The morning dawned crisp, still and clear – conditions couldn’t really have been better, though the stinking heat of the previous day lingered in the memory, and caused the brilliant sky to be viewed with some trepidation. We rolled out from a rented bach on Parata st, only two kilometres from the start-line, but when you’ve the 160km of the Wattyl Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge™ ahead of you any extra effort seems wholly unnecessary.
In the decade since I last rolled out along these roads the event has swollen in size a little, but the main change has been in organisation. Now each entrant straps an electronic transponder to their bike, enabling a time correct to the micro-second, and ending the enduring practice of rounding down your time to cover your shame. The massed start has also been streamlined, so that when you actually cross the start line you’re riding straight away, rather than shuffling half-heartedly, Round The Bays-style, as was previously the case. It’s much improved, really, and means you feel the ride from the first, rather than it slipping into your consciousness as the roads clear out.
The roads twist on and up at relatively gentle gradients, though never with the respite of a downhill of any consequence to leaven things. Such is the nature of the event’s start that we’re passing and being passed constantly, a state of bunch-less flux that, frustratingly, persists for much of our event. Around the 10km mark Caroline Evers-Swindell blasts past, clad in black and never to be seen again, though it’s hard to feel bad about being beaten by a doule-gold medallist. Within a few kilometres a sign informs us that we’re atop Ben Lomond, the highest point of the race, topographically speaking, though the gently rising undulations that brought us to that point bear scant relation to the terrors that loom ahead, most notably the Waihi Hill at 100km, and the legendarily nasty Hatape Hill at 140km.
At 30km the roads open to all vehicles, though traffic is mercifully thin. We’re feeling pretty good, but within a few kilometres there’s the sickening (to any cyclist) feeling of unnatural pressure on my back wheel, before the familiar dull thud of lycra on pavement, and I turn to see my own sister extricating herself from her bike. It’s horrible to witness, and I feel awful, but she’s stoic through the grazing, and even appears adrenalised from the impact, taking off up the road and leading our straggly troupe for a spell. We stop for the first refuel and to assess the damage soon after, straightening brakes and noting a slight buckle in the wheel. When we get back on the bikes the first distant pain is evident in the legs, a whimper which will become a howl a hundred kilometres down the line.
The next 30 or so k’s pass pretty uneventfully, we trundle past the grotesque Tui ‘girls’, with a cheeky doz strapped to the back, and atop a couple of heavy choppers; if they made it round they’ll have done it tough as hell. But the constant intrusion of customised Yeah Right billboards, clearly written by suits who’d never suffered through this thing, became irritating fairly swiftly. It’s about this point when you start to use whatever psychological ploys you can to get through chunks of the battle. At 70km you focus on getting to 100km; at 90km you’re over halfway; at 100km you’re on the Waihi Hill, and hurting.
It’s actually probably the nicest hill on the ride, pleasantly curvaceous, a reasonable surface and with the lake, hidden for almost all of the first half, glistening alongside you. But by now you’re starting to feel every one of the miles in your system, and it’s hard to be too enraptured by the prettiness around. An aching neck, and numbness traveling predatorily around your body, along with the now inescapable heat which turns swathes of the tarmac into that familar treacly substance which saps your strength and coats your tyres when you need everything to be going your way.
At least after Waihi there’s a long soothing downhill, and the influx of relay riders to take some of the sting out of the slight headwind that has reared up. They’re sorta irritating too, bossing people round and swerving all over the road, but there’s plenty of them, and at this stage we’ll take any wheel we can. I make a considered decision to throw down a Leppin squeezy, a Powerbar gel sachet and half a Powerbar in quick succession after getting that sinking feeling, and within minutes all those weird artificial carbohydrates and sugars are coursing through my veins and I feel dynamite, even pulling some long laps as we head through Turangi.
Immediately after the town there’s a sign which reads Taupo 57km, sending all my newfound energy packing, and forcing a on-road consultation with my father, who’s seen the same sign and is similarly unimpressed. Turangi’s only 50km from Taupo, so what gives? It can’t be right, just another Land Transport screw up, but man does it hit hard. Within a few hundred metres a second sign puts the distance at 50km, and all is well again in our world, or as well as can be expected.
The second great ‘event’ of our ride occurs maybe 10km later, as spirits are starting to flag with the empty flat straights that dominate this section of the ride, and the knowledge that for all the mind-tricks you try and play, 40km at this juncture, with these sorry legs, is still some distance. As we lap past a particularly jumpy relay rider he looks up and swerves hard into the side of me, for no apparent reason, before shouting “give us a bit of room, mate”. He’s about a metre and a half from the verge, and there is no good reason for his actions, and I’m 130km deep into this misery. I let forth a tirade of invective, shocking even myself with its naked venom, and he beats a swift retreat while I use the anger to up the tempo as we head in to Hatape.
The hill which broke 10,000 hearts looms ahead, with its customary two lanes, one walking, the other grinding. It’s at this point I drop my chain, conveniently, but after flicking it back on I’m moving steadily past most of the traffic, and even feeling pretty good by the time I summit. Hatape is not in and of itself a brutal climb, 2km at maximum gradient of 8%, so it’s tough but not outrageous (no Coromandel hill, for example). But it’s location 140km deep into the ride means it looms as the most powerful adversary you face, and the temerity it has in forgoing the psychologically-important shielding bends of the average hill are perhaps its most awful feature – Hatape leaves its entire length exposed, a nearly straight run to the top means that every bastard inch is visible and mentally accounted for at the bottom.
It is, I think, the first time I’ve made it up in one piece, and I’m feeling pretty good about that, but with the stored memory that my undoing in the past has always come after Hatape, in the long, dull straights leading in to Taupo itself. I try and latch onto the back of a group of South Africans from the Shore who are beefy enough to tow me along, but the pace is just a a little high for my broken bones, and I settle in for the grind home, with my sister a little behind and father staying with the Afrikaaners.
We reconvene after our own private slogs, at about the 10km to go part, and suddenly it seems easy. The roads start to be peppered with supporters (and impossibly sweet signs: ‘Go Daddy, you can do it’ etc) which is always pretty encouraging. Near the start we passed one such clump of well-wishers, with an elderly member commenting of the group ahead of us “you think ‘that’s a great pair of legs’, then you look up and it’s a bloody man!”. Anyway, between that and the improved road surfaces and the clear proximity to Taupo (a look across the lake at Taupo barely visible in the distance wth 50km to go nearly broke me) galvanises us into setting a pretty good pace, and we finally cross in 6.40, which, considering our breaks and mishaps, seems a pretty reasonable time. Until we learn that our uncle has flown round in 5.28.
Still, the communal exhilaration of the compound at the end will linger long in my memory, and the pain and doubt fades fast as the beers and barbecues are brought on. Taupo’s a classic New Zealand experience, particularly on a such a fine day, the massed suffering, manifestly unnecessary but extremely compelling, is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives.