Ever felt like you’ve been on Struggle Street? Like you really should have rolled over and not gotten out of the car, let alone out of bed?
I think you all know what I’m talking about – there’s going to be times when you’re winging it on less than ideal preparations and you know exactly what you’re in for.
Those are the days that all you can do is trust your intuition, have faith in what you’ve done before, realise that you could be in for a rough day and know that what doesn’t kill you just makes you stronger (one way or another!).
In my part of the world it’s unseasonably cold right now, wet and more like winter than ‘spring’ (If the Northern hemisphere is looking for some snow, come see me – I know where to find some).
Last week a few of the crew had admitted to putting in an entry to the annual end of November AK47 hurt-fest through the Nevis Valley (you might as well be sprayed by a machine gun as this is what you may feel like).
I was sitting on the fence on this one – I simply had not spent enough time back in the saddle and having done it last year and almost passed out from exposure over the climbs I knew what I would be in for.
Friday rolled around and so did a severe weather warning of rain and gale force winds with a freezing level dropping to 800m.
But it’s amazing what your friends can talk you into….and before I knew it I was in the kitchen getting my baking on whipping up my customary post-ride baking favourites for the team…and deliberating about what to wear to stave off the cold as not only do you climb over two mountain passes, but you cross a river close to 30 times and that was is coming straight off the snow further up.
I’m not sure what draws the crowds to this particular race as it’s more a battle with your mind and the elements than against other people falling into the category of ‘to finish first, first you must finish’, but they come in their droves every year. You also could ask yourself why people turn up to Tough Mudders to be electrocuted ……obviously people like to satisfy their inner masochist.
Within 2km of the start you hit the first hour-long climb. Straight up and over you go, gales in your face at every switch back.
To put it in perspective, I think I’ve ridden one decent hill since getting home and sure as shit – it was not at race pace.
I’d been feeling fairly average all morning and knew that I would likely be in for ‘one of those days’.
20minutes in and my thoughts were confirmed.
My lower back was aching, I was debating if I’d gambled on the right selection of clothing layers and I could feel the every ounce of the 3L of fluid and safety gear that was weighing my pack down as people flew by me (for those that have ridden with me they know that this is usually the opposite way round). There was a large roster of big hitters out in force and I was very much there to make up numbers and support a local Central Otago event.
What I did know is that this race is never won in the first half of the climb.
As we made our way further up, I started to find some rhythm and started to reel people back in.
On this particular course this is where’s it’s a bit of a gamble – do you go out hard and try to to descend with a bunch to ride through the valley with company, or do you ‘self preserve’ and hope you’ll find a buddy to ride through with?
My lack of preparation and average-ness necessitated the latter.
As I crested the plateau along the top of the range, I unrolled my sleeves back up my arms, pulled on my wetsuit gloves and tried to suck as much fluid on the descent as I could.
It’s a bone chilling descent into the Nevis Valley and as soon as you hit the valley floor, you hit your first river crossing.
If you weren’t cold yet, you’re now cold, wet and freezing.
If you’d over done it on that first climb over the Hector mountain range you’re now about to suffer through two hours of no-man’s-land through the valley straight into a bone chilling head wind.
As I came off the hill, I clicked down my cassette and aimed for the wheels I could see in front. I caught them and hoped to find some company but blew through as they didn’t heed my call to jump on my wheel.
Now I was in the place that you never want to be – no man’s land, all by yourself.
Thankfully about quarter of an hour into the valley a big guy came hurtling from behind. Hell no was I not going to lose that wheel!
It ended up being more of a ride side-by-side with a steady stream of banter and chit chat as we picked off rider after rider as the km’s ticked over, each time expecting our group of two to grow as we rode through the remnants of the first climb that were now scattered through the valley, but no-one jumped on (that first hill takes scalps of epic proportions).
As we encroached on the head of the valley and the end of the ‘flats’ the final climb stretches far beyond what the eye can see up and over the Carrick mountain range before it drops over the other side into Bannockburn.
Rather than weaving to the contours of the landscape, it’s more a series of steep straight grunts that result in pinch-after-pinch through a maze of never-ending blind corners that lead to yet more pain-inducing suffering as you hit the each pitch riding at anything up to sixteen degrees of gradient.
Throw in some gale force side winds that whip your front wheel out from underneath you and it’s more a test of mental fortitude than physical that will get you to the top.
When you have bugger all deposits in the training bank, you have to spend your pennies wisely.
Having been in a few situations like this, I knew that if I just kept turning over, respected my heart rate and used every easing of the gradient to click up a gear and keep the speeds constant, I’d ride myself up to the guys in front. And sure enough 3/4s of the way up I caught them.
That’s also the point where it all starts to get a bit sketchy. With temps at freezing level on the top, gale force winds and an 8km descent ahead of you, what ever internal heat you generated on the climb just got released straight into a blast chiller.
You’d think an 8km descent would be all-sorts-of-awesome come this point in the ride, but no – this is (and was) a descent of survival, attempting to lean into the wind from your right side while maintaining enough weight on your front wheel to avoid losing it in a gust.
Add in corners and corrugations and by the time you reach the sealed road for the final stretch to the finish you’re greeted with a blasting headwind and a couple of pinching rises just to well and truly finish you off.
And yes, there was a guy lying in a ditch having been taken out by the forces of mother nature on the descent (he may have been rethinking his choice to ride a cross bike at that very point).
As you crest the final brow to the finish I’m not sure what you’re more excited about. The thought of hot chips and free beer at the Bannockburn pub, or getting out of your damp shoes and manky riding gear to toast your ass in some fresh clothes beside the fire. What I do know is that you’re bloody thankful to just make it to the finish.
It’s one thing to finish near the pointy end of an event like this (and somehow I’d ridden myself into second for the second year in a row) but what’s fascinating (and inspiring) is the amount of people that turn up to ride through some country few will ever see and yes, some of these people are out there for the best part of 6-8hours….which is a totally different battle of the mind and body to those of us who finish in half the time.
With a significant field of heavy hitters hailing from mountain bike, road and multi-sport including our resident world cupper extraordinaire Kate Fluker who rode like a demon to win there’s no lack of talent in these parts as they all build into their summer seasons – most of which they dominate (this is one of those parts of the world there must have been a mutation in the genetic code giving unnatural human physical abilities out if you drank the water) making local events extremely competitive raising the bar all around which is awesome.
So this time next year, if you think you may be in need of a good dose of ‘harden-the-freak-up’, I might know a ride you’d like to lock in. You will probably hate me for it half way through, even more so at the end – but I’m betting you’ll thank me for it a couple of months later.
In case you’re wondering what my choice of gear was for a ride like this – here’s what I used (and it was a marked improvement in the comfort stakes on last year). Hands down I’d rock the same combo next year or for any other ride through the mountains that you may experience extreme weather conditions.
- Betty Designs bib shorts and jersey
- Icebreaker merino teeshirt (underneath – categorically a saviour as merino doesn’t get cold when you sweat or get wet – of which you will do both)
- Icebreaker merino socks (same as above)
- Wetsuit boot covers over my shoes – total godsend
- Neoprene headband under my helmet – another saviour through the valley and on the descents
- Mahiku arm sleeves – slide them down on the climbs, pull them up on the descents
- Camelbak Soltice pack with 3L bladder