The annual unicycle assault on the round Taupo cycle race took place on Saturday and it was certainly an eventful one!
The Lake Taupo cycle challenge is the largest cycle race in New Zealand and had around 11,500 participants this year. The race follows a 160km course that circumnavigates Lake Taupo. The first half of the course is very hilly and over the 160km you climb and descend 1500m. Cyclists can choose to race as a 2,3 or 4 person relay team or ride the course solo. There are also 320km and 500km enduro categories.
For the past two years Ken Looi has raced the solo on his unicycle, setting a blistering unicycle course record of 7:43 min. This year he decided to tackle the 320km enduro on two wheels so Tony Melton and I thought we better make sure there were still some gung ho unicyclists on the course.
We were joined by a three person unicycle relay team of Bruce, Kirsten and Danny.
As usual race preparation did not go quite according to plan. On Friday before driving to Taupo I spent an hour on the phone to the courier to discover the keys for our weekend accomodation had not been shipped correctly. They were over six hours drive away which was not particularly helpful! Fortunately they found someone who was coming over to Taupo that night so we came up with a complicated plan that would get the keys into my hands, meaning eight people could sleep inside instead of in cars.
The drive down was painfully slow due to roadworks but we got to Taupo before registration closed. By 9pm I had tracked down the keys which was a good thing as the night turned out to be absolutely freezing. Not fun for camping out! We did not envy Ken setting off at 1:30am.
Race prep took until post midnight which meant about four hours sleep before we hauled ourselves out of bed to get ready for the 6am start. Tony and I communicated by telepathy on the drive to the start, being too tired to talk. We were joined by Bruce plus the rest of the very slow cyclists who made up the group of 30 or so “early birders”. There was a brief pep talk from the race founder (“It’s going to be cold and windy all the way”) and then it was off into the head wind.
It took Tony and I a little while to warm up to pace but after 10km we were starting to crank a bit faster. At this point Bruce split off from us as the first relay leg follows a slightly different route.
We noticed that we were keeping up with the rest of the two wheeled bunch. It was pleasant to be holding our own for a change! Tony and I had both elected to ride 36" wheels with 125mm cranks which proved an excellent choice for the hilly first 40km leg. Gradually the bunch thinned out and we reached the point of being the only two riders in view. This didn’t last too long as the faster riders who had started later eventually began to overtake us in large Pelotons. We cranked past the first 40km relay change point at 2:25 feeling fresh and confident.
The next 40km felt even hillier than the first. The two legs are actually very similar but I think my training was a little thin on the ground so fatgiue started to take its toll. I spent a lot of time staring at Tony’s back as he powered up hills, passing lots of cyclists and leaving me trailing behind. At the 58km mark we witnessed a pretty bad crash as two cyclists in a Peloton collided. The crash happened 20m behind Tony and 20m in front of me so we didn’t get taken out. One guy plowed into the back of another guy and flipped over top of him, face planting into the road. There was blood everywhere from a nasty head wound but one of the other riders who stopped new first aid. We hung round for a few minutes, cleaning up cycle wreckage of the road until a race official got there. It was a sobering reminder about what can happen in a momentary lapse of concentration.
11km later we were zooming down a hill towards the second relay change at the half way point when disaster struck Tony. More correctly, a cyclist struck Tony, taking him out and leaving a mini carnage scene. I heard the crash from about 100m back and looked up to see Tony cartwheeling across the road into a ditch. It was de ja vu, with lots more blood and the worrysome sight of Tony curled up in the fetal position not moving. When I got there he was in shock, hyperventilating badly and obviously in a lot of pain. Some wonderful rider stopped and helped me check Tony for injuries. She also got him breathing normally again. He had landed pretty badly on his right side, grating his right knee and elbow. We were only a stones throw from the relay station ambulance base so we had a paramedic there in a couple of minutes. After stopping the bleeding she determined the knee wasn’t too bad but the elbow had a nasty gouge in it. We bundled Tony into a van and drove him to the ambulance station. After an hour it looked like he might get a free helicopter ride to hospital but he ended up having to settle for a very long ambulance trip back to get properly patched up.
About the time the ambulance was due to leave, Kirsten rode in much earlier than expected, having ridden 40km of very hilly terrain in 2:30. It was her first ever unicycle road race so we were very impressed. As Danny geared up to ride the third and fourth legs of the relay I got myself together to leave as well.
The third 40 km started with some pretty big hill climbs which was followed by a glorious descent down to race level and then 30km of flat. I managed to keep up with Danny until the next relay station but his still fresh legs were starting to leave me behind. Unfortunately we lost each other in the confusion of the drink and toilet stop. Danny took off at high speed trying to catch up to me, but unfortunately I was behind him! This left me to ride the last 40km by myself, with the occasional cyclist passing me. At the 130km mark I was really starting to feel it, suffering from saddle soreness, muscle fatigue and knee pain. Mentally I was not in a good postition and I was not thinking straight. I also knew I had the toughest hill coming up ahead and I was beginning to wonder whether my body could go the distance. I had my first twinges of cramp and was starting to worry about what would happen at the hill.
At my lowest morale point I got an unexpected boost when a couple of friends drove out of nowhere to stop and cheer me on. They got it through my fogged brain that I had only 22km to go, not the 50km I had some how got stuck in my head. They also promised to wait for me at the top of the hill. Encouraged, I broke through the mental barrier and started preparing for the hill climb. When I reached the base I shouted to myself “bring on the pain!” and started powering up the hill. All body aches retreated as I focussed entirely on making it to the top of 2km long climb without dismounting. I kept myself going by aiming to pass as many cyclists as possible. It was a fantastic feeling to reach the summit having passed 21 cyclists. My friends were waiting as promised with the added encouragement that it was mostly downhill for the rest of the way.
The last 20km were a blur of saddle soreness and a race against the clock as I struggled to keep up a pace that would get me to the finish before 6pm. 10km out from the finish my water ran out and I also developed an urgent need to go to the toilet. There wasn’t much I could do except keep on riding, which I did. Things got a little easier as I rode into Taupo with honks from passing cars encouraging me to keep on going.
At 5:50pm I cranked up the very last hill and rode towards the finish to much cheering from the crowds. My entire world became focussed on crossing the finish line, so much so that I missed my wife shouting my name. I crossed the finish line with tears of relief, dismounted and then collapsed to my knees as my legs gave out. Danny caught the sequence on camera so they will make there way into a gallery soon.
160km on a unicycle is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but it was worth the pain. Bring on the next challenge!