Saturday, October 7, 2017

Processing old film: Club Nationals Time Trials

It has been almost eight years since I first posted on this blog, and in those years, I've used it in a variety of different ways.

It's not a diary, locked in the top drawer of my bed-side table, so on some level, I must want people to read it.  That does affect the way I write, and to an extent, what I write about.  If reading something here triggers someone to go out and have their own adventure, that makes the effort put into the posts all the more worthwhile.  Similarly, I try to leave clues as to what my challenges were, and how I overcame them (logistical, physical or mental) and hope that others enjoy the fruits of that labour.  I do want to entertain, and inspire, and be useful - I'd be lying if I said otherwise.

That all said, this blog is very much something I write for myself.

Crafting a post takes me hours, but that process is something I really enjoy.  In and of itself, writing here is a great second hobby.

Reading old work always brings back memories, and I'm often surprised at what I've forgotten.  It's an opportunity to record things I want to remember, in isolation, but also as a package, and well worth the effort for that aspect alone.

As I've come to realise over the last couple of months, there's an aspect hidden from the casual reader, that is probably where I get the most value.  This blog forces me to work out what I think, and then the act of carefully laying it all out (over many hours, usually) both challenges me and lets me off the hook.  Confronting myself is the first aspect, but what also seems to happen is that I become forever free of re-litigating whatever issue it was that I've described.

Reflecting on that, I realise that writing has long played a role in my thought processes.  As a PhD student, I wrote as I went - the words not only securing the maths that had gone before, but informing the forward direction of travel.  (Or, also common, highlighting a glaring problem and the need to take a step back.)  The act of writing helps me move in the right direction.

Spring is here.  The fourth North Island Series has begun.  I've had yet another solid winter of riding, on the back of a 25-year-long (and ongoing) transformation as a cyclist.  But, things don't feel right, and it's high time I sorted out why.

Hopefully by the time I've got a few things off my chest, I'll be both unburdened, and clearer about what the future holds...

* * *

2016

From the moment I'd seen the M2 time trial results at the 2015 Club Nationals, I was committed to the 2016 event in Alexandra.  Missing the silver medal by 15 seconds, and the bronze by a mere 3, had stuck in my craw.  Worse had been the fact that I'd paced myself badly, and while it was somewhat satisfying to be there or thereabouts, I was keen to race again.

The first part of the 2015/16 season was dominated by the successful North Island Series, but well before that was done, I'd dusted off the time trial bike and begun preparations for nationals.

While I'd again licensed under Port Nicholson Poneke Cycling Club, the road arm was in a bit of disarray, and besides, did not typically run time trials.  On the other hand, the Wellington Masters Cycling Club ran a fantastic time trial series using a variety of courses: 3 or 4 laps of the Liverton Road circuit just south of the Haywards intersection, hill climbs from Makara to J'ville, both sides of the Akatarawas, and the south side of Paekakariki Hill, the 40km Kahutara course, and the 80km lap of Lake Wairarapa, as well as a shorter TT in Whiteman's Valley.

My intent was to do as many as possible, but the North Island Series clashed with quite a few of the early events, and even the Wednesday evening TTs on the Liverton circuit proved somewhat elusive.  I was able to do a few though, and managed to grab the club record on my final outing of the season on the 24km course.

Liverton Rd
After the Christmas hiatus, which included a wonderful cycle tour with Sarah and the daughters in Northland, I managed to log a 55-minute 40km time on the Kahutara course, despite again, lousy pacing.

Things began to go wrong around the time I received a special gift from my coach, Joel Healy:  a t-shirt reading “Train Hard, Get Lucky:  the harder you train, the luckier you get.

I got absolutely smoked on the 80km Lake Wairarapa course by David Rowlands, so despite clocking a  respectable 1:57, being over seven minutes slower than Dave was humbling.

The 80km race had been somewhat torturous, but afterwards I once again felt at home on the TT bike.  Three weekends before the nationals, I was nearing the end of a great ride on the outskirts of Carterton, when I felt a sharp pain on my right ankle.  I looked down to see a bee in its death throes, flicked it off, and thought nothing more of it.  That night, my ankle didn't feel right, and by late on Sunday afternoon, it didn't look right either.  A trip to the medical centre confirmed I'd contracted cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection.  It wasn't clear if the bee had played any role other than punching a hole in my skin, nor was the time frame to recovery obvious.

Monday was a dream, by virtue of the Tour of Flanders being raced overnight.  I spent most of the day lying on the couch with my leg up in the air, watching the 6-hour race from beginning to end.  I caught up on more recorded-cycling over the next day or two, but by Friday, my ankle was still flaring up every time I moved off the couch.

Hot, red skin: there was obviously a battle going on in there, and it was rather creepy

I was symptom free on Saturday, and enjoyed supporting Sarah at her first Centre Champs.  The next day, I tried a gentle spin while my peers were vying for the centre Road Race title.  My legs didn't last, locking up as they've often done after international travel.  It was another few days before I was able to ride properly, and then it was back onto the TT bike.

In hindsight I overdid it, something I knew was on the cards, joking to friends: “I've done my taper, and now it's back into the training”.   I was enjoying myself though, and my body hadn't forgotten its hard-won comfort on the torture machine.

The long drive down to Alexandra had much promise, but was riddled with frustration.  Sarah and I had booked on the 2:30am Bluebridge sailing.  The boat arrived into Wellington late the previous night, and while the promise of boarding at 10:30pm and heading straight into a cabin for a good night's sleep had been appealing in theory, in practice it was closer to midnight before we hit the pillows.

We spent the next night in Twizel, managing a lovely ride along the canal, before all hell broke loose and the evening was wrecked by a by-txt-message tiff with someone back home.

By the time we raced on the challenging TT course the day after next, both Sarah and I were pretty exhausted.  She was out racing while I warmed up.  At the end of her race, I retrieved my helmet from her, and set off before learning her result.

"Warming up the engine."  Thanks to Kirsten Hagan for the photo, and the caption

The out-and-back course was hard, climbing, gently at first, and then not so gently out to the turn.  Gauging how much to overdo it on the way out was tough.  Time trials always feel hard, but the good ones are usually obvious.  Crossing the line, I wasn't pleased with how I'd ridden.

On the upside, I returned to learn that Sarah had won a silver medal in her race, only 8-seconds behind the winner, and was able to watch her receive her medal.  A decent sleep in either of the previous two nights would easily have accounted for that difference and then some, but to her credit, she didn't seem to be dwelling on that like I undoubtedly would have.

Before the M2 results went up on the notice board, my name was called out to report for the medal ceremony.  Nestled in between David Rowlands and Heath Lett, I felt sure I'd got silver, but was unable to sight any confirmation of that before lining up for the podium presentation.

The chaperone put the three of us in order, and as instructed, I climbed onto the top step of the podium.  No more than 15 minutes had passed since the three of us had finished our 30+minute all out efforts, so when my name was called, and the silver medal was placed around David's neck, it took us some time to register what was wrong.  When his name was called as the winner, we silently swapped places, and he gave me my medal before receiving his rightful prize.

It's impossible to judge how I would have felt without that stuff-up.  But, I can tell you, being the “first loser” feels a lot worse than it should after an experience like that.

2016 M2 Time Trial podium.  Rowlands (36:10), Randal (36:32), Lett (37:13)

The following day, Sarah claimed a brilliant 4th place in the combined W1 and W2 Road Race.  All three riders ahead of her were unfortunately in her own W2 grade, but she performed exceptionally, finishing third in her first ever bunch sprint (for 2nd place).

The day after that, I rode in support of David, even spending half a lap out on my own to give him some time out, before collapsing at the start of the final lap.  I limped around the course to the finish.  Despite learning that Dave had won, I don't think I've ever wanted to cry more at the end of a race.  Only exhaustion prevented it, I think.  I was physically and emotionally spent.

The long drive home had its ups and downs too.  The wonderful seal nursery on the coast north of Kaikoura was the highlight, but came soon after a $200 ticket for cutting a corner on a windy hill. Apparently 30cm over a dashed white line is a ticketable offence, and the ticket itself was part of an education campaign.  Insult to injury, duly added.

Third time a charm maybe?  Roll on Cambridge...


2017

My bike and kit were fairly dialled prior to Alexandra, so the focus in the months preceding the 2017 event primarily focussed on getting my legs organised.

I'd been surprised to see Huib Buyck representing the Wellington Masters Cycling Club in Alexandra, and leapt at the chance to do likewise in the 2016/17 season, not least of all, to get rid of the horrible plunging neckline of the PNP skinsuit.  Besides, it seemed like a bloody appropriate hat-tip to the club for continuing to put on a full race calendar, all things considered.

Unfortunately, the Liverton Road circuit was out of commission due to the upgrade of the Haywards interchange, and the Wednesday night TTs had shifted out to the Miramar Peninsula.  Despite being closer to work and home, Sarah and I struggled to get to these.  I probably should have ditched the disk wheel and ridden out, such was the horrendous traffic, but after several wind-related cancellations, gave up on the idea of them entirely.

The season was not without its successes - probably the best time trial I rode was on a whim.  I'd had a disappointing road race on the Saturday, and when returning from Wairarapa on the Sunday morning, stopped in to do the Vets' Harcourt Park to Akas summit TT.  I had only my road bike with me, but the damp roads probably made that a good choice.  I also did a decent 40km TT in blustery conditions at Kahutara, pipping ex-NZ hour record holder Steve Bale for the Club Championship.  We were blitzed off the course by a flying Hamish Bond, building TT experience towards his next Olympic goal..  Watch *that* space!!!

It was around about then that the wheels fell off...

I feel very privileged to have been coached by Joel Healy - I think that he has found a very nice balance between pushing me hard when I've been threatening to fail, and letting me off lightly when I do.  He would be very glad if I had a power meter on every bike, and while I've managed to hold off on that, there's been a great deal of structure training to numbers.

One of the staple sessions is modelled on Sufferfest's Revolver:  15 reps of one minute on, one minute off, on an indoor trainer.  The first time I did it, back in April 2015, I collapsed on the 8th rep, and limped home, by then, the minutes-on feeling like an eternity, and the minutes-off passing in the blink of an eye.

I did the session nine times in the 2015/16 season.  On a good day, I could hold power through the entire session, and finished with a PB of 492W average for the on-minutes.  In the 2016/17 season, I did the session six times, and got a personal best average on five of those occasions, 3 out of 4 through August and September, and then up a level in November, and again in late February.  On that last effort, almost a week after the Club Champs, I was tantalisingly close to my goal of holding 500W for each minute, but had to make do with an average of 517W, with a 498W on the second rep, and 497W on the penultimate one.

But I wasn't moving...

A fortnight after the Club Champs, we were again racing on the Kahutara course.  It was a relatively windless day, and I had high hopes for a fast time.  I felt like I'd paced myself relatively well, but about 500m from the finish, I was passed by Ben Storey despite my one minute head start.  And, to make matters worse, despite my power being higher than a fortnight earlier, I'd been 15 seconds slower.

That result had a profound effect on me, and one which I still don't fully understand (the cause nor the effect).  I was more time-poor than usual, with a busy load at work (ironically, I'd shifted a whole lot of teaching forward to be able to be free for the week of Nationals).  Up until this point, I'd been making regular sacrifices to slot in the various training sessions Joel had prescribed, and the power numbers were showing the benefits of this.  I'd been a successful time triallist but I hadn't thought that was the cause of my enjoyment of it, and nor the reason for my commitment to it.  But, this loss, not only to Ben, but also to Steve Bale who'd turned a 40 second deficit into a 1:14 advantage, was strangely crushing.

Not in the garage any more.  Photo: Di Chesmar

Nationals was still a whopping two months out, and while I still told myself I wanted to do well there, I wasn't acting like it.  I let myself succumb to work pressures, and missed session after session after session.  I had half an eye on a second ascent of Mauna Kea, but wasn't even shirking indoor sessions to ride hills.

I teamed up with Steve, Mike Stewart and the ever-impressive Andy Hagan, to ride the Hope Gibbons Team Time Trial.  We came away with a win, largely thanks to Andy's disproportionate spells on the front.

Hope Gibbons TTT:  Hagan, Bale, Randal
I think it is fair to say I was stronger than Steve that day, but a week later crumbled at Centre Champs, finishing behind not only Ben and Steve in my age group, but a raft of others that I'd hoped to beat, despite not being in their grade.   Further demoralisation ensued, but I had little time to dwell on that before jumping on a plane to Hawaii.

Immediately upon arriving home, I went out to see Joel, and he tinkered with my bike a bit, looking for some free speed.  A 1cm spacer was shifted from below the stem to above it, and both elbow rests were moved inboard.  I then spent the weekend riding it, and was relieved to feel relatively comfortable on the bike.  We hadn't done any harm, at least.

I got out another couple of times early that week, but by then had overdosed on it, and was getting weary of the precarious position and the high speeds.  The air temperature had dropped significantly too, and while I'd made decent attempts at a couple of hill rep sessions, the fan forced cold air in the garage late in the evenings was a different story.  More missed sessions...

It's embarrassing and somewhat ironic to think I probably did more training in and around the bee-sting the previous year.  But, the event finally rolled around, nearly a full nine months after my first Revolver session for the season.  I'd been referring to club nationals as my goal since around then, but in reality, had completely lost sight of it.

The race was on a Friday, and Sarah and I made our way north with Brendan on the Wednesday.  While he and Yancey did a recce around Saturday's road race course, Sarah and I rode our TT bikes over the time trial course.  Just once, unlike Hamish Bond who we saw a couple of times, the last of which was as he set out for a second lap.  He would go on to absolutely blitz the field the next day, taking the rare step of loading his power data up on strava.

Unlike his disciplined excellence, my race was an absolute mess.  My warm up was good, though about 20 minutes from the start, I somehow knocked my power meter pod and had to spend about 5 minutes getting it sorted.

By virtue of David Rowlands moving up into M3, I started last in my field.  And, from the outset failed to get on top of the occasion.

About to take off.  Photo: Kirsten Hagan
One of the things a power meter highights, is how free the first minutes feel.  The pedalling seems easy, yet the power numbers are so high, and it can be easy to convince yourself that the meter is miscallibrated, or on the blink somehow (especially if you've been fiddling with it mere minutes earlier).  And, so it was, at Club Nationals, that I set off way too hard, wondering for the first couple of minutes whether the numbers I was seeing on my screen were correct.

Aside from that regularity, everything else felt foreign.

My position felt strange.  Since Joel had changed things up front, apparently successfully, I'd ridden forward on the saddle, successfully avoiding the "pissing glass" symptoms which arose time and again when I'd ridden too far back, obviously affecting a nerve somewhere that nerves are best left alone.  Yet here I was, having to fight to get forward in the saddle, for the first time in weeks.  I didn't understand why.

It felt like there was friction somewhere too.  I'd had the same sensations on and off during Hope Gibbons, and again at Centre Champs.  The disk wheel was only on the bike for special occasions, and while post-event checks seemed to suggest everything was fine, in the heat of the moment, it felt like the brake was rubbing, or the tyre was rubbing the frame, or something.

Unfortunately the pedalling effort is not quite enough to slow my brain down, and so I fixated on how wrong my position and the flow of the bike through the air felt.  I convinced myself that the wheel was rubbing, and I almost convinced myself to stop to check it.  I was literally one "ah, fuck it" away from stopping the bike.

The course was basically flat, but the outbound leg was predominantly into the wind.  That made it hard to supplement power data with speed, and so I had little else to go on but my power numbers and these horrible sensations.

After the turn, the tailwind gave me a healthy speed boost, but "you always pay the piper" as the saying goes, and my apparently over-zealous start began to catch up with me.  I rationalised the fade later on by figuring I'd made better gains into the wind than the resulting losses near the end of the ride.  Who knows if that's actually the case.

I managed to drag myself out of the saddle for a burst of effort as the line approached, and hung my head in disappointment the moment I was done.

Despite Sarah (who'd won a bronze medal in her race, I was delighted to learn), and Brendan, and other friends being around, I wanted to be alone.  After a few minutes, I called Joel, and was talking to him when someone came to me and told me I'd placed second.  Joel immediately began ensuring I was happy with it.

2017 M2 Time Trial podium:  Henton (35:04), Randal (35:27), Gardner (35:59)

When I smiled for that photo, I really was smiling.

* * *

I've now raced three Club Nationals time trials.  Across the three events, I've been a total of 60 seconds behind a silver and two golds.  I didn't pace myself well in a single race, and that's a good enough reason to be thankful for where I did end up.

At the time, fourth place in 2015 really did suck, and being 15 seconds slower than second place (and only 3 seconds slower than 3rd) was a hard pill to swallow.

My 22 second deficit to David Rowlands in 2016 in some ways was harder still.  Despite Dave being one of the best 40-something-year-old amateur cyclists in the world, and nursing a heavy cold at the time of the race, I genuinely believe that the sting had prevented me from giving my best that day.  Throw in the podium debacle, and there is little satisfaction remaining.

On the other hand, it has never crossed my mind to lament the 23 second deficit to Mike Henton in 2017.  This year, the gap I've thought about, if any, was the 32 seconds to third. 

The lead in to the 2017 event was like being in a slow-motion train crash.  It was obvious what was going on at the time, but apparently, I was paralysed to do anything about it.  Of course I did have options, but chose not to take them - I guess there's something optimistic about us that hopes things will magically resolve without us having to take charge and make hard decisions.  In hindsight, the saddest bit for me is knowing that had I intervened, I could have avoided a miserable couple of months of feeling shit about everything (including feeling like I was wasting Joel's time).  Calling it for what it was might even have improved the training outcomes, such as they were.

As nice as it would have been to win this year, I made choices in the months prior that worked against that result.  Too many, and I knew it when I stood on that podium.  I also knew that those choices could easily have had me standing in the crowd, and it was for that reason that the medal was an overwhelming relief.

Big Dan consoled me after the 2015 race with the gem:  "there's winning, and there's learning."  As enjoyable as a job-well-done is, this most recent reminder that to win, you need to work hard, is surely of longer-lasting value.  I was working hard, but not to win the time trial at Club Nationals.  And I'm OK with that.

As nice as it would be to rise to the challenge of riding a perfect Club Nationals TT, that's the last challenge I feel like taking on at the moment.  Ironic, since the 2018 event is in little old Carterton, just down the road from Sarah's and my home away from home.  I'm now much clearer about the sacrifices I would have to make, and realise that the convenience of the event makes little difference in the giant scheme of things.

Even a half-arsed attempt at stuff  like this comes with a massive opportunity cost.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A bicycle built for me - Part 2

I don't recall exactly when I first met Patrick Crowe-Rishworth, but it would have been not long after he started working at Capital Cycles in downtown Wellington.  As is true of many of Paul Davies' employees, Pat has a lovely manner, and knows how to make a customer feel both welcome, and confident they've left the shop with just the thing they needed.

About a year ago, I discovered he was a frame-builder, and while I found that impressive, his kind and friendly manner were really the qualities that most impressed me.

For several months, I fretted over replacing the CRX, and it may even have been Pat himself who told me about the Open Cycle U.P. (unfairly, but at least anonymously, described as hideous in Part 1).

Blind to something that had been in front of me the whole time, my eyes were finally opened by the wonderful Tom Lynskey, who had commissioned Pat to build him a frame.  While I regard Tom's taste in riding outfits sometimes questionable, I've no doubt the man knows his bike kit.

Tom's build in progress.  Photo: Michael Hayward
I'd seen Tom's bike pop up on social media, but it was bumping into the man himself one day at Capital, that triggered the eureka moment.   (Thank you, Tom!)

"Hey Pat - how would you like to build me a frame?"

And, as simply as that, we were underway.

We sat down over a coffee in early April, and I ran through the things I wanted:  same or similar geometry as the CRX, disc brakes, 35mm tyre clearance, and mounts for mudguards.  Simple, he said.

A work trip to China a couple of weeks later was a good opportunity to drop the donor to Pat, so he could take a much closer look at what made it tick, and to note where the various contact points were relative to one another.  Based on that measurement of the CRX, Pat thought that a front triangle which had been made to fit him might work for me, and if so, we'd save a bit of time. 

I was given a short shopping list:  wheels and brake calipers to account for the format change in the stopping department.  Pat said he would take care of seatpost, fork, head-set and stem.  Otherwise, the donor bike would cover most everything else.

I proved to be much more hands-off than Tom had been, and simply left the man to it.   I had plenty going on at work, and while it would have been interesting to see how it all went down, didn't really have time to spare.   From time to time I would get an email or txt update, and of course whenever I popped into Capital, it was good to hear how things were progressing.

Boss!
Near the end of the building process, we got together to chat about finishing options.  Pat has a degree in Industrial Design (specifically, a Bachelor of Design Innovation from Victoria), and it was clear to me over the next hour or so, that to him, building a bike was much more than just getting the tubes in the right place and picking a colour. 

While I had absolutely no qualms about my choices to date, these last decisions were stressing me out a bit.  Pat had some novel ideas stemming from his theoretical background and hands-on experience since, but I was nervous about regretting my choice.  In some ways, I wanted to keep the bike to myself - have it look understated so that to a casual observer, it might not look like anything particularly special. 

Prior to our meeting, I'd asked Pat about whether or not reflective paint was an option.  We'd both since done some homework, and discovered that while possible, it would be an expensive option and the frame would have to go to the US to be painted.

In the course of our conversation, the possibility of using 3M reflective tape for the decals arose, rather than faffing around with the paint.  We were both excited about the idea, and both left looking forward to the final stages in the project.  I was confident Pat has sensed my conservatism, and once again, left him to it.

I'm notoriously impatient, especially when it comes to shopping, but this process had been very different.  It was nice to let Pat control the pace and therefore enjoy the build without stressing about me asking "are we there yet?" at every turn.  Better late than rushed, we both agreed.

Then again, two months from first conversation to "here's your new bike" was nothing to be sneezed at.  Before long the request for the donor came, we did our last ride together, and soon after that it was time... 


I'm just the operator

I'd collected the bike before Pat sent me some glamour shots taken by the very talented Digby Shaw.  I was bemused at the time I spent in those first evenings looking at the bike on my phone while the real thing was downstairs in the garage.  But that didn't stop me from looking at that bike on my phone.  I couldn't believe how beautiful it looked.

Material:  Patrick Crowe-Rishworth.  Photo: digbyshawphoto.com

And another angle.  Photo:  digbyshawphoto.com

But I wasn't just looking at it.

I'm aware of post-purchase rationalisation, so I tried to be a bit critical each time I felt the need to proclaim how awesome the bike was.  But, every time I threw it around a corner on one or other of my regular road loops, or simply looked at it, I really was astonished at the extent to which Pat really had nailed every aspect of this build.

I've ridden some very nice bikes in my time, and it genuinely staggered me how wonderfully this one performed.  As you would expect from a steel frame with mudguards, commuting lights, a wide range 11-32 cassette and a mix of 105 and ultegra componentry, it was heavier than most roadies - just as well, otherwise the superlatives would have got ridiculous.

The decals were a source of pride for both of us, I think...

No flash (top) / Flash (bottom).  Flash!
... and I had some fun on early commutes trying to enjoy the effect while out and about.

Makara loop shake-down.  Fooling around with the decals

I realised that with this bike, I could be fussy.  I lost a plug out of my bar-end - something which happens from time to time - so replaced it with a lock-in variety.  Yes, slightly heavier, but unlikely to ever frustrate me again.

I had a challenging experience with the cockpit.  Neither an out-front mount for my GPS, nor a position on the stem would allow me to take the GPS unit off for charging without rotating my commuter light out of the way.  It dawned on me that this could be solved by running the GPS mount asymmetrically - it was designed to be mounted on the right of the stem, positioning the GPS dead-centre, but putting it to the right gave me the latitude I needed. 

Days later, I was still wrestling with this solution, trawling my life for instances where things weren't in the middle yet were unquestioned (including the god-damn light that was part of the problem...).  I got there in the end.

Off-centre.  Ridiculously hard to get used to...
Things reached somewhat of an equilibrium with the installation of a 52-36 105 chainset, and the second-hand Spur Cycle bell was an extravagant, but wholly fitting, accessory. (Diiiiiinnnnggggggggg!)   A visit to Oli for a couple of R O A D W O R K S stickers to mount to the otherwise bare top tube were another simple but important tweak. 

It's almost there, I think, bar a couple of minor changes.  When the bar-tape is next replaced, I'll get some gel pads added (and maybe buy something a bit more durable that the Lizard Skins tape), and I'm contemplating replacing the TRP Spyre brake calipers with a cable-actuated hydraulic set, just to eliminate the occasional faffing with the pads.

Having clocked up the best part of 3,500km on it already.  In the wet, and dark, loaded, and not, it's rocked my world again and again and again, and has proven itself a worthy upgrade of a very versatile and well-loved bicycle.  I was prepared for it to feel same-old-same-old, and with the exception of the brake upgrade, I wasn't expecting a big change.  How wrong I was. 

Loaded, in front of le Sphinx, Hienghène, Nouvelle Caledonie

I'm pretty fussy on some aspects of my bikes.  Saddle height is an obvious thing that must be right from bike to bike, but the thing that drives me most crazy when it's wrong, is the angle of the brake hoods (on a roadie), or the brake levers (on an MTB).  On the other hand, things like stiffness and ride quality are things that I can perhaps detect, but not in such a way that I really know what's causing what.  I've always been told "steel is real", but I honestly have no idea why...


The nitty gritty

I asked Pat for a bit of a run-down from his side of things, information I hadn't bothered to seek prior to engaging him. 

I'm assured the frame is made from 4130 Columbus chrome-molybdenum steel tubing.  The drop-outs, cable guides, mud-guard mounts and drink bottle bosses (a modest number, see later) are stainless steel.

The geometry is part-genius, part-miracle.

The front triangle had been pre-built for Pat himself, around a fairly aggressive road-racing design.  Pat wanted to keep my contact points in the same places, without cheating by use of radical placement of the seat on the rails, or wacky stem length.  He wanted the wheelbase and bottom bracket position relative to the wheels to be pretty much the same as on the CRX.  And he wanted my hands to be in the same place relative to the front axle, but what happened in between to reflect the switch to disc brakes.

Despite his front triangle being designed for a different rider, and a distinctly different purpose, rotating it slightly to bring the front end up:
  • made space for a cyclocross fork to give me the tyre clearances I wanted;
  • slackened the head tube slightly in fitting with the more powerful disc brakes;
  • slackened the seat tube to put my saddle in the centre of the rails;
  • transformed Pat's long road chainstays into standard CX/gravel lengths; 
  • and all the while lengthened the wheelbase to match that of the Giant.  
He was fully prepared to start from scratch, but delighted that he wouldn't have to.

Pat spent considerable time finding the right fork for me, eventually settling on the Selcof carbon gravel fork.  The difficulty he both faced and overcame, was the mudguard mounts - a funny little detail over which to choose such an important component, but one which I demanded.


Here's to the long road ahead...

This bike has taught me a few things about myself.

I was surprised at how beautiful I found it - I'm not unused to admiring something's appearance, but this has been one of only a few possessions I've had that I actually wanted to look at for the pleasure doing so gave me.

The bike was well-used by the time Sarah and I got back from a short cycle-tour in New Caledonia, and so I had a massive catalogue of good experiences on it already.  Despite knowing full well its ride quality, and that its looks were not contributing to that one iota, I nevertheless almost burst into tears when I took the frame-bag off.  I'd managed to avoid damaging the paintwork up to that point, but gentle vibration over hundreds of kilometres had taken a toll on the finish.  The bike was not ruined, far from it, but boy-oh-boy did I have a moment...

Pat sensed my distress, and invited me around to his workshop where he would take a crack at the paint to see if some of the discolouration would polish out.  By the time we met, I'd recovered significantly, realising that the scars we (or our things) carry, often become an important part of our story.  I'd also acknowledged that a bike is there to be ridden, and as pleasurable as looking at it might be, the real value of it is what you see from it.

The polish worked a little, mellowing what had been harsh lines initially.  More than that, it had given me a perfect excuse to visit Pat in his workshop.  I apologised that this blog remained unwritten despite Part 1 "hitting the newstand" almost two months ago - not really necessary, but because I'd indicated then that it was imminent.  That said, I realised the delay was important (for me), and that the story had still been writing itself in the meantime.

I'm overwhelmingly grateful to Pat for his fine work.  It was a business transaction, fair and square, so the gratitude is not what I might have directed towards Santa Claus as a kid.  Rather, I appreciate the way he conducted the process, and in particular, the way his interpretation of my needs resulted in a bicycle with the best ride quality I've ever experienced.  (Yes, and that's saying a lot.)

Apart from general parameters, my contribution to the outcome had been very limited.  I'll claim the 3M tape call, and Pat reminded me of my response to the question of bottle mounts:  "It's not a fucking Surly...".  He was quite taken by that, and in hindsight, I'm rather proud of it.

Pat reckons my frame was number 25 or thereabouts, and I've seen a couple of stunners hit the streets since.  If you're interested in Pat's work, check out his portfolio at https://crowemolybdenum.tumblr.com/ or follow him on instagram @raddnessnotmaddness.  Maybe there's some magic up his sleeves just waiting for you...

For my part, I thank you Patrick - I really couldn't be happier to be riding my very own Crowe-Rishworth, a bicycle built for me.

Where (and by whom) the magic happened


Postscript

When I finally got around to picking up the CRX leftovers from Capital, I was perplexed as to why the seat post was sitting loose in the frame.  As it turns out, my stunning Crowe-Rishworth sports one part of the original off-the-Burkes-showroom-floor Giant CRX.  Pat repurposed the seat clamp, and by doing so symbolically marked this as just another transformational step of the original bike (a whopping one, no doubt) rather than a complete reincarnation.  The clamp is showing a bit of wear and tear, with a hairline crack in it - but, Pat reckons that crack may have been there for years, and may survive many more.  When and if it goes, that'll be a special moment too, but the continuity has been established, and that's all that was needed. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Family Fun at the Day Night Thriller

I still find it hard to believe we're staring down the barrel of October already - this year really has gone by in a blur, and I've felt constantly in need of a break.  In addition to the Monday to Friday pressures (which more often than not spillover into Saturday and/or Sunday), Khulan's weekend job at Mud Cycles has also taken a toll on our ability to hang out as a family of four. 

So, it was with some delight that when the 2017 Day Night Thriller event popped up in my Facebook feed, an enquiry to my cobbers on the family couch elicited some degree of interest.  Never one to piss around when a decision is made, we were soon entered, annual leave had been approved, and an Airbnb booked in Atiamuri.

The last time I did the Day Night Thriller was back in 2011, riding with Alex Revell and Megan Dimozantos as Team Yeti, in the trails around Spa Park in Taupō.  Despite the non-technical nature of the event, or perhaps because of it, I'd had a blast then, and had always imagined it would be a fun event to do as a family, given we were all capable of enjoying ourselves on mountain bikes.

The event had since moved to Tokoroa, and rather than attempt an after-work drive on Thursday, we opted to drive north on the Thursday.  Accommodation in Atiamuri seemed to make sense at the time of booking, and actually worked fairly well in practice.  It sits at one end of the Waikato River Trail, and is about 40km from both Rotorua and Taupō, so we'd have plenty of options for a ride on the Friday without being too far from the event itself.

All winter long, I've often arrived home to find a mud-slick on the driveway, a sign that one or both of my beautiful daughters has been out on her bike (and dutifully cleaned it before stashing it in the garage).  For both Sarah and I though, an off-road ride is a rarity, so our bikes needed a bit of attention, snuck in around a hectic work schedule.

Luckily, not only are we compatible riders, but our four bikes marry together well on the Q-spear bike rack.  As a result, the loading process on Thursday morning went pretty well.  Not so well was the driver.  I'd raced on the road the previous Sunday, and what I thought was a bit of my legs rattling round in my lungs had turned into a full-blown cold. 

It rained all day long on the Thursday, making for tough driving conditions, and while Friday dawned fine, none of us seemed super-inclined to go riding.  That not only made for a restful morning, but saved us about an hour of bike cleaning later in the day, and bought me some recovery time.

Around lunch time, a walk to the lake was suggested, which I countered with a much more sensible idea.  We were soon riding, in a very European sense, and not long after we were at the lakefront.


The girls seemed content lying about in the sun, so Sarah and I left them to it and went to check out the power station below the dam. 

Atiamuri Power Station
Not only had the fresh air and the sights been nice, but it was good to know the bikes had travelled well.  

We were joined that afternoon by the grandparents, who Sarah and I left in charge of the daughters while we popped to Tokoroa to register, and top up our grocery supply.  The trip wasn't entirely necessary, but I wanted to test the water with the organisers about a grade-change.  My cold was still in full-effect, and while entering in the 12-hour option had seemed like a good idea at the time, none of us were keen now.  

Thankfully, the organisers were very encouraging, and were happy for us to make the call in the morning.  The likely options looked to be a 6-hour women's team, or 6-hour mixed if I wanted to ride (and the girls would have me).   

The day dawned fine, and we were well ahead of schedule by the time we hit the road.  Once we arrived at Cougar Park, first order of business was swapping into the 6-hour grade.  Not a soul was interested in the 12-hour, whether I was riding or not.  

We were soon setting up camp - a rather rudimentary one - but perfect given the conditions.  In between a fairly decent playlist, the organisers were occasionally giving us information about the event, including that no grade changes would be accepted after midday.  With a 10am start, that would give us a couple of hours to sort ourselves out.

Warming up
We were told time and again to send our "strongest and most experienced" rider off first.  Khulan got that nod, with Kaitlyn being next - I wanted to ensure Khulie was able to brief Sarah about any potential trouble spots on the course - sensible I thought, given the last time she'd been on the MTB was in Kaiteriteri (where not all blood stayed on the inside). 

After a briefing, we watched the 12-hour teams start, giving Khulie 5 minutes before she'd be off. 

Ladies and gentlement, start your engines...
As it turned out, that time hadn't been used particularly wisely, and when the gun went, it was a long while before Family Randal-Tumen's first rider made her way past the increasingly anxious onlookers.  Almost dead last, so the only way was up!!!

Not 15 minutes later, the first 12-hour riders started returning, and it was very nice to see how clean they were.  The 6-hour teams arrived roughly 5 minutes later again, thus beginning the endless stream of riders past our campsite. 

Khulan's first lap had taken around 30 minutes, and she arrived back reporting no technical sections, but a lot of climbing!  Her red face seemed to reinforce the point.

With Kaitlyn taking over duties, the three of us (and the grandparents in their management role) had a bit of a pow-wow about the relative merits of me suiting up.  It was agreed that I'd enjoy myself and so I went to the car to get organised only to discover I wasn't organised at all. 

I'd brought heaps of riding gear, but no shorts!!!  What to do...?!

I was wearing heavy canvas trousers - totally inappropriate riding attire.  We began to relitigate our decision in light of my sloppy packing, and 40-minutes deep into a six hour event, we decided it would be worth me taking the grandparents' car back to Atiamuri.  There seemed to be general agreement, so off I went.

Hoping to find my bib shorts on the bed, overlooked at the last minute, they were actually neatly packed away, adding slightly to my embarrassment.  I don't know what had gone through my mind, and while I could vividly remember setting aside one of the pairs I'd brought, soon after I must have fired them away with the discards. 

I put them on then and there, lest I forget them again, and grabbed the creamed rice we'd also inadvertently left behind, and some leftover pasta from the night before. 

By the time I returned to the team, Khulan's arrival at the end of our fourth lap was imminent, and while Kaitlyn headed out for our fifth, I struck off on my own for a warm-up on the streets of Tokoroa.  I made good use of the time I had, and wasn't waiting for too long when Kaitlyn arrived.

I'd decided to do a double lap, lest I be unable to get going again once stopped.  I didn't particularly ease into it, and was soon "passing on your right". 

When I handed over to my dear wife some 45 minutes later, I was probably about a kilo lighter, due to the sheer quantity of snot I'd ejected during the two laps.  That had been a lot of fun, but I'd also enjoyed the riding, and hadn't had too much trouble with traffic. 

The team manager was impressed by my consistency, and while the second lap had felt rather horrible, I'd been only about 30 second slower than the first.  At a guess, I probably lost about a minute on the climb, but had a cleaner run on the long descent. 

Sarah, looking slightly worried about the next bit!
Sarah came in looking absolutely shattered, and her time reflected it - despite being  relatively new cyclist, Sarah has well and truly mastered the art of being in the box.  Khulie was next, and by all accounts enjoyed some parts of the course more than others.

BRAAAAAP!!!!
With our 9th lap underway, it was time to start the arithmetic, and when Kaitlyn set out, we thought we needed to average about 29 minutes to complete another four laps (in fact, we'd initially overlooked the 10:05 start, so had a little more time up our sleeves than we'd thought).  While there was absolutely no way we'd manage a fifth - the race rules said all laps had to be completed by the six hour mark - barring accident or bike problems, we wouldn't have to kill ourselves to get the four extras done.

I rode again immediately after Kaitlyn, and was disappointed that the snot production had tailed off a bit.  On the other hand, it was my fastest lap of the three, largely by virtue of reduced traffic and familiarity with what I was up against. 

I headed to the far end of the camp area to watch Sarah come in, and a minute later was able to cheer Khulie on as she set off on our final lap.

Goooooo Khulie!

She came in dead on schedule, and pushed it hard to the line, an effort that didn't go unnoticed by the announcer:  "what a magnificent strong finish!!"  We agreed wholeheartedly, and were looking forward to seeing how the results had fallen.

Khulio bringing it home!
We'd packed most of our stuff into the Corolla, and once Khulan's bike was loaded up, Mum and I drove out to the carpark, all the better for a quick departure after prize-giving.  That done, we regrouped with Poppa, Sarah and the girls, and the ceremony began moments later.  The organisers did a fine job, perhaps with the exception of one award of an unfortunately named sampler-pack of beer:  "and [insert woman's name] is going home with a Hairy Box...".  Oops... 

Other than that, Murray Fleming ran very efficiently through the podiums for the 3-hour solo riders, and the various 6-hour categories, unsurprising, given this is the 15th year of the event. 

When it came time for the mixed teams, we were delighted to learn we'd placed second, 10 minutes behind a team of Smurfs!  This was fantastic in and of itself, but it was also nice to note that we'd managed the fastest lap of the division, and that our ratio of women to men was somewhat unique! 

2nd!
The most important thing of course, was that we'd all really enjoyed ourselves, and each other.  The grandparents joining us had made it even more special, and had been excellent time keepers and transponder swappers, and general encouragers. 

I realised too the folly of my original instinct.  I'd entered us into the 12-hour division, thinking that we wanted to maximise the time together.  I suppose that logic does make sense for individuals who would arrive from disparate places and then scatter to the winds once it was all done.  Why hang out for only six hours, when you could enjoy a dozen together?

For us though, I realised only with hindsight, the entire trip was family time.  And when push came to shove, enjoying the second six hours of the event not on our bikes but soaking in thermally heated water at the bottom of Spa Park, having a meal at a restaurant, eating dessert back at our bach, and even watching a bit of election coverage, was actually nicer than doubling up on the first six hours.  As nice as they were, the economist's law of diminishing marginal utility surely dictates they could not be beaten. 

As it turns out, more is not always better, unless the "more" in question is simply some top-quality family time. 

I'm so proud of us.  Not because of how fast we rode, but because we did it together.

Thanks Event Promotions, for a great event.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Cycle-touring New Caledonia

Right off the bat, I'd like to thank Christopher Stevenson for putting New Caledonia on my radar. He rode there in September 2015 with his brother in law, and came back singing high praises.

Unrelated to this, I started learning French on my phone that Christmas, using duolingo.  And, I'm married to a Mongolian, for whom coast-line is still a remarkable thing, despite living in New Zealand for the best part of 15 years.

An Air New Zealand sale came and went, but, after spending a few weeks regretting not pouncing, I scoped out the dates of the mid-trimester break, and was ready to pull the trigger when the inevitable "Islands on Sale" email arrived in my Inbox.

Trip on.

The planning

My job as Associate Dean of Students for a faculty with over 5000 of them is, not-surprisingly, very stressful at times.  Stress affects my level of patience, and when I realised I was getting unduly snappy at home, a self-imposed exile was in order.

I took a couple of days' annual leave, and caught the train over to Carterton.  Until Sarah arrived the following evening, I dipped in-and-out of work email and other tasks, and out-and-in to research on the road network of New Caledonia.

With my prior being that everyone knew what Chris had passed on, I was surprised to find a dearth of the sort of trip reports you might find here.  Notable exceptions were both penned by Bruce Ashley, and included a magazine-style account which is motivational, has a few suggestions, but is short on detail, and a more comprehensive account of a traditional cycle tour, which had some great photos and description of the route they took, and what they saw.  Chris himself had emailed me his route, including a lament that they didn't spend enough time on the bike before heading to Nouméa.

All good tips.

La Grande Terre, or the main island of New Caledonia, is long and thin.  Based on what I'd read, and a fair bit of assumption, I figured the spine would be hilly (and therefore great riding).  Bruce had also noted: "It’s best to go with the flow of the prevailing south-easterly trade winds that blow for four days out of five and carry you north along the coast" - the sort of comment no discerning trip-planner should ignore.

As the day wore on, my frustrations at the paucity of information grew.  But, each time I turned my back on the office, I made a wee bit of progress - perhaps finding accommodation in a convenient place, an OK map, or a couple of towns with the right sort of distance between them.

A bus timetable eluded me for a long while.  Searching for "New Caledonia bus timetable" or variations on the theme, were not fruitful.  The inter-city bus company, RAI, had a website, but then (and now), it read:  "Site en cours de construction. Pour connaitre les horaires des bus, appelez notre n° vert."  My French was more than up to the task of knowing that was bad news, and I'm phone averse at the best of times (i.e. even when speaking in my mother tongue).  

My breakthrough was searching in French, which quickly netted me this pdf.  Although I'd been browsing the various Office du Tourisme sites, google looks more carefully, I guess.

Plan A wasn't great, I decided, after coming up with what felt like a better alternative.  I was happy with the roads, with the exception of a connection which appeared on a couple of maps, but not all.  We would also be somewhat dependent on the bus timetable being correct, and, I realised, I was heading into Bruce's tailwind.

Plan B not only resolved those issues, but pulled in what I imagined to be better roads too, as follows:
  • Saturday, arrive midday, ride 80km to La Foa
  • Sunday, cross the island, ride up the coast a bit, and cross back to Bourail.  Hilly, and long...
  • Monday, bus to Koné.  Cross the island, and ride up the coast to Hienghène.  Hilly then flat, with an optional out-and-back to Poindimié 
  • Tuesday, up the coast, then cross to Koumac
  • Wednesday, bus to Nouméa

I played around with the Strava mapping tool, getting distances and amounts of climbing.  The second day would be a challenge (190km and close to 3000vm), but we'd be fresh.  The bus trips were both first thing in the day, and I liked the thought that we'd be able to get advice from the accommodation staff the night before on the wheres and hows of things.  We were spending little time on RT1 - Route Territorial 1 - the main highway on the west coast, and we'd have a scorching tailwind on all the coastal sections!

I'd printed off a map of the island, and after marking it up with a highlighter, stared at it long and hard, and with my rogainer's hat on, tried hard to spot faults or better options.  It stood the test of time, and it was on to accommodation booking.

Hienghène was a doddle, thanks to Hotel Koulnoue Village being listed on booking.com.  That was duly locked and loaded, much to Sarah's delight.  Monitel was also relatively simple to organise in Koumac, with a convenient online booking form.  La Foa and Bourail were proving elusive though, but after a few unanswered emails, and the passing of a week or so, we confirmed Motel Allamanda in Bourail, and an Airbnb a few kilometres outside of La Foa.

In the end, there was little to do for about a month, aside from a bit of tinkering with bike setup.

My gear list is tried and true (well it suits me, at least).  Despite having a couple of excellent Revelate bags, I wanted a bit more capacity than the Pika affords.  Rather than buy a second Viscacha, I thought I'd give the Terrapin a whirl, and indeed it proved to be an excellent purchase.  I can't recommend these bags highly enough.

Stealth Bike Bags whipped me up a custom frame bag, and it took me a couple of stabs to temporarily lower the bottle cages to make space for the bag, and a couple of 900mL bottles:  a Wolf Tooth B-Rad Mounting base (locally sourced), and a Shimano gadget, designed on account of their Di2 batteries sometimes being in the way, but also potentially handy for bikepackers.  The Wolf Tooth options are way more versatile, but you also pay a premium for quality...

Many words, photos and a few stats follow, with a range of purposes.  To a large extent, they're for me - I get to relive the trip as I write, and to remind myself later of what I did and how I felt.  But, it all concludes with a couple of maps, and some top tips.  So, Ctrl-End if you want to head straight to the punchline.

Day 1:  Tontouta International Airport to Farino

Our flight out of Wellington was early, and we turned up for it with just a couple of (cardboard) bike boxes.  His @ 20kg, and hers @ 15.  We had our helmets with us as carry-on, and I had a small back-pack with a few bits and pieces we thought we might appreciate on the plane.  Everything else was packed with the boxes, and aside from the boxes themselves, would be leaving Tontouta airport with us.
Good to see the bike was where I'd left it the night before

We didn't have much time in Auckland, but long enough that the transfer between the terminals was relatively stress free.

The international flight was not long - under three hours - and aside from some spectacular turbulence which had the flight attendants scurrying to get the food trolleys secured in the galley, the highlight was just before touchdown when we were able to see the spectacular colour contrasts between the open sea and the lagoon surrounding much of the island.

New Caledonian Barrier Reef and Lagoon.  A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008

The boxes were waiting for us at the "Hors format" area in the baggage claim, and once out in the terminal, the assembly process began.

Once that was done, it was time for me to tackle one of the elements of the trip I'd been worrying about - stashing the boxes.  The airport had no formal storage facility, but Chris had told me he'd (successfully) left his boxes with a cleaner.

I followed his lead, and soon had negotiated, in French, an arrangement with Myriam that I'd be back the following Saturday for them!  She seemed delighted to help, and gave every indication that the 1000 Franc tip was both unnecessary, and appreciated.

That having gone as well as we could've hoped, we made our way outside, and fired up our GPSs.  I'd preloaded the New Caledonia base map onto both our units, downloaded from http://garmin.openstreetmap.nl/ and courses (route and elevation) via gpsies.com.

Our first intersection!

Immediately outside the airport was a supermarket, and it was a perfect place to fill our bottles, and, just because we were in "France", smash back the first of many baguettes.

RT1 was our only option for most of the ride to La Foa, but there were two instances where we usefully got off the main road for a while.

The first of these was immediately after Boulouparis, and started with a terribly rough patch of tarmac, in stark contrast to the smooth surface of RT1.  After a few minutes jiggling along, we stopped for a wee, after which I was keen to head back to the highway.  Luckily, Sarah had headed another 100m down the road for a bit of privacy, and when I joined her, noted we'd come to the end of the rough stuff, and we duly enjoyed the rest of the loop.

I was surprised by how dry everything was. I'd imagined a lush (and fairly steep) tropical island, but the countryside either side of RT1 was rolling, and very, very, dry.

The second diversion was about 10km before La Foa, and we made regular photo stops.  Signage all became interesting, en Francais, and there were the usual unexpected sights one gets when riding a bike in an unfamiliar place.  Nearing La Foa we had to make our ways past a large cow with a very funky pair of horns, and a slightly feisty spring to her step.  I went first, and after making my dash for freedom, stopped to watch how Sarah got on.  She made it look easy, and we were soon rolling in to La Foa.

Mooove on, nothing to see

We'd agreed to the dinner and breakfast package at the night's airbnb, and, had left NZ with 8 One Square Meal bars.  So, we made do with a cold drink at the last supermarket for a while.  We made a quick stop at the Office du Tourisme, scoring a handy paper copy of a road map.

Our digs were about 10km out of town, a great location given that it shortened the long ride planned for the following day by about the same amount.  We made one bad turn, misinterpreting the owner's directions, but after a 5 minute climb and a 30 second descent (back-tracking), we were soon in the right place, and getting situated.

While my dealings with Myriam at the airport had been successful, I soon discovered that duolingo hadn't prepared me well for conversing.  Our dinner was a "family affair", and my inability to translate Sarah's many questions, and understand and respond to the things our hosts were telling us, was frustrating, albeit not completely hopeless.

The meal was fantastic, and we gleaned most of the ingredients had come from the land, rather than the supermarket.  Venison, "root" - possibly taro, papaya salad, and a stunning starfruit tart for dessert, were all delicious.

When we eventually turned in, I fired up duolingo, and one of the first things it asked me translate summed up the whole interaction nicely:  Translate:  "je suis une baleine".  I could of course, not that it is something I would ever want to use on the street...   We slept well.

Stats:  91km, 710vm climbed, one strava segment, one QOM for Sarah, 29 degree average, 34 degree max.


Day 2 - Farino to Bourail

We had a good breakfast, courtesy of our hosts.  The leftover starfruit tart was a personal highlight!  We rolled out soon after in a lovely, mild 16 degrees.

Rejoining the main road after leaving Farino

Unlike the previous day's riding through sunburnt pastures, we were instantly riding through mature trees.  For a while, we climbed gently up-valley, but eventually we passed through a small settlement, and the road tipped up.  In glorious fashion...

As we made our way up the 8km climb, we were treated to the occasional waterfall, view, beautiful gradient, and the ever-so-occasional car.

For the most part, the road surface was smooth and fast, but we there was one section that resembled a patchwork quilt of pothole repairs, something we'd see from time to time across the whole network.

Not so smooth

At the top there were a couple of young locals who watched us silently as we took photos and grabbed a snack.

Hilltop #1

The descent was relatively steep in places, and Sarah didn't much enjoy the extra weight and the effort it demanded to keep the bike under control.  We made a few stops to let her rims cool down a bit.

We passed many beautiful cemeteries over the week.  The first one we passed seemed to have had little French influence, among other things, lacking the high wall that would prevent you seeing in.  This style was much more reminiscent of those Megan and I occasionally passed on the Cape Epic.

Cemetery

There was much excitement when we reached the major turnoff south towards Canala and Thio.  We went in the opposite direction, our enthusiasm tempered slightly by the rising temperature and the hills.  We were soon down in a valley, and followed it towards the coast.

Rather than turn immediately north, we made a short detour to Kouaoua.   Bruce Ashley's blog had noted how indistinct stores could be, and the supermarket here was no exception.  Luckily there were a couple of customers parked outside, and a small banner alerting us to it.  We grabbed a bottle of Orangina (more like lemonade plus orange juice than fanta), a baguette, and a couple of pains au chocolat, and headed down to the harbour for a picnic.

Somewhat camouflaged supermarket ahoy!

We'd read about mosquito-borne dengue fever and had packed some insect repellant.  But, there was no sign of anything untoward at the beach, nor at any other point on the trip, and it remains unopened.

Not far from the beach was the terminus of an impressive conveyor belt which we'd first seen coming down out of the mountains on a very impressive bridge (it looked like a ski-jump, at first glance, and from far away had us guessing as to its purpose).  Some 10-15km later, it ended in the middle of the harbour.  It wasn't in use, and we were able to check it out first hand back at our turn off.  The repressed (and unformed) civil engineer in me had a close look while Sarah powdered her nose.

It would be fun to see this in action

Our hosts back in Farino had told us it hadn't rained there for a month.  The river level was very low, and it did seem like a very smart time to build a new bridge!

Bridge(s) over La Kouaoua - major towns near the ends of rivers almost always shared their name

The next river valley really hammered home the extent of the drought!  Stunning, but probably not at all convenient for the locals.

La Kajivu - or at least, where La Kajivu usually is!

The next climb was exposed, and hot, but luckily not too long!  I'd grabbed Sarah's dry bag out of the Viscacha, and in gentlemanly fashion, had carried it up in my back-pack.  The pack was largely brought with us for this purpose, though it was good to have it as carry-on, and should we need to do an epic supermarket shop could be deployed then too.  Otherwise, it was stowed in the top bungy of my saddle bag, rolled up inside-out to keep all the straps out of harm's way.

I seem to cope with the heat well, though I dare say I'd be in big trouble if I became dehydrated, because sweating profusely (and keeping moving to maintain some wind chill) is a big part of the process.  Sarah gets a very red face, and finds it quite unpleasant, so luckily found me waiting for her in a nice shady spot.  And, once we got down into the next valley, she disappeared off into the river for a paddle and to drench her helmet.

A 600m climb beckoned.  We'd bought some simple UHF radios from Dick Smith (online, and still in existence, apparently).   We entertained one another by chattering away for the duration of the climb.  We didn't use them much otherwise, but they took a bit of the stress out of getting separated on climbs or descents, and were fantastic in an urban environment too when not wanting to rely on cell-phone roaming or a local SIM.

400/600?

It was clear why there was so much mining in these parts - the soil was a very deep red, presumably due to some useful mineral or other.  A couple of wrecked cars rotting away in a ditch hinted at the cyclical nature of things...

Back to from whence they came?

As we neared the bottom of the descent, we passed through an active mine.  Whereas speed differentials can be at times frustrating at home, on a tour like this they create great opportunities for staged photography.

Sarah on the road through Poro Mine

We'd had good success at Kouaoua with regards shopping.  Houaïlou got the same sized dot on the map, and we were in some need of a cold drink when we got there.  Alarmingly, everything seemed closed up, but on the way out of town (just past the turnoff north to continue up the coast), was a gas station, which we made good use of.

Orangina, Iced Tea, and Pringles (for the salt)

Our return crossing of the island was nowhere near as hilly as the first had been, and consisted mostly of a 50km false flat followed by a couple of reasonable hills (topping out at about 400m).

We'd seen a lot of a couple of things on the ride, and we were treated to more of the same on this leg.  The first was empty stalls by the side of the road.  We'd hoped these would be stocked with delicious ripe fruit (well Sarah had, at least - fruit is too sticky for my liking), but aside from a few root vegetables or pumpkins, they were almost all empty.  The second thing was car wrecks.  These were strangely common, and just seemed to lie where they'd fallen: burnt, or crumpled, or just plain broken down.

Wreck #63

The day had marched on, and by the time we crested the Col des Roussettes, it was time for lights on.  Unfortunately this meant a few kilometres on RT1 in the dark, but we were sufficiently well lit, and the drivers sufficiently alert, that we arrived in Bourail with no incident.

The motel was at the end of town we'd entered, and the proprietor appeared in a car no sooner had we started sniffing around.  We were soon cleaned up, and fed, courtesy of the supermarket on the main drag, and a snack restaurant which was open.  There was no sign of the bus station, but we could deal with that matter after a good sleep.

Stats:  184km, 2720vm climbed, five strava segments, five QOMs for Sarah, 26 degree average, 38 degree max.


Day 3 - Koné to Koulnoue Village

This morning's logistics were not our finest work, but we got there in the end!

Rather than go for breakfast and then vacate the room, we headed down the main drag with our bikes.  Food wasn't going to be a terrible problem, but before settling down somewhere for breakfast, we thought it wise to sort out the bus ride to Koné, about 110km north-west along RT1.  

The bus stop eluded us on our first couple of passes, but in the end a bus arrived, and the vacant lot about 150m south of the supermarket revealed its true purpose.  This particular bus was heading to Nouméa, but the driver said the one we wanted should be along in 5 minutes.  

We REALLY didn't want to miss it, so we fired up the radios, and I dashed to the supermarket for a couple of cans of Nescafé, and some breads for breakfast.  As it turned out, the 5 minutes were more like 45, and we could have had a proper meal somewhere.

When I asked our bus driver if she'd take us and our bikes to Koné, she initially frowned before breaking into laughter.  I think she probably gave my face enough time to exhibit shock or disappointment or some such, but not long enough that I started to cry!  We stowed the bikes, paid, and a couple of hours later were disembarking in Koné.  

It was late morning, and the day had really heated up.  We bought some bread and drink from a supermarket, withdrew a bit more cash from an ATM, and then made a short stop at a cafe for some coffees.  While we probably should have had more to eat, we were keen to get a move on.

Heading north-east, again

As we neared the first major climb of the day, I watched in fascination as the temperature reading on my GPS went up and up.  Only riding into some cloud cover prevented it from tipping into the 40s, which was just as well, because those clouds coincided perfectly with the hill.

We hung out for a while at the first summit at a very nice rest area, enjoying the views and some shade.

Col de Tango

After a few short but savage lumps, we descended onto a bridge at the base of the last significant climb of the day.  Sarah was in front of me, and blasted over the bridge, but I called her back, and minutes later we were both stripped down to shorts and enjoying some beautiful, cool and clear water over our skin.  We probably spent about 15 minutes relaxing there, before getting reorganised and back to business.

A bit of R&R

I was becoming increasingly fascinated by how much variety there was in both the terrain, and associated bush.  Despite the island being relatively small and us moving fairly slowly across it, things changed quickly.  Gone were yesterday's barren and harsh landscapes - today we were being treated to plenty of jungle.

Glorious

After the main descent, we followed a river towards the coast.  I'd mapped a visit to Poindimié - an out-and-back which would have added 27km or thereabouts to our tally.  The hot and somewhat hectic morning had us both running a bit low on gas, and while the supplies at the town would have been welcome, Touho was about the same distance away in the right direction, and we were both keen to knock off.  Poindimié will keep and the store a Tuoho was indeed a mighty fine substitute!

Looking south-east towards Poindimié

The late start had us flicking lights on yet again, but we pulled into Hotel Koulnoue Village with no other troubles.  After a shower, we discovered we were a little early for the buffet dinner, so made do with a cold glass of beer.  Probably 95% of the beer I've had in the last couple of decades has been on cycle tours - the cool, savoury drink really slides down well in that context.

Cheers

The dinner buffet was expensive, but had some great food (particularly sea-food salads) and the all-you-can-eat nature was handy.  Our swanky bungalow was actually cheaper than the meal, but overall the costs were reasonable, and it sure beat trying to make to on supermarket fare.

Stats:  113km, 1465vm climbed, two strava segments, zero QOMs for Sarah, 29 degree average, 38 degree max.


Day 4 - Koulnoue Village to Koumac

After going crazy at the buffet breakfast, it was time to suit up and roll out.

Farewell (for now)

It had rained heavily overnight, and while the roads were mostly dry, we could feel already that we'd face a day-long, new challenge - humidity.  We had another unwelcome companion.  Various cats and dogs seemed to be resident at the resort, and one dog decided he'd escort us to the gate, and then, the river, and then...

A bright church, with some of Koulnoue's rock formations lurking the background

"And now you go over there..."

The increasingly annoying mutt was not deterred by other loose dogs that rushed out to investigate, nor a 50m climb.  A stop-go man understood my plea that he grab the dog, but ignored it, smiling as if to say "good luck".  After six excruciating kilometres, we were only able to get away from the bloody dog by virtue of the fact that he couldn't run fast enough downhill!!!

Fortunately, neither the dog nor his kin caused any lasting harm, so we rolled into Hienghène in good spirits.  It was Tuesday morning, and a local market was in full swing.  We rested our bikes against a handy wall and checked everything out.  We were moderately tempted by some folded-paper flowers which would've made nice gifts for the girls.  There were plenty of veges for sale, but also some seriously delicious-looking baked goods.  Unfortunately though, our bellies were well and truly full, so we passed on everything.

Tuesday morning market at Hienghène

We were soon leaving town...

There's never any doubt that you've left...

... and looking forward to our next milestone a few kilometres up the road.  It wasn't hot, but the humidity made it feel a lot warmer than the much higher, but drier, temps had felt the days prior.



Despite the humidity, it was nice to be riding on the coast.  Up ahead, we could see, hitting the ocean, the major valley in which we would find La Ouaième, and the free 24/7 three-car ferry across it.

As luck would have it, we'd just missed it, so were able to enjoy watching it do its thing before our turn came and we were able to roll-on, roll-off ourselves.

La Ouaième Ferry

The roadside stall we'd always imagined was waiting for us on the far side.  Still somewhat overflowing from breakfast, rolled crêpes for 200 Francs were too good to pass by.  There were simple cycle-tourist principles at stake too - given the uncertainty as to the next refuelling stop, its a risky business passing by food on offer.



I had a choice of "fraises" and "chocolat", and foolishly chose the former.  The grass was almost certainly greener on the other side, but it felt good to finally partake in this aspect of New Caledonian life.

We'd occasionally pass locals walking along the road (or have cars pass us), and without exception, their faces would light up in response to our cries of "bonjour!".  Boring vegetables had made way for trinkets in the stalls.  Still not much use to us.

0/10 on the deliciousness scale...

This was a stunning part of the island to ride through, and was much more what I'd imagined the island would be like.  The hills were steep and bush-clad, and we were often treated to views of a large waterfall cascading down on route to the ocean.

One of the more unusually-located derelict cars.  A Dukes of Hazzard stunt gone wrong?

Signage as we were leaving Hienghène had given us distances to Pouébo and Ouégoa.  When we reached the former, we got to the far end without seeing a store, and given the fact we were both now ready for lunch, we turned around to try again.  In the end we had to ask locals, and after inching forwards on the back of the previous person's advice (in French, spoken as if to someone fluent), we found ourselves about 500m off the main road, walking into a nondescript building and finding about a dozen people (all affluent, by their attire, and all white), tucking into a gourmet lunch.

A gourmet restaurant, for those in the know, only.

Our hearts leapt, but we were soon informed that they'd reached their quota of servings for the day (20, if I'm not mistaken), and we were told we should have called ahead.  They were good for a couple of cans of orangina though, and chilled water for our bottles.  Better than nothing, but our OSM supplies were dwindling, and some proper food would have been nice.

In one of the sets of directions I'd been given, I'd caught mention of "the blue building" (in French), and lo and behold, about 100m down a side road was a store.  Closed between 12:30 and 3pm from memory (or 12 and 3:30).  C'est la vie...

I'd read about the Ouvanou Memorial, and managed to catch the brightly coloured tributes tucked away on the right hand side of the road.  We stopped and paid our respects before continuing our ride.

A memorial to ten Kanaks who were guillotined by the French in 1868

We thought we'd hit pay-dirt a few minutes later, when we finally passed a stall with some ripe fruit.  Unfortunately, this was in the form of two supermarket bags, labelled 500F and 600F respectively ($7-8 NZD), each sporting a huge bunch of ripe bananas.  As peckish as we were, we didn't want 10 bananas each, just a couple, and nor did we want anyone chasing us down with a machete!

There was a chap tending his lawns across the road, so I hailed him, and we attempted to negotiate purchase of eight bananas from one of the bags.  In hindsight, he may not have spoken French - he certainly showed no signs of understanding our requests for only eight, and he just kept pointing at the written price.  We gave up, politely, leaving him to return to his lawns.

We passed a snack restaurant which was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but just as before we were to turn away from the coast, there was another snack restaurant which appeared out of the blue.  Sarah had a "meat sandwich" while I had a chicken panini, and we both enjoyed an ice-cold orangina.  It was not cheap food by any stretch, but it was delicious, and definitely filled a gap.

Before hitting the road again, we walked down a short track to the beach, and Sarah had a bit of a paddle to cool her feet down.

While the food was welcome, it meant we hit what was probably the worst hill of the tour with full tummies and cold legs.  The 3km climb up to Col d'Amos averaged 10%, hitting almost 20% in places.  It was a grovel, especially combining the unfortunate timing and our luggage.  Sarah admitted to a tactical walk in one place, something I'd seriously considered myself.

Reunited, so a happy ending

Fearing a brake-burning descent, we were pleasantly surprised with the non-technical downhill, and we were soon turning off the main highway for a short diversion into Ouégoa.  Aside from a glimpse of the town, we needn't have bothered.  When we rejoined the highway about a kilometre from where we'd left it, there was a perfectly good (and open) mini-mart, but, we weren't to know, and after our struggles in Pouébo, were happy taking no chances.

The road through to Koumac was fairly taxing, with quite a few short and sharp climbs.  It dawned on us that we were lucky to be riding these roads at all.  There had clearly been a large bushfire in the area, and had it been in full swing, there's absolutely no way we would have got through.  (We may have been able to bypass it with a 40km-odd diversion north of Ouégoa.)  As it turns out, a week earlier, we'd have been royally screwed.

Sarah, possibly wondering what exactly she needed to watch out for.

The last kilometres were sweet, especially for my cobber.  We were peeling off some decent elevation, and she was firmly on my wheel.   "This is a great tailwind", she shouted at one point, to which I replied "not for me!" and continued my toil into the headwind!  But, better for knowing I was being useful.

We found Monitel without too much trouble, and were soon enjoying beer and pizza, just the sort of meal you can get away with at the end of a long day on the bike.

Stats:  147km, 1905vm climbed, two strava segments, two QOMs for Sarah, 26 degree average, 31 degree max.


Day 5 - bus transfer to Nouméa

We did ride our bikes, but only briefly.  We had a couple of hours to waste before our 11:30 bus to Nouméa, so popped out to the Marina de Pandop, and rode from the bus station in central Nouméa to our hotel at the Baie des Citrons.  Sarah inadvertently got a QOM on a small hill en route!

We did have some drama with the bus, on account of running our supply of low-denomination notes dry.  The driver would not accept a 10,000F note for our 3,000F fare.  Luckily, we had enough in change to get us to Bourail, whereupon we purchased tickets for the second half of the journey after buying lunch from the supermarket.  Although a minor glitch, I fixated on it for much of the bus ride, despite it being a relatively cheap lesson (~1000F premium for buying the tickets in two chunks...).


Day 6 - Le Barrage de Yaté

I'd really been looking forward to this ride, and in many ways it was the one I enjoyed most of all.

The Lac de Yaté had been an obvious and interesting feature of the island, even before David Rowlands (who has raced the Tour of New Caledonia many times now) recommended the day's route to us.

What surprised me when I mapped it, was the fact that the lake was sitting at about 150 metres above sea level.  It was a long ride when started from the edge of Nouméa, and it was even longer when including the ride to and from that side of the city from our accommodation.  I hoped the rest day the day before, and the fact that we'd have no luggage, would compensate from the hefty (approx 180km) distance.

We began by following the waterfront promenade.  It seemed to be a local roadie staple, and already in our short time in Nouméa we'd noticed bunches going up and down, up and down, up and down.  A lovely road, but I think I would find it became tedious pretty quickly.

We were down to our last couple of OSMs, so we needed to make a supermarket stop before leaving town completely, in anticipation of no supplies thereafter.  Despite the size of the supermarket, there wasn't a single banana in the place, so I made do with an apple for Sarah, and a couple of boxes of Nature Valley bars for our pockets.

We passed half a dozen more stores (and who knows how many bananas) before we made the left turn onto RP3 shortly after La Coulée, raiding the drinks fridge at one of them.

There were a couple of decent climbs before we finally dropped down to ride alongside the lake which is responsible for about 20% of the country's electricity (source:  pecc.org).  We found ourselves (hot and sweaty) in a very photogenic part of the country, and I enjoyed taking advantage of my riding buddy's presence.  As much as I like photos of my bike with a stunning back drop, Sarah is a nicer alternative.

Exhibit 243

We'd both been rocking MTB shoes and these certainly helped when clambering up road cuttings.

Lac de Yaté

We eventually passed the road we'd take back to Nouméa, and were soon heading along a dirt road to admire the dam.  We had a good snack break there, and debated whether or not to make a visit to Yaté, as originally planned.


Le Barrage de Yaté

Sarah's enthusiasm had stayed up north, and unfortunately, we were about as far from home as we were going to get.  The deviation to Yaté would have added about 350m of climbing, and since we were not in need of supplies, decided to ride forward only in the hope of decent views down to the coast.

Downstream of the dam

As it turned out, we would have had to start the descent for the view (if any), so we called it quits and began the ride back to Nouméa.  Not before soaking up elevated views of the lake, and the roads around it from a viewing point near the saddle.

Well worth climbing in the hot sun for views like this

I made my one and only driving error leaving the view point, spending a couple of seconds riding as if I was in New Zealand.  Luckily, the road was narrow (and quiet), so the correction to the right side of the road (in both senses) was easy and without unfortunate repercussions.

Sarah's legs had followed her head, so I was forced to embark on an exercise aimed at restoring her head (and therefore, I hoped, her legs).  There was something compelling about my attempts, and our paced picked up, bringing our ETA back into the "reasonable" category.

We were clearly passing through an area riddled with mountain bike trails.  The trails themselves were not particularly evident (and there were no riders), but regularly we'd cross a bike "path" painted across the road.  I was bemused that I could never quite make out what exactly these were connecting, but I assume the tracks were there.

We'd traded the river valleys and coastline from our previous rides, for massive basins, and it fascinated me both how vast the landscape felt, and how quickly we were traversing it.

Sarah was gagging for some fresh water to cool herself with, and it proved elusive for a long while.  Eventually we found some, and it was a welcome respite for her.  I fussily kept my feet dry.

Mongolian foot-cooler

Leaving the last major basin, we climbed up onto a ridge which featured some puny windmills...



... before plunging down the other side.  Unlike the Col d'Amos, where we definitely drew the short straw in terms of direction of travel, we definitely wouldn't have enjoyed doing this bastard road upside down.

Playing model for a change

We were back in mining country, and though it wasn't as obvious as it had been on the drop into Poro, at some point we appeared to be moving through a working mine.

A road-side store was a welcome milestone just south of Mont-Dore.  We refuelled there, and I decided discretion was the better part of valour and cut out the loop around Mont-Dore itself.  On the plus side, it shortened our ride by 5km or so, but at the expense of a climb over the Col de Plum.

Fearing a scolding, I rode straight over the top, but waited for Sarah 250m down the other side.  When she arrived, she told me she'd noticed some water fountains that she wanted to check out.  When we got back to them, we found locals filling containers at taps, a la the Petone aquifer.  We filled our own bottles, more out of principle than on account of thirst, and then resumed.  (The next day, we noted bottled water at the supermarket from this very source.)

I'd mapped a return trip across Nouméa rather than taking the longer route around the foreshore.  It was a disaster, and the promenade would have been not only more pleasant, but probably quicker too.  Live and learn.

Stats:  177km, 2190vm climbed, 17 strava segments, 9 QOMs for Sarah, 25 degree average, 34 degree max.


Wrapping up

Our flight back to NZ was at midday, so we booked a morning shuttle with Arc en Ciel.  We were the first pick-up (of many), so despite the early collection, we didn't arrive at the airport until 10 or so.

Then began our long and nervous wait for the boxes to materialise.  While we got them in the end, I'm not sure I'd want to subject myself to the stress again.  We never did have to confront how Air NZ would have handled unboxed bikes, and we certainly had no time to organise alternatives if they didn't have them for sale, and insisted on them.

We had seen a multitude of bike stores on a walkabout the day before (all along or in the vicinity of Route du Porte Despointes).  I dare say we'd have been able to source a couple of boxes from them, had we attempted to.

We never did see Myriam again, but thankfully we did see the boxes.  I'd stripped front wheels and handlebars the night before, so they were pretty much ready to drop in, and we actually spent longer in the check-in queue than doing the boxing.  Both a fraction of the nervous wait, though.

Merci, indeed

Her note was totally effective though, it's just that the folk at the counter didn't know where to find them.  It felt like a bullet-dodged, but it's possibly a perfectly reliable strategy...

We'd covered just shy of 750km and climbed 9000vm, with an unexpected, yet glorious, range of environments.  We'd been reasonably lucky with supplies en route, but the OSMs from home had been a sensible call.  We hadn't used the water purifier (nor did we drink from streams), and almost all of our spare clothing had been unused (rainwear and warm clothes particularly).  The backpack, jandals and radios (none of which I'd have had if alone) were spot on.  The frame-bag had been an excellent store for the bike-related bits (tubes, tools etc), while a Revelate Gas-tank sitting on Sarah's top tube had been a good place to keep our lotions and potions (sun-cream, Sweet Cheeks Butt Butter - don't leave home without it, hand sanitiser, lip balm).  The Revelate saddle bags are a magnificent bit of kit, and performed true to form.  The closest we came to a bike problem was Sarah dropping her chain once.

Our heatmap, showing it all together.  The two-day ride in the centre from Tontouta to Bourail.  The two day ride in the north from Koné to Koumac.  And the day ride east of Nouméa in the south

I'm very much looking forward to going back.  Sarah didn't spend enough time at the beach, so next time I'll be twisting arms of our two beautiful (and French-speaking) 17 year olds to take her out to the Ile des Pins while I ride my bike for a while.  

I know where I'll be heading:  the only main road crossing of the island we didn't do was Boulouparis to Thio.  Accommodation pending, Thio is 75km from Tontouta, and Canala is 35km further up the road.  Poindimié is 265km from Tontouta, so doable in one-and-a-half days without going nuts.  Kaala-Gomen is 160km from Poindimié.  I took careful note of the road sign-posted from Hienghène, and again when we passed the other end on the bus from Koumac.  There are various "secondary roads" and "dirt tracks" shown on the paper map, but I have some confidence that the two sides of the island connect (and that the favoured route will be clear on the ground).  There's a back road from Kaala-Gomen almost as far as Voh, and that wouldn't be a terrible place to meet up with the girls if they've finished sunning themselves - a scenic flight to over the Heart of Voh would be a nice and fitting family activity.  

Take 2?

Sarah was a wonderful riding partner.  The radios helped at times, but it was her incredible strength and fitness that made our ambitious ride possible.  The four days on the road were consistently harmonious, and tensions flared only once the riding had become optional (and the beach beckoned).  We will be riding together again soon, no doubt.

Top tips

I promised some top tips - these a mix of New Caledonia specific things and minor revelations which I don't want to forget and might as well pass on.
  1. As in France, many/most shops close in the middle of the day.  Don't get hungry then.
  2. The RAI network is great, and it's no problem putting bikes on the busses.  It is a problem paying with 5000F or 10000F notes though, so make sure you've got plenty of 500F and 1000F notes (lighter than the coins...).
  3. Optimal operating temperature for One Square Meals is 30-40 degrees.  They melt and go gooey, and taste almost like dessert.
  4. Rolled cardboard makes for an excellent spacer if you need to remove wheel(s) for packing.  Cut it to the width of the hub, and roll around the skewer or axle before taping.  The cardboard is light and easily replaced, and the stuctural integrity from 4-5 layers is very impressive.
  5. Go to New Caledonia.  If you like riding in beautiful places, go there.  Do it.