A few months ago, while in the depths of the Belgian winter, I was offered a small ray of sunlight from the other side of the world. It was more the prospect of a glimmer of sunshine and warmth, something to distract me at a time when being inside away from the cold but for short escapades on the bike was my daily routine. It was thanks to my friend Ken Feist that I heard of the Karapoti Classic (a mountain bike race in Wellington) running a cyclocross bike category for the first time. I guess it's a testament to how long the winter was when during the quiet moments between the excitement of races, the thoughts that were creeping into my head were of pining for Karapoti - despite the fact that every one of the 4 times I've entered it has either been raining and windy and cold, raining and cold or cold and windy. Probably raining and windy too. Of course it was much more than just the race that I was hanging out for - it coincides with generally some of the best weather in New Zealand, late summertime bliss with long days of extended riding in the sun and beautiful outdoor surroundings sharing good times with family and friends. When it's not raining, that is. By all reports this season had been the best ever, and while I had been happy to focus on my winter in the North and all of the various surreal goings-on that took place, after the climax of the World Champs in Louisville I couldn't help but think about what was awaiting my return to NZ.
While in Belgium I had been offered a huge help to my riding ambitions by the generous support of Easton wheels. I'd been using, and punishing, a set of clinchers I'd had for a couple of seasons of road and cyclocross in New Zealand and although they'd held up admirably the rims were becoming rather concave and perhaps a little dangerous to continue using off-road. Thanks to the comic proportions of media attention that I had been getting they sent me a pair of carbon tubular EC90 SL's and a pair of road tubeless EA90's. Tubulars are ideal for cyclocross, as they are more capable of handling the low pressure needed to get any traction in the typically muddy and messy conditions. Unfortunately in my first race using them at the end of December another rider charged into me through some ruts and his rear derailleur got jammed and broke a spoke in my front wheel, so I didn't get to use them again until the World Champs. The moment I saw the tubeless set I thought about Karapoti and how appropriate such a setup would be - much more so than my awesome cyclocross race carbon rimmed version with Dugast tubulars when pitted against the rocks, sand and general roughness of the Akatarawa ranges.
The race is traditionally an unrelenting combination of long, steep and loose uphills and downhills, with some extra rocky content in certain areas for good measure. As suspension technology has improved and standard tyre width increased, the typical winning time and I imagine the overall average time have decreased, so going at it on a cyclocross bike seems like a rather counter-intuitive activity to take part in. While weather can have a sizeable impact on the race, the course doesn't change from year to year so I felt it was time to try it with a different mindset - one more of survival than competitivity. If I could make it through on my cyclocross bike, well I could probably handle anything life will throw at me.
I'd been back in Wellington for a week and a half, and while putting my Yeti ARC-X back together for racing (after a hiatus as since November I'd been racing on a pair of Focus Mares) I took my trusty budget-oriented Jamis 7-speed fully rigid project bike out and about to get used to once again riding up and down real hills on real MTB tracks and warm my bones in what felt like a giant pie warmer of a summer. I borrowed a sweet old first generation XTR crankset off the owner of the now internationally famous Revolution Bicycles, Jonty Ritchie. The gearing I'd been using for racing in Flanders was woefully inadequate for the terrain covered in the Upper Hutt classic - the big ring on my Yeti Big Top 29er last year was smaller (38t) than the small ring on my 'cross racing setup (39t). So with a 30/42 combination on the front and the same 11-26 cassette I was somewhat more ready to go than otherwise, but the prospect of rampaging my way around on a skinny-tyred rigid machine was still the main obstacle to me getting much pleasure out of the activity, and any comfort. I didn't let myself worry too much about this aspect of the ride, but figured that the faster I could ride through it the sooner I could relax. On the other hand, the faster I rode the more likely I would puncture or have a nasty crash. In the end it's a dilemma similar to what I encountered every week in Belgium - wanting to finish races, but in order to do this I had to ride harder from the start, and thus the more I pushed myself the longer and harder I had to ride overall.
With only four entries in the cyclocross category by race day it was never going to be a case of us overwhelming the field on our almost road bikes up the gorge, but as we started with the singlespeeds, tandems and unicycles it ended up being that way a bit - at least to begin with. I squeezed 60psi into a pair of 700 x 40c Schwalbe Smart Sam tyres which I actually hadn't managed to set up tubeless in time - so instead I just made sure to be ready for what I imagined would be a puncture extravaganza, and taped two spare tubes onto my bike and took another two in my camelbak. A few kilometres into the gorge Gary Hall (current national cyclocross champion) was struck down with the first puncture, and as I passed him I began to wonder, as people leading races probably always do, whether to make the most of this by riding harder to put more time into the lead I gained or whether to just continue my plan of riding at a reasonable pace pushing it up hills and along smooth lines, then taking it really easy through extra rocky sections and downhills. My competitive instinct being somewhat on the backburner for the day, I decided I was indeed more interested in just completing the ride with bike and person in one piece.
As the gorge opened out then the first of the big climbs started I found myself making my way past a few women and men, receiving occasional calls of encouragement like "yeahhhh roadie!" and "rather you than me, mate". Even a "what the fuck kind of bike is that? Yeehaa!". Climbing was ok, at least in relation to what can be realistically expected around the area, when combined with occasional bursts of running. But as I had anticipated, it was on the descents that I was going to have a tough time. The top section of the Rock Garden kept my momentum going well enough to make it down the first few drops but worries of puncturing and getting tangled and then crashing encouraged me to pick up my bike and run like I'm used to; as if the rocks were barriers, the drops steps and the bogs just boggier bogs. The clamber up Devil's Staircase was notable because it gave my arms a bit of a break, which isn't usually something I've had much time to appreciate due to the urgency with which one typically runs and pushes through it.
Little did I realise that the following section of Big Ring Boulevarde, typically the most fun part of the ride, would be one of the least enjoyable and indeed somewhat miserable segments on the day. My concern for punctures lead me to trying to contain my speed and watch my line with utmost care, which necessarily involved riding my brakes the whole time. This soon becomes quite a painful exercise, as the combination of braking pressure and body weight in your hands and then bumps from the rocks does not a comfortable 20 or so minutes make. If only this was the worst of it.
It was, unusually, a big relief to make it through Doper's creek, knowing that for the next half an hour or so I would have some calm for my upper body. At least relative to the descents before and after it that is. But sure enough after cresting the summit it wasn't long until my arms were once again burning and my body generally starting to cave in as I approached the Karapoti river. The best of this worst section (usually a joyous occasion to get out of control on down one of the steepest gravel descents around) was almost enough to make me get off - even by jumping or crashing if need be. I actually half-heartedly tried to come to a halt because I wasn't sure that I could hold on properly, but that was much harder than just going faster. So with my arms complaining uproariously I let my head flop, virtually closing my eyes and giving it up somewhat to chance, hoping for the best.
The most likely, and because of its proximity to the finish the most undesirable place to get a puncture was always going to be the gorge. All I could do at this point was generally point my wheels around the big clumps of rocks and not get completely out of control. I went as fast as I dared, and by some miracle emerged eventually onto the sealed road sans mechanical problem of any kind.
The rivers were all much lower than I've ever seen, some of the usual creeks even non-existant along the way. Crossing the finish line I felt a tangible wave of relief wash over me. Whether this was satisfaction that the race was now over, or just bloodflow returning to my upper body I'm not sure but I was definitely relieved to have made it out alive. When I later found out my time was just under three hours it was a very satisfying bonus, but that had really been secondary to the concern that I think my mind had been trying to ignore about how brutal it would be. Despite the pain, and a very unfamiliar pain it was too, I was able to aknowledge that there were indeed some moments of enjoyment. In fact the ability to look back on the pain, having it now a part of the past is, in a curious way, something enjoyable in itself.
My arms, hands, neck and shoulders were aching for a few days afterwards, so I don't know how soon I'd consider doing it again. Maybe by next year I'll be ready. But if you're feeling too comfortable on fat tyres and suspension and are looking for a way to spice up a classic ride then doing it on a cyclocross bike would definitely do just that.