Saturday, 28 March. If you are an amateur cyclist in Christchurch this is the day that all those laps of the Short Bays have been leading up to. The day where you can’t just pretend that you are out on a recovery ride but will actually have to suck it up for 100km two thirds of which involve some of the choicest hills those extinct volcanoes to the south have to offer. It’s time for Le Race.
The traditional sprint down Colombo St to be the first to, if not quite up, Dyers Pass Rd was tempered somewhat this year with the actual start line coming a couple of clicks away from where everybody had gathered in Cathedral Square. The less frantic start meant that there was an awful lot of shuffling forward before it was possible to click the second pedal in and try and get some warmth in the legs and a moderately raised heart rate before the climbing began. Usually going up this stretch I will have fifteen kilometres of warm up in me, not forty five minutes of commercial radio DJ patter in Christchurch autumn dawn temperatures. As someone who usually rides on my own or in small groups of four or five it was fairly overwhelming to have that many wheels around.
This adjustment period came to a quick halt with the onset of the hills, the next forty minutes is going to be all about climbing. Up Dyers to the Sign of the Kiwi is probably the most commonly climbed stretch of road in the Port Hills and this familiarity with the kicks and corners was definitely appreciated as the field compacted with the 8% gradient of the lower slopes. Quickly finding a good balance between climbing in a comfortable rhythm, working through the field, and not letting the adrenaline take over at this very, very early stage I was surprised to find myself at the marker of The Cup in under the usual six minutes it takes me, this pack thing really does help one along. Perhaps a good time to mention the awesome support shown along this section with both footpaths continuously lined with generously supportive crowds. There was even a guy taking his cue from the devil guy on Le Tour and some slightly distracting running alongside. The next bunch of spectators comes at the faux top of the climb at the Sign of the Kiwi where, much earlier, the first king of the mountain points are handed out. I make the right turn onto the Summit Road feeling warmed up and strong, the long steady second half of that stretch to SoK is my favourite type of riding of long climbs at lower gradients where you can just spin it out.
Apart from a mean bit directly after the turn off the rest of the Summit Road is undulating hill riding of the best sort. Manageable climbs, descents leading into climbs where you can keep your speed up and power to the top still in the big ring. At this point I jumped on behind a guy in full world champion kit, probably a good wheel to follow, and flew along down the middle of the road until I lost him in the cloud. Pre-race the forecast was for a scorching nor-west day in the high twenties so it was a bit of a surprise to hit a bank of thick cloud around the Rock of Gibraltar mark. Hardly able to see to the next corner and with the road either slippery from the rain the night before in the car tracks or gravel everywhere else caution was exercised until I could let loose again coming down the Bastard (very glad to not have to climb this guy today).
Descending is not my best discipline and, prior to the event, I was quite worried about getting taken out on some of these fast but tricky sections. Thankfully everyone was very well behaved and considerate, that was until the Gebbies Pass bit where for some reason there was a Leopard Coachlines tour bus picking its way around the same direction we were all going. Of the many times and ways you could choose to go to Akaroa why would you select the one that corresponds with the thousand strong cycle race. A third of the way there and I am on schedule with the stopwatch showing an hour.
Thinking about the race afterwards, the one big mistake that I made was to be too honest about my expectations of how long it would take to complete when filling out the sign up sheet. With start groups organised by this estimate this meant that the riders surrounding me almost at the back of the queue as we waited to get underway in Cathedral Square were now mostly behind me but with the hills stretching out the field there was not too much support directly ahead. As the next section of the race was the thirty odd kilometres of flat riding which would optimally involve hiding out in a group and minimal effort this could be a problem.
One benefit of the bus was that it did compact about twenty riders together and so I settled in taking the opportunity for some food, rice bar things, and water. Le Race was my first big cycling event and first time riding in a decent sized group and I was impressed how quickly a bunch of strangers automatically formed into a working unit with everyone taking their turn on the front, dropping back as the next guy came forward. It would have been perfect if the pace was another 10km/ph faster. While I was riding third in line, the guy now in lead lifted the pace and a trio formed that seemed to work well and we were making good gains on the next group up the road. It all seemed pretty perfect until my fourth pull on the front went on for a much longer time than previously. One minute led into two minutes before I turned around and was horrified to discover I was now on my own, the other two not even in sight. The group in front looked close enough to still be able to bridge the gap but try as I might it just wasn’t happening and all of this effort was eating into my reserves that would be needed for the masses of hills yet to come. Thankfully a stronger rider who had had the misfortune to puncture came through and picked me up and I got at least ten ks of relaxation before the start of the big, big climb.
Little River was the changeover point for the relay teams and one of these that joined in with our group informed us that he had just seen a temperature readout of 28 degrees, the cloud from the first Summit Road was definitely not going to be around through the second. To make it to the second king of the mountains point at Hilltop is six kilometres of climbing at about an average gradient of 7%.
“See all you skinny bastards on the descent,” one rather husky gent commented as his derailleur ground down to the little gears. Unfortunately for him the only descent worth talking about was still 20km away. Getting to Hilltop really is quite dispiriting as you think you must be getting close once you are getting close to double digit switchbacks only to look up and see the road still far above where you are.
In talking to people who had ridden this stretch of the Summit Road before they all said that it is not all over after Hilltop but that really the only bit to worry about comes just before Okains Bay. There were even stories of one line of those just managing to turn the pedals over creeping past another of those who had dismounted and preferred to push. With this in mind I took it fairly easy for the intervening period, relishing the relative downward slope the gradient map shows. Sitting at two and a half hours to this point I, somewhat foolishly, thought that I had massively overestimated my finish time. Not a good point to be even about the finish line and giving the legs even hope of being able to stop anytime soon.
With this optimism in mind I washed down a gel and the last bite of a powerbar and prepared for a final push. Only it wasn’t, not even close. For most of the next twenty ks the main thing I was wondering was how can there be so much going up and so little down when you looked at the terrain ahead of you and it felt like you were already as high as the hills went. Being more of a cadence than a power rider this section went something like hit bottom of climb, work way quickly back up the gears (this was also the section where my best climbing gear decided it was going to continuously slip down unbidden), get passed lots, stand up knowing that it is costing you extra energy, work into a rhythm, go round a corner and see that the rise you were aiming for is only about halfway, get to a point of bouncing in the pedals which would indicate freshness but is because you are in too low a gear but leapfrog back up past those still doing it sitting down, hit a short flat section before the next climb. Repeat x 10.
All of a sudden there was a sign reading ‘It’s all downhill from here!’ Finally that enticing section of road that has been there on your right as you’re battling around the top of the harbour is there for the taking. One glorious eleven kilometre, ridiculously steep, recently repaved but unswept descent and Bang! you are turning left into a chute of cones and hay bales, a sharper than it looks right, stand up to get some final power down and chase every last second down to the finish line and relief. Looking at my watch I had beaten my four hour target by eight minutes adding to the feeling of accomplishment.
For a first time competitor in a cycling event I really enjoyed the Le Race experience. The course itself is a really good one with plenty of hills which make it interesting, despite all the cussing and spitting at the time. Not fully registered either is the beauty of the ride, I do remember moments when I would sneak a glimpse to the right of the lush green of the hills dropping down into the rich blue of the harbour, reflecting the clear sky above. Or look the other way far out past the breaking surf, over the Pacific and out to the horizon. Then it was back to the five metres ahead of my front wheel.
– Teeth Benitez
A quick final note to congratulate friend of Deadball’s James Early on his fourth place finish, 2h46m seems otherworldly from this perspective. Just watch out for the gravel patches next year after you have led everyone up the hill.