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One rider's view of the Wellington to Auckland Challenge

4th May 2012






Is it a challenge? Is it a race? Can it jump the North Island in thirteen bounds? Well, frankly all three! That’s Stephen Cox’s Wellington to Auckland Challenge - you make of it what you want.

What I would say though, is depending on how you want to view it, the strategies you take have a major bearing on the outcome. Perhaps others will write a guide for those in the top echelon and those who just want to survive, but these are my thoughts for the middle and lower order of those treating it as a race. It’s the joint thoughts of Murray James and I – riders who raced for 20-30 years but have done virtually nothing for the last eight. I’m so near 70 it’s not funny and Murray is 57 and anxious to lose some of his wife’s excellent cooking.

It all started the day after the Taupo Challenge when the legs felt good enough to do it again – at least from the comfort of the driver’s seat on the way home to Auckland. Neither of us had posted good times but we both rediscovered the joy of sitting in a bunch and getting hauled along. We’d teamed up in 1998 for the Auckland to Wellington single stage madison event in which we’d done very well, finishing 4th in a short 21 hours. So we kidded ourselves we knew the route but as it turned out, we hadn’t made sufficient allowance for the organiser’s sadism.

Both of us had ridden Stephen Cox events in the past and knew his option of sending off a slow bunch ahead of the field. Both of us were confident we’d be in that bunch in this event. How wrong can you be? Entries went in for the full package (race, accommodation and transport) and training began. Murray is in Palmerston North, so regular outings with the group down there plus the occasional tester over the Pahiatua Track and return saw legs getting better and over 10 kgs off. Most of my rides were Warkworth-based with the WW Riders group and included fairly regular climbs of Matakana Valley Road and Leigh – Pakiri Road, both 200+m climbs. Both of us managed 200-300 kms a week.

We had planned to ride the event with no support vehicle which would have been an absolute disaster. Fortunately, Stephen and Jack Swart and a few mates were riding with a full back-up team and they adopted us and thank God they did. Murray and I had no idea at all what we were letting ourselves in for. Strategy-wise we got it absolutely right in the Rimutaka stage – fell off the back of the bunch early on the first climb and simply sat on a tandem from the first summit to the end. Brilliant ride – no stress, no pain but the wrong side of 100th place.

Jan Swart and team had chairs, hot flannels, soft drinks, filled rolls and flat whites waiting. Were we in heaven or what? A nice long break and the afternoon stage to Masterton saw the testosterone rising – or in my case at least the memory of it – and hanging onto the lead bunch into and out of Martinborough. When we did drop this put me in with a group of riders who quite frankly I had no business being with. So from there to Masterton it was largely hanging on up each and every grade. A finish which dragged me up on GC to the high 70’s made me get my aspirations and abilities totally confused. It also created the idea that the hang on until totally shattered strategy was the right one for the event. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Another hard stage to Pahiatua from Masterton saw the strategy fail a bit as I struggled to stay with the same people. However here that devil denial stepped it and I convinced myself it was just a single bad moment and strength from all the additional riding would soon kick in. You’d think at 70 a man would have more sense.

However over the Pahiatua track taking it easier saw me in Palmerston in reasonable condition. The chickens really came home to roost from Palmerston to Hunterville. The same strategy saw me picked up by good riders after I’d dropped from the fast front group. So all I had to do was hang on to these guys (and girls). The first three or four big hills were OK but then ‘ping’, out the back I went. Then with another group for a few hills, then ‘ping’ again. The last 10 kms all alone – that wasn’t the idea at all.

A puncture with new wheels and tyres early in the afternoon threw up another fundamental error. The wheels I borrowed from Lloyd O’Brien in Mt Eden Cycles were for tubulars and you can’t get the tyre off without breaking the bead and forcing the tyre into the rim centre. Even with help I couldn’t do it and lost over 20 minutes until the broom wagon swapped a wheel for me. Big lesson – don’t learn on the road – do your homework first. So from dead last to a miserable finish in Wanganui and GC back to the 90’s.

Had I learnt my lesson? Pigs might fly. Hang on for grim death the next morning out of Wanganui up the Paraparas. Repeat of the previous day’s morning and alone for the last few kms into the lunch stop. Miles from anywhere but the local school looked after the lunch and Jan and co supplied everything except the flat whites. I’d done the Paraparas in previous Stephen Cox tours. But of course as he’s stopped riding they’re no longer tough enough, so it’s off up Fields Track – seven kms of pure hell followed by two more climbs anyone else would classify hors category and dozens of others until arriving in Ohakune. But the penny had dropped by this time and I tackled Fields Track comfortably and teamed up with half a dozen others for a survival finish.

For Ohakune to Turangi (via National Park) holding on for as long as possible was the right strategy as there was really only one hill to tackle after being dropped. Murray and I did this in the company of a tandem and got a beautiful tow at high speed for miles and miles. Turangi to Taupo in the afternoon was another hanging on session and at 50 kph, possibly the fastest of the event at least to the bottom of Hautape. Pinged off there, it was survival to the finish but fortunately in the company of a tandem again. These two stages had seen us getting back around the 90 mark on GC.
The road out of Tokoroa blew the bunch apart very early on this longest stage of the race. I got into and stayed with a bunch that again was frankly too fast for me and several times I was 10 yards off the back at the top of the climbs. However the bunch got bigger and the hills largely stopped at Karapiro – and none too soon for me. We finished together in Hamilton but I was totally wrecked. The eight kms to the hotel took over 30 minutes.

And so to the last day.  An intelligent look at the profile and an unintelligent decision again to hang on regardless.  Out on the first hill of any significance and then five kms alone thinking Glen Murray is an awful long way away. Fortunately the cavalry came up behind and I sucked wheels the rest of the way. In my view the categorised hills weren’t the worst but they all added up to a level of numb exhaustion I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. But we stayed as a group to the beautiful downhill finish.

Jan and co spun their magic again at lunch but with only an hour before the final 35 kms there  was little time  for intelligent thought or recovery. So down on the drops straight away from the start for five kms of glory and 30 kms of total exhaustion.
Thoughts of bouncing up the hills after over 800 (not the 700 Stephen promises) kms of the previous days turned out to be a dream and the reality a nightmare. A real struggle into Pukekohe and 82nd place (nearly six hours behind the winner) and total euphoria at finishing such an incredible event. Murray was 85th with exactly the same feelings.
The absolute definitive statement on the finish line of ‘never again’ had disappeared within 24 hours and my enthusiasm for next year is massive. To me, it’s just an absolute must do. But with Swart-like support, longer term training, and a more realistic strategy for each stage. Stephen Cox’s organisation ran like clockwork and hotels and meals were excellent. So yes, it is a race. It’s also a challenge. And it does make you feel like superman to have finished in whatever position. Give it a go!

Pic caption: John Winkie (left) is pictured with his riding buddy Murray James and Stephen Swart.

Footnote: You might never have heard of John Winkie, the author of this article, but chances are you use one of his products. John developed the principle of clipless pedals in the early 80’s – a principle now used by every competitive cyclist riding mtb and road. He has made Keywin pedals for nearly 30 years. During that time the pedal has been through three major redesign phases with another nearly finished. Consistent in the design has been the triple achievements of super lightweight, great comfort and high efficiency energy transfer. This is a New Zealand invented, New Zealand made, and New Zealand marketed product. The pedals are exported to countries throughout Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asia.
John also developed Keywin Shammy Cream in the late 80’s. The name changed to Anti-Chafing Cream when market feedback showed it being used much wider than just cyclists’ shammies. It holds a dominant position in the New Zealand market and is also exported. Again totally New Zealand developed and made.
Recently joining the Anti-Chafing Cream is Keywin Muscle Cream. Containing all natural active ingredients including NZ exclusive kawakawa extract, Muscle Cream provides protection and relief for aches and pains of many types. It can be used to effectively avoid cramping – it’s a real favourite with our top moto-cross stars to avoid arm pump. But also more mundane stuff like back and joint pains, bites, grazes, bruises etc. will benefit from Muscle Cream. It’s becoming a real universal first stop treatment and is again New Zealand developed and made.