The Ruapehu Express (Nothing really to do with Trains)

Red sky in the morning, shepherds warning. It turned out to be perfect race conditions with blue skies, moderate temperatures and only a mild headwind on the last part of the course. All photos Martyn Davies.

It was the promise of heavy rain and gale winds from the Met Service that had me once again wishing I would stop putting up my hand to have a crack at another XC race, this time New Zealand’s newest adventure around the foot slopes of Mt Ruapehu. Luckily for me and everyone else the crappy weather got put on hold and conditions were looking near perfect, so I loaded the race hardtail into the van and set off for Ohakune with my sleeping bag, mattress, coffee, muesli and the decision to race hard and leave the photos to the pros.

The Ruapehu Express is an event with a 21 or 55km MTB race, and for non-bikers a half marathon or a 15km run/walk. All start from different points around the mountain but are designed to have everyone finishing about the same time at the same finish line. I chose the 55km mtb race and 6am saw me and over 500 other mountain bikers getting our bikes Didymo cleared, registering and loading our bikes onto the buses and trailers to make the 40 minute journey to the Tukino ski road where we grouped en mass to wait for the start siren. First we got a stern warning from a tough looking army soldier about staying to the marked trail or we had a good chance of getting blown up. Yes, we were about to ride through a NZ Army live firing area, yeah no big deal I thought, there’s no way anything can go wrong here. Yes well things went horribly wrong for me and two hapless other racers when we strayed off the beaten path and took a 10km or so detour up the side of Mt Ruapehu.

It was quite a sight to see over 500 riders milling about in the middle of the desert waiting for the 8:45am start. Mount Ngarahoe's volcanic peak in the distance.

Things started off well with fast sandy desert terrain  that got firmer the further we went. The trail was pretty much downhill for the first 35km, leaving the sandy gravel and into a high speed gravel road with multiple stream crossings that thankfully due to the dry weather were very shallow. We all got our grind on and what with the stunning vista of the mountain to our right and trying to stay with my group, three of us missed the turnoff into the singletrack and it took us nearly half an hour to realise our mistake and make it back to the turnoff.

I didn't want wet feet for 3 hours so I tried this method first, then manualing through the smaller stream crossings. After I got lost I gave up and just swam through.

This was a blessing in some ways, the race was off for me so I sat up a little and enjoyed the trail, some pretty good virgin singletrack through pine forest with steep pinch climbs and fast, loamy and snaking descents. What wasn’t a blessing was that we were now at the back of the race field and it was quite a mission trying to get past a whole heap of weekend warriors without pushing them off the trail. So it was a lot of fun reeling in the riders and quite an eye opener to be slotted in this position and see the bums getting smaller and riders struggling less. To those guys and girls with the bigger bums at the rear of the race… I salute you. 55km? That’s like me doing 200km. You have my respect.

Another gravel grind alongside the Whangaehu river and we passed through the start of the 21km MTB race just after they had left, so once again there was some reeling in to be had. This time it was mainly families with young kids on way too heavy bikes. The gravel gave way to more singletrack and then a stunning native bush trail gently climbing up through the Rangataua forest; again very thankful for the dry weather as you could see the dried out bogs that would have caught many unsuspecting riders in the wet.

The Karioi Forest section was a mix of single and double track a with dark brown super fast and smooth trail surface, which occasionally surprised all with slippery bogs that sucked in a few riders.  

Popping out onto another gravel road, and the end of the race surely coming up soon we got our sprint back on as we rolled through dry yellow fields of long grass with Ruapehu silently watching us sidle around her feet. It was a minor relief to burst out onto the tarmac for the 8km sprint home, only to be pushed back by what seemed to be a brisk headwind. But when the finish line is calling nothing will stand in your way and renewed power flushed through my legs as we powered down the last straight past the renovated railway cottages and across the line as did the runners and walkers pounding in from the other side of town.

Not a bad trophy to put on the mantlepiece. I'm sure that would have been mine if I hadn't got lost. Winner of the 55km race Phillip McIlroy-Bisley all smiles.

Not a bad trophy to put on the mantlepiece. I'm sure that would have been mine if I hadn't got lost. Winner of the 55km race Phillip McIlroy-Bisley all smiles.

What a great event. Stunning scenery along private trails that are closed for the rest of the year. Minimal climbing with some great descending into a finish in a beautiful mountain town with happy people who are there to share an adventure with winning only a priority to a small handful of athletes. Mums, dads, kids, aunties and old folk. And only 3 idiots who got lost. 

Full results here...