Words & Images Gary Sullivan

Last weekend, for the first time in years, I hung a number on the front of a bike to go racing.

Spotting the difference between me racing and me just aimlessly riding around in the woods is not easy. Averaged out over any decent amount of distance, the pace is about the same. Keen observers on the day would note the conga line of other riders, some yelling “on your right”. I was somewhere in that mess, and therefore, “racing”.

The team at the shop I associate with got excited about the project, and offered me a loaner for the big day: a svelte race machine a bit lighter and leaner looking than my personal deluxe trail sled. I took it for a midweek spin to figure it out and, while it felt very fast, how fast something feels is very subjective. Against my historic efforts along the same trails, it was pretty good. The historic efforts that were faster were a while back, and so the ravages of time need to be taken into account. And I decided, if it feels faster, maybe that is enough. Every little bit would help me achieve my goal, which was to finish.

The event I entered was the Whaka50, which is the sweet spot event in the Whaka100 weekend. I know from bitter experience that the Whaka100 needs to be taken extremely seriously, and the 100 Mile version – with a start in the dark and over 4000 metres of climbing – is beyond my comprehension or scope in this lifetime.

Neither too short nor too long, the 50 can be attacked without much preparation. If you are moderately skilled at mountain biking, it is achievable. If you don’t go too hard, you can finish it in reasonable shape and even enjoy some of the experience.

Probably because of these things, it attracts the biggest field; sold out at 1200 riders. It gets a day of its own, sandwiched between the eliminator battles on the Friday night and the big kahunas on Sunday. This makes the incredibly well-executed logistics of the whole thing more manageable.

As far as management goes, the Whaka100 weekend is the gold standard for events, in my opinion. Tim and Belinda Farmer and their team do an incredible job. Everything has been thought about, a lot. The race village is a work of art. The course marking is very complicated, wringing 160 kilometres out of a spaghetti bowl of trails takes some major mental gymnastics. It is completely nailed down. The 50 is mercifully simple, as a local I was familiar with every trail.

Here is how it went for me in the middle of the pack:

First of all, the day was spectacular. Dry, high cloud; warm without being super-hot.

Coffee/breakfast executed without issues.

Arrive at venue; meet fellow competitors, banter.

Short warm-up.

My spot in the start chute was far enough back from the start line itself that we had that weird delay between the sound of the start signal and actually moving. And, even once we got underway, there was serious traffic. Into singletrack; fairly flat, very tight, and more or less one lane. There were very few places to pass, and little point in doing so. Admirable patience was displayed by nearly everybody. Only a couple of deranged, over-caffeinated units attempted it, and didn’t really progress much. The one-lane queue situation continued for the first quarter of the race, but that was actually a good thing. It meant I couldn’t follow my natural instinct to go like a mad rabbit until the lights go out, usually long before halfway. Like everybody else, I went as fast as the rider in front of me.

When things finally opened up, the field had strung out enough that for the rest of the ride there was plenty of room. I got lucky enough to have a clear run on all the sections I was looking forward to (the downhill bits) and only a few people for company on the bits I was not so keen about (the uphill bits).

Sometimes, in events like this, a duel is generated by chance. That is one of the very good things about mountain bike races. No matter where you are in the proceedings, there will be somebody else to try to beat. For us (a guy in a blue Lycra outfit and me) the thing lasted almost the entire race.

He was much better than me at going uphill, I was a bit more useful at going downhill. Between us, our advantages averaged out. Two photos taken 35 kilometres apart show us together, and yet, for most of the event we were not even in sight of each other. He got past me for the final time near the end, and whatever gas I had left in the tank was not enough to do anything about it.

A few hours in, I questioned what I was doing, and why. The event was in my local patch, and I am lucky enough to be able to ride the same trails any day of the week, free of charge.

These questions were repeated, often, once we got to the pointy bit of the course. The long climb to the top of Lobotomy, for example. On the constant pinch climbs of Old Chevy. And, after the indignity of the pond. The course is completed by the crossing of a little pond, which can be done neatly and almost bone dry if you hit the little ramp just right and clear the thing. A crowd gathers to watch, and riders can hear them yelling and laughing for quite some time before arriving on the scene.

A sharp left turn off a small ridge drops riders down a steep chute to the crossing. I should have had a look at the run-in to the ramp before the event, my habitual exit to that particular trail avoids the pond altogether.

I didn’t, so my attempt to jump the pond fell short by a metre.

The struggle out of the muddy slot created by hundreds of people doing their own versions of my stunt is an ignominious end to an otherwise great day.

Cursing my stupidity in even entering such a ridiculous race only lasted a few seconds. Then I was on the grass, between the banners, and arriving at the finish line in one piece.

The next few minutes is a bit of a blur but, soon enough, I was in a patch of shade, laughing with some mates and feeling really good about the enterprise.

At that point, I could clear my head and figure out why I signed up for the race -and realised that probably the main reason for doing the thing was, simply, because I can. No matter where you are in the proceedings, there will be somebody else to try to beat.

This article is taken from:NZ Mountain Biker, Issue #112

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