faster than the first, so after muttering at the wind and my stupid brake, I relaxed and took it at a pace I’d do on a unitour, and just enjoy the ride. I was still fighting with the wind, but you know you have good legs when you find yourself looking forward to Kuratau Hill, the longest climb of the day.
I clinked back down to low gear and starting grinding myself past long lines of bicyclists on the way up. I was still experiencing brake rub, because every time I stood on the pedals, I could feel the increased resistance. It was a case of sit down, relax, and spin your way to the top.
After reaching the top, I bombed down the other side as well as one could without brakes. The bottom of Kuratau Hill to Turangi (about 30-40km), was a long, flat road, perfect for the Schlumpf 36. I would be able to claw back some time and hopefully finish in under 8hrs30min. The wind was certainly better, but still tricky with a crosswind. On the other hand, I had my time-trial legs on, and felt strong enough to keep up with most of the bikers.
Then I hit the 130km sign at 6.00hrs! I couldn’t believe it. Either I’d just ridden a spectacular flat time trial, or the signposts were not particularly accurate. It was probably a combination of both. I decided that if I could keep up a 20km/hr pace over the final 30km, I wouldn’t just going under 8hrs, I’d actually break my old 2004 record.
With a resurgence of energy, I cranked up the Schlumpf as we skirted the lake, until finally we hit the last killer climb- Hatepe Hill.
I shifted down, but, still unable to stand up without my brakes rubbing, I had to try to spin my way up. Not good, as I got that dizzy ‘I’m about to bonk’ feeling. I hopped off half way and chowed down on a OSM bar, whilst power-walking up the hill. Better to lose some pride and walk, than blow up and lose the record.
Once over Hatepe, it was a fast and cautious descent for the Schlumpf in high gear. I hit the bottom straight, with 33min to do the last 15km. Possible, but cutting it fine. I watched each marker tick by- 10km with 23min to go, then 8km, 7km. I was going to be within a whisker of beating the 7yr old record, until I hit the home straight, and a wall of wind. It virtually stopped all the bicyclists in their tracks. You could hear them clicking down the gears as I did the same. The last 2-3km was the most painful grind in low gear into the headwind imaginable. I turned the final corner into the finishing shute and crossed the finish line in 7hrs 48min, 5min shy of my old record.
Sharon was there with a nice cold Coke, the best fizzy drink I’d had in a long time. I had salt crystals crusting down my helmet straps and on my face.
Tim came in a little while after me, after stopping at a cafe for food. I went right past without seeing him. He looked remarkably fresh after his longest ever ride, and (from memory) completed the challenge just over 11hrs.
Anyway, thanks to Warren and Sharon for their hospitality, and all the other unicyclists who were there supporting and competing in Taupo.
I’ll leave Tim and the Unicycle team to post their own writeups about their race!
We’ll definitely be back next year