"Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind."
7 years ago I decided to enter a bike ride - a race - my first race. We make 100 decisions everyday that change our lives. Some are more important than others, but they all count. The decision to enter that race - that decision - changed my life.
So it was then, that 7 years on, in the 8th edition of the Graperide I would arrive with different goals, and the ride would not be the final outing of the summer. And what a summer. Among the endless complaints from the general population regarding the 'awful weather' over the last few months, some have simply gotten on with it. Reaching Christmas I dropped the swimming and running, and cycled for 20 hours per week. I also dropped the '80/20' rule. For now anyway. And I knew that all roads would lead to Levin.
The startline then. 14 entrants and a lot of familiar faces. Friends some say. But more than that, 'Brothers'. People prepared to suffer for their goals - In this world of Pay Per View, microwave dinners, and comfort. And then there was me. So relaxed about the ride that was ahead of me. This was 12 hours of cycling. 3 (and a bit) laps this year. "2 minutes until we race!!", was the call. I hopped off the bike and went to the port-a-loo. Making it back I collected my bike (with about 10 seconds to spare), I pushed it to the front of the waiting cyclists, and led the group off - Once again. Yes. I wouldn't do 5 laps, but I would get my monies worth.
The pace was not fast as we setoff, and I sat on the front of the group, with a tailwind, enjoying the ride before the group finally started to rotate. We rode through Renwick and then we stopped. Roadworks. "Five dollars to get through…each!!", was the contractors comment. In his defence there was a rather large truck reversing down the centre of the road, so not the safest situation if we had carried on.
After a 30 second pause we left, and Rider 207 (sorry, I don't know his name!!) went off the front. Someone commented that if the rider wanted to ride 15 feet off the front we'd leave him there. Then it was 30 feet. Then 30 meters. Not breaking away. Just riding faster than us. But not by much. And this is how it stayed until Blenheim. Some riders rode up to him, and some then came back, and he just rode at the front. I couldn't quite work out if he was making a statement or simply waiting for the right combination of riders with him until he took off - his options were very much open. Then Nick Dunne pointed out that that it was the rider’s first race…ever.
We got to Blenheim and the traffic was backing up as we tried to get onto the bridge. The riders in front of me slowed, and the group ahead were pulling away. I gave a less than subtle call of "go Go GO!!", and the riders got moving fairy smart'ish. Back with the main group we were travelling very comfortably, and I then noticed the speed - 23 to 26kph at times. I'd find out on later laps why - The head wind was brutal.
About 10kms from Picton we reached Koromiko, and the breakaway (that wasn't really breaking away at all) was about 50 meters clear. I decided that with 4 in the group ahead things may develop further. So I figured I might as well get a front row seat. And I did. The gap was bridged pretty smart'ish, and I looked behind to see how far back the second group were. There was no second group - The buggers had sat on my wheel!! "Fair play, but you guys do the work next time", I thought. I suspected they wouldn't and they didn't. Several minutes later the group broke again and this time the gap widened quickly. Greg Manson and Eugene Collins joined Rider 207, and the 3 of them were about 200 meters clear when things changed. Rider 207 suddenly started to chase the other 2 - He had been dropped. He got back on, but it was obvious that the pace was on too. Not for our group though, and I simply commented to Colin, "Well we won't see them again today". So the race had begun.
We arrived at the elevation, (the hill just before Picton), and I sat up. Colin and Nick passed me, and with the leading group of 3 just in sight I wished both of them the best of luck for the remainder of the ride. My focus was a steady climb, and tapping the pedals as we ascended. Near the top Nick was just ahead of me and the leading group we about to head down the other side of the hill. "Nick - If you want a medal you should be with them ASAP mate!!", I called out. "Trust me I'm trying to get there!!", came the response.
The climb out of Picton saw me close behind Colin and Nick. This surprised me, and I fully expected them to disappear, with riders soon catching me. Colin disappeared, but Nick was passed on the second climb, with the comment made that I'd be happy to work together through Linkwater. I then enjoyed a descent towards Linkwater, and on a short rise passed Eugene. Seeing him came as a complete surprise, and I offered him the opportunity to jump on the back until he felt ok. He just shook his head. I then pushed on.
The road into Linkwater is very cool - We think of the Queen Charlotte Drive as being hills and corners, but the reality is that the long sections through Linkwater are straight, flat, and allow for some good pace. It was along this section on Lap 1 that I started hallucinating. It appeared to me that there were hundreds of cows crossing the road. I looked back and saw Eugene and Nick working together, and looked forward once again to see the cows. I pulled up, stopped, and told the farmer, "Can I get through please - I'm in a race!!". He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "Yeah, so am I". At that stage I clipped out, and told him his best option was to stop the cows…as I was going through. I clipped back in and heard him call out, "Dick head!!", as I left. (Possibly a deserved comment, but a reply from myself may have also been deserved - My focus was on riding though). He must have had some choice words for Eugene and Nick, as I glanced back and saw that they were about 100 meters back now - I don't think they even clipped out when they went through the cattle.
The next time I saw Nick was at the sign-in area at the start of Lap 2. (By now Eugene was out). I offered to lead out Nick, and had no issues with him sitting on my wheel for as long as he wished. He was in a bad way though and when I looked back he was well behind. After considering wheeling back to help him, I figured that our best option was to go at a pace that suited us both at that point in time, and if we rode together further on we'd both be better placed to assist each other.
It needs to be said that I really enjoyed having no expectations for this ride. No pressure. No losing. But no winning either.
The road between Blenheim and Picton was insane when riding it alone. I know of 2 people who did 8 or more laps of Taupo last November who compared it to the conditions they experienced last year. I rode on, and with the elevation climbed I knew that the winds were gone for now. 101kms ago we had been on Lap 1 and I had been in 6th place. As I descended into Picton for the 2nd time I was 4th. And I felt good.
The descent into Picton was perfect for this ride. A light headwind, with no gusts. I was tempted to stay down on the bars, but I'd be just a small error away from big mess. So on the handlebars, and down on the bars through Picton itself - I'll get ticketed through here sooner or later, as 65kph seems to be about the right pace coming in from the hill. So caution is the biggie, and staying well away from the curb is a must.
The climb into the hills on Lap 2 brought about the steady pedalling once again. It also put me into 3rd place, as Rider 207 was spread eagle over the bonnet of a car getting a back massage. "Is he ok??", I asked. The answer didn't matter. I knew WHO answered would tell me his true status. A support crew member replied, saying he was ok.
The plan was to meet Ruth at the top of the hill that overlooks Havelock. It was just getting dark when I got there last year, but with slower progress for everyone this year it left me with 15 minutes of riding in pitch dark on the way to the top. This was made more interesting with there being no moon. But riding in the dark is always a peaceful experience, and frankly it was nice to have something different happening on the climb. I even considered the big chain ring, but knew that although this was 'only' 3 laps I still needed to apply caution to the efforts.
"I'm in 3rd!!", I said to Ruth in a cheeky tone. "But you are not doing 5 laps are you??". "Nah" came the reply. A toilet stop, change of clothes, chat about the ride thus far, and fitting of lights followed. (I also removed my 2009 ‘Graperide Ultimate’ helmet cover – too hot on this night to be sentimental). Then a speedy descent. 'Corner 17' almost got me once again, but I guess if you never lock up the brakes on a ride, then you weren't descending fast enough. No tailwind to Renwick once again, well not until the last 10kms. I really like night riding, but was pretty surprised that the temperature hadn't really dropped. I thus concluded that my experiment with the leggings was a complete success - Conclusion?? If the temperature would get as high as 26 degrees, and would never drop below 16 degrees, then leggings are not needed. I am VERY grateful my cycle top could completely unzip.
Approaching the sign-in area I could see Colin's lights ahead of me. He had just left, and was starting Lap 3. I called out my usual, "RIDER SIGNING IN!!!!!", as I approached (actually yelled it out 100 meters out the first time and figured in hindsight that this may have been a tad early). 50 meters out I yelled again, and I heard another cyclist (heading in the oppoisite direction) say, “Good on ya mate”. I’m not sure if this was support or simply taking the piss. Drinks / food swapped, I left and gave Ruth strict instructions to head home to get a good night's sleep. Just 1 lap to go. THAT is an aspect of this ride I am yet to get my head around. To me the Graperide IS 5 laps. So in what should be the middle lap of a race, I found myself less than 90kms from the finish. That seemed utterly surreal, and still does.
Stronger winds through to Picton now. The winds were also present on this lap through the Queen Charlotte and Linkwater for the first time. Still no tailwind from Havelock. And then a final small rise to climb 5kms from the finish. Then a drink. Then the big chain ring. And so it was, on this night, I rode towards the finish. My finish. Sitting on about 40kph I tapped out a nice pace, and had a smile on my face.
"I'm signing in…and signing out", I told the marshal. And it was done. The Graperide '3 lapper', and 19 laps since the Graperide's inception in 2005. Still the most. But that’s just a number. What’s truly made me happy has been the people I have met on this journey over the last 7 years. Like minded people. The Craig McGregor's, Andrew Morrison's, Eugene Collins's, Tim Neal's, Colin Anderson's, Brandon Skilton's, and Nick Dunne's of this world. (And that list was just from this race). All bloody nice people who choose to give 100%. Equally important, they expect the same in return. Everything else seems to be BS when compared to endurance cycling. The people who participate in the sport not only understand this, but they help make it happen. Everything else is just empty words and promises of what might be - often said by people who have never seen this world - often said by people who have never seen the sun come up after riding all night.
My plan was to turn around and meet Andrew Morrison, and then ride to Blenheim with him. This would give me the 12 hours needed for the ride. But I was out of time. So I rode with Nick Dunne. He arrived about 10 minutes after me, and I felt rather sheep'ish, as I had just finished telling Colin that with me signing out he now had a 30 minute buffer to 3rd place. Nick had truly put the afterburners on during Lap 3. So there you have it, me arriving at the end of Lap 3, and Colin still preparing his drinks / food. A quick changeover for me (and carrying on to finish) and I'm in 2nd place with a fresh Colin Anderson 3 minutes back, and Nick Dunne 10 minutes further back again. That would have been quite a race for the 3 of us. Quite some finish. But I chose to train on this day. Next month I race.
We talked then, Nick and myself, about everything and nothing. About our respective goals. About life. I like Nick. If he didn't like someone, he'd probably tell them to clear off. I find this rather refreshing in a world of gutless wonders.
And finally a right turn during the Graperide. How odd that seemed as I navigated my way to the folks place, where I’d find the true finish of this ride. Just after 2am and my day was done. Just 1 weekend left. Then taper. Then race. That first Graperide race 7 years ago seems so long ago now - But it somehow seems appropriate that the biggest ride of my life uses the Graperide as a buildup event. Everything is connected in this universe, and this circle is about to find itself where I began - With a new journey ahead of me, and my belief being that I can do this - if I also do my best. I am under no illusions about what awaits however. Grey tarmac, suffering, pain, 24 hours of non-stop cycling, and if I want it badly enough - a record.
Looking back - My life will have 2 phases. 'Before April' and 'After April'. Thank you for knowing me to this point.