Thursday, March 12, 2009

2009 Alpine Epic

I recently participated in the Alpine Epic, a 5-stage, 4-day MTB stage race from Mt Somers to Lake Tekapo. I've long wanted to race an event like this - and almost had CB convinced to accompany me to Europe for the TranAlp or to Canada for the TransRockies but lack of money and life got in the way. Money and life never seem to hold back RL, and so when he moved to NZ last year he immediately signed us up for this event. I was thrilled.

Alas, living in Auckland has not been the best for my MTB career. Between my family, work, sailing, visitors, and the ongoing exploration of NZ there has been little time or desire to drive 50k each way to the local MTB park. Although the MTBing I've done in NZ (Woodhill, Rotorua, Hunua, Taupo) has been fantastic, I've not been as motivated to ride as frequently as I was in SLC when the trails were 5 mins away by bike and I had scads of friends to ride with. Whinge whinge whinge. The short of it is that I had put in a total of 4 training rides in preparation for this race plus a (I sure hoped) good base obtained from riding back and forth to work every day.


The week before the race was hectic at work and so I had no time to properly prepare and so hastily packed my bike (thanks for the bikebag, Cushla!), ~90L of gear (the bag limit), and what food was in the cupboard and dashed to the airport. Add the fact that I casued myself great ongoing pain and the loss of a fully functioning left hand in an indescribable avocado incident and you can imagine my general mental outlook on my chances of surviving the week.

Leave it to Rob to one-up me - he mentioned "a fight" to me a few days before the race. On meeting him at the ChCh airport, I see that he was sporting a massive black eye, lots of oozing scabs, etc - giving the overall appearance of a mugged uncle Fester. I'd hate to see the 4 dudes he took on, but man, it does cheer one up to see your riding partner in worse shape! (Side note: the last time I went on a multi-day MTB ride with RL he had found a way to crash the night before (this might have been partly my fault, alas) and festered through that one as well ;)

We were picked up at the airport by one of the organizer's parents who were delivering goods (cookie time remnants, bananas, oozing riders, etc) to the race start in Mt Somers. As luck would have it there was a cabin open for rent so I took it and Rob and I got our bikes assembled, met the NZ MTB pro who ended up winning the race and his FantasticMechanic (who was using our cabin front as his staging ground).

Day 1

Got up, ate from the local store, stressed about not having a whistle (part of the "mandatory" equipment), bought a whistle off of the grandson of the campground proprietor for 2$ (baseball motif), registered, realized that I had to somehow shove 110L of gear into a 90L bag, got it done, and took a pic with RL at the start.

The race was limited to 60 teams of 2 - so 120 riders (all looking quite well trained) lined up, nodded at the dude with the megaphone, and started pedaling at the ???. We zipped down a road, turned into a paddock and got straight into the thick of the race, a 35k slog through sheep-paddocks and grass. It was clear I wasn't going to be on the podium that night (although ghastly RL was tearing it up, damn him). When I fantasize about MTB riding I usually envision the opposite of this course, which consisted of long inclines of wet, sheep-S$$t laden grass "tracks". It finished at the idyllic Inverary Station where our bags were waiting, a mess tent was set up, and people were making camp, cleaning bikes in the stream, and generally enjoying each other's company. Dinner was a catered and communal affair - the first of many unexpectedly good meals.

My shock was flat and I forgot the adapter so I spent way too much time trying to find a person with a Marzocchi adapter (these are not popular shocks in NZ) until the FantasticMechanic worked up a presta valve and some cut tube into a makeshift adapter and so my shock got some air in it, lovely. Off to bed.

Day 2

Got up, ate breakfast, broke camp. The race had to be re-routed from the original course (Might have just chucked the course description book at this point - 4/5 of the courses were altered with no good alternate description given - and hearing some dude with a megaphone jabber on about "...then you turn at the post..." was not helpful, alas, changes were fine with me and the course was well marked so no real complaints.) so we did a bit of a loop, came back through the station, and then headed off into the hills towards a pass. Along the way we passed a "musterer's hut", I crashed and hurt my good hand, then later destroyed my pedal bearing, broke a spoke, and generally things took a turn for the worse. The irony is that I felt better having had a day's riding down but the ride just wore me down. We crested the pass and did a fun descent into the Rangitata River valley to the end of stage 2. The river was in flood so we had to take a raft across - which was fun and adventury, but poorly executed - leading to a several hour wait.

The wait at the river did allow me to figure out part of my problem (and fix the spoke) - my bottom bracket had also failed. The drive-side cup was unthreading and rubbing against the cranks giving the general effect of a trainer set to "11". I could hardly turn the cranks with my arms! Using a rock and a leatherman I was able to get the cup threaded back in, but it was also obvious that there were larger problems with my BB. It would have to wait till after the next stage.
The next stage started well and we caught some people on the climb. Then the trainer-to-11 BB kicked in, leading to RL and I stopping every couple of miles to fix it. We (I) tanked on that stage, and got into camp physically and mentally exhausted. Camp this night was at a well-located rafting company headquarters near the Rangitata Gorge. We got our bikes cleaned, set up camp, got a warm shower (nice), ate dinner, etc. I then went in search of a possible solution to my bike woes. I had an extra pedal, so no problem there, but the BB was, I found after I took it apart, destroyed. Once again, the FantasticMechanic came to the rescue with, improbably, a replacement BB that fit. I put it on and went to be happy that the ride was not going to end that night.

Day 3

This was the big day, on paper at least. A HUGE climb to start the day and 80+ kilometers. The climb did not disappoint, it was grueling, with even the NZ Pro saying that he had to walk the ~25% gradient middle section. However, I felt much better with the revived bike and kept a decent pace and RL and I peaked in 31st place, which was only disappointing as they were giving a special prize to the 49th team across. At the start of the day the dude with the megaphone said "...ALLL mandatory gear today as you will be above 1000m for 8k..." which I scoffed at - 3,300ft? that's child's play! I once raced 100 miles at 8,000+ft! Alas, things start to degrade earlier here - and at 1000+m we were above the clouds. The descent was a screamer and my brakes failed a few times (always makes things exciting on 20%+ downhills to be riding them without any means of stopping, safely). We then turned up a beautiful river valley ("The Phantom" - normally closed to outsiders it seems) and 30+ river crossings, most of which were ride able and fun. A couple more hills, a longish road ride to the finish, and a day well-spent on two wheels.

Camp at a local lodge - more great food and fun people. It turns out that the only teams we were beating in our category were also 4 of the coolest guys in the race. They were more like what I like about MTB riding - out for a good soul-full ride with friends.

Day 3 made it all worth while!

Day 4

(Parts of) Day 4 sucked. I don't think it just sucked for me - the organizers had to seriously alter the course after two of them nearly got lost within 50m of each other in a thick fog on the hill we were supposed to hike up at some point (it was clearly unrideable).

While it started well, with a great climb and descent along a river gorge, the reroute led to oodles of more uphill grass and sheep droppings, mud, etc. The day just seemed to drag on and on and on and after getting some bad information from a volunteer (1.5 hrs to go! woohoo! - when it was more like 3 - we weren't the only ones fooled...) I decided to take off the brakes (I was seriously holding back to conserve the legs to prevent cramps, etc on these long days...) and RL and I ramped it up a bit for a ways, passed some people and generally felt as if we were racing. Then it dawns on me that we were no where near the end and we had at least 3 huge hills to go - and things got dark. I think I scared RL with the extent of my foul mood (you can read his post here) as I'm generally endlessly optimistic while riding bikes. I think the whole week of broken bits, lack of training, and an extra 20k added to the final stage finally wore me down. I can say that cresting the final hill and seeing Lake Tekapo was like getting a shot of pure adrenalin. My mood switched around and I thoroughly enjoyed the final bit of the ride.


The race ended at the edge of Lake Tekapo - far enough from any camping (which was not arranged this night by the race organizers, a fact we were not clear on) that I had me wondering how we were going to get our huge 90L gear bags, etc to the campsite. Unlike a large number of competitors, we did not have a car-driving support crew waiting for us. I was also disappointed to find there was no "finishers award" - like a shirt or medallion or anything really... At the very least there was a great party that night, well stocked by the fantastic caterers and beer and wine sponsors.

Massive kudos to RL for making this race possible and riding with my slowness for the duration. He's a damn good one, that RL, and I'm sad to know he's headed back to UT instead of coming to Auckland for a stretch.

1 comment:

Mel W-K said...

Wow! That sounds like a true adventure. I'm sure it was nice to "stretch" your riding legs again. Yet another part of NZ that you have gotten to see--and one that sounds like only a few have gotten to see as well. Good on ya!