There’s a time that comes riding in the wet. It’s when you’re soaked to the bone, when your hands start to wrinkle up from the wet, when the bottom of your riding pants have trapped a handful of mud. It’s about the time that the mud starts to drip back into your eyes from rain running off your helmet. It’s also the time you get used to the final point that the tires will let go on an off camber slope, it’s when you start to rail the mini mud berms that form on trail and when wet roots start to be ridden like dry roots. To me it takes a good solid wet ride to rediscover these skills. Nothing like two hours plus of slippery singletrack to bring out the inner trail ninja. I found this place about 1/3 of the way down Kung Fu Walrus during the Nduro Whaka 100.
The week before the Whaka was a stunner for the trails. Some baking hot days teamed up with some swift winds to wick all of the moisture out of most of the forest. The summer dust was starting to appear in places. Things were looking good for a fast, dry, dusty 100k. Mother Nature had other ideas, opening a deluge the night before. Rolling out around the Waipa paddock and into creek track there was far too much standing water for my liking. Worse still the rain picked up after the start.
I’d been thinking of a game plan all week. In the back of my mind I wanted to temper things at the start, 100km is a long way after all. But knowing the course, the first hour included some punchy climbing and power based riding before a couple of decent road sections. In these parts of the race a bit of company would be helpful, not just physically, but psychologically too. I settled on a conservative approach. I would avoid going into the red in the first 40km, breaking the rule only to stay with a bunch for the road sections.
Grovelling up Tokorangi Pa, surrounded by clouds I thought back to my race plan. The front group was bigger than expected and the pace wasn’t super hot. I was able to ride with some clear track infront of me, choose my lines and keep my eyes clean. Henry Jaine and Edwin Crossling rolled off the front pretty easily before the top of Tokorangi. I kept an eye on the garmin for heart rate, being careful not to go too deep. I thought I was shaping up pretty well, until Sam Gaze and Carl Jones lifted the pace on the short rise to the Gunna Gotta entrance. The 20m gap I had was eliminated in seconds. Diving off down the hill I trailed off behind. They had lifted things, not much, but enough to push the pace a bit to high for my liking. I settled in, sticking to the plan.
Next to arrive were Andrew Lloyd (from Australia) and Garth Weinberg. The road section through from Tickler to Hill Road and the following climb up to Billy T was one of the sections that I had wanted company on. I rolled up behind Garth. He was spinning about 200rpm on his singlespeed. The three of us didn’t really do it roadie style and sort of just coalesced on the gravel section. Between the standing water and spray from tires riding a close, peloton style formation wouldn’t have yielded much gain anyway.
Garth didn’t slow down much for Hill Road. He stomped away up the hill, disappearing into the cloud. After a brief nature stop I rejoined Andrew. Hill Road from the eastern side is quite even in gradient, and well suited to riding at tempo. With thoughts of catching Garth later on the flat sections, I pedalled on up into the mist.
I just didn’t ride very well down Billy T or G rock. I know the trails well, I hit them regularly, but I just felt awkward and off the pace. One problem was my poor decision to not wear gloves. I felt much more white knuckle than I should have been, with the ever present moisture adding just a bit too much slip to my handlebars.
Over the top of the hill and towards Kung Fu Walrus I took in some solid food and tried to refocus. Wiping my hands inside my vest didn’t help – I was soaked through. Turning the corner into the trail I reset the head and focussed on flowing, making the most of the gradient. This section went much better. It was like I had settled in properly, I was able to ride my normal lines at a decent speed. Out of the bottom of the trail I was with Chris Gaze, with another rider just in front. This was exactly what I wanted, 2 other riders for the gravel section around Green Lake and back to No Brains.
On the climb up to No Brains I hit the settle down button. I was 50km in, the legs were feeling a little heavy and I still had a descent amount of kms to cover. Chris Gaze and Andrew Lloyd rolled away in front. It took plenty of self control to let them go. I stayed focussed on my front wheel, kept a high cadence and maintained an even tempo. The mist still hugged the top of the Kakapiko and the entry into No Brains.
The hurt came climbing up to Split Enz, I felt some twinges of cramp. The legs were still going well with high cadence, but I felt like I didn’t have an extra gear to push on and attack the climb. The sapping soggy gravel of Chinaman’s Road didn’t particularly help things either. It took the flowing trail perfection of split enz to get my head back in the game. I took stock, considered the distance still to go and focussed on flow. I wanted to be able to finish strong, so really trying to avoid any excess energy use would be my aim for Old Chevy, Yellow Brick Road and the Chinese Menu.
The final decent climb of the day was Direct Road. I’m not a huge fan of Direct Road. It starts steep, holding a punishing gradient for the first portion, before gradually easing towards the top. The gravel is also rough at present, and Nduro have a habit of including it late in races. I grabbed the old faithful bottle of flat coke at the bottom, with the caffiene and sugar helping get the legs up to Hot X Buns.
The last portion of the race went through the newer trails around Genesis and Exit. By now the sun was out and things were drying off. My reset nearly two hours prior paid dividends here and I was able to lift the pace. Arepa (new Genesis) is a favourite of mine, and I attacked just like a usual afterwork ride. The Superfly was holding up, and appreciating the drier conditions. Turning onto Long Mile and the final tarseal climb I even managed a few out of the seat, up tempo moments.
The lesser ridden twisties at the top of rock drop seemed intent on tricking tired riders, with plenty of slipperiness courtesy of roots and mud. Having to concentrate right to the end was good – something to keep the mind on track and make it easier to keep the pace up. I really enjoyed the final decent down Rosebank, especially with the big cheer from friends waiting at the water crossing (I tactically chose to run across).
I rolled into the finish a touch over 6 hours, finishing in 7th place overall. I was still in one piece, and despite some horrible sounding creaks and scrapes, the Trek Superfly was too. Both the bike and I were well caked in mud, with grit and dirt pushed in everywhere, but the ride was done, the toughest race in the forest in the bank.
Looking back on the ride, most things went to plan. The legs could have benefited from some more strength and power work – they lacked horsepower at some key moments. More time climbing at tempo would have helped too. Bike wise – there were no issues. Mechanically the bike did protest a few times at the height of the precipitation mid race, but with no failures nor breakages. I chose in the week prior to the race to switch to Vittoria Saguaro tires in the 2.2in width from the 2.0in width I have been running for the last few months. The choice was a good one, with the extra volume helping grip wise, especially on roots. However, I did run the rear tire far too hard, and paid the price a little in terms of comfort.
In terms of nutrition I had Blue Vitasport as my hydration during the race, with a bottle of flat coke for the last hour. I had x2 bananas, x1 One Square Meal Bar, x2 other muesli bars and x4 etixx sports gels (peach flavour). I had a drop bag at the 40km aid station, but didn’t stop, as I was well stocked with food and riding in a small bunch. The nutrition worked well, with 30-40min gaps between eating.
Looking back at other mountain bike races I have done around the country, Whaka is certainly up there in terms of the challenge. I last race the Huka Challenge and Colville around 5 years ago – having race damp editions of both of these, I would say Whaka is a more demanding course. The extra singletrack making things easier psychologically but harder physically. I raced Karapoti a couple of years ago (check the report here), the length of the races makes them difficult to compare, but the feelings from racing the Whaka were definitely similar to some of the pain Karapoti inflicted on my legs.
With the bike almost back to her normal self, and my legs feeling more or less back to baseline, I’m thinking Whaka 100 will be a contender for my 2016 calendar for sure.