New Zealand's biggest and oldest mtb race, 7th March 2004

When my mate Jez heard I was coming to NZ, I recieved an email from him with a link to the Karapoti website with the simple message saying "this has to be done!" So having happily followed Jez into various mountain bike adventures whilst at university, I duly sent off the entry form.... When I then arrived in Wellington, I kept hearing tales of how tough the race is, and the amount of carnage that generally takes place, which installed me with a suitable amount of FEAR. But it is one of the top mountain bike events in the world, so I was looking to just have fun and get round in one piece! Of course, first off I had to find a bike - I only had Bike Friday with me, which although versatile, is not quite up to full-on off road riding. Andrea had kindly offered me use of her Kona Explosif, the only problem being that she is rather shorter than me, so it is a little bike! But after a bit of phoning round the local bike shops, I managed to get a longer stem (quite hard to buy a quill stem these days), very long seatpost and new saddle. Then I got the brakes working, fitted my pedals and had a suitable bike. Of course, me being one of the few idiots still riding rigid bikes, the Expolsif had a suspension fork, but it was only a short travel Pace model, so not too disconcerting and nice and stiff torsionally. Jez took me on a couple of rides round Makara Peak, and although I was a bit nervous on the downhills on a strange bike (especially after crashing in Melbourne on a borrowed mtb), I at least got a bit used to it. Then I took myself off touring for a couple of weeks, arriving back in Wellington for the weekend of the race.

There had been more unseasonal weather in the run up to the event - but the organisers and local council worked through the night to clear the last slips and get the course ready for action. The 50km course starts with a river crossing before an 8km ride up the Karapoti Gorge. The first 500m climb to Deadwood leads to the Rock Garden descent before immediately climbing back up the Devil's Staircase. A fast 8km downhill then leads to Dopers Creek. The final 547m climb eventually links up with the Karapoti Gorge to head back to the start/finish line. The course record is 2hr 22min, and we were warned at the start that the course has got so beaten up by the weather that it would be 10 to 15 minutes slower this year. Fortunately the weather was perfect - sunny and calm but not too hot; good job it wasn't the previous weekend when the typhoon came through.....

I wasn't well prepared for the race really, just having one bottle cage (the start sheet recommended carrying two litres of drink), and a bottle of water, and of course the borrowed bike and lack of practice. But I was content just to go out and enjoy myself, I didn't really consider that I was racing, at least not at the start......

The Pro-Elites were off at 10am, followed by Retro, Tandem, Singlespeed and Unicycles (yep, unicycles!) at 10:05, then my class: Senior Men (19-29), at 10:10. Jez would follow in Masters 1 at 10:20. An unusual start - in the river! We had to line up in the (cold!) calf deep water before getting the whistle and wading through the first two crossings - thigh deep in places. Comedy moment whilst waiting to go when one of the singlespeeders tried to cross over to the start line - but picked a rather deep part of the river: He gamely kept his bike above his head even when out of his depth and being washed downstream! (he managed to get out a bit further down) I hadn't warmed up, so I used the first couple of kms on the road to get the legs spinning and move up the field a little. Then onto the gorge track - nice steady slight uphill grade to start with, very wet though, with lots of spray from other rider's wheels. By the time I hit the first climb I was nicely warmed up and working my way through the Juniors that had started in front of me. Super steep climb, but plenty of traction so almost all just-about-rideable; perfect for me! I had to use the granny ring on the bike - my bikes at home don't even have one! The Explosif did only have a 28 tooth lowest sprocket on the back though. Good to keep the revs up to save the legs. Near the top I noticed from the colour of his number that I had caught another rider in my class, but how many were ahead still? Onto the Rock Garden - big rock steps and loose rocks and water.... I and most of the field walked a lot of it! I had one amusing off where I managed to leapfrog the bars and land on my feet, which impressed the guy behind me. Somewhere down here I managed to break my left pedal - one side of the mechanism snapped off, meaning I could now only clip in on one side - which didn't help with the going being so technical. There was a short rideable section, and then we started the Devil's Staircase hike-a-bike. Very steep; hard enough trying to walk up, no chance of riding it, though I did try a couple of times, but didn't manage to ride very far. Cycling shoes didn't help, and my calves and back were complaining by the top. Happy to get to the pitstop there - grabbed a drink whilst my chain was lubed, then thankfully the rest of the climb was rideable.

The other rider from my class had made a more enthusiastic hiking ascent, and had re-passed me, but I caught him again. We had a quick chat - turned out Luke was another Brit, in NZ for six months as part of a round the world trip. He said there was only one guy ahead of us in our class - so to my surprise I was in the top three! On the big-ring downhill I got dropped as I was taking it very easy on the loose corners, but I soon caught him again as the course rolled at the bottom. We started the final climb together, back down to the granny ring, but I soon rode away from him. I was alone on the course for a while, so I just found a rythmn and kept going. I really wanted to avoid having to walk as I was starting to get cramp twitching in my legs: I'd maybe managed to drink three times so far, this course really needed a Camelback. Near the top of the climb I caught the guy leading, and passed him, making me leader for the moment! Then onto the final descent. Another dose of fun and a few sketchy moments as I tried to stay off the brakes. But as expected, the other chap caught me at the bottom, passing me at the river crossing. Now it was just a fast section back down the gorge. We had a three man paceline with us two and a Pro-Elite rider. I put one attack in, but couldn't get away, so took the front as we headed back down the wet section - better to be in front and control the pace and not have so much spray to worry about. I was having spasms of cramp in my thighs and calves now, but tried to keep the pressure on. As we got back to tarmac, the other guy took the lead, and I tucked in for some welcome draft behind. The Pro-Elite rider attacked, and when I saw the other rider try to respond and fail, I attacked hard myself, managing to open a gap before the final two river crossings. Half ran half stumbled through the water, then jumped back on for the last surge to the line, taking the win in 2 hours and 54 minutes.

A fantastic event, the 19th edition this year had 998 competitors! I was delighted and very surprised to win. In fact my time would have put me about 15th in the Pro-Elite; the top-ten is totally doable with better preparation and actually treating it as a race from the start. Maybe next year..... Also chuffed to have joined the Sub-3hr Club - more than 10,000 people have ridden the Karapoti over the years, but less than 350 have beaten the three hour mark. Great atmosphere too - the very long prize giving had prizes for just about everything, such as worst crash and most punctures, as well as some great spot prizes ($1000 holiday vouchers and a Giant bike!). The entry also included lunch, a water bottle and various extra food, including energy drink - I downed three bottles of it when I got back in an attempt to re-hydrate!. Plus I got a massage afterwards for $10, which was awesome, even if it was painful at the time. So if you ever find yourself in New Zealand in early March, then Jez is right - this does HAVE to be done!

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