Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Jurassic Wembo

Even though I'd sworn off 24s after the last one, there were a handful of compelling reasons for going to Rotorua.  Firstly, it was the Worlds – like any other justification is required!  Secondly, although not at my favoured stomping ground (Stromlo), in the global scheme of things it wasn't too far away.  Thirdly, the Rotorua trails are widely regarded as having some of the best flow in the world.  As one of the hairy-legged fraternity it was perhaps time to experience what all the hype was about.  Fourthly, coming at the end of summer, gaining the requisite fitness wouldn’t be an issue, and lastly, English was going for what would be a record 7th title, and seeing the big guns going for it out on course, with snapshots as they lap you time and again, is really something to behold.  And, PS to lastly, the camaraderie shared by riders and crews during a 24, especially when everyone is on their knees (this can be the pit crews as well) is a rare and special thing to behold and treasure.   See how easy it is to talk yourself into madness!

Logistics were always going to be a bit tricky, but in the end panned out quite smoothly, thanks to Anita's organizational skills, getting all that stressful stuff out of the way months beforehand (one of my weaker skill sets).  The only thing we'd do differently next time is perhaps opt for a car hire company that didn't require an airport shuttle, which was just another bike-bag hurdle to deal with.  Rain was bucketing down as we left the terminal, and the tap was still on as we arrive at Rotorua at 8 pm, and was still going the next morning as I put the bikes together.  We discovered the delights of the Fat Dog cafe, but you can only do so much cafe gazing before getting itchy feet.  

The trailhead turned out to be an easy 3.3 km trundle from the hotel, which necessitated riding by some of the thermal hotspots, filling nostrils with pungent sulfurous wonderment.  The Redwoods, as the forest is more colloquially known, goes by the Maori name of Whakarewarewa, which neither of us could quite get a handle on.  When we asked a kiwi rider out on track if he could pronounce it for us, and he politely replied "no".  

The course was brilliant, although a lot tougher than many predicted.  The opening kms were like a buttery smooth bermed boulevard.  Imagine the most buffed trail in Ozzie you can think of, then have it carpeted, and you get the general idea.  All under dappled light filtered by fronds of tree-ferns which form the ground story of a tall temperate rain forest.  Very Jurassic Park.  I was surprised to learn that the bulk of the forest is not native, but an assortment of exotic species including Californian Redwoods, first planted in the area in 1901.  The super-buffness wasn’t to last though.  Older and more worn sectors such as “Mad if you Don’t” and “Turkish Delight” exhibited the tell-tail signs of wear with corrugations more ACT-like.  The big difference remained the almost complete absence of rocks, but there were plenty of roots to catch the unwary.  There were a few well-spaced fire roads thrown into the mix to allow for feeding.  But the last two thirds were certainly more muscular and stressful. Still smooth in places, but with many off-camber rooty corners, pinch climbs, pops, snaps, crackles and chutes to deal with.  Nothing too technical, but with so much large swell to surf it was going to be taxing to be out there for a long period.  Marque sectors also included “Be Rude Not 2”, “Sweet and Sour”, and the wild pumping “Dragons Tail”.

The Mudge and I did one lap of the 17.3 km course (280 m vert) on the Thursday, sometimes in heavy rain, although the forest was so thick in places that not much got through, then another two laps on the Friday, with the weather finally starting to ease.  The quickest Anita and I lapped was about 78 min, so I thought 70 min splits might be the go.  Despite the rain and 150 riders out doing recces, the trails and volcanic soils (like a huge sponge) seemed to be holding up well. The same couldn't be said for the paddock at forest entrance, which was to host the pit area.  The organisers did a heroic job to deal with the 190 ml of rain that fell in the leadup.  Pretty much the entire race looked to have frequented Bunnings to stock up on tarps, shovels and gum boots.

The race for me was one of two halves.  I thought before the race that the first half would be about learning to ride the course, and the second half about surviving it, which is sort of what transpired, but not exactly for the reasons I expected.

Here are my splits for the first 6 hrs (nearest minute)

60  59  60  59  60  61


This mountain biking stuff is too easy…sort of.  I crashed inexplicably late in the first lap whilst chatting with Mr Bridgland, and hoped that would be my crash for the race out of the way.  Then into heavy shadows (some sectors almost required lights during the day) and the awkward transition into darkness.

67  63  69  69  67  75  74

Its properly dark, despite a full moon, and I’ve had my second crash on what turned out to be exactly the same cryptic root as got me last time, but I now know where it is!  I’ve had a few other minor spills and pinch climb stalls, but nothing major.  The tires are now slick with dew making anything involving roots even dicier.  I’ve known for a few laps that I’m running fourth in category and that third is still some way ahead but that the gap is falling.

Its now approx. 2 am.  The feet, in particular, are really starting to burn numb, my left hand pads are starting to blister, and I’m feeling fatigued, but at least the halfway point has been gained.  But overall I’m upbeat.  This is probably the tidiest 14 hrs I’ve ever ridden. 

Then something happens which changes the complexion of my race.  After a grease and lube change (i.e., a few minutes slower than a normal stop), I leave the pits and file in behind another rider with my age category rear plate.  He is being yelled at by his crew – all English accents, to dig deep as though urgency is required.  I interpreted this to mean that he was cracking, and that I might have actually caught third place.  In passing I put the hammer down to try and crush his resolve to chase. 

The old adage that sport can be 90% mental, and the other half physical, rings very true for this type of event.  Presenting an opponent with hopelessness can be enough to trigger capitulation.

This is racing.  My next split drops from 74 min to 68 (which doesn’t appear so significant but included the pit dead time as the pit was after the timing mat).  Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, Mr Glassey was having none of it, keeps the pressure on, and re-passed me just before the last few rooty km of descent.  I cruised into the pits and quipped that just for a moment I’d held third place but that he was too good.  Anita gave me a very puzzled look and sent me back on course. 

68  76  79  80  81  86  82

What I’d inadvertently done, of course, was try to dump the category leader, who’d just lapped me in the pits, rather than the other Brit running third.  In doing so I’d drained my batteries to a level from which I never recovered.  A few laps later I wanted it all to end and was only kept running courtesy of Anita’s enthusiasm.  I was perpetually bonking, becoming temporarily revived, before bonking again.  I don't think I’ve ever been so drained in a race before.  It was terrible.  With the coming of dawn (cool birds, BTW) I just couldn't imagine running more laps, let alone making midday.  Even the concept of holding onto fourth became something I couldn’t have cared less about.  Riders I’d cruised by earlier in the race started filtering past me.  I was walking pinch climbs.  I was done.  I decide 20 laps was a respectable number, and pulled in at 11:17 hoping to at least witness history in the making – would it be Jason with #7, or Cory finally breaking through (for the last X-hours they were seconds apart).  Unfortunately I was prostate at the end and unable to even get myself up to see JE win #7 (26 laps!).

They say it’s all easy in hindsight.  How true it is for events such as this. On reflection, as well as my tactical blunder of overextension and hubris, Anita and I figure the other main issue was lack of fuel.  I started off well enough, but had a few gut issues eating anything vaguely oily.  The hummus roll, pizza and hot chips which I normally woof down all resulted in stomach problems shortly after, prompting me to keep it simply in the form of vegemite sandwiches – well, a bite at a time, which simply wasn’t enough when you are close to empty.  There are a lot of calories in Staminade and coffee milk, but sourcing all calories that way results in multiple trackside pees, also draining time and momentum.  Once again, I had loads of gels on hand but simply lacked the discipline to keep shoving them down.  The rice pudding I woofed down at 8 am should have perhaps happened 8 hours earlier.  But you can only play your cards once, which is all part of the game.  Congrats to the three poms (all 22 laps) and the Kiwi (21 laps) – they were simply too good.  In the end I dropped to fifth in category, and 29th outright in what I think was a pretty solid field (of 150).  I gave it a shot, and in part fulfilled my part of the bargain by finishing in one piece.  No regrets.

Thanks to everyone for their support; whether it was shared training rides, café-side chats, advice about salt, best wishes, or communication around and during the event – I’ve been tardy with txts, many of which I didn’t receive till back in Sydney.  As is often the case in life, the journey can be more important (and in this case certainly less painful) than the destination. 

Having crewed before I’m not immune to what a difficult job being the sole handler must have been for Anita.  She did a brilliant job and was on hand for every stop, despite a couple of trips to town and catching just 10 min of kip (its hard to sleep with a generator and a PA in your ear – and with no sleeping bag – it was bloody cold at night).  I know she very much appreciated the communication she got during the event, so thanks everyone for that.  And thanks to GK and Jo for hugs, beer and bike cleaning at the end.  Hope you enjoyed “Dragon’s Tail”!

We both very much enjoyed our time in Rotorua, and will definitely return to consume more plum smoothies and sample more amazing trails in circumstances which don't involve going round and round in circles to the beat of a clock!

Monday, 15 February 2016

Berming into the deep end

The dust has barely settled from the 2015 worlds in California (held in early Oct), and the travelling circus known as WEMBO is heading south to deliver the 2016 worlds, in mid February, in Rotorua.  That's a short turnaround.  Having had a good run at Oz nationals in mid Oct, I’ve kept the engine humming over the summer months to help quash excuses for not giving Rotorua a crack (you only live once, although we’re working on that).  At the very least it would be a chance to check out trails which are described by those who’ve ridden them with almost religious reverence….bro.

After months of procrastination I finally entered, bought a second bike bag, and started thinking logistics.  I’ll be riding the 29er hardtail, with a spare set of wheels in tow, and with the 26er Anthem as backup for the backup – or as the start bike if it’s all too technical for my thumb-heavy skill set.  Anita (who is also quite at home on the 26er) and I will arrive on the Wednesday, ride the course and play tourist on the Thurs and Friday.  The race goes from Sat to Sunday, and the Monday will be a delirium of aches, groans, packing, a drive, a flight, and another drive to somehow get home.

The competition looks fierce.  The midlife crisis field (40-44) has 18 desperadoes signed up.  The extended-midlife crisis field (45-49, my field!) has another 16 no-hopers.  But don’t be deceived; close inspection reveals not a bunch of doddery old chaps on the cusp of requiring canes, but the combatant gravitas of a pack of rugby players steaming towards you.  Let me explain – and I should qualify that I knew this before entering, so I can’t complain.

The form according to all-seeing google is that two thirds of them are NZ natives with a raft of history in the bike racing department, collectively covering the full spectrum, from road, CX, XC (XCO to XCM to 24s), Enduro to DH.  Local knowledge can be particularly important on a technical track, which I’m expecting and which is packed full of pinch climbs as opposed to the longer tempo climbs I much prefer.  I reckon there’s probably half a dozen in there who will be difficult to run down.  But the real favouritism must go to (this is the Jonah Lomu – Mike Catt moment), not just one, but three entrants from Old Blighty (take a bow, Messrs Nadin, Glassey and Hynd), who collectively managed to fill all three steps of the podium of the British championships – outright, in a field over 100, just a few months ago (late Oct 2015).  Whilst, granted, some of the top British bulldogs decided not to run given their California dreamings just weeks prior, I think it’s safe to say that these three are top shelf, wont have flown round the world to discuss poultry, and will be extremely difficult to beat (even at my best I’m hardly top 10 in Oz).  But I’ll give it a crack and see if I can upset at least one of them.  After all, 24 hours can be a very long time (especially if you are hoping for it to end, or travelling so poorly that sand flies become an issue) and a lot can and might happen. 

Fingers crossed and over and out!